The most intriguing tactical battles at football’s highest level usually involve Pep Guardiola. Another chapter was added to his list of epic encounters with Jürgen Klopp this week when a rare tactical error saw Liverpool run riot at Anfield.
Attention now turns to another historical battle; one born in Spain rather than Germany.
There is more history to the encounters between Guardiola and José Mourinho, thanks to their brief time together at Barcelona as a player and assistant coach respectively, and then their managerial clashes at the helm of Europe’s biggest clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The pair have met each other more often than they have any other manager, beginning with the Champions League matches between Internazionale and Barcelona, through numerous Clasicos, to the present day where the pair contest Manchester derbies.
Guardiola has the edge, having won ten and lost only four, with six games drawn, but could Mourinho follow Klopp’s lead and find a weakness in the Catalan’s plan?
On the face of it, the answer is no.
Although Liverpool defended stoically in the second half of Wednesday’s Champions League tie they were put in that position by some aggressive attacking play and relentless counter-pressing in the first half – two things Mourinho’s teams aren’t known for.
Mourinho’s isn’t the only way to defend. Klopp teams do theirs high up the pitch where they are able to pounce quickly when they win the ball back.
“That is how it is. Be where there is a chance to get the ball. If we can we do that, we have a chance. If not? It is very, very difficult.”
Klopp reiterated this after the game, admitting that though Liverpool defended well against City in the second half, he would have preferred if they had done it in a different manner.
“Second half, I know that you probably all love that kind of defending, with no shots on target, very deep, and concentrated – I like it as well – but when we have the ball we have to play more football,” Klopp said.
Mourinho certainly loves that kind of defending but, as Klopp pointed out, sitting back against City is not a solution. So has the Portuguese got something different in his locker?
Liverpool were helped by the fact Guardiola made an extremely rare error in his tactical set up.
The heavy focus on the left side of their attack as they targeted Liverpool’s supposed weak link, Trent Alexander-Arnold, backfired as the teenage right-back played out of his skin.
Guardiola is unlikely to repeat his mistake. So Mourinho will need to find a new weakness, but he should also focus on his own side’s strengths against such an opposition.
Liverpool were successful because they had hard work and mobility in midfield. It’s for this reason that Manchester United would be better off leaving Nemanja Matić on the bench, and going with a more mobile midfield.
Ander Herrera is back in the fold and could be a good option, while the likes of Jesse Lingard and, if Mourinho is feeling bold, Alexis Sánchez could play the roles James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain operated in for Liverpool.
Mourinho doesn’t have a Salah, but he does have similar pace in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. A team containing Sánchez, Lingard, Rashford, Martial, and Romelu Lukaku could be seen as overly attacking and asking for trouble. But if they’re used in the right roles this could work.
They need to make City worry about them, rather than letting Guardiola’s side dominate the story of the game. Instead of creating narratives such as ‘City attack held off by United’, or ‘City bounce back against United’, Mourinho should attempt to make his side the protagonists.
To do this he would have to maintain the solid defensive structure of his side, but move it up the pitch where they can release their pacy threats more quickly on the counter. These attacking players would also have to defend, else the system wouldn’t work.
Lukaku is an intelligent link-up player when given the chance to perform this role and having extra pace around him, in addition to his own, could pose a danger to the City defence who will still be reeling from Wednesday.
The back four will also be vital to this solidity, and Mourinho has the tools in this area too. Ashley Young’s role could be important if Raheem Sterling returns to the line-up, and Antonio Valencia will have to replicate the job Alexander-Arnold did on Sané.
The caveat to all of this is that City could play a ‘weakened’ team as they prepare to overcome their three goal deficit against Liverpool on Tuesday. A much-changed line-up could pose different threats, but it shouldn’t alter Mourinho’s game-plan too much, save for a few tweaks here and there before kick-off.
Can Mourinho do a Klopp? The evidence so far suggests that he can’t, but he has the tools to have a go.
The last time he beat Guardiola, in October 2016, City were a much different animal, and their XI that day contained Kelechi Iheanacho, Jesús Navas, Nolito, Aleix García, Gaël Clichy, Pablo Maffeo, and Willy Caballero.
The new City, who could wrap up the Premier League title against their rivals on Saturday, are a much stronger side in the Pep mould, and are now used to playing against the low block, and breaking it down more often than not.
The other options are either reckless attacking, which they’ll also tear apart, or the Klopp method of relentless pressing, harassment, and quick counter-threats.
Each team that has beaten City this season has done so thanks to some kind of counter-attacking threat, but Klopp’s counter-pressing has proven the most effective method to add some more stable defending, rather than absorbing a barrage of attacks.
City are not used to defending in the traditional sense as they keep the opposition out by hogging possession. When they’re regularly asked questions of, they can struggle.
Mourinho should be more tactically flexible. After all, his first job in football was as an opposition analyst for Bobby Robson, so there’s no doubt he has the knowledge to carry out such an operation. But does he have the conviction and fearlessness against this almost all-conquering Guardiola side?
If the answer is no, then United’s fans’ biggest fear could be realised, and City could secure the title in a game which would go down in Manchester derby history.