Subscriber OnlySoccer

Ken Early: Roles have reversed for Guardiola and Mourinho

Tottenham showed an intensity in their victory that Manchester City could not match

It's hard to imagine Pep Guardiola ever having what Antonio Conte sarcastically referred to as "a Mourinho season", in reference to the 2015-16 campaign at Chelsea, when the then champions lost eight of their first 15 games and Jose Mourinho was sacked before Christmas.

Guardiola just doesn’t have what it takes: he is cold and passive-aggressive where Mourinho is histrionic, he lacks the dramatic flair to star in a meltdown that spectacular.

But right now, just a few days after Guardiola signed on for two more years in Manchester, his team are 13th in the table, with three wins from eight games, and it looks possible that they might record a similar season of underachievement – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Sané is gone and Sterling is the only fast player left in the squad. An attacking approach that could be varied from game to game is now always the same

What has actually gone wrong with City? Not a lot, according to Guardiola, who pointed out after the defeat to Tottenham on Saturday night that they should have scored more than zero goals from 22 shots. The problem was that none of these 22 shots was very dangerous.


The failure reflected their wider struggles this season. In the last three full campaigns, City had scored 27, 21 and 30 goals in the first eight league matches. This season, the total after eight matches is just 10. Why has their attacking output collapsed by more than half? Partly the problem is that they are shooting less: 15 shots per game, compared to 19 last season and 18 the season before.

But mainly it’s that they are scoring fewer of the shots they do take: City are scoring with 7 per cent of their shots, compared to 13 per cent in the last two seasons. The only teams who are scoring a lower proportion of their shots are Fulham, Burnley and Sheffield United.

Bigger problem

City’s figure would surely look a bit better if their best finisher, Sergio Agüero, had not missed most of the season with injury. But there is a bigger problem: City have become predictable. They used to have so many ways to come at you. Sané and Sterling for speed on the outside, Mahrez or Bernardo Silva to cut inside and combine.

Now Sané is gone and Sterling is the only fast player left in the squad. An attacking approach that could be varied from game to game is now always the same: give it to Kevin de Bruyne and see what he can do. De Bruyne remains a brilliant player, but any team where one player is so dominant is vulnerable: stop de Bruyne and you stop City.

This is what Tottenham did on Saturday night. De Bruyne took six shots; he missed one and Spurs blocked the other five. Mourinho’s team showed an intensity that Guardiola’s could not match, best expressed in the move surrounding Giovani Lo Celso’s killer goal, when Lo Celso raced to join in with his attackers while Kyle Walker and Riyad Mahrez stood and watched their defenders.

Most of all it's Mourinho's sheer longevity in the limelight that has allowed him to transcend the game

The result left Tottenham top of the table for the first time in six years, a situation that was hard to imagine before the lockdown in March, eight months and 18 Premier League matches ago. From the financial perspective Tottenham were one of the teams most imperilled by the pandemic, in that they had just opened a billion-pound multipurpose stadium in which they now could not host any events. But from the point of view of Mourinho and his team, the lockdown came in the nick of time.

When football was suspended, Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min were sidelined with long-term injuries, and Spurs had gone six matches without a win, a run that included four defeats. By the time the season resumed in June, Son and Kane were available again, and Spurs lost just one of their nine matches remaining in the league. What had looked likely in the spring to be a destructive spiral turned instead into a rally that pushed Spurs two places higher in the table.

That has carried on into this season, and Kane’s form suggests that a couple of months of enforced downtime was the best thing that could have happened to his career. Kane has that old-school English football man willingness to suffer for the cause, that sometimes veers towards an apparent determination to suffer for the cause, a masochistic refusal to allow himself enough time to recover fully from injuries.

A player who had seemed locked into a long-term trajectory of decline now appears reinvigorated, and he is once again up to around four shots per game, the basic level of his most prolific seasons.


He also has a league-high nine assists, for which, as Mourinho points out, credit is due to the brilliance of Son and the clarity of the attacking structure. The movement of the wide forwards, who seek to run behind as Kane moves deep, allows him the space to create.

Guardiola compared the devastating runs of Son to those of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah and in Spurs’ current set-up Kane is like a Roberto Firmino who scores – capable, according to Mourinho, of redefining what people expect from a modern central striker.

His comeback story parallels his manager’s. Suddenly it’s Guardiola who seems at a career crossroads, a figure reminiscent of the frustrated Mourinho five years ago at Chelsea, increasingly forlorn as a once-irresistible style ceases to deliver the success to which he has grown accustomed.

Meanwhile Mourinho abides, no longer widely regarded as the best in his profession, but perhaps more popular for that, undercutting his former grandiosity with grouchy Dad posts on Instagram and twinkly-eyed gambling ads. Most of all it’s his sheer longevity in the limelight that has allowed him to transcend the game, no longer a mere football coach but a beloved English cultural and comedy icon, a national treasure, like Jim Royle or Mrs Brown.

Mourinho returning from apparent irrelevance to win the league with Spurs would seem more like a wrestling storyline than a football one, but by now we surely know better than to rule it out.