With inputs from Saket Parekar, Anirudh Menon, Karthik Iyer and Jayaditya Gupta
Welcome to another edition of lockdown diaries, where we put down our journalist caps and let the sports fan inside take over. After grappling with existential crisis and travelling back in time to watch Diego "John Wick" Maradona, this week we decided to do the unthinkable: Combine the playing styles of the two most successful managers in the modern era, and create a team out of it.
Between the two of them, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have managed nine different clubs across Europe, working with several world-class players along the way.
With Mourinho known for his pragmatic approach and building teams from the back, and Guardiola more renowned for revolutionising the game with tiki-taka, ESPN's think tank did not have it easy, as several sacrifices had to be made to come up with the right balance for the XI. To make the process slightly easier, we decided to first settle on each manager's best XI before coming up with the combined team.
The team (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer - Dani Alves - Carles Puyol - Gerard Pique - David Alaba - Sergio Busquets - Xavi - Andres Iniesta - Kevin de Bruyn - Lionel Messi - Robert Lewandowski
Notable omissions: Arjen Robben, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Phillip Lahm, David Silva
Unsurprisingly, Pep's all-conquering Barcelona team makes up the core of his best-ever XI. But with so many great players spread across the three clubs he has managed, we decided to jot down the obvious picks first. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Alves and Puyol were the five players everyone agreed could not be left out under any condition.
Neuer pipped Victor Valdes for the goalkeeper slot after some deliberation. While Valdes had more European success under Pep, Neuer truly reached his peak under the Spaniard at Bayern, revolutionising the game with his 'sweeper' keeping (which he attributes to Guardiola's training), almost playing as a fifth man in defence.
Meanwhile, Puyol's defensive partner caused a bit of dispute. Was Pique as we know him today as good a player back then? The issue is there aren't too many others to choose from City or Bayern. Even though Kompany won back-to-back titles under Pep, most agreed he was past his peak when Pep arrived. So none among him, Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng made it worth breaking up the Puyol-Pique pairing at the back. Alaba was the easier choice at LB.
Like Pique, we had arguments about Busquets in midfield -- he'd be a natural pick based on his overall career, but do his performances under Pep get him a place ahead of Fernandinho, Xabi Alonso or even Lahm, who was effectively used as a holding midfielder by Pep? In the end, we applied the same logic again: As good as the other contenders are, none made it worth breaking up that sensational Barca trio.
Up front is where it gets tricky. Width has been key to every Pep team, and Robben had a strong claim to make the cut. But the majority felt De Bruyne had to be in this XI for his singular impact on City. We also felt Lewandowski, as arguably Europe's best No. 9 for some time now, had to feature somehow (which is also why Aguero misses out).
In order to get all of them to work together, we did a bit of tweaking, making it a 4-2-3-1 formation. The logic being that the flexibility and versatility of Iniesta and KDB, paired with the attacking instincts of our full backs, will make up for the lack of width. And of course, with two supreme finishers up front, there should be no shortage of chances or goals.
Team (4-3-3): Petr Cech - Maicon - Ricardo Carvalho - John Terry - Christian Chivu - Claude Makelele - Frank Lampard - Wesley Sneijder - Cristiano Ronaldo - Didier Drogba - Angel Di Maria
Notable omissions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Xabi Alonso, Diego Milito, David De Gea, Lucio
In tribute to the man who introduced England to the power of the 4-3-3, we decided to stick with that formation for the Jose XI. At goalkeeper, we went with Cech, the central cog of a Chelsea defensive unit that once conceded just 15 goals in a season. Fifteen. Naturally, the pair in front of him are from that same unit, Terry (captain, leader, legend, what not) and Carvalho (a Mourinho favourite across three different clubs).
On the right side of defence, we went with someone who was going head-to-head with Alves as the best right back in the world at the time, Maicon. On the left, Mourinho's first choice for left back in that Inter defence that won him a treble in 2010 -- Chivu, who made the cut ahead of Ashley Cole.
In front of them would roam a man who lent his name to a role that is key to almost all modern football sides, the ubiquitous defensive midfielder, Makelele. On either side of him, we picked Lampard and Sneijder. Lampard's incredible goalscoring record, honed by Mourinho in that first stint at Chelsea, speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Sneijder's 2009-10 will go down as one of the great individual seasons of all time. His set-piece expertise would also come in handy.
Up front, it is Di Maria on the right -- an integral part of the deadly, counterattacking Real Madrid team, and the kind of unselfish winger Mourinho craves to have on his teams. Also, a left-foot option on set pieces, which is important when you consider the two names that come next.
In the centre is Drogba, once referred to by Mourinho as "a man I would take to war with me". Powerful and prolific, Drogba is the perfect Mourinho centre forward. So perfect, that there was no room in the XI even for Ibrahimovic or Karim Benzema.
On the left of that attack is a player who scored 168 goals in 164 matches under Mourinho and about whom he once said, "If Messi is the best on the planet, [he] is the best in the universe." Cristiano Ronaldo. Easiest pick of the lot.
The Jose-Pep dream XI
Team (4-3-3): Cech - Alves - Terry - Carvalho - Alaba - Makelele - Xavi - Iniesta - Ronaldo - Messi - Robben
One manager known for backs-to-the-wall, resolute defending, and another for uncompromising, possession-heavy football. It only made sense to take the biggest strengths of Mourinho and Guardiola, and use them to create our combined XI.
As a result, we decided to retain the core of Cech, Terry and Carvalho at the heart of our defence. Maicon, as crucial as he was to Inter's exploits in 2010, did not quite reach the heights that Alves did under Pep, so had to miss out. Chivu, too, never had the same all-round impact that Alaba had on Bayern's left flank, combining regularly with Franck Ribery to devastating effect.
Picking the midfield was fairly straightforward, too. It was always going to take someone special to break up Pep's famous Barca trio, so only someone with the credentials of Makelele could edge out Busquets at DM to line up alongside Xavi and Iniesta. As crucial as Lampard and Sneijder were to their respective sides, neither quite dominated midfields the way the two Spaniards did between 2008 and 2012.
Ronaldo and Messi were both automatic picks, leaving room for only one other attacker. After several lengthy discussions on who would serve as the strike partner to the two best players in the world, we finally decided on another left-field pick -- Robben. Though the Dutch winger didn't make either manager's individual XI, we felt the combined team would be more suited with a pacy, free-flowing attack than a traditional No. 9. Robben's inclusion also had two huge advantages: He could now cut in from the right, a trick he has used time and time again to enthralling results, and Messi could now slot back into the middle as a false nine, a position he thrived in under Guardiola. Ronaldo retains his role on the left, doing what he does best, scoring goals by the bucketload.
What do you get when you cross a defence that doesn't concede with a midfield that doesn't lose possession and an attack that boasts two of the GOATs?
You get exactly what you deserve. One strong football team.