Duel of the fates: the ballad of José & Pep
On the surface José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola appear to be polar opposites; the brash Portuguese man of war against the Catalan revolutionary, the pragmatist versus the visionary, the provocateur of “anti-football” dancing with the purveyor of “tiki-taka.”
The pair even coached players who embodied their most striking characteristics. Cristiano Ronaldo summed up the remorseless pursuit of success demanded by Mourinho, while Lionel Messi meshed together aesthetics and glory like Guardiola, appearing deceptively angelic to boot.
However, look hard enough and common traits are revealed, leading to the suggestion that far from being at the diametrically opposite ends of the football spectrum, José and Pep are more alike than they are probably ready to admit.
The Van Gaal Influence
Louis van Gaal did not have the best of times in Manchester, but his ideals live on in the city. José and Pep worked for the Iron Tulip at Barcelona and adopted, adapted and enshrined aspects of Van Gaal’s philosophy into their own brand of football.
That revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise given Van Gaal’s domineering personality, but it’s interesting that the bosses of the Manchester clubs zeroed in on specific tenets of the Dutchman’s beliefs and extrapolated them for their own successful ends.
Guardiola very much favours possession football, while structural discipline has shaped Mourinho’s way of thinking. They have taken those facets of Van Gaal’s philosophy to a different level, with the City boss demanding that the ball be used quickly and intelligently, while the United manager values a firm though not overly rigid shape.
Key, though, is neither is afraid to mix-things up in order to obtain a result. United’s front four of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata have license to switch positions; freedom that Van Gaal would never contemplate. There is a certain of irony in the Dutchman challenging his players to find their own solutions to win matches, but not allowing the leeway to do so in his framework.
Guardiola values the ball and short sharp passing, but he was still canny enough to go long and direct to counteract the high-pressing game of Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in their Bundesliga encounter of November 2013. The result? A 3-0 victory for Bayern against their title rivals.
Far from being dogmatic ideologues the two super-coaches are willing to alter their methods to achieve their desired goals.
Pragmatic peas sharing the same pod
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it”. Pep Guardiola in Marti Perarnau’s “Pep Confidential.”
It’s no secret that a side coached by Guardiola will be pleasing on the eye, but to label the Catalan as a utopian seeking football idealist spectacularly misses the mark. If anything, the above passage is a stern repudiation of the Van Gaal-esque philosophy that characterized United in the Dutchman’s two seasons in charge.
Pep’s preference for possession is rooted in the fact that if the opposition don’t have the ball then it’s harder for them to score. In a sense, it’s death by 1,000 passes, neutering the opposition and drawing the sting out of a game. It’s not quite parking the bus, but nonetheless there is a defensive reason to the practice. In 102 league games in the Bundesliga Pep’s Bayern conceded just 58 goals and in La Liga Guardiola’s record stands at 109 goals in 152 matches.
Pep’s Reign in Spain (2008 – 2012)
Guardiola’s German Adventure (2013 – 2016)
By way of comparison this is how Pep and José faired during their time in La Liga over the two seasons together.
José vs Pep – The La Liga Years (2010/2011 & 2011/2012)
Granted, Barcelona and Real Madrid were by far the best teams in La Liga during that period and were led by two of the greatest players ever to grace the game, but the near identical records and the level of consistency remains staggering.
It goes without saying that José is unashamedly pragmatic. One only needs to see his reaction to Marcus Rashford’s last minute strike against Hull City to realise just how important it is to get over the line. While everyone was losing their rag, the United boss instructed Chris Smalling to warm up for a brief substitute appearance. José was not going to let three points slip.
But that shouldn’t mask his ruthlessness in wishing to see opponents polished off too. Just as Pep isn’t simply the second coming of Johan Cruyff, Mourinho is more than a modern day version of Helenio Herrera.
On average José’s sides score between 1.8 and 2 goals a game, with the outstanding exception being his spell at Real Madrid. It’s hardly the record of an ultra-defensive coach, and if United fans needed any reminding the team under Van Gaal scored an average of 1.46 goals every league game over the Dutchman’s two seasons in charge. The number last season alone was a paltry 1.29 per match.
What Mourinho specialises in the transitions in play, rather than “dominating” possession. It is the United manager’s view of efficiency, with a focus on using the ball purposefully and not in a sterile manner. His sides, much like Sir Alex Ferguson’s team in its pomp, exploit mistakes and counter without mercy, while retaining the ability to pepper the opposition goal with shots to force a breakthrough.
If anything perceptions of the Manchester bosses were shaped by two games that rode the waves of football extremities. The matches that ultimately helped José land a role at Real were the Champions League semi-final ties against Pep’s Barcelona in 2010, when the Portuguese led Internazionale to an historic treble.
The first leg saw Inter build a 3-1 lead, but it was the return leg at the Camp Nou that went into folklore despite the Italian side losing 1-0 on the night. Inter kept Barcelona at bay before Thiago Motta was sent off after an altercation with Sergio Busquets with over an hour left to play. Yet, rather than buckle, Mourinho’s side put on a defensive performance that neared perfection. Retaining shape at all costs, a superbly drilled Inter kept Barcelona out until the 84th minute and despite the setback the Italian club held on to reach the final.
The achievement was not lost at the figureheads at the Bernabéu as it prevented the Catalans making the final in the Spanish capital – and the possibility of lifting the Champions League in Real Madrid’s home.
Pep achieved revenge in spectacular fashion later that year when José decided to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona. The Madrid boss enjoyed a near faultless start to his reign in the Spanish capital, winning 10 of his opening 12 matches and drawing the other two. Yet, his side was cut to shreds by Barça, going down 5-0. If Inter’s defensive masterclass stung Camp Nou’s inhabitants then this was Pep’s riveting riposte.
The already febrile feelings between Mourinho and Guardiola received the push it needed as the friction between the pair intensified, but opinions about the duo – for better or worse – were crystallized by these two highly defining matches.
One of the more bizarre comparisons happens to be that both Guardiola and Mourinho have enjoyed spectacular disputes with a key member of their medical team.
Mourinho’s ugly bust up with Eva Carneiro went all the way to an employment tribunal, which eventually led to Chelsea’s former doctor settling with the club and receiving an “unreserved apology.” It was an avoidable fiasco which began when she rushed to treat Eden Hazard, effectively leaving the Blues with nine players because Thibault Courtois had been sent off as Chelsea played Swansea on the opening day of the 2015/16 Premier League season. After the incident Carneiro was quickly ushered away from first team duties, along with head physio Jon Fearn, with José questioning her understanding of the game. It was an episode that remains a black mark on Mourinho’s CV.
Pep had his own altercation with the Bayern medical team in April 2015 when he blamed them for the German champion’s 3-1 defeat by Porto in the Champions League. Bayern had injury woes going into the match against José’s former side and at one point Guardiola sarcastically applauded the medical staff, including head doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt. Shortly after that Wohlfahrt and three other members of his team resigned, citing a breakdown in trust. It was a reaction that put Guardiola at odds with the Bayern hierarchy.
It points to a pair of men who need to be on the edge to get the best out of themselves and their teams. The trait has showcased the more destructive side of each personality, destabilised their clubs and, in Mourinho’s case, to a near terminal degree at Madrid and Chelsea.
The Guttmann Rule
“The third season is fatal.” – Béla Guttmann
The third season syndrome isn’t a new concept. Legendary Hungarian coach Béla Guttman made it a rule never to stay at one place too long. His reasoning? The players and the coach start to get weary of each other.
That observation has long haunted José, who has never managed the same team for four full seasons in a row or more. It has to be noted that his moves from Porto to Chelsea and Inter to Real Madrid constituted a step up, but Mourinho’s exits at Chelsea and Real Madrid do merit scrutiny.
The Portuguese’s first departure from Stamford Bridge owed to a clash with the owner Roman Abramovich. The Russian billionaire purchased Andriy Shevchenko, a player not to Mourinho’s taste, as well as altering the football set-up, which eroded Mourinho’s powerbase in the process. When tensions became too frayed the Portuguese coach departed Chelsea in a bitter separation.
At Madrid Mourinho’s single minded war of attrition may have worn Pep down, but it also had the twin effect of draining his own playing staff too. The situation was complicated by Spain’s international dominance, where Barcelona and Real players formed the bulk of an all-conquering national side. Iker Casillas blamed Mourinho’s demand for a siege mentality for the deterioration of their relationship.
“It didn’t sit well with [Mourinho] that I spoke with someone from Barcelona to ease the tension in the national team,” said Casillas. “I spoke with Xavi and Puyi. But the words that we used were not ‘listen, forgive me’. That was what a journalist linked with Mourinho said. What I said to Xavi was ‘look, if we keep going like this, we’re going to burden Spanish football with the image we give with two teams like Madrid and Barcelona.”
However, Real president Florentino Pérez remains a big fan of the United manager and would probably welcome back Mourinho if the stars ever aligned. Pérez sided with Mourinho in ousting Jorge Valdano as Real Madrid director general, allowing the two-time Champions League winner to become the most powerful head coach in Los Merengues’ illustrious history. Pérez credited Mourinho with taking the Spanish giants up another level – leading the club to win two Champions League titles since the Portuguese’s departure.
Meanwhile, Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea was a validation of Guttman’s theory. Chelsea’s steady first season, was followed by a title in the second, before turning south very quickly in Mourinho’s third year. This time around the issue was with the players, who looked emotionally spent and disinterested in José’s final months in charge. As the results became worse, so did the Mourinho’s behaviour, which ranged from conspiratorial to confrontational.
Working under mid-management, such as Michael Emenalo, was not ideal for José either and in the end a second departure from Stamford Bridge was met with understanding nods rather than disbelief.
"The third season syndrome isn’t a new concept. Legendary Hungarian coach Béla Guttman made it a rule never to stay at one place too long. His reasoning? The players and the coach start to get weary of each other."
For his part, Pep has never offered any indication that he is interested in building dynasties. He spent four full seasons at Barcelona before taking a one year sabbatical. Normal enough, right? But the key difference is that the Catalan refused to sign a long-term contract at Barça, opting to go with rolling one-year deals instead. He cited the investment of personal energy required to function as a coach and eventually felt that he could give no more to the club he played for with distinction.
Then came Bayern, who held the Spaniard down to a three-year deal, but couldn’t convince him to stay on longer. Despite positive noises coming from the Allianz Arena about a possible extension, Pep opted to end his stint in Germany to move to Manchester City. While there is an appreciation in southern Germany of the job he did at Bayern, Pep gave the impression of a man whose sole purpose was to perfect the team rather than embrace the club.
Pep departed Germany a success even if he didn’t win the Champions League for the Bavarian giants, but nonetheless the coach still called time on his own terms. The offer from City is no doubt interesting, but there’s the lingering suspicion the he had not much more left to give to the German club.
The road to glory and titles is an arduous one and players can only be pushed so much before they switch off. José and Pep have learned this lesson with maybe the only difference between the pair is that the former wants to establish a legacy, preferably at Old Trafford, while the latter looks more content to enact his three-year plan before moving to pastures new or even retirement.
One more factor factor in José’s role at United: there is no director of football to deal with. Whether that freedom helps him settle and take root at Old Trafford remains to be seen. Regardless, Guttmann’s observation about football and a coach’s lifespan does hold true to Guardiola and Mourinho, for now.
Star crossed rivals
There’s a fascinating case of ‘what if.’ What if Barcelona had opted to hire Mourinho instead of appointing Guardiola? How would Mourinho have dealt with the club’s talents, including Lionel Messi? Would the Catalan’s methods have translated successfully to a more unfashionable club?
Such is the closeness of their shared history that it’s not surprising that the two grate at each other. Granted, their football styles are distinct, and the both received different football educations outside of Barcelona, but their core values were learned in their formative coaching years at the Camp Nou. All they have done is chiseled their beliefs from an over-arching view of the game and sculpted it into their own version of success.
Even the question of legacy is not as clear-cut as it may first appear. The current Barcelona team is not like the iteration Pep managed and, for all the talk of legacy, Barça suffered a period of instability after his departure: the tragic loss of Tito Vilanova, the hapless stewardship of Tata Martino and even Luis Enrique’s reign was nearly terminated six-months into his tenure. As for Pep’s effect in Germany only time will tell what positives, if any, Bayern will reap from having the former Barcelona man in charge.
Equally, José hasn’t scorched the earth everywhere he has been, well not completely anyway. His spirit lingered on at Chelsea long after he first departed Stamford Bridge, while Real have won two European Cups since he left the Bernabéu. However, that argument can be easily counter-balanced by the wreckage he bequeathed Antonio Conte at Chelsea and Inter’s immediate fall from grace after he secured the treble for the Italian club.
Not that managerial longevity or lack thereof necessarily results in a legacy. United need only look at what happened after Sir Matt Busby and more recently Ferguson to realise that leaving rock solid foundations for future successors is not at all easy.
So come the Manchester derby the two star crossed rivals will draw swords again. Maybe this time the duel will be a more civil affair. Unlike the duo’s time in La Liga there are several teams who can challenge their respective title bids.
Like all rivalries perhaps Guardiola and Mourinho need each other as the catalyst to propel themselves to greater heights of achievement. As much as they are loathe to acknowledge it, José and Pep share more traits than they would care to mention.