Pep Guardiola

Manchester projects stutter for Guardiola, Mourinho

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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.

Guardiola “satisfied” with derby draw; “It’s not easy” to play United

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Manchester City control their own destiny in the Premier League’s race to finish inside the top-four this season.

With five games to go, Man City sit fourth in the league table — just a point back of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and a point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United after the two sides drew 0-0 on Thursday — and that fact has had an unbelievable calming effect on first-year City boss Pep Guardiola.

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Speaking in his post-game television interview, Guardiola seemed much happier and looser than you might expect a manager to be when he’s only just left the field of a heated rivalry game, against his personal nemesis, and failed to convert in one of 19 shots (6 on target) into the game’s decisive goal.

“We can’t forget against which team we played today — [they’re] 23 games in a row without defeat. We created enough chances to score, we created two [clear-cut chances]. In terms of statistics and the way we played, especially the approach, I am so satisfied.”

“I am satisfied, because I know how difficult it is to play against Manchester United — how aggressive they are. It’s not easy when you face 10 players behind. It’s not easy, and you have to always be in a good position to avoid a counter-attack with (Anthony) Martial and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan. … We have the talent, but sometimes it’s not easy against so many players there.”

“We all have tough games coming up now and we know it’s not an option to not win these games. Every game is important.”

[ MORE: Mourinho pins blame for Fellaini’s red card on Aguero ]

It’s true that City had the best only real chances throughout the game, but just think of the joy Guardiola might be experiencing right now had Sergio Aguero found pay dirt with just one of his eight shots on the night (two on target) to push his side third in the league table, four points clear of United in fifth.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

Premier League Preview: The Manchester Derby

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  • City won 2-1 in PL on Sept. 10
  • United won 1-0 in EFL Cup on Oct. 26
  • First Mourinho-Pep match at the Etihad
  • United leads all-time 71W-51D-50L

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola get a tactical rubber match with plenty on the line when Manchester United and Manchester City meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

There will be no Paul Pogba nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United, while Gabriel Jesus is set to return for City.

Fourth-place City enters the day one point ahead of United, and both trail Liverpool but have played two less matches.

In case you’ve forgotten, here are the other two meetings between Guardiola and Mourinho this season:

  • Iheanacho, De Bruyne lead City’s 2-1 win in September. Zlatan Ibrahimovic made it interesting by pulling back a goal, but Pep Guardiola’s bunch fired the first shots of the season’s derbies with a win at Old Trafford.
  • It was the same venue six weeks later, when Juan Mata‘s 54th minute goal was the only marker as United knocked Manchester City out en route to its EFL Cup title.

Ander Herrera calls Thursday’s battle the “game of the season.” Here’s what other participants have on their minds.

What they’re saying

United boss Mourinho on finishing above City“If we finish fifth and they finish sixth, we are above them, and it means nothing. But if they finish third and we finish fourth, they are above us but it means a lot.”

City keeper Claudio Bravo on Guardiola’s City: “Our team plays differently to the rest of the teams, but at the same time it’s not easy. We are still in a stage of construction, keep improving and keep growing day by day. I think all the experiences we have got this season are going to help us a lot to grow in the future and get closer to trophies”

Prediction

United is without two of the most influential players in the world, and on the road. Those obstacles are a lot to overcome, and United will have to overload the midfield — maybe with both Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick — and use a classic Mourinho parking of the bus to get a result. But Marcus Rashford can be a menace on the counter, and just may find his way past Bravo. City 2-1.

Manchester derby: Pogba out, Gabriel ready, Zlatan update

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Ahead of the massive Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday between Manchester City and Manchester United (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) there has been some significant team news.

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Jose Mourinho has confirmed that midfielder Paul Pogba will not play for United after hobbling off late on against Burnley on Sunday, while Pep Guardiola has confirmed that star midfield David Silva is a serious doubt.

Speaking in their respective press conferences ahead of the massive clash between the bitter rivals both managers played down the importance of the match despite their being just one point and one place between the teams with City sitting in fourth place, the final UEFA Champions League spot.

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Mourinho simply confirmed that Pogba would not be fit but also stated that Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia would be available while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain out. Mourinho also gave an update on Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Manchester United as the 35-year-old has flown to the USA to undergo knee surgery to try and salvage his career.

Zlatan only had a contract until this summer at United and has been linked with signing another deal, moving to China or heading to Major League Soccer. Mourinho said he wasn’t sure if Ibrahimovic would be at United next season and instead praised his fighting spirit.

“I just want the difficult surgery to go, for him to recover from the injury and prepare for the next step,” Mourinho said. “I think the next step will be something that he really wants, which is what I was saying before the injury in the period of doubt about his future.”

Guardiola stated that Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus is ready to be in the matchday squad after recovering from a broken metatarsal but he said it would be tough for Silva to play but did confirm Sergio Aguero is fit.

“David Silva real, real doubt – I don’t know if he will be ready to play after what happened in the first minutes in the semi-final,” Guardiola said. “Gabriel has no pain at all so is ready but [after] three months out his physical condition is not optimal. Sergio is much better. Today he make a part of the training session. Tomorrow he will be ready.”

At this hectic time of the season both City and United have struggled with injuries to key players throughout the campaign and it is perhaps United who have dealt better with those absences. There’s no doubt that losing top scorer Ibrahimovic for the rest of the season was a huge blow but Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford are ready to step up in his absence with Martial and Rooney scoring in the 2-0 victory at Burnley last time out.

Who will come in for Pogba? Expect Herrera and Michael Carrick to start in central midfield in perhaps a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lingard, Rooney and Mkhitaryan ahead of them and Rashford up top.

For City, they will likely start Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph in central midfield in Silva’s absence but Guardiola must be worried about losing Silva as the Spaniard has made City tick all season long. Coupled with the long-term absence of Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany (who returned to action recently) City’s midfield and defensive unit has struggled to cope with injuries all season long.

Expect this Manchester derby to be a slugfest between two ailing teams.