One striking feature of Saturday's Manchester derby was how quickly it settled into the classic pattern of most matches between a José Mourinho and a Pep Guardiola side, even though neither manager has been there for very long. After just a few minutes the Guardiola team was running the game and the Mourinho team was in guerrilla warfare mode.
Mourinho had suggested beforehand that he had a few tactical surprises in store for City: “Let’s see if they bring the full backs inside. I want them to bring.” But it was City who looked like the team that had a plan, systematically outmanoeuvring Fellaini and Pogba and finding the gaps between United’s full backs and central defenders. By the time United got a foothold in the game they were already two goals down. City lost confidence after Claudio Bravo’s error allowed Ibrahimovic to score, but the result had already been decided. Kevin de Bruyne, the best player on the pitch, summed it up: “Both teams showed what their skillset is. They played very powerful, a lot of long balls. They’re much better in the air.”
De Bruyne probably wasn’t trying to be insulting, but his assessment of the sides’ respective skillsets will sting United. They didn’t break the world transfer record to become the new Stoke. Yet they had no discernible attacking gameplan beyond an aerial siege centred on the huge figures of Ibrahimovic and Fellaini, who resembled Crouch and Shawcross in the glory days of the Britannia.
Mourinho’s comments after the game suggested he knew this didn’t look good. As though to remind everyone that he remains a first-class football thinker, he threw in some technical jargon about how he had warned his players not to make “first-station passes”.
This meant that he was annoyed that his central defenders often tried to pass short to the central midfielders in front of them. Mourinho wanted them to pass to the full backs or hit longer balls forward. Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, didn’t believe in building up through the full backs, for the simple reason that if you build up down one side, then it’s difficult to bring the far side of the pitch into play.
Directing the build-up through the middle gives you more passing options and forces the opposition to defend more of the pitch. Directing it through the full backs or hitting long balls towards a big forward means there is less chance of losing the ball in a dangerous position, but also less chance of creating a meaningful opportunity – unless the opponent makes a mistake. United were fortunate that Bravo obliged, or the result could have been a lot uglier.
Mourinho setting his team up to bypass midfield is one reason why the world's most expensive player was such a minor influence. All Paul Pogba's best moments were dribbles, which you can't often say about a central midfielder. He demonstrated his remarkable blend of physical and technical gifts when he steamrollered Raheem Sterling, yet too often he was reacting to the play rather than making it. He made a striking contrast with de Bruyne, who seems to have the game mapped out a couple of moves in advance.
Pogba recently told So Foot magazine that his ambition was “to create something. To create the new midfielder.” When they asked him to describe what this midfielder of the future would do, he explained: “Everything! He can defend, he can win the ball, he can make the play, he can pass, he can score.”
Pogba is probably too young to realise that his midfielder of the future sounds a lot like the box-to-box all-rounder of the past – the type of player who became obsolete when the midfield line split into two or three bands, and midfielders evolved into the various species of attacking and defensive specialists that populate today’s football.
Pogba would expect to get the better of any opponent one-on-one, but against City he was confronted with an array of specialists working as a well-organised collective. This formidable systemic play is now characteristic of all the top teams, and it’s difficult for any individualist, no matter how talented, to get the better of it.
You suspect that part of Pogba's problem is that he has never had to make up his mind about what kind of player he really is. Players who are brilliant in some dimension of the game have usually been shaped that way by their limitations. If Lionel Messi hadn't been short, maybe he wouldn't have become such a great dribbler; if Xavi hadn't been slow, maybe he wouldn't have become such a great passer and controller of games.
Pogba, who is good at everything, needs to decide what he is best at before he can become the best at anything. As a central midfielder, you can either be the hub who directs your team’s play, or you can be the guy who gets forward and scores a lot of goals. If you’re doing one, it’s hard to see how you can do the other as well.
Both Mourinho and Guardiola are expected to win the league this year. Mourinho’s plan is traditional and conservative: tall powerful players, a dominant centre-forward, plenty of crosses, no nonsense at the back. Guardiola’s plan is more complicated: technical players, frequent tactical changes, extreme positional flexibility, a goalkeeper who doesn’t like to get his gloves dirty.
In a sense Guardiola is asking much more of his players than Mourinho, whose system is comparatively basic. Yet City already look closer to their manager’s ideal than United do to theirs.