More than anything, José Mourinho sounded resigned when he discussed Manchester United’s defeat by Brighton. There was gloom rather than defiance and it was strange to hear United’s manager explain that his refusal to talk about the negative aspects of his team’s performance was because of criticism about his previous brutal honesty. This was not Sir Alex Ferguson creating a siege mentality: it was Mourinho protecting himself rather than his players.
The negative vibes from the summer have rolled into the season and it is not premature to suggest that United could be heading for what Antonio Conte would call a Mourinho season. It is three years since the “palpable discord” that brought about an unhappy end to the Portuguese’s second spell at Chelsea and the memory of how Mourinho lost his connection with his players at Stamford Bridge feels relevant at the moment, even if United’s individual quality makes it impossible to write them off after two games.
Gallingly for Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, it is not just Manchester City who are threatening to zoom away. It is also Liverpool, where excitement is building about their chances of winning a first league title since 1990.
They have started with two wins, crushing West Ham with an attacking extravaganza on the opening weekend and showing their gritty side against Crystal Palace on Monday, and look more mature following their run to the Champions League final with a summer of focused spending.
It is, of course, far too early for definitive predictions and Liverpool will have a better idea of whether they can end 29 years of hurt after visiting Chelsea and Tottenham in September and hosting City on 7 October. Yet the pre-season hype looks justified for the time being and Woodward cannot have envisaged this scenario when he appointed Mourinho in 2016.
The biggest threat to City’s supremacy emanates from Merseyside rather than the man from the red half of Manchester. There was a time when Mourinho was seen as Guardiola’s nemesis but that description applies to Klopp these days. The German holds an 8-5 winning record over Guardiola and Liverpool looked prepared for the difficult months ahead at Selhurst Park, withstanding Palace’s physicality and organisation to secure one of the more resilient wins of the Klopp era.
Although it would be unwise to read too much into one game, it is worth considering how Klopp has targeted his team’s defensive weaknesses. He initially struggled to stiffen Liverpool’s rearguard resolve after replacing Brendan Rodgers in October 2015 and his critics lined up to accuse him of naive tactics, as though his previous success with Borussia Dortmund meant nothing.
Neither Simon Mignolet nor Loris Karius convinced in goal and when Liverpool lost 4-1 to Tottenham last season, Harry Kane tormented Dejan Lovren so much that Klopp withdrew the Croatian centre-back after 31 minutes.
But the arrival of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in January has altered the dynamic of Liverpool’s defence. The Dutchman is a leader in the mould of Jamie Carragher or Sami Hyypia and nobody is quibbling about his £75m fee now.
Alisson, Brazil’s No 1, could also prove to be worth the money after his £66.9m move from Roma and Naby Keïta has brought extra class to the midfield. Klopp has competition for places, with another summer arrival, Fabinho, not even in the squad against Palace.
Naturally the other contenders will shout for attention. Yet United seem to be a shambles and none of the others look as powerful or hungry as Liverpool. Arsenal’s first aim under Unai Emery must be a top-four finish and the same applies to Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, who have been exciting in attack and vulnerable at the back. As Arsenal demonstrated at Stamford Bridge last weekend, the problem for Sarri is that his defenders are not suited to playing in a back four, especially with N’Golo Kanté given extra freedom in midfield.
Elsewhere in the capital, uncertainty reigns at Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have started with edgy wins over Fulham and Newcastle, and apprehension has gripped the club after the failure to make any signings and the delays to their new stadium. They do not look equipped for more than Champions League qualification, although they have a chance to prove their critics when they visit Old Trafford on Monday.
City, however, are unlikely to hang around. Guardiola is desperate to retain the title and that means Liverpool will have to maintain a demented pace to keep up with a team who dismissed Arsenal without Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané and David Silva.
Riyad Mahrez, a £60m signing from Leicester, was on the bench for the 6-1 win over Huddersfield and it is daunting for the rest to consider City’s depth. Liverpool are not quite as strong. They know they can beat City in a one-off game, but it remains to be seen whether Adam Lallana, Xherdan Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge are capable of stepping up if Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah are unavailable.
All the same, the thrill of the chase should fire these players. City are so good that there will be no shame in Liverpool finishing second and, while Mourinho gripes and moans and indulges in self-pity, Klopp is making all the right moves and gearing his team for the race of their lives.