As the end of the Premier League season approaches, it's time to admit that in one very important respect, it's been a gigantic let down. When Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho took control of the two halves of Manchester, the nation salivated at the prospect of a bitter rivalry renewed and reinvigorated. The managerial equivalent of Alien vs. Predator, except with sarcastic press conferences and endless mind games replacing hidden pyramids and acid blood.
Fair to say that isn't quite what's happened. United go into tonight's derby in fifth place and with at least one eye focused on the Europa League, while Manchester City, freshly eliminated from the FA Cup and well off the title pace, have only their Champions League position to solidify. Mourinho spent most of his pregame press conference talking about United's injuries; Guardiola defending his abilities in light of the FA Cup elimination.
Nobody called anybody a "bald fraud" or a "past-it buffoon." Nobody even implied that anybody was a bald fraud or a past-it buffoon. Most disappointing, at least if you're into weaponized immaturity. But it makes sense. Both managers have had bigger things to worry about.
In the red corner, Mourinho hasn't had time to attempt to humiliate Guardiola, since he's been too busy humiliating, at various points, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Luke Shaw, and Anthony Martial. He's also been trying to navigate an injury crisis, the fact that Manchester United have five second-choice central defenders, and cope with the fact that his most reliable goalscorer makes his attack much more predictable. At least, as the season ends, the first problem has consumed the second two.
In the blue, meanwhile, Guardiola's first trophyless season as a manager has included several exceptional performances — most notably the win over Barcelona — but plenty of shonky defending and incoherent attacking. He probably doesn't carry all the blame for this, but City should be asking themselves quite how they ended up with six slowing defenders over the age of 30, and one unpolished prospect aged just 22. Also, why they didn't try to pick up at least one new fullback. Also, a proper goalkeeper. Also ... well, we'll leave it there.
Basically, they've both had a lot on, some self-inflicted and some circumstantial. Particularly Mourinho, the provocateur, who wouldn't be in Manchester at all had both he and the club not had some issues to work out. In the meantime Chelsea have run away with the league, and only Spurs have managed to keep any kind of pace with them. This is not the stuff over which Aliens and Predators scrap. Whoever wins, we all get to watch them come fourth.
This perhaps reveals something about how these grand managerial rivalries emerge. It's not just a question of personal animosity, otherwise Sam Allardyce vs. Rafa Benitez would still be the greatest show on earth. Previous installments of "Guardiola vs. Mourinho" haven't just been about two men that used to like each other but don't like each other any more, if that's even true. It's been about two men who have, at various times, been in charge of either the two best clubs in Europe, or the two best clubs in Spain.
Similarly, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger was a thing for exactly as long as Arsenal were a threat to Manchester United; as soon as Arsenal slipped into their harmless Late Wengerian holding pattern, the Scot decided that Wenger wasn't such a bad guy after all. The same with Ferguson and Benitez.
There is, often, an element of practical utility to these rivalries, at least for one of the protagonists. That's why Ferguson greeted Benitez's "Facts" recitation with, apparently, a gleeful chuckle: "I've got him. I've got him." We can probably assume it wouldn't have worked if United had been in fifth. We can probably assume Ferguson wouldn't have bothered.
There is also, we should acknowledge, some collective mythmaking at work here. The idea that a football match amounts to a tussle between two managers, each exerting their will through their teams, obviously contains a certain amount of truth. The manager picks the team, tells the players what to try to do, and gets sacked when it all goes wrong. But it does rather gloss over the myriad other factors at play: the players, and their personalities; the referees; the will of the gods.
So it's true that Mourinho's Internazionale overcame Guardiola's Barcelona thanks to a magnificent tactical plan (from Mourinho) and some extraordinary discipline (instilled, at least in part, by Mourinho). But they also had a couple of refereeing decisions go their way, and a convenient volcano. The idea of the great men of football clashing through their loyal puppet armies is an appealing story, wherever it happens, and one that fits nicely into the traditional English conceptions of the manager-as-all-powerful-overlord. But it's incomplete.
And when we look at the Premier League as currently constituted, we might wonder if we'll ever get to see Mourinho vs. Guardiola, Episode III. This season suggests that City and United aren't going to find themselves out ahead of everybody bar one another for a while, if at all. Chelsea are pretty good. So are Spurs and Liverpool, and Arsenal would certainly like to be. If the top of the table remains tangled, then that no clean, two-person rivalry will emerge. Alien vs. Predator vs. King Kong vs. Godzilla vs. That Weird Thing with Eyes in its Hands from Pan's Labyrinth. You'd watch it. It wouldn't make much sense.
Perhaps this is a blessing. Such rivalries can be entertaining, interesting, and occasionally throw out two genuinely great teams, but there has always been something profoundly tedious in there, as well. Particularly now, in the superheated 24/7 news cycle, when a remark in a press conference becomes a mind game, then a SLAM, all before the echoes have died away. Poke, says Mourinho. Poke, says Mourinho. Poke, says Mourinho. Stop poking me! says Guardiola. Ha! says Mourinho, before adding, Poke.
In any case, as noted above, they've got bigger things to worry about. Both these greats of modern management have, in front of them, serious rebuilding jobs to do. Jobs that will likely take a few seasons; jobs that will certainly come under the most intense scrutiny. If Mourinho and Guardiola are to renew their rivalry in the same terms as before, they will first need to build teams worthy of the hype. And that process might just be more interesting to watch.