Whether or not it was a response, that was the impression given.
When Pep Guardiola was officially confirmed as Manchester City’s next manager on 1 February, 2016 there was only one man Manchester United could turn to as a managerial rebuttal.
Indeed, nearly four months later Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford and football’s greatest dugout duel resumed. The hyperbole was irresistible. Manchester, it was said, would become the European capital of football. The Manchester Derby, they claimed, would usurp El Clasico as the biggest fixture in the sport.
It went without saying that there would be angst, tension and ill-feeling between Guardiola and Mourinho, two men that exist at either end of the managerial spectrum. And yet almost two-and-a-half seasons later, none of this has materialised.
Manchester is not the European capital of football.
The Manchester Derby is not the new Clasico. And Guardiola v Mourinho hasn’t picked up where it left off in Spain. When City and United meet at the Etihad this Sunday, the sense of anti-climax will be palpable.
Of course, it might be different had Man Utd been able to match Man City over the past two seasons.
Guardiola and his side have set a new standard for the English game, giving Mourinho little to use as ammunition. Their rivalry has become an irrelevance, a mere footnote in a derby that could, and perhaps should, have come to be defined by the duo.
Not for a decade has such a gulf existed between City and United. Of course, back then the dynamic was the polar opposite of what it is now.
In 2008, Man Utd were European champions. They’d be Champions League finalists again in 2009, also winning their third straight Premier League title.
City, on the other hand, were in the early stages of the Sheikh Mansour era, but locked out of the elite. Not even Robinho could help them finish higher than 10th in 2008/09.
Mourinho’s side won’t finish as low as 10th this season, but there’s a very real possibility that they could miss out on a top four place, such is the competition at the top end of the Premier League right now.
City, meanwhile, are on course to better last season’s record points tally, winning nine and drawing just two of their opening 11 fixtures. 19 points separated the two Manchester rivals last term. The gap already stands at nine points this season and is only likely to grow wider.
It’s not just on the pitch that the gulf between City and United is apparent. It’s in the approach of the two clubs, the way they operate, the way they have used their financial advantage to differing outcomes. At the Etihad, there is a common objective and philosophy, a holistic plan, a transfer strategy.
At Old Trafford, there is apparently none of these things.
The real test of the advantage City have built up over United in recent years will come in the post-Guardiola age.
The Catalan coach was the final piece of a puzzle that had been a long time in coming together. City had hired many of his former colleagues at Barcelona in anticipation of his arrival, even making a start on the establishment of a La Masia-style youth academy.
Manchester City know what they want to be and have made great progress in becoming that. 10 years ago, people spoke of ‘The United Way,’ a distinct style of play and identity that made Sir Alex Ferguson’s side the most compelling footballing outfit in England. Now, their rivals have ‘The City Way’ and United have nothing.
This isn’t to say that Mourinho’s team can’t win on Sunday, just look at what they achieved in Turin on Wednesday night.
They did so last season by embracing a sense of chaos from 2-0 down at half time, proving that no football match is ever truly a foregone conclusion. But looking at things, everything, through a wider scope, there is a clear difference between the two clubs.
We always knew Guardiola and Mourinho’s personal duel would manifest itself in differing identities, different approaches, but all it has done so far is result in differing fortunes.
It took a generation for the rivalry between City and United to flip, and it could take another generation for it to flip back.