MANCHESTER — The struggle in Manchester is real.
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When Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho arrived last summer amid much fanfare the soccer world expected a rivalry rivaling Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in England’s northern powerhouse.
Yeah. About that…
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Guardiola’s Manchester City sit in fourth place with five games to go, one place and one point ahead of Manchester United. They were dumped out of the UEFA Champions League and lost in the FA Cup semifinal to Arsenal at the weekend.
Pep’s “total football” approach has hit more than a few snags.
These two teams were supposed to challenge for the title this season but after spending a combined total of almost $400 million on new players they have one trophy between them (United won the EFL Cup) and are scrambling to qualify for the Champions League.
This isn’t how things were supposed to be.
Both managers are big enough names that they will be given plenty more time, and plenty more money, to solve their problems. But if they don’t start the 2017-18 season well then the pressure will mount quickly. Even for these two managerial heavyweights.
When it comes to Pep’s revolution at City he knows the teething problems have been present throughout the season. City have blown teams away when everything clicks but so often, especially at home, it hasn’t. City have drawn seven games at home this season and only United (9) have drawn more in front of their own fans.
Both managers are building bases tentatively but needed extra impetus to help the missing pieces of the jigsaw slot into place.
Speaking to the media after the game, Guardiola was downbeat despite his team seemingly in the driving seat for a top four finish ahead of their crosstown rivals.
“We have tried not just today but all of the season to monopolize the ball. Maybe it is a little bit of a Latin style. I don’t know what it is here in England but we tried to have the ball and attack,” Guardiola said. “Of course you can not expect against a team which is 23 games in a row unbeaten. That means they are good in defense and offensive and create not a thousand, million chances but 15 shots but not on target. It was not enough. We played to win the game. We tried. But again we are not able and we have to look why we were not able to win again. It is one point. The big fight will be until the Watford game.”
Between now and City’s final game of the season they will dominate possession in most, if not all, games but lacking that killer instinct has been their main problem. Gabriel Jesus‘ arrival at the end of this game provides Guardiola hope that the Brazilian teenager can provide a spark. City are arguably further along in their project than Untied but with fit again Vincent Kompany helping to improve Guardiola’s defense in recent weeks, in attack both have struggled.
City and United are the lowest scorers in the top six and United have scored just 50 times this season.
That said, the main problem for United in recent weeks has been injuries (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo out for the season, joining Chris Smalling and Phil Jones on the sidelines) which have compounded their own ability to not finish teams off as a league-high 13 draws has Mourinho wondering what if.
United’s run to the Europa League semifinals has provided Mourinho with a “get out of jail free” card as they’re favorites to win Europe’s second-tier tournament and qualify for the UEFA Champions League through the backdoor. Fans of the Red Devils sing about Jose making them play “the United way” but the chant has become halfhearted and hollow recently.
United are 24 games unbeaten in the Premier League, the longest run in Europe’s top five leagues and they’ve equaled their longest ever unbeaten run in a top-flight campaign.
It doesn’t feel like it though.
Mourinho’s men recorded just 30.8 percent possession on Thursday, their lowest total since Opta started recording that metric in 2003. United are not a fun team to watch right now but they’re grinding out results until Mourinho can find a long-term solution to have them back among the elite. Until then he has the huge number of games they’ve played this season and their long injury list to blame.
“We will fight until the end – today we lost two more players – Timothy Fosu-Mensah had an important injury in the last action of the game and Fellani is suspended,” Mourinho said. “We are going down in terms of the number of players. It is very difficult for us but the character is amazing and I’m very proud of the boys.”
The feel-good factor wasn’t there on both sides of the Manchester divide at the Etihad Stadium.
Despite their pedigree Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty to prove to both sets of supporters as the two most successful and talented managers of their generation are finding that Manchester is not their heaven.
Not yet anyway.
These projects are very much a work in progress and when they next meet in July in preseason in the USA both clubs will have new players, a fresh start and more sky-high targets to reach.
The managers of City and United will be the same next season but they’ll both be under that much more pressure after a stuttering start to life in what was supposed to be a new era of Manchester becoming the soccer Mecca of the world.
Guardiola and Mourinho leave close to each other and this week Guardiola revealed the duo say hello and share pleasantries when they meet on the street.
They shouldn’t expect the same niceties from the general public in Manchester for much longer if trophies and title challenges don’t materialize.