Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Manchester City on Saturday suggests the Premier League may after all witness a real rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
When Mourinho returned to England to lead Manchester United in 2016, the script was written for the Portuguese to renew hostilities with perhaps his bitterest rival, Arsene Wenger aside, when Guardiola arrived across town in City that summer.
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Although Mourinho described second place after Guardiola as “one of his greatest achievements in the game” in the 2017/18 season, that was a comment that was due to the weaknesses in the United squad rather than the result of a highly competitive competition. After all, City won the title that year by 19 points and kept the trophy a year later when Liverpool emerged as the city’s strongest challenger while United faded, sacked Mourinho and appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Mourinho was later declared a busted flush, overtaken by more stylish progressives like Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. And so, in a week that Guardiola signed a contract extension to stay in City through 2023, Mourinho will enjoy the timing of Spurs climbing to the top of the table with a win that represents a win for the essence of his dogmatic, disciplined style about Guardiola’s zeitgeist.
After accepting the Spurs job, Mourinho argued he switched managers and used an 11-month break from management as a period of introspection to change his perspective. There are signs that he has in some ways waned, certainly if you look at his Instagram account at face value, and gamers often speak of a more approachable man than his reputation suggests.
But in the big games that matter most, Mourinho returns to typing: defensive, disciplined, combative and with the aim of being clinical when counterattacked. Spurs may not change Mourinho, but he does change Spurs.
The surprise is not an indication that Mourinho’s methods have changed radically. The fact is that his so-called old-school tactics may last long enough to fight for the Premier League title.
The sterilized environment required for football to survive amid the coronavirus pandemic will arguably help any team that positions itself that way. For example, imagine the anger of Newcastle fans when 55,000 of them are packed into St James’ Park and watch as they barely try to attack earlier on Saturday.
And here, at 0-0 and even 1-0, while the fans would undoubtedly have embraced the spirit and dedication of Spurs, the atmosphere at the sight of the house would inevitably have been characterized by a mixture of concern and frustration as the team camped for a long time on the edge of his own box. As it was, the only sound that reverberated in that wondrous arena was two groups of players, staff, and henchmen denying every decision that Referee Mike Dean had made, from one extreme apoplexy to a surge from there .
Mourinho was the loudest when Spurs lost the ball, especially in the City half, yelling at his players to regroup and close the room for Kevin De Bruyne to conjure up a chance.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was excellent in this regard, personifying the positional intelligence and tenacity required to keep the city in check.
Son Heung-min was cleverly used on the right, as opposed to his usual station on the left, to avoid a race with Kyle Walker. That tactical tweak resulted in the first goal when City switched off and Tanguy Ndombele slipped through a pass for Son, who saw Ederson fall off his line before shooting a shot through the City goalkeeper’s legs.
Both teams had a goal that was rightly denied – Harry Kane for offside and Aymeric Laporte for a handball by Gabriel Jesus under construction – but City created little value after half time, Ruben Dias forcing Hugo Lloris to take a break with a header from a free kick by De Bruyne.
This was an accomplishment that raises questions about the depth of rebuilding Guardiola has on his hands to restore her domestic supremacy and win the Champions League crown he longs for.
Kane was everything that Jesus wasn’t. He fought tirelessly to hold the ball, providing more examples of his eye for a pass and slipping into Giovani Lo Celso to double Tottenham’s lead in the 65th minute. Lo Celso had only been introduced moments before to replace Ndombele. This was a day when everything Mourinho tried came about. The only downside for Tottenham was a muscle injury to Toby Alderweireld, who limped nine minutes from time. Mourinho later admitted that early signs were not promising.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Mourinhos have defeated Spurs City. They managed a win with the same number of points in February but finished last season in sixth place with City, a shadow of their former selves, still 22 points better off. This time it wasn’t a deviation, but a continuation of a good start. The club mixed tireless defense with a clinical finish to bring them to the top of the table and eight points ahead of City, despite having played one more game.
It will be fascinating to see how far it can take you. The city is sure to flex its financial muscles in January after Guardiola signs up to the club. Liverpool remain the team to beat while Chelsea are also aiming high at £ 220m this summer.
While Spurs and Mourinho have been told their best days may be behind them, they now seem right back in the title mix