Pep Guardiola has usually tried to remain respectful when talking about neighbours Manchester United during his time as Manchester City manager, but earlier this season the mask slipped just a fraction.
When asked about possible Premier League title rivals this season, he listed Arsenal and then Liverpool before being interrupted by a reporter who said: Manchester United? The smirk that crept across Guardiola’s face at the suggestion gave the game away. The uncomfortable truth for United is that Guardiola’s reaction is justified.
In his seven full seasons at the Etihad Stadium, he’s won five titles and another eight major trophies. Last season alone he won the same number (three) as United have managed in total since he arrived in England in 2016. Guardiola has faced challenges from Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, but they’ve rarely come from United.
Speaking at his first City news conference more than seven years ago, Guardiola told supporters to “fasten your seat belts” but it was hard to imagine then just how far they’ve raced in front of their rivals.
Erik ten Hag is the latest United manager tasked with making up the ground but ahead of the first Manchester derby of the season at Old Trafford on Sunday, the gap between the two teams feels as big as ever.
At a news conference on Friday, Guardiola was asked about United as possible title contenders and, as usual, he tried to be courteous. “It’s too early,” he said. “All the time when you get the fixtures [in June], United are a contender. When you play just nine games, many things can happen from my experience. We have been behind with a few points in February and March and have been able to win at the end. Ask me a question with nine games left. The teams that are a little bit behind [now] can be there.”
But if you believe the bookmakers, United aren’t even close. City are favourites to win a record fourth title in a row this season, while United, who have lost four of their first nine games, are seventh in the betting behind Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Aston Villa.
As he prepares for Sunday’s derby, the good news for Ten Hag is that United have a respectable record against Guardiola, winning seven of 19 meetings in all competitions, but the head-to-head record doesn’t tell the story of City’s overall dominance.
Since Guardiola arrived, United have never finished ahead of City in the Premier League and twice (in 2018-19 and 2021-22) finished more than 30 points behind. Across seven years since 2016, United have finished an average of 20 points behind their neighbours domestically, while in Europe, they’ve won one Champions League knockout tie (against Paris Saint-Germain in 2019) to City’s 12.
City have reached at least semifinals of the Champions League in each of the past three seasons. United, meanwhile, haven’t been past the quarterfinals for more than a decade. In his “fasten your seatbelts” news conference on his first day as City manager, Guardiola was asked three times about the difficulty of having a giant football club just a few miles up the road but, whether he wants to admit it or not, he’s barely had to give United a second thought since.
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A year into his job, Ten Hag believes they are starting to close the gap. They beat City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Barcelona last season but the problem, the Dutch manager says, is finding the consistency that Guardiola has managed to cultivate.
“In this moment we are six points back so we have to catch up,” Ten Hag said on Friday. “We are in the right direction and we have a way to go.” The worry for United fans is that their club has rarely got it right off the pitch, so they are unlikely to challenge on it.
City have run into their own problems and are still fighting more than 100 charges related to breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules but their recruitment of players over the past decade has been largely successful while United’s transfer policy has often bordered on chaos. United’s net spend on transfers since 2014 stands at $1.48 billion, while City’s is $916 million. It’s not that City have spent more money, it’s just that they’ve done it better.
As United showed with a 2-1 win in January, all that goes out of the window in a derby and despite a poor start to the season, Ten Hag will feel that a City team that have lost three of their past six games and haven’t kept a clean sheet for more than a month have vulnerabilities he can exploit.
The bigger success, however, would be closing the gap for more than just a one-off game and finally wiping the smile off Guardiola’s face.