Jose Mourinho approaches football through military tactics. By making the Manchester Derby all about City, everyone walked into a territory Jose still has some hold over.
It’s been a strange week for Manchester City; a week that was supposed to be the coronation for a staggeringly brilliant team, has brought forth defeat, reflection and a sense of uncovered distance when everyone thought the summit had been scaled.
It was a week where Liverpool entered a European knock-out tie at Anfield as underdogs, but in the end Pep Guardiola’s men came out of the match with tails between their legs. A day or so later, Pep claimed to have had first refusal on United’s two biggest stars, and he saw them combine to convert a 2-0 half-time score to 2-3.
In a couple of days, Manchester City will again play Liverpool, which will be another uphill task, given the deficit. Stories of great European nights often come with an illustration of the crowd and atmosphere willing teams over the line, and Etihad hasn’t been a picture of fire or fury lately. Their league-winning party, however, is merely postponed. The punch thrown in by Jose Mourinho last Sunday was more a parting, albeit bruising, jab than a decisive, knockout hit.
But hush, don’t mention that to Jose. After a phase where United have seen off Chelsea, Liverpool and City, there is a lingering feeling that he is a man on a mission to claim retribution. Mourinho has forever been known as a general who lives and dies by his troops, but never before in his incandescent career has he had to prove his own worth as a manager. As this season has progressed, football watchers of all loyalties seemed to find consensus in Jose displaying characteristics of a spent force rather than a battering ram. Frequently exhibiting a style of football that doesn’t seem to cut it anymore, his United team have been formidable at best, but far from intimidating.
City didn’t subject the United team bus to any visual or aural welcome à la Liverpool, but they entered the match half in preparation to celebrate their third title in the last six years. Can you imagine the prospect of winning a championship by beating your neighbours? Anticipation and hype are potent drugs, and there had been heavy circulation of both in the lead-up. They dispatched Mourinho’s United to an afterthought, a side-story in the grand fest that would mark Pep’s first great season as City coach. In hindsight, and bless the lord for such a concept because it is beautiful, the error was elementary. Jose was allowed to feel irrelevant and cornered, and while a tiger (sorry, Zlat) might get older and lose some of his agility, he always fights, and fights hard.
I wouldn’t have written those lines if the first half was anything to go by. City zoomed past a dazed United team and took a lead that they hadn’t squandered at home since 2008. The men in red walked into the change rooms at half-time looking resigned to the idea of clapping the champions-in-waiting off the ground, fearing an even bigger humiliation in the second half.
When they walked back out, the zip in their stride was unmistakable. For a brief, brief moment, this looked like a Mourinho side of old. They had 45 more minutes to fight for their lives, and no blade of grass shall be left untouched in an endeavour to rain over the parade that had been planned weeks in advance. The drizzle started eight minutes later, and over the following twenty minutes, it turned into a tropical downpour.
Like his manager, Paul Pogba has been subject to a lot of unpleasant press this season. When he was dropped against Liverpool, a lot was said about his seemingly straining relationship with Jose. For a man of Pogba’s talents and age, he should be running matches every week rather than behave like the sun in an English summer, short and inconsistent glimpses leaving rays of hope. For two-thirds of the second half, Pogba showed up once again, and it was breathtaking to watch. His ability to dictate the tempo of the game has never been conjecture, and he chose a fitting occasion to send out a smug reminder.
Chris Smalling knows a thing or two about scoring at the Etihad too, having netted United’s fourth in a sparkling victory in April 2015. Alexis Sanchez, finally looking far more like the Arsenal player United bent backwards to sign, pleaded and begged his teammates to attack further, and delivered a delicious set-piece for Smalling to volley home. With a quarter of an hour to go, City looked for inspiration, and could find none; in their jaded players, their crowd or from the bench, as Pep was forced to bring on De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus. An Aguero header briefly looked like a bullet to United’s hearts, but kevlar vests can learn a thing or two from David De Gea these days.
When the referee blew, Pep and Mourinho embraced and exchanged nods of acceptance. Guardiola, City and the English press would know better than to completely look past Jose Mourinho in the future, and Mourinho would know that even though he’s beaten the champions elect, there is distance between him and the top, and it’s not short.
Manchester United sit at 71 points; it’s an aggregate that hasn’t been achieved since Ferguson left, and there are six more games to play. Assuming United keep their spirits up, one would expect them to reach around 83 points, a total that would’ve placed United in a close title race in an average Premier League season. By beating City at their backyard, the United team laid down two massive markers; firstly that they too can be sharp and lethal if the motivation runs deep, and that City aren’t yet the finished product.
Two and a half millennia after Sun Tzu literally wrote down the instruction manual of military tactics, Jose Mourinho has carved out a legacy for himself where one will readily believe that he reads out texts from the book for his team-talks. For the half-time talk at Etihad, he probably recited an entire chapter.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
– Sun Tzu, Art of War