It was somewhat ironic that, around the same time as Pep Guardiola was fielding questions about improved relations with Jose Mourinho in Manchester after a rivalry that had turned toxic in Spain as warring coaches at Barcelona and Real Madrid, his counterpart was busy sticking the knife in down the road.
“Before we were not civil? No, I understand. Of course it’s much better,” Guardiola had said of the fragile peace, blissfully unaware that Mourinho was using the moment to take thinly veiled pot-shots at the Manchester City manager over everything from his political gestures to the Premier League leaders’ apparent tactical fouling and diving. In the search for any advantage on the eve of the biggest game of the season on Sunday afternoon, the Manchester United manager had returned to his Machiavellian playbook.
Guardiola will be given his chance to respond directly to Mourinho’s provocative remarks, perhaps after City have opened up an 11-point advantage at the top of the table at Old Trafford or maybe with their lead cut to just five points after the end of his side’s unbeaten league start. But whether an explicit response would be quite as cutting as Guardiola’s insistence that he would rather retire here and now than defend deep and play on the counter-attack – in other words, like Mourinho’s sides often do – is debateable.
Guardiola was not trying to deliberately denigrate Mourinho’s playing style. He was actually very gracious towards the Portuguese for much of an absorbing 30-minute conversation and acknowledged that there is more than one way to win. But Guardiola is so wedded to his philosophy that doing anything other than trying to dominate the ball and opposition would be impossible for him to stomach.
“If that is going to happen [possession football not working], I’m going to retire,” Guardiola said. “Because I don’t feel it another way. I could defend more deep. But I want to have the ball and I want to play. From my first game with the second team in Barcelona, I always try to look for that. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But that’s because the other team is good or we are not good enough. But the idea [of changing], that is not going to happen. Never. Never in my life.”
When asked if he had ever doubted his ideals, Guardiola embarked on a passionate 606-word sermon that, in short, equated to an admission that, after three games in charge of Barcelona’s B team a decade ago, he had two days where he questioned his methods before quickly resolving that there was no other way he wanted to play.
“I remember those first three games, I won, I drew, I lost,” he recalled. “We played on artificial pitches in the fourth division and they were so small. On Monday, I thought I would have to change it because we cannot play in that way. I arrived Tuesday and said, ‘We have to change because the pitch is so small’. But I arrived Wednesday and said, ‘No, I’m not going to change’. Why? Because the alternative didn’t convince me. By the end of the season we were champions and promoted to another division.”
Guardiola had realised there and then that it was futile trying to get players to do something that you yourself did not believe in. “That was an important moment, yeah,” he said. “Managers have to do what they believe, that is the most important thing. When a manager or player come to visit me and want advice, I always say the same thing, ‘Do what you believe. Don’t make another. It’s not going to end well.’ That’s the only way I can work. The people who have success in many aspects of life, it’s because they believe 100 per cent in what they do. You cannot convince the players of something you don’t believe. It’s impossible because they are so smart, so clever, so intelligent, so intuitive and they get it if you are lying to them.
“That’s why, in the history of football, from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s on, titles have been won in many different ways. It’s not one path. That’s why football is magnificent because you face teams with long balls, who make space more defensive, more attacking – different ways.”
Despite his early grounding at Barcelona, Mourinho has often appeared to categorically reject the possession-based, proactive approach that still inspires such devotion in Guardiola. Equally, Mourinho loves the sort of needle his nemesis would happily live without.
Perhaps that is why the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry resonates in the way it does and why, given that the pair may only be on this collision course in Manchester for another 18 months if they decide not to extend their contracts, fans should savour the moment. Having the two greatest managers of their generation again going toe-to-toe at direct rivals is certainly a rare treat although for the men themselves the constant comparison must be wearing. “Yeah, we faced each other many times in big moments – we won, we lost,” Guardiola said. “I don’t know what is going to happen in the next 10, 20, 30 years – ‘Am I going to beat him in all the games, is he going to beat me in all the games?’ – but my opinion about what he has done will never change.
“I know the way we see the game is different but we love to compete, we love to win games, but believe me it’s not a special situation at all when we beat some Mourinho teams. I want to win but I’m a sporting man and when I lose I accept the defeat and I try to learn from that for the next one and move on. I respect my colleagues a lot, Jose as well. He knows and I know we want to beat each other and Sunday will not be an exception to that. What happens on the pitch is on the pitch and after it’s over.”
In theory, anyway.