Jose Mourinho has privately expressed his frustrations that in the modern Manchester rivalry, he has to compete with the financial resources bestowed by a state. Manchester City have spent so much on players over the years, he says, that as United manager there is only so much he can do to match them.
And yet if the two managers were in charge of each other’s teams on Sunday afternoon, or even for the whole Premier League season, can anyone dispute who would have come out on top? Mourinho could try his best with City’s players, although would be unlikely to be able to get them to their current level, heading for the Premier League’s first ever 100-point season.
But what if Pep Guardiola could manage this United team? They did want him, after all, to replace Louis van Gaal but knew by late 2015 that he was going to leave Bayern Munich for City. Since then, of course, Mourinho has signed the players for his own style of football, rather than Guardiola’s. But even then an imaginary managerial change would do wonders for United’s performances and results with their current team in place. Adventure, imagination and initiative would be back at United, whoever the opponent, wherever the game was played.
The 5-3-2 United have been playing would go and would be replaced by Guardiola’s favoured 4-3-3, which he has returned to with City this year with great success. Guardiola always wants a mobile incisive front line and if he did not feel like Romelu Lukaku was precise enough to play for him it would not matter: Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be a perfect Guardiola attack. They would have the energy to put opposition defences under pressure, the speed to run in behind and the brains to combine instinctively in the box.
Yes, Mkhitaryan has not exactly shone since joining United from Borussia Dortmund for £30mlast summer. But then he is precisely the type of quick incisive technical player who Guardiola improves, not just through individual instruction but in providing the team structure for creative individuals to flourish. Just look at how much Raheem Sterling has improved at City this year.
City have the best midfield in the country but if Guardiola could manage United’s midfielders he would get more out of them too. Paul Pogba has all of the ability to be just as effective as Kevin de Bruyne in the middle of the pitch: he can pick and execute difficult long-range passes, he can run with the ball down the middle of the pitch, he can score from distance and he can deliver from wide areas. His close control in tight spaces is probably even better than the Belgian's. De Bruyne has been playing better than Pogba this year but under different management Pogba could be back on top. De Bruyne, remember, made no impact under Mourinho in 2013 and was quickly sold off to Wolfsburg.
If Guardiola wanted someone to orchestrate possession alongside the more muscular Pogba he could pick Juan Mata to do what David Silva does for City. There is not much to pick between the two as individuals but while Mata has struggled under managers who are not on his wavelength - Mourinho, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Mourinho again - there is little doubt he would flourish under Guardiola. His quick brain and feet make him a dream Guardiola man who would pick up the principles quickly.
Then at the base of the midfield three Guardiola could play Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera, depending on tactical preference, to start off their passing moves and to protect his team against the counter-attack.
That would be a potent front six, able to keep the ball, cut opponents apart and press the opposition when they lost it. Within a few months of coaching all those players are intelligent enough to pick up the Guardiola way and, in this hypothetical scenario, win the Premier League.
The back four – Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia – might be a bit rudimentary but they would still have pace and width from the full-backs, stretching the play, allowing Mkhitaryan and Rashford to come inside and attack the opposition centre-backs. United do not have a John Stones figure to start their attacks but then City have not had Stones, or a specialist left-back, for the last few weeks either and it has not stopped them. Then of course Guardiola would have the world’s greatest goalkeeper to call on too.
The overall picture then, of Guardiola’s United, even without his own signings, is attractive and exciting. Yes it would take time to learn, just as it has done at City, but we can trust that it would be worth the wait. It certainly has been at City. And having deprived City of their biggest asset, this United team would take the league by storm, and would do so dominating games, controlling possession and making their opposition irrelevant. Brilliant football in the finest traditions of the club.
So to see Manchester United in this present timeline playing as unambitiously as they did on Sunday, in the biggest game of their season, against their fiercest rival, and still to come away from it with nothing, with their talented attacking players left to feed off scraps; it does make you wonder if there might be another way.
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