City lead with poetry but Mourinho knows trophies are won with prose
Chelsea are feeling the heat but today will tell a tale about Mancunian rivals' title aspirations
To correct a misleading impression that has been slowly building up over the last few weeks, largely because a certain resident of the Lowry Hotel has been busy expressing dissatisfaction at every available opportunity, Manchester United are having a really good season.
They are practically through to the knockout stages of the Champions League already, having won four games out of four. They are second in the Premier League and are unbeaten at Old Trafford, where Burton Albion remain the only team to have scored a goal against them all season. They have the best defensive record in all four divisions, having conceded just four goals since starting out in August with a 4-0 win over West Ham .
Perhaps it is not so far a great season, given the recent defeat at Huddersfield, the cautious tactics at Liverpool and the fact that Manchester City are five points better off, but it could be a lot worse.
José Mourinho could be in Antonio Conte's position, for example, and goodness knows how unhappy he would be then. He could have just been savaged twice in Italy, first by Roma and then by the critics, after an abject performance led Chelsea to become the first English side to lose in the Champions League this season.
He could have lost his first home match of the season , against Burnley. He could have needlessly alienated Diego Costa, then tried and failed to bring Romelu Lukaku back in the summer, only to see the Belgian striker opt for life with a major rival. He could have sanctioned the sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United , and then had to deal with N'Golo Kanté being injured when some big games came along.
At the very least the United manager should be able to enjoy himself at Stamford Bridge this afternoon a little more than he did last season when, it might be recalled, a Chelsea side on their way to the title wiped the floor with their former manager and his new team.
History could repeat itself, you never know, but the momentum is with United at the moment and there seems little chance of another 4-0 drubbing. United have tightened up their defence, Chelsea have lost a lot of confidence and Conte no longer seems to know his most effective line-up, whereas last season he was sure of it.
Yet enjoyment appears to be eluding Mourinho this season. He is probably already working out how to respond to accusations of parking the bus if he gains a result at Chelsea with the sort of stifling tactics employed against Liverpool and Tottenham. His claim that he is not getting the credit he deserves for some impressive performances warrants closer examination, even if what he really means is that rivals such as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are garnering all the praise.
It is true that United neutralised a Spurs team who scored four against Liverpool and three against Real Madrid, but what Mourinho neglects to mention is that Harry Kane was missing at Old Trafford and Pochettino set out his own stall quite defensively.
The glowing reviews of Spurs' latest Champions League performance were still bothering Mourinho a couple of days later. "What is magic, what is phenomenal?" he asked. "The way Tottenham played against Real Madrid? I think I recently saw a team play exactly that way, and the reaction was negative. I was watching from the touchline [he is referring to the 1-0 win against Spurs] and I saw a team defending, pressing, controlling all the penetration, playing with five at the back but projecting the full-backs and going forward in quick transitions, and some people did not enjoy it."
This is always the nub of the issue with Mourinho and his teams. One could say United were highly competitive against Spurs, well-organised and supremely professional, but magic would be a stretch too far.
Whereas some of Tottenham's displays this season have bordered on the sublime, as have some of Manchester City's. Here, perhaps, is the basis for what is shaping up to be another winter of Mourinho discontent. He is perfectly well aware that playing the percentages is not really what United fans pay to see, though he is too much of a roundhead to come over all cavalier at this late stage.
The story of his career, an undeniably successful one, has been based on strategy, efficiency and risk-elimination. The Mourinho philosophy was perhaps best summed up in his own words after last season's Europa League success . Once again responding to criticism of his side's playing style, or perhaps that should be yet again, the Portuguese encapsulated his outlook in a short but memorable soundbite. "There are lots of poets in football," he observed. "But poets don't win many titles."
One does not have to look too far across Manchester to spot the potential flaw in this argument. While Guardiola would probably not describe himself as a poet he does happen to think you should play in a certain way, with an emphasis on possession-based attacking football, and his team happen to be top of the Premier League. Unbeaten, in fact, with an enormous number of goals scored and fans swooning on a regular basis at the expressiveness and elegance of the football being played.
It would be foolish to say at this stage that Manchester City are going to run away with the title and leave Mourinho and his pragmatism looking like one of the more prosaic passages of history. It would be much wiser to leave judgement until later in the season, or at least until City have played Arsenal this afternoon. But it is a possibility, and one that could explain why Mourinho has been so tetchy of late. City are proving resistant to his template for football achievement, just as Barcelona did when he was in Spain.
United were installed as early title favourites because of Mourinho's enviable record of second-season success, though this is Guardiola's second season at City, too, and all the signs indicate that lessons have been learned since his first campaign. City ended up with nothing last season, while United claimed the League Cup and the Europa League, but titles in the sense of finishing on top of the table are what both managers crave.
While Mourinho was miffed last Saturday that a huge step in the right direction was not recognised as such, everything United do at the moment is put into perspective by City's healthy lead. That may change today, though the date looming large in Mancunian diaries is December 10, when City visit Old Trafford.
The renewal of the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry from Spain did not really happen as predicted last season because both clubs spent time off the pace. Next month's derby will not just pit the poetry against the prose, it could see some of the El Clásico needle transported to the north of England.
Chelsea v Manchester United
Sky Sports, 4.30
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