There are no marks for artistic expression in football – but that’s never stopped people from seeking beauty in the game. Well, some people; by no means all. Football tends to be divided between those who seek victory by means of beauty, and those who seek victory by any means possible.
It’s a somewhat arbitrary distinction, for every footballing person seeks victory before anything else and beauty is a subjective matter in football, as in anything else. But these days, he who rules Manchester rules football – and it’s as if the two Manchester managers were fighting not for the championship of England, but for the heart and soul of the game.
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It’s a reckless simplification, of course, but there’s something behind it. Pep Guardiola, manager of Manchester City, has created a team full of fast, skilled practitioners, and is having a season full of goals, extravagant results and purring appreciation from the ballet critics in the stand who sincerely believe they are hardheaded football reporters.
Jose Mourinho at Manchester United has created a team full of muscle and organisation and hard running; at the first sign of problems, the big men go up front again. City are full of dash and individual flair; United seek the perfect expression of corporate competence.
The two managers are becoming their own caricatures, both in their public utterances and in their teams. Guardiola stated last season that he “doesn’t train tackles”; Mourinho said a few weeks ago: “Sometimes I feel that to be good defensively is a crime, but it is not a crime.”
But for all his love of sweeping attackers and intuitive passers, Guardiola knows about defence. When he was at Barcelona he had the superb Carles Puyol at centre back; at Bayern Munich he had the innovative goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
And it would be absurd to call Mourinho a grim exponent of negative football – his Chelsea were often great fun to watch, with Frank Lampard at the heart of it.
So what are the best results the two have had against each other? Mourinho’s best performance against a Guardiola team was the Champions League semi-final second leg of 2010, in which his Inter actually lost 1–0 in Barcelona – but it was a tactical masterpiece and, on the back of a first-leg win, enough to take them to the final, which they won. Just months later, Guardiola’s Barcelona beat Mourinho’s Real Madrid 5–0, in a glorious denotation of attacking beauty.
The temptation is to see the two men as classic opposites: pragmatist v romantic, engineer v artist. But that doesn’t represent the full truth. Both are fighting the same opponent. That’s not each other, or even the other teams. It’s fear. Fear is at the heart of sport: fear of failure, fear of success. The point is that Mourinho and Guardiola have different ways of coping with fear.
Mourinho copes by doing all he can to guard against failure. Win, yes, but above all, don’t lose. Stop the other side and you’re halfway there. Don’t take risks. Embrace the ugliness. You’ll get criticised, but when you win 1–0 you’ve got three points, and no ballet critic can take them away.
Guardiola knows that when he sets out to play glorious football, he has a built-in excuse for failure. We lost, but we lost gloriously. A beautiful team can fail without losing public esteem. Guardiola knows failure can be forgiven, so that approach is also rooted in fear.
Should you seek victory without intellectual, aesthetic or moral considerations? Or should beauty be a moral obligation? Your decision, dear reader: but as ever, the truth will be found in the action.
Manchester United v Manchester City is on Sunday 10th December at 4.15pm (k/o 4.30pm) on Sky Sports Premier League/Main Event and at 4.30pm on Radio 5 Live