Managing Expectations

Twitter: @jakeybaylisss

How marquee managers have helped to disguise the Premier League’s short-term failings – but could they resolve England’s long-term problems?

The 2016/17 season will see the Premier League possess more managerial talent than ever before. Mourinho, Guardiola, Wenger, Pochettino, Klopp, Ranieri; the list goes on. Close to half of the teams in the division are currently under the stewardship of top quality coaches that could conversely be deemed “world-class” – at least after a few pints, anyway. The attraction of the Premier League to these managers is obvious – it provides them with the chance to establish themselves in the world’s most watched league and, following the increase in TV revenue, the chance for some of the coaches to sign (or keep hold of) any player that they wish. The influx of marquee managerial appointments has helped to create a new culture within the Premier League where a well-regarded coach is seen to be just as important as a big-money signing.

It is fair to assume that after the excitement and inevitable disappointment (well, for English fans at least) which surrounds every international tournament eventually subsides, the Premier League – and more specifically the transfer market – will once again take centre stage. Fans will obsess over the rumours as well as the details of all the latest moves in equal measure. Potentially more than ever too, as each of these respective juggernauts attempts to assemble a squad full of new recruits with the intention of getting an upper hand on their new rivals in the race for the title…or maybe even the Europa League? Leicester’s achievements last season were perhaps some of the biggest in sport history but also served as a warning to the footballing establishment that no club has a divine right to success.

Cue the panic buying – or at least the inflated prices – as the old guard of Manchester United and Liverpool attempt to oust Tottenham and Leicester from the positions that they believe are rightfully theirs. Guardiola will want to carry on a habit that he has developed during his managerial career: winning league titles. Klopp’s Liverpool will benefit from a full pre-season under the German. Antonio Conte will undertake yet another Chelsea rebuild with a newly-enhanced reputation following Italy’s superb performances at the Euros and Everton will be a different proposition under Ronald Koeman, who should receive substantial financial backing.

Add to that what appears to be Wenger’s last season at Arsenal, Bilić’s ever-improving West Ham and Southampton out to prove the pundits wrong once again and it is clear that the league is awash with teams pushing for success. The levels of excitement and anticipation surrounding the upcoming season are ever-growing.

There are many narratives already being written as to why this might just be the best Premier League campaign to date. And who would be foolish enough to underestimate Ranieri’s troops a second time around? The league where anybody can beat anybody has just got even more competitive – and there’s still the same amount of European places up for grabs. Almost every football fan worldwide should be salivating at the prospect of having these master tacticians face off against each other week in, week out. Undoubtedly the best league in the world, as a spectacle at least.

Meanwhile, across the other major European Leagues the status quo continues. In Germany, Bayern have already asserted their dominance over their domestic and European rivals, securing the signatures of Mats Humells from Dortmund and the highly sought-after, ridiculously-talented Renato Sanches from Benfica. Carlo Ancelotti seems to be the ideal man to build on the foundations laid down by his predecessors.

In Spain, Barcelona have continued to add to their already stellar squad with the acquisition of Samuel Umtiti, one of the most highly-rated young defenders in Europe, as well picking up Denis Suarez for an incredibly small fee. The rest of Europe can feel Real Madrid preparing an outlandish bid in an attempt to add yet another Galactico to a Champions League winning squad, with Paul Pogba looking to be the most likely candidate. Whilst Diego Simeone’s Atlѐtico will appreciate yet another year of being billed as the underdog as they unassumingly go about their business, having already added Nicolás Gaitán to a squad that is hungry for success.

In Ligue 1 or P.S.G. as it is now more commonly known, they have been quick to snap up a transformed Hatem Ben Arfa and a managerial superstar of their own in treble-Europa League winner, Unai Emery (how very British of them).

The point is this: that although the Premier League has managed to attract some of the best managers in the world, the best players continue to look elsewhere. Yes, it can be argued that some of the big names that the top clubs will inevitably sign this summer could fit into one of these European sides. But how many premier league players would be part of a world XI? None, in my opinion. We all know that football is cyclical and that La Liga’s current dominance will be overthrown by yet another league soon enough. The list of European Cup winners testifies to this.

However, we should be under no illusions of just how far the level of quality within the Premier League has dropped over the last few years. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were completely outclassed 3-1 by a mesmerising Barcelona side in the 2010/11 final, the record of English sides’ Champions League exits reads:

  • Group Stage: 7
  • Round of 16: 9,
  • Quarter-Final: 1
  • Semi-Final: 2
  • Winner: 1

Pretty depressing reading, especially considering that in the time between Liverpool’s triumph in Istanbul and Barcelona’s masterclass at Wembley, English teams reached the quarter-final or further on an astonishing 17 occasions.

As possession-based, tiki-taka football began to dominate European football, the Premier League seemed to arrogantly rely on its transfer budgets as a means to bail themselves out of trouble. Consequently, instead of having 3 English sides in the semi-finals, we now see making the quarter-finals as a major achievement. Which it is. I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a post that insists an English side must make the final every year. It still is, after all, a cup competition.

However, it should be acknowledged that English sides have rested on their laurels for too long and haven’t used their far superior budgets to their full advantage. Instead they have become lazy – in terms of ambition and their desire to improve. The main focus for these sides is now their league position and securing a top 4 place for yet another season, for seemingly no other reason than to be able to attract a new wave of players. No long-term plan, some clubs even left bereft of a definite playing style, just a need to sign the best players possible in any given position.

The players with the most desire to win trophies at the highest level have since moved on: Modrić, Bale, Suárez, Mascherano and we have been left with players that the European elite have deemed surplus to requirements. Players such as Yaya Touré, the returning Cesc Fàbregas, and Bastian Schweinsteiger were cast-offs, allowed to leave by their respective clubs, but were celebrated as major coups for the English league upon their arrival. How the mighty have fallen.

So yes, next season’s Premier League might even surpass last season’s heroics. But the decline of the traditional top 4, and the mistakes that led to this, should be held just as accountable for the new-found competitiveness within the Premier League (and failure on the European stage) as the ability of the so-called smaller clubs to shell out bigger transfer fees.

Therefore, the biggest positive that could arise out of the obsession with this new wave of coaches is exactly that – an obsession with coaching and tactics. For decades now fans, pundits and journalists have bemoaned a lack of British coaches and English players’ lack of tactical nous – claims that are always put forward after yet another tournament failure, coincidently.

This in stark contrast to other European countries where tactics and coaching are key aspects of youth development. The Netherlands, of course, provide the perfect example of youth coaching with the concept of total football. Producing players who not only play attractive football but, through being made to play in various positions, also have a deeper understanding of the game than their British counterparts. The recent passing of Johan Cruyff has reminded the footballing world that the style of play synonymous with La Liga was merely a Dutch export that Spain has reaped the full rewards of.

 In Italy, effective tactics and a strong winning mentality are seen as the fundamental framework upon which successful teams can be built. Unlike Spain, Italy is synonymous with rigid formations, world-class defenders and fiery managers but this strong mentality is an equally vital cog in the Italian tournament-winning machine. Pippo Inzaghi actually wrote a thesis on the importance of this mentality for his U.E.F.A. Pro License – a slightly more academic approach than the image of Sunday league coaches screaming “PUT IT IN THE MIXER!” at the top of their lungs.

Perhaps the most obvious manager to exhibit all of these three qualities is Guardiola: a product of Cruyff’s Barcelona, brought up with the “Spanish way” of playing and driven by a need to win that borders on unhealthy. Guardiola’s training sessions at Bayern were the perfect example of how vital coaching can be when implementing a new playing style, whilst also helping to instil different tactical concepts and a will to win within his players. He is not the only coach guilty of this, however, the Premier League is now home to several similar coaches: Mourinho, Klopp, Conte to name but a few.

As a result, the same problems that have plagued the English game for generations could now be eradicated in the near future, with young and old being inspired by what they will see on Match of the Day.

More mature students of the game will become exposed to tactical ideas that they may not have seen before and become inspired to obtain their coaching badges as a result. Whereas young children on playgrounds across the country will be brought up on a new type of football, far away from the 4-4-2 of yesteryear, which relies on intelligent movement and use of the ball whilst also promoting more individual responsibility through a deeper tactical understanding of the game.

If this idyllic fantasy does come to fruition it would at least give supporters even the slightest reason to look forward to Qatar 2022.

Back to the present and it seems that we will no doubt be fortunate enough to watch the best league in the world up close in this country but the best teams will certainly be elsewhere. And will remain so for the immediate future. No amount of managerial talent can carry out such a monumental rebuild in a single season, no matter how much a club’s twitter feed would try and persuade you otherwise. However, this new fascination with tactics and team identity may just benefit whoever is fortunate enough to inherit England’s top job in the future but for now, at least, all the best candidates are taken.

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