Pep Guardiola conceded he is surprised by the gap between Manchester City and Manchester United since he took charge at the Etihad Stadium.
City and United – who meet in this season’s first Manchester derby on Saturday – finished fourth and fifth respectively in 2015-16, separated only by goal difference after amassing 66 points apiece.
Guardiola’s arrival at the same time as Jose Mourinho took charge at Old Trafford for the subsequent campaign was expected to herald an unforgettable new chapter in a century-old local squabble, while adding to the enmity the two elite tacticians built up when at Barcelona and Real Madrid.
It did not quite pan out that way, with Mourinho’s EFL Cup and Europa League triumphs in 2016-17 proving to be a false dawn at United.
By the time the former Chelsea and Inter boss was sacked in December last year, City were on their way to back-to-back Premier League titles and a domestic treble that means Guardiola has lifted five of the past six major honours on offer in England.
City are 11 points better off than United heading into the match at the Etihad Stadium, the gap having been nine, 19 and 32 points at the end of each of the past three seasons.
Guardiola pointed to his team’s 3-2 defeat to their rivals on their own patch in April 2018, a result that delayed a coronation as champions, as a warning of what can happen in derby matches, but he was realistic about the overall picture in Manchester
“My reflection is we were better. In the time we were here, we were better than United at the end of the season,” he said.
“The points show that. Our consistency was incredible. It surprised myself, too.
“But in one game, another game, a derby, everything can happen.”
A crackling atmosphere on a cold, wintery November night.
Last time we locked horns with United at the Etihad was
— Manchester City (@ManCity) December 6, 2019
At his own pre-match news conference, United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joked about not always being able to enjoy Manchester derbies during his playing days as City loitered in the lower divisions – a period at the end of the 1990s in which Guardiola has become well-versed.
“We love our clubs. Each fan loves their club and that’s why they support. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of success in the past, it’s part of how you feel,” he said.
“Normally the supporters want to see their teams win and win and win, but they support them even in the bad, bad circumstances.
“Manchester City, I learned in the history, in the bad, bad moments, always the support was higher or more louder than now.
“In the perspective of the trophy cabinet, they are better. No doubts about that. Numbers are numbers in that situation and they lift more titles than us.
“But we try to be there for as long as possible. For City fans, Manchester City always will be better, like United fans will always believe their club is better.”
In terms of a competitive rivalry, Liverpool now concern the blue side of Manchester as they once did the red.
So. Much. Drama.
The Manchester derby awaits…#MCIMUN
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 6, 2019
Despite an 11-point gap to Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League leaders, Guardiola is satisfied with the efforts of a City team who stylishly returned to winning ways by thumping Burnley 4-1 in midweek.
“I don’t know. One reason, no doubt about that, is the quality of the opponent. Their numbers are incredible,” he said.
“I expected a bit [of a drop off] in the first weeks of the season after back-to-back [titles] but the players, I am not dissatisfied with how they play. I am quite happy when I review all the games we played.
“I don’t believe the stats too much, but I know we are the best team by far creating chances and the best team by far [at] conceding few [chances].
“But we are 11 points behind. Something happened, I will try to discover.”
A vulnerable defence without the injury Aymeric Laporte and departed captain Vincent Kompany has been frequently cited, not least after City stepped away from a close-season bidding war with United for England centre-back Harry Maguire.
“He’s a United player, he decided to go there,” Guardiola added. “They paid more than we wanted to pay and he is there.
“I think he’s an exceptional player for United and for England.”
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