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Creator Versus Disruptor

Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho battle for the fate of the universe (and the Premier League).

We view soccer matches differently based on the personnel involved. Watching a match that features Lionel Messi is like peering over a great artist’s shoulder to look at him scribbling in his sketchbook, turning lines and angles into a work of genius. A match with Cristiano Ronaldo is akin to the talent portion of a beauty contest. (You can catch the action after the show on Instagram.) Watching Christian Pulisic is like following the stock market: thrilling with each tick up and mourning every little crash.

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And what of a game between teams managed by Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, such as Sunday’s Premier League derby between Manchesters City and United? Guardiola and Mourinho are the two most-celebrated managers in the world, so thoroughly ensconced in their auras of tactical nous that we presume they have total control over what’s happening on the field. Instead of a live soccer match, it’s as though we’re watching a game of FIFA being played in the common area of some impossibly posh Iberian boarding school.

There’s no pair better at projecting their visions of the game onto those who play it. They are fighting in some higher dimension, less people than personality tests, forever waging an eternal campaign against the other. The goal isn’t to win matches and trophies—Guardiola’s Manchester City won 2–1 on Sunday, by the way—so much as hearts and minds. Is the point to score goals or to prevent them from being scored? The rest of us can vote with our jersey purchases, memes, and thinkpieces.

In a macro sense, the two managers know exactly what the other is trying to do. The whole world knows. This was their 20th meeting in all competitions, with those matches contested by Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and City (Guardiola) and Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, and United (Mourinho). It is creator vs. disruptor, the architect with grand designs vs. the structural engineer probing for their weaknesses.

Theirs is a battle of styles so pitched that they don’t even agree on what should be done with the ball. Guardiola once told an interviewer that “when you have possession, you have the ball, and it is impossible the opponent can score a goal.” Mourinho’s rules for winning include “whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.” Picture an intricate and beautiful piece of machinery, the interior of a grandfather clock or one of those complicated assembly lines that you might see on the Discovery Channel. Now imagine the fist-sized rock you might throw in the works to foul the whole thing up. That’s Guardiola vs. Mourinho.

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All of this is precisely what made Manchester City’s 2–1 win so amusing: Very little went according to the managers’ carefully crafted plans. Guardiola’s apparatus spun and whirred to the tune of 65 percent possession but never spat out an end product. Mourinho’s rock rebounded off its target and hit him square in the face.

Both of City’s goals came on scrappy finishes, as United failed to clear a corner and then a free kick on either side of halftime. Guardiola had highlighted the threat United would pose on restarts thanks to the height of its players, which was both a fair point––United’s roster is very tall––and excellent shade, since it carries with it the implication that their skill or teamwork didn’t represent much of a challenge. United forward Romelu Lukaku was supposed to be one of those danger men. Instead, he took a big swing at David Silva’s bouncing free kick and sliced it into the back of his teammate Chris Smalling, leaving City’s Nicolás Otamendi to knock it home.

Mourinho, as he often does, tried to deflect and obfuscate in the aftermath, blaming the referee for failing to give United a penalty and claiming City won only via two “disgraceful” goals. (He also picked a fight back in the dressing rooms over City’s “too loud” celebrations—another, more successful, attempt to distract from the result.) This is better for morale than blaming Lukaku, who he’s going to need to perform for the rest of the season, or admitting that his team can’t link defense to attack without Paul Pogba—who was suspended after picking up a red card last weekend—going Tecmo Bo on opposing midfields. Truth is it must be galling for him to go down this way. Mourinho’s the one who’s supposed to win ugly.

Despite the best-laid plans––and with these two we can be assured they are best-laid plans––the games themselves are under no obligation to meet the narrative halfway. The individual data points of individual games inevitably end up looking more like scatter plots than straight lines.

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Mourinho and Guardiola are not actually playing 3-D chess, even though they’d like you to think that. Sometimes the game turns not on a moment on tactical brilliance but on the long-distance battle of former Aston Villa stars turned (in-form!) backup fullbacks Ashley Young and Fabian Delph. Sometimes Lukaku mishits his clearance. Sometimes he then hits the keeper in the face from point-blank range. That probably wasn’t in anyone’s plan.

Is City now a team of scrappers battling its way to hard-fought goals? Probably not. Will United’s height prove worthless when it comes to defending set pieces? Seems unlikely. A game like this won’t change the Mourinho–Guardiola narrative. What it does is show us how limited a tool those narratives, even the most correct and most established ones, can be for processing sports. The games will always be full of surprises, even after 20 meetings.

Keep that in mind as the narrative of this Premier League season shifts in the wake of this matchup. City now has an 11-point lead on second-place United. It has won a record 14 Premier League games in a row. The title is theirs, the story goes. Now they just have to get the games to cooperate.