“Strange,” said Gabriel Jesus. It was 12 days ago and the scorer of Manchester City’s equaliser against Liverpool was reflecting on a league table that showed his side in the bottom half.
A couple of hours later, Arsenal’s goal difference had been dented sufficiently that City were back in the upper section, but a strange look persists.
It feels incongruous that Tottenham Hotspur have almost twice as many goals as City and are eight places higher, an inversion of expectations, given one manager has a reputation for pragmatism and the other for purism.
Jose Mourinho against Pep Guardiola represents one of the great rivalries of opposites, but it has felt a one-sided duel. Spurs beat City in February – albeit against the run of play to such an extent that the winners had an expected goals of 0.42 and the losers one of 3.25 – and Mourinho's Manchester United delayed their coronation as champions with a derby win in 2018, but he has only triumphed in the battles, not the wars.
In the time they managed the two Manchester clubs, Guardiola took 46 points more. After Mourinho’s appointment by Tottenham last season, the Catalan claimed 11 more. The last time Mourinho finished ahead of Guardiola was when his Real Madrid displaced Barcelona as champions of Spain in 2012.
Until this season? Perhaps. Tottenham’s start has raised the possibility that Mourinho is in the kind of late career revival that may have appeared beyond him. Perhaps a strange season will end with the serial winner back on top.
Rewind three months and relatively few were tipping Tottenham for a top-four finish. Now, amid a mass of entertainingly flawed candidates, there is a school of thought they are potential champions.
Perhaps Saturday represents a first real test of those credentials. Spurs walloped United 6-1, but they were in self-destructive mode. A scintillating second half earned them a 5-2 win over Southampton, but Ralph Hasenhuttl's team were similarly culpable in their demise.
Perhaps that is affording Tottenham too little credit for brilliant incision, but the most accomplished performance against them brought Everton a 1-0 win. Spurs were mediocre.
Thereafter, subsequent scorelines were explosive but the fixture list allowed them to ease their way into the season. This feels the start of a defining period. Three successive weekends pit them against City, Chelsea and Arsenal. They face Liverpool and Leicester within four days in December. After Boxing Day, when Spurs visit Wolves, it will be easier to say if they are title contenders.
If so, rendering Tottenham champions for the first time since Bill Nicholson’s team won the double in 1961 would be Mourinho’s greatest feat since Inter Milan’s 2010 treble, which was accomplished in part because of a famous Champions League semi-final defeat of Guardiola’s Barcelona.
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That is some way off but Saturday could be a twist on a familiar theme. Guardiola against Mourinho has often been attack against defence. The Portuguese would sometimes line Real up with three defensive midfielders. His Inter had just 24 per cent of possession at the Camp Nou. When his United were runners-up to Guardiola’s City, it was with 38 fewer goals.
Now the differential can be explained by City's striking injuries – though Sergio Aguero may be fit to return – along with a tougher fixture list and the fact they have a game in hand. Spurs have been more restrained of late, with only four goals in their last three games, but Son Heung-min is still the division's joint top scorer and Harry Kane the runaway leader for assists.
Meanwhile, one of the season’s peculiarities is that City have conceded the joint fewest goals despite leaking a quintet to Leicester in the first and only time a Guardiola side has been breached five times.
Neither Ruben Dias nor Aymeric Laporte played then. City have only conceded twice in their four games as a duo and only four in nine matches since the nightmare against Leicester. Guardiola might field two deep-lying midfielders on Saturday, even if defensive feels a misnomer for Ilkay Gundogan, whose deficiencies off the ball have been exposed by Son before.
But the bigger questions revolve around Mourinho. Does he abandon his usual safety-first blueprint against Guardiola? Since Real Madrid lost 5-0 to Barcelona, an inferiority complex has been apparent in his tactics, no matter how expensive his players.
These managers have always been on different sides of an ideological divide, with Mourinho forever thinking about how to nullify and neuter, but this is an examination of his belief in his players. Is he confident enough to adopt a more attacking approach?