Money can’t buy class, argues Jose Mourinho. Nor, it seems, can it buy Manchester United a decent football team.
On the weekend when he took it upon himself to criticise the description ascribed to United in Manchester City’s Amazon Prime documentary series, Mourinho was again exposed as being in charge of a failing side while Pep Guardiola and the champions again emphasised their pedigree.
It’s not solely the fact that Mourinho and executive vice-chair Ed Woodward have contrived to spend close to half a billion pounds in their two years working together, it’s also that few United players signed appear to be any better than they were when Mourinho arrived.
We know that the manager would have done anything to avoid starting the season with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof as his centre-back. Meanwhile, Paul Pogba has the captain’s armband but is still half the player he was at Juventus.
These players – and more – are Mourinho’s problem. Right now it looks as though he is unable to make them play any better. When it comes to converting the money spent into a well-drilled and functioning unit, Mourinho is totally at a loss.
The football is turgid. There is little in the way of a consistent attacking threat from open play. Mourinho’s chief offensive strategy has always been the counter-attack but in this group he doesn’t appear to have the players for it.
The likes of Pogba and Juan Mata require lots of possession in order to get the space they need to work. But that in itself requires Mourinho to construct ordered attacking play on the training ground.
Contrast what happened at the Amex to life at the Etihad. The Amazon cameras may well have packed up but there is still only one place to go for Premier League entertainment.
While Mourinho and Manchester United were struggling to compete with one team only just promoted to the top flight last season, City and Pep Guardiola set about dismantling another.
Let’s split the Premier League up into mini-groups. The first will include City alone. On the evidence of their first matches of the season, there are no other teams who can come close to their levels of talent and output.
Then come Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Next, you’ll find the stagnating super-clubs in United and Arsenal. Beneath that there might be Leicester City and Everton. The rest, honestly, is much of muchness.
When teams from this group come up against City you’ll see they all play roughly the same way. Crucially, they don’t fear United.
Check it out over the next few weeks when City complete a pattern – started yesterday against Huddersfield – of playing all six teams promoted in the last two seasons. All of their opponents will dig in, duck and cover, and hope for the best.
Next up are Wolves at Molineux. These were the kinds of fixtures which frustrated Pep Guardiola the most throughout his first two seasons in English football.
When teams come to protect their goal-line at all costs, then all Pep could do was hope his team scored early. Most of the time, it worked. Occasionally, however, the scrapping teams got their goal or pegged City back and cost them two or three points a time.
“We suffered last season a lot against Huddersfield,” said Guardiola. “Not suffering on the ball, but we had problems to attack more slowly.
“Last season teams defended with four or five at the back, deep. Their strikers would go so deep, helping the holding midfielders.”
Guardiola showed on Sunday that he’s got a plan and it involved tearing up conventional formations . The team he selected to trounce Huddersfield was based less on which positions his players could play and more, simply, on what they could do on the ball.
John Stones was wide of three centre-backs, at right-back and in midfield. Benjamin Mendy was a rocket launcher with the left flank all to himself.
Many pondered when they first got hold of the team-sheet exactly how City would line up. We have been conditioned to think of teams in conventional formations but what Guardiola is doing right now defies such categorisations.
“We have been training all week in this way and that’s why we could play like this,” said Aymeric Laporte. “Not for any other reason. It’s all thought out and studied and you could see that in the first goal.”
City matches against the lesser 12 – especially at home – are attack versus defence. Guardiola doesn’t need conventional defensive positions because these games will never take on the form of two teams, 11 against 11, going up against each other trying to win.
“[The formation] is whatever the manager asks of us, almost always,” said Laporte. “If he asks you to play this role you do it, and the same for other roles. I think it’s going well, I’m happy with the results and to be playing.”
Mendy was by far City’s most potent attacking weapon – on a day when Sergio Aguero helped himself to a hat-trick – and his return from injury will be instrumental in giving City an added wide edge in this kind of system.
“We decided to play with two strikers,” said Pep, “to be more present in the box, and knowing that we have Mendy.
“He is a guy who arrives and is clever in the final third, not just arrive and cross. He’s clever to see the pass in front of the keeper, the penalty spot, the pass out to the 18-yard box. He’s a clever guy arriving there and it worked.”
It makes sense that Guardiola is redrawing formations. City had close to 80 per cent of the ball against Huddersfield. Eight of their 10 outfield players ended up with an average position inside the opposition half.
Guardiola can be confident in these matches of having all the ball and the majority of the territory. So, he’s chosen to sacrifice the kind of balance you might see in a more even game to give his City players the best possible chance of finding gaps.
“Last season we did it once or twice but not much more,” said Pep of this style of play.
“It does not mean in the next games we are going to play all the time in that way because every game it depends on the quality of the players that we have. [Depending on] the players that we play [against], we adapt the way we attack.
“[Sunday] was much better in terms of football consistency during 90 minutes. Chelsea and Arsenal I think we survived more than played good but attacking 10 players in the box we did quite well.”
It’s not just that City beat Huddersfield. They may as well have been playing a different sport. The fluency, the technique and clarity of purpose in City is vastly at odds with United; it would be an insult to describe them as rivals.
There were 19 points between them last season. The mind boggles at what that number could extend to should Mourinho’s current malaise – and Pep’s progress – continue to diverge at the current rate.