Let me start this article by admitting that I’m drawn to rich football clubs. I love the excitement of a transfer window when I know that my club has the money to go after the best players in the world. It makes the summer transfer window (when no club football is being played) a whole lot bearable. And it also allows club owners to give their fans much-appreciated Christmas gifts in the form of big money signings.
So it should come as no surprise that the two clubs closest to my heart are Manchester City and Real Madrid. Oh, and I don’t mind Paris Saint-Germain either.
As a Madrid fan at the start of the decade, I grew to admire a certain José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager has always made it clear that his aim is to win. If that means scoring a lot of goals, then he will set up his team to do that. If it means scoring a solitary scrappy header and then parking the bus, then you can bet that his team will be set up to do just that.
On the other end of the spectrum is Pep Guardiola. The Catalan is a fan of attractive free-flowing football and is responsible for some of the most beautiful football we have seen in the last few years.
Even though Mourinho’s Inter Milan met Guardiola’s Barcelona a few times, the rivalry really kicked off when Mourinho came to manage Madrid, while Guardiola managed Barcelona. Now the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry is one of the greatest rivalries not just in football, but in all of sport. But the two years when Mourinho and Guardiola clashed will be remembered as the high points of even this storied rivalry. These matches also taught Madrid fans like me to enjoy a win taken by sheer blood and sweat. They were tough, physical battles where no quarter was given nor asked. And if by the end your team had a one-goal lead, you wanted them to break up the opposition’s play with nasty fouls, waste as much time as they could and generally demonstrate why football is not called the gentleman’s game.
If you looked at their respective players, the Barcelona team was probably the better one at the time. But Mourinho showed us what tactics could do. He was also a case study in controlling the masses as he had Madrid fans baying for Barcelona blood. We thought Barcelona fans with their holier-than-thou attitude and their "total football" coach were sissies and were quite willing to defend Mourinho in any and all arguments.
Fast forward a few years and my favourite team Manchester City has brought in Guardiola as their coach. And who should our great rivals over at Old Trafford bring to the party but that man Mourinho. The Premier League has once again lived up to its reputation of throwing up astonishing storylines. Be it Leicester City winning the league or the biggest derby in the land getting spiced up with a coaching rivalry for the ages, the self-styled “best league in the world” seldom disappoints.
Now, the City team of the Sheikh Mansour era has made it clear that they are here to play attractive football. While Roberto Mancini might have deviated from the plan a little (and paid with his job for said deviation), Manuel Pellegrini actually lost his job for his insistence on playing all-out attacking football. Well, that and the fact that Guardiola was available.
Guardiola comes with a guarantee of easy-on-the-eye football. The man might twist his tactics all across the pitch, but his aim is always goals, goals, goals. And City fans love it. Watching players of the calibre of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne waltzing around the field is why most of us watch football anyway.
As the Manchester derby approaches, the tension is rising. City are in the midst of a make-or-break season as if they don't graduate to continental heavyweights with this team and this coach, they just never will. But apart from all that, it's the derby. Guardiola can become a City legend in 90 minutes if City get the better of United at Old Trafford.
Loyalty lies with the club
As I was thinking of the numerous arguments that fans like me will have after the match, it struck me that regardless of who wins, the conversation will not really change. Win or lose, City fans will be praising Guardiola’s attacking game. And win or lose, United fans will be praising Mourinho’s pragmatism. And having been on Mourinho’s side once upon a time, I know exactly how that would feel.
This made me realise something. As fans, our loyalty is rarely to the players, the managers or the tactics. It is to the club, always. If your club is playing free-flowing football, then “it’s football being played the correct way”. If your club is playing the counter-attacking game, “well that requires real talent too, you know”.
For tactics will evolve and managers will change. But your heart will only beat for that one club. A club which might play in a country you’ve never visited or whose players you’ve never seen in real life. But it’s still your club. And that’s just the way football is.