MANCHESTER, England — Pep Guardiola conceded long ago that those few minutes after a game, when the news media extracts its pound of flesh, are José Mourinho’s domain.
“In here, in the press conference, he is the boss,” Guardiola snapped once, what must seem like a lifetime ago, when he was at Barcelona and his great rival was at Real Madrid.
No manager but Mourinho adheres so slavishly to the credo of the legendary Germany coach Sepp Herberger, that “after the game is before the game.” No manager is quite so adept at shaping the prism through which a result is interpreted, or at ensuring that a setback is lost in a blizzard of words. No manager is quite so good, even if he loses on the weekend, at making sure he wins for the rest of the week.
It is precisely for this sort of occasion that Mourinho has nurtured those skills. That Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on Sunday meant a loss of face in the city’s derby was almost insignificant by the end; far more important was how that defeat came about, and what its consequences would be.
City’s two goals might have been “disgraceful,” as Mourinho said, ugly strikes off set pieces with the ball bouncing chaotically in the box before being prodded home. But that did not disguise the reality that City played the more adventurous, more attacking and more admirable soccer.
Even the Old Trafford crowd noticed that: With a few minutes to go before halftime, the Stretford End, home to United’s most ardent support, started to chant for its team to “attack, attack, attack.”
A frisson of frustration fluttered around the stadium as United was pressed back, deeper and deeper, reliant on hopeful long balls and fractured counterattacks. This stadium has always been a place of death or glory, where teams are told to come back with their shield or on it. If United is to lose, this is not how the club expects to go about it.
That’s especially true when the ramifications are as drastic as they were Sunday. With almost half of the season gone, City now stands 11 points clear of United, its nearest rival, after a weekend when all but one of its putative challengers stumbled. Chelsea lost. Arsenal and Liverpool drew. Only Tottenham, which had lost considerable ground over the last month, managed to win.
City’s players, of course, are not talking about the Premier League title as a fait accompli — “It is far too early,” said Fabian Delph; “We can’t be complacent,” said Kevin De Bruyne — but from the outside, it looks that way. City has dropped only 2 points all season. It has won a record 14 games in a row in the league. If Guardiola’s team was to be stopped, in all likelihood it had to happen here, and it did not.
And so, as Mourinho marched from the field, he was lining up his arguments. This was his moment to shine, to ensure that his defeat did not last longer than 90 minutes. He had ample material — not least just how fortuitous, how essentially random, both of City’s goals had been — and ample opportunity: There were television crews from all over the world, plus a few minutes in the company of news media.
He mentioned that fortune — “two bad goals, incredibly lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective” — and he indulged in the sort of gnomic contortion of reality that might please a tyrant. Who was the better team? “It depends how you analyze it, on what we want to let them do and what we did not want to let them do,” he said. But he chose as his focus a penalty that he felt United should have been awarded, only to see Ander Herrera cautioned for diving instead. “It is a huge penalty, in a crucial moment of the game,” he said.
This was vintage Mourinho. His complaints, he knew, would be put to Guardiola, and perhaps a flickering of a war of words might distract from any serious analysis of what had happened on the field. It is a maneuver that he has pulled before, and one that has worked before. This is his arena, after all, where he is the boss.
This time, though, it played out rather differently. Guardiola’s answer to the first question he faced, on Mourinho’s assessment of the game, ran to six words, and it brooked no debate: “We won because we were better.”
This was not City’s best performance of the season. At times, Guardiola’s players were a little careless, lacking their usual finesse. Both of their goals — by David Silva and Nicolás Otamendi — owed as much to Romelu Lukaku, the United striker, as to any City player. One mistake from Delph allowed United to equalize with a goal by Marcus Rashford just before halftime, and only a remarkable double save from Ederson, the City goalkeeper, prevented Mourinho’s team from salvaging a tie.
Had United done so, Mourinho would have considered himself vindicated, of course, but in reality it would have been little more than a coat of paint on a chasm. No amount of distraction can sufficiently divert from the fact that City is some distance ahead of United, and all of the others, too.
As Guardiola pointed out, his team has now won at Old Trafford and beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. On both occasions, victory was secured not by containment and caution, but by what he described as courage.
He had set out to beat both of his most serious rivals on their home turf by maximizing his team’s strengths rather than his opponents’ weaknesses. City dominated both games, had the bravery to “have 65 or 70 percent of possession,” to play the way he believes a team should play.
In doing so, it has built up a formidable, most likely insurmountable lead, at the summit of the Premier League, and it has vindicated Guardiola. He was told, before he arrived in England, that his methods would not work here, not as they had in Spain and Germany, that the weather and the intensity would count against him.
He remembered the warnings. “People said you cannot play this way in England,” he said. “Well, yes you can.” Mourinho might be the master before the game and after it. Those minutes in the middle, though: Those are Guardiola’s.
Published at Sun, 10 Dec 2017 23:51:29 +0000