Is this the year Mourinho vs Guardiola - Part 2 finally happens?
What happened last season?
After the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, last summer, at Manchester United and Manchester City, respectively, there were massive expectations amongst all. These two had famously clashed in Spain with Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the battles did not just stay on the pitch and went beyond it several times.
Once it had been confirmed that these two were signed up as the managers of the two big city rivals, many were hoping for a reprise of their battle for supremacy in English shores, this time around.
However, if anything, it turned out to be a damp squid. Manchester United finished a lowly 6th and had a season of mixed fortunes winning two major trophies - EFL Cup and Europa League; second of which helped them secure Champions League qualification.
Mourinho made four major signings in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. After a lot of talk of a title challenge started brewing in Old Trafford for the first time after the Fergie era, the league campaign just petered out disappointingly.
Although Mourinho will probably not openly admit it, he will know that he had fallen well short of the early season expectations. On the other hand, Manchester City did manage to finish in the top 4 by finishing 3rd but they were kicked out of the title race before the season got to its business end. Guardiola, after having spent close to £180 million, failed to ignite a title challenge and surrendered under pressure to a youthful Monaco side in the round-of-16 in the Champions League.
Manchester City did start off brilliantly but were inconsistent over the entire campaign. They played some beautiful football and Guardiola started implementing his methods as the season progressed. But, they did not win any silverware and the Arab bigwigs who own the club would certainly not have expected that after Guardiola's appointment was greeted with a lot of fanfare.
In short, last season didn’t quite pan out the way it was expected for both clubs.
How has the season started off for both these clubs?
Both Manchester United and Manchester City have started the new season on a high.
Manchester United have been very dominant in most of the games and have had three 4-0 wins, so far. They have shown a knack for scoring late goals - something very reminiscent of the Fergie era. They have scored 16 goals in the Premier League and out of those, 9 goals have come in the last ten minutes of games.
Apart from the small blip away at Stoke City, where they drew 2-2 because of a couple of individual mistakes, they have been supremely clinical and very dominant in most phases of games.
Having scored only 54 goals last season in the league, Mourinho went out and got Romelu Lukaku who has already scored five goals in the league. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has assisted five and scored one and has had a great start to the season. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have both started the season in scintillating form and have been crucial in providing support to Lukaku.
Paul Pogba along with Nemanja Matic, who has arguably been the signing of the summer, has been great to watch and although the Frenchman's injury will be a cause of concern to Mourinho, he will believe he has enough quality players in the squad to make sure his absence is not felt. The defence has always been solid since Mourinho's arrival and with one of the best goalkeepers in the world in David De Gea; things are looking sprightly in the red half of Manchester.
It is not too shabby at the other half of Manchester, either. They are on top of the league, albeit, by alphabetical order ahead of their city rivals with both sides scoring and conceding the same number of goals and having the same number of points. The goal difference of +14 of these Manchester clubs is well ahead of anyone in the chasing pack.
Manchester City have been playing what you could call "Total Football" from the Cruyff sides. This isn't very surprising as Guardiola is one of Johan Cruyff's famous protégés. They won pretty easily at Brighton on the opening day before being held to a 1-1 draw by Everton after Kyle Walker got sent off. They came back from behind to win at Bournemouth in the dying embers of the game and since then they have comprehensively beaten Liverpool and Watford 5-0 and 6-0, respectively.
In the past week alone, taking into account their Champions league game away at Feyenoord during midweek, they have scored 15 goals and conceded none, in three games. Guardiola has found a way to play Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesús together and both look to be in sumptuous form.
Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have shown their class by pulling strings from midfield playing as a pair of No.8's in front of the ever dependent Fernandinho. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane have also been impactful whenever called upon. The expensive purchases of Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo at full back areas seems to be coming to fruition and they are showing their true worth with all of them being key to the way Guardiola likes his teams to play.
Pep considers fullbacks to be essential components of his team in order to overload the midfield area and help them keep the ball better to create more chances going forward. The defence has not been massively tested so far but they have done what has been asked of them quite competently, thus far.
Why do the Manchester clubs hold the cards over their other Top 6 rivals?
One of the big reasons for this is the transfer business done by these two compared to the other sides in the Top 6. Both Mourinho and Guardiola have more or less got what they wanted except for probably one signing, each. Compared to these two, the others have not really had such great transfer windows.
Last season's champions, Chelsea, did manage to rope in the likes of Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko but they will feel shortchanged to what they would have expected at the start of the transfer window. Diego Costa is no longer part of Antonio Conte's plans and quite surprisingly, they agreed to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United.
Conte did not get many of his first choice targets and the relationship between him and the Chelsea board does not look great either. The runners-up from last season, Tottenham Hotspur, have lost Walker to City and although they did make some smart signings in Llorente, Serge Aurier and Davinson Sanchez, the fact that they will have to play their home games at Wembley does not help at all. They are yet to register a win at home in the league there and things are not looking rosy for Pochettino and co.
Liverpool made some good signings like in Mo Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andy Roberston and even managed to keep Philippe Coutinho despite strong interest from Barcelona. However, they failed to land their primary target in Virgil Van Dijk and that is likely to cost them, big time. As always, they have looked great going forward but their obvious defensive frailties are hindering them and they have struggled to beat the so-called weaker sides.
Arsenal, on the other hand, seems to be an ongoing and exciting soap opera from the outside. Arsene Wenger signed a new two-year deal amidst a lot of backlash from fans and pundits alike because of their obvious lack of progress over the last 12 years or so. Arsenal were crushed 4-0 by Liverpool and endured a chastening defeat at Stoke, although they performed well away at Chelsea.
It seems like all the uncertainty involving the futures of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez is not going to aid them in any way. Lacazette and Kolasinac have had relatively good starts to their Arsenal careers, but there just seems to be too many doubts persisting about Arsenal for them to challenge for the title.
So, who is more likely to pip it?
It is very difficult to separate these two sides. Both have great quality in all areas of the pitch and have a superb squad, as well. Perhaps, the edge Manchester City have is that they have a greater depth in the forward areas of the pitch, whereas a long-term injury to Romelu Lukaku or if Pogba being sidelined for too long could prove to be huge problems for Mourinho.
The same could be the said about the defence of Manchester City, though. Vincent Kompany is a key figure for them and if his injury problems persist, one wonders if a John Stones-Nicolas Otamendi central defensive partnership is good enough to lead them to a league title. It will be a very close call between these two.
Although Chelsea's issues are well documented it would be foolish to not consider them as they still have a pretty good side. However, if I was asked to pick the winner, I will have to lean towards Manchester United because of the fact that Mourinho has won the league in his second season at every club he has been and his previous experience of winning three league titles in England could prove to be decisive.