“I don’t have too many regrets about the way we played,” Pep Guardiola said. The result, though, is another matter; certainly for the Manchester City fan base. He was reflecting on the last Manchester derby, the day his side could have become champions. They were 2-0 up at half time. The only surprise was their lead was not bigger. And then, in a comeback few foresaw, Manchester United recovered to win 3-2 and postpone City’s coronation by eight days.
There has been a shift in the balance of power in England’s footballing capital in the last decade. It has been accentuated in Guardiola’s reign, with Manchester City finishing 19 points ahead of their neighbours last season and boasting an advantage of nine so far this term. Yet the trend has been bucked when United have crossed Manchester. Guardiola has two victories that were more emphatic than one-goal margins suggested at Old Trafford, but a stalemate and a defeat at home. “The feeling after the game was disappointment,” he said, casting his mind back to April.
Yet his mood has never been influenced purely by results. He is obsessed with the process; the performance. “When you win, but you play really badly, really poorly, you are happy for 10 minutes, but in minute 11, you go: ‘Wow. In that way, we don’t go far’,” he explained. He was not talking about United, but it was tempting to wonder if that would have been some of his verdict on Jose Mourinho’s recent victories, spirited as they have been.
“We know we can still improve, but the team is quite solid for the past month and a half,” Guardiola said. “The team has been stable for a long time.”
United have not been stable: in results or level of performance within a game. When old enemies were appointed their respective managers in 2016, there was a temptation to see each through the prism of the other. The Catalan is relieved that is no longer the case.
He prefers not to discuss others. Mourinho should want to avoid too many comparisons. Guardiola's has been a pattern of improvement: in their defensive record; in shot statistics and expected goals; in the way players such as Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte have become pivotal, in the continued development of Raheem Sterling and John Stones, there is a case for saying City have advanced since posting 100 points in May. "We are better than we were in the first year, that is normal," Guardiola said.
But it is a moot point whether United, who were closer to City at this stage last season, have regressed, if a corner has been turned or if Mourinho is forging a new, and different, team. Besides Wednesday's win in Juventus, they have taken 10 points from four games. Mourinho has responded to adversity; Guardiola, since his mixed debut season in England, has barely experienced it.
“I admire how the managers react in the tough moments, when you lose games,” the City manager noted. “We are both in a similar position, in that the expectation on us is so high.”
Domestically, anyway, City have exceeded expectation over the past 15 months. Guardiola has generally done so in 21 meetings with Mourinho that feature a mere five defeats. In one sense, managers with two Uefa Champions Leagues, eight and seven league titles and 25 and 24 trophies each have almost identical records. When they have come head to head, Guardiola has had much the better.
“Jose and myself are lucky as we have had success because we had exceptional players at exceptional clubs. That’s why we won a lot of prizes,” Guardiola said. And of the pair, he is better positioned to add further silverware.