Admiration has persisted, particularly for the English fervour for the sport, from external areas for decades. Regardless of the charted decline of tri-national fortunes since 1966 – a late 1980s to early 1990s niche aside – prying, flirtatious eyes have remained fixated on this scepter’d isle from environs near and afar; coveting the talent produced, and so often toiled away by a lack of direction. It was a form of admiration that adopted a particularly individual basis and selected the finest of riches from a failing system, so emerged in its own conceit to realise otherwise, and retained the principles of these ambitious, self-motivated characters. It seared beneath the surface after David Beckham, Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and Owen Hargreaves’ era, but existed nonetheless in many an upwardly mobile foreign land; birthed on slight observations of the holy – not to mention profitable – British configurations of the sport. Avoiding the instances in which an overseas excursion appeared sensible as the expiration of trophy-laden careers approached – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and to lesser extents Jermaine Defoe, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Carlton Cole – alongside the protractions of misguided careers – Ravel Morrison the most prominent example – an extensive plethora of British talents are finding their penchant on foreign soils. Is this a transient trend, or a sustainable future, replicative of economic tendencies towards acute globalisation? Could a pivotal aspect of the potential accomplishments of a future senior national team be divulged under this instance, or in fact prove a hindrance in forming collectives at times of heightened expectation? Such are the relative unknowns of the culture, and meaningless the extrapolations of former generations, that charting these matters is an uneven course.
Where better to start then, but with the individual stimulus for this piece; Reece Oxford, after a meagre series of outings ever since the once-boundless capabilities that garnished his name with a man-of-the-match performance on Premier League debut against Arsenal two and a half years ago, linked dubiously with a permanent transfer to RasenBallsport Leipzig. To regale his teenage achievements is to forget his present state, however; skirting around the edges of a competitive Borussia Monchengladbach outfit, and with little of the respect many of his prodigious youth’s feats would usually garner elsewhere in respects of selection policy. Potentially bolstering the existing eleven nationalities present, in both playing and coaching staff, at Leipzig – although reportedly only after David Moyes, understandably reluctant to sell, has himself observed the 19-year-old with first-team Premier League outings beyond the seven he was granted in the 2015-16 season – Oxford has considerable influence heaped upon his young shoulders, potentially even to become the first of a meagre, but significant, contingent to break into the senior Three Lions team while playing overseas.
This is very much a divergent phenomenon from the one witnessed in British squads at the past three decades’ international tournaments; England’s Beckham (Real Madrid, 2006 and 2004), Hargreaves (2002, ‘04 & ’06, Bayern Munich), Steve McManaman (Real Madrid, ’00), Paul Ince (Inter, 1996), David Platt (Bari, ’92), Trevor Steven (Marseille, ’92), Chris Waddle (‘90, Marseille), Gary Lineker (Barcelona, ’88), Glenn Hoddle (Monaco, ’88), Mark Hateley (AC Milan, ’88 & ’86) and Ray Wilkins (also AC Milan, ‘86), alongside Scotland’s Graeme Souness (Sampdoria, ’86), Steve Archibald (Barcelona, ’86), Murdo MacLeod (Borussia Dortmund, ’90), Alan McInally (Bayern Munich, ’90), John Collins (Monaco, ’96) and Scott Booth (Utrecht, ’98), and Wales’ Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, 2016). Each of these representatives, on the highest stage imaginable, had fled overseas after at least establishing themselves in the top tier of English or Scottish domestic football; their average age, upon exit, was 26.82 years, at least when discounting the Canadian-born and German-tutored Hargreaves. None of these exalted figures were reared on the renowned technical demands of Spanish football, an Italian ability to orchestrate the tempo of any match situation, or the versatility expected of German or Dutch youngsters, and nor did they last long, relatively at least, at any of their chosen clubs; Beckham’s four years at Real Madrid equalling Hoddle’s four at Monaco, Archibald’s at Barcelona and McInally’s at Bayern and paling only to Bale, in the current era, who I believe it is fair to say has failed to reach the heights of his Galácticos predecessors. To challenge these nations, who themselves profited greatly in the expanse of commercial efforts and inspiration of youth products present at the turn of the century, the respective FAs of the British Isles – certainly, at least, an English establishment keen to emulate the successes of their continental contemporaries – have opted to encourage this migration of talents, rather than remain steadfast in their status quo.
Or have they? There is no overt or assertive evidence of their involvement in the exploits of Oxford, Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Jack Harrison (New York City), Chris Willock (Benfica B), Isaac Buckley-Ricketts (FC Twente, on loan), Kaylen Hinds (Wolfsburg), Ryan Kent (Freiburg, on loan), Mason Mount, Charlie Colkett and Fankaty Dabo (all Vitesse Arnhem, on loan), Matty Willock (Utrecht, on loan), George Dobson (Sparta Rotterdam), Dan Crowley (Willem II), James Horsfield (NAC Breda) or Todd Kane (Groningen, on loan). Had they not only selected Harrison for under-21 duty when he rose to public relevance across the pond, allow Sancho to skip straight beyond under-18 level after his brief time spent at the successful U17 World Cup campaign before Dortmund obtrusively recalled him, or decided to recall Hinds to international action – bypassing under-19 level to be promoted from under-18s to U20 after a two-year absence – following his stint in Lower Saxony, they may have appeared genuine in their intentions. Yet they are fortunate, a cynic may observe, to have exploited the advantages of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool’s liberal youth loanee policies – much more so in the former’s case, lest we forget Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown, Dominic Solanke and Josh McEachran, all former Vitesse loanees – and to have claimed the talents blooded on senior, top-tier stages, as opposed to those satiated with evidently ineffective youth-grade competition, as the true successes of their policies.
Such is the sentiment commonly held by those pessimistically deriding English institutions, and customs now rendered largely incomparable. Who may profit from this exportation are the psychologically resolute individuals, but for those not amongst this rare breed, and with a less adaptable mental approach, it can be a daunting practice under which little benefit is immediately obvious, or even evident upon their potential return to British shores. Widely, this is a tendency commonly referred to amongst youth coaches at both national and club level, but for some in other prominent positions, as well, unfortunately, as for vast sections of a media in sections often prone to wild slander, it is an incompatible quality. What may be applicable to one national team, and more poignantly sporting culture, is not certain to apply elsewhere, and nor should a ‘one size fits all’ approach be taken when filtering these impressionable individuals into careers hopefully comprising more triumphs than toils. It would be totally irresponsible, especially with the lives and careers of such vulnerable entities entering into an industry that already exists as highly volatile, to impose this form of national policy.
Thus, it was never, and can never have ethically been, the true intention of the FA to forge this fact. It is an alignment of circumstance, in the partly-altruistic, partly-exploitative exports of youth players from England’s elite academies, and the free will of a brave contingent of intrinsically self-aware teenagers either deeming themselves too restrained by English academies, in some cases at their boyhood clubs – Sancho, Hinds, Willock and Dobson – or doomed to encounter an eviction from their academy, and with greater opportunity abroad, after previous loan spells there; Crowley and Horsfield. We can but commend their spirit. If doing so, however, we threaten to reopen the chasms of the 1990s and early 2000s’ foibles; lavishing high-profile players with admiring praise for vacating home soil in an effort to compete more consistently on the continental stage. A certain hubris was cultivated in these individuals, arguably a key contribution to the fractured ambitions of their remaining international careers, and this must not be again considered as a responsible or productive process.
I am strongly inclined to argue that it is even further irresponsible of the journalistic industry to fixate on foreign-based youngsters for the sheer reason of their choice to ply their trade abroad. Upon these players’ prerogative, it is a sensible career option to alone shield themselves from the callous tendencies of the English media, which are only projected more divisively by a regurgitative public, and develop in perhaps more forgiving, certainly rational environs. An example in which this is immediately recognisable is that of Jack Wilshere, who has been so universally praised by Arsenal fans, and naïve individuals who consider themselves the long-suffering subjects of Gareth Southgate’s England side, after completing four consecutive Premier League matches – 90 minutes in each occurrence – for the first time since March 2014, with an assist and an average 88.58% pass completion rate to boot. To argue his cause, certainly, is an acceptable response after these performances, but to undermine the presence of Jordan Henderson, Jake Livermore, Eric Dier and Harry Winks, in current occupation of midfield roles in Southgate’s system, if you fail to recognise the demands of the former Middlesbrough manager’s tactics, is a futile provocation that may even lack statistical substance.
Wilshere, after all, is a different player to those he is compared to. From 34 prior Three Lions caps, only two goals and two assists have been procured by the Londoner, yet only six of these appearances have been from the first whistle to the 90th minute. Both of his goals, it should be noted, came in June 2015’s 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana, while the aforementioned assists arose against Switzerland and Scotland in June 2011 and November 2014 respectively; these appearances lasted 90 minutes, 90 minutes and 87 minutes, in individual respect. He is certainly at his best when granted – both by his body and his manager – the ability to see out an appearance, and exert the full extent of his creative influence, and this requires reciprocal trust. To indulge his attributes, without referring to consistent statistics, fails the institution that is international football; completing only 56.5 passes on average in the past four matches, he has never exceeded a position beyond sixth among each individual in the Arsenal side’s total passes tally (sixth in three matches, seventh in one) and failed, even amongst Arsene Wenger’s notoriously pass-happy outfit, to maintain his position when including players from either side; ninth against Liverpool on 22nd December. Surely if he commanded such a position in Southgate’s plans, he would have to be close to the forefront of such statistics, and the fulcrum of creative influence. Besides, this an entirely different argument to pose.
Avoiding the invasive, often misguided swirling opinion of a culture so prone to immoderation in England is an ambition few could have conceived realistic many seasons ago. Very few appreciate its complexities, and the ability to guard against its barbs is a closely shrouded secret. Yet this is what has been defied by the Bundesliga and Eredivisie’s English contingents. No ego, or cult, fashioned by the English media or public is larger than the national team’s cause, and the ability to earn a position in any England team based on sheer productivity and the communication of club managers is one that can only bolster esteem of the player who takes this apparent risk.
An individualistic tendency, however, is not always productive in an international environment. What may be perceived as the arrogance of Sancho, in deferring from Manchester City’s prestigious academy and conscripting to action in Dortmund, may disrupt any dressing room atmosphere he enters upon a return to British shores. These close confines, so often granted only two weeks together other than in critical tournament conditions, often prove much more volatile than club settings; the hopes of a nation, as the adage goes, are pinned upon these few individuals, in much vaster quantities than those of a single city, or as the case may now be, club fans dispersed across the globe. Take the implosion of Raymond Domenech’s French team in 2010, only four years after capitalising the world title with Zinedine Zidane’s infamous offence, and the series of struggles faced at Euro 2008 and in World Cup Qualifying, thus contributing to a tense atmosphere fracturing on the discontent particularly of Nicolas Anelka and Patrice Evra in South Africa. As proven there, a fine line exists at elite levels of the sport between confidence and egotism. To be praised so lavishly for their decision to jump ship, and possess the excuse of a language barrier, cultural alienation or gradual adaptation to foreign climes, has the promise to be a truly fortunate circumstance for any such individual – that is, when alleviating the realistic extents of each of these hindrances. For it is never as simple as to argue alone the benefits of coaching in alternate nations, if undermining the quality of facilities in the nation of their birth.
The tone of these articles, if adopting a cynic’s observation, applies these rising stars as the altruistic figures bestowing their obvious talent upon inferior divisions, who miraculously have superior opportunity and development programmes at this stage in time. The rhetoric has shifted from even two years ago, when a series of national journalists attempted to explain why there was an existential reluctance to make the fêted move. Seizing upon the few examples who have since upped sticks to Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands, the same sources hail the experiences of these formative careers as a major aspect of the redemptive period of English football. Such a striking influence, however, is yet to materialise, and will require many years before we could possible first bear witness; that is, to condemn Eric Dier’s influence on the national team to date, having relocated to London following 11 and a half years – interrupted by 18 months on loan to Everton’s under-18s and academy – spent under Portuguese tutorship. Granted, he has acquitted himself commendably in the era’s defining lack of overriding English midfield talent, and contributed to a cause that he can only ever be as good as in its entirety. All but four of his 22 caps, accumulated in just 24 months, have been for the totality of each game played, while three of the aforementioned four reduced appearances ended in defeat – on debut against Spain, a late introduction against the Dutch and when hooked off at half-time against Iceland, but not in a predictable pre-Euro 2016 friendly win against Australia, ironically when he scored an own goal within two minutes of his introduction. Since, he has gained Gareth Southgate’s unwavering faith; captaining an admittedly ‘injury’-stricken, youthful side against Germany and Brazil, most recently, although without displaying much of the calibre of consistent assurance of his compatriots N’Golo Kanté, Leon Goretzka, Marco Verratti and Casemiro, of whom only Verratti – by one – he has fewer caps than. Such is our carefully managed perception, at least.
While Dier may have had a similar influence on his national team as these French, German, Italian and Brazilian entities, his resonance has not been of the sums envisaged by some quarters. Nor would it be if he were joined in Three Lions duty by fellow foreign-trained Englishmen. The sport can never be dictated by individuals, and it is very much in the vein of our age of individualism and conceit, and of the praise quickly attributed to regular goalscorers, rather than admirable defensive performers – just view the Ballon d’Or winners, England call-ups nominees and most inflated transfer fees of recent seasons – for team contribution and cohesion to be undermined. It is not the factor of these players’ foreign employment that will galvanise the national team, upon their potential instalment to its senior ranks. In reality, it may even act as a form of disruption to the continuing processes and ambitions of the side, with the pride of these players acting as an ideological barrier. And these frustrations can run deep. Just imagine how you would have felt as a member of England U17’s World Cup squad had you witnessed Sancho depart after the group stage to take up a position at the forefront of one of Europe’s leading reserve sides, and on the verge of senior Dortmund action. Though one such event may be forgiven, especially after the squad eventually held aloft the tournament’s glittering trophy, repeating these attitudes could prove fatal. Then again, you’d hope players like these, perhaps easily swayed by their agents at this stage, would mature through such experiences.
Thus, any hopeful or cynical conclusions at this formative stage are effectively void. In an unprecedented account for the FA’s many global playing representatives, the evidence will not even be conclusive upon the potential introduction of Sancho, Willock, Hinds, Harrison or Oxford to senior international action. It will only be one aspect, and a minor one at that, in comparison to the instillation of a defined national identity through each English age group squad, or the investment in St George’s Park as the fully-equipped host to this development, in eventual tournament success, as drawn in the pipeline by Dan Ashworth and his superiors, and will typically pale into insignificance once serious action commences. If that warrants such a conversation, it says much more about the culture of English football than even I could care to note. What more contribution to the status of the sport now could it be, other than embellishing the narratives broadcasters wish to project, and the answers they grapple for in the often-clumsy explanation of success? It should come as no surprise, and is long overdue; no phenomenon, or sudden realisation, has infiltrated the system. As you were, then.
Hovering precariously over the rim of relegation, three relative Premier League institutions embody the past, recent present and potential – though publicly quashed – future of a fellow piece of top-flight furniture. Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City – mired, at the time of writing, in 17th, 19th and 20th positions, respectively, at almost the midway stage of the English league season – reveal much of the media’s hubris and public cynicism surrounding Welshman Tony Pulis; a managerial quality forever fused with the tagline ‘never once relegated from such environs’. This ‘safe pair of hands’ guided the Potters reliably, and quite admirably in a position at one of the few clubs to profess local ownership and modest financial constraints, over five seasons to top-flight mid-table stability, belied the jurisdiction of his sacking with an impervious aversion mission at Crystal Palace the season later, and once again transformed a club protracted in internal dysfunction to a healthy Warwickshire environment capable of forging into the top eight last season, prior to a post-Christmas hangover. The victim of heightened expectations – or, as argued by some opinionated quarters, a failure to adapt – in cases in both Staffordshire and at the Hawthorns, Pulis has regularly been praised for his down-to-earth persona, pragmatic tactical determination and unifying morals, yet rarely for his inspiration to future coaches, or influence on the sport’s professional ranks. Yet, for a man of such humble backdrops, he is the only helmsman to have achieved the recognition of a Premier League Manager of the Season award – while at Palace, in 2013-14 – to have not, in the same term, qualified for European competition, and only the fourth to have not finished champions; Harry Redknapp, with Spurs’ fourth-placed 2010-11 finish, alongside the fifth-place finishes of both George Burley, of Ipswich in 2000-01, and Alan Pardew with Newcastle in 2011-12, in completing the list.
What separates the longevity of Pulis’ Premier League era stint, however, is a tenacity that, if what we are led to believe by mass media rhetoric is true, has instilled a domineering reign of mutual respect at each mid-table club he has helmed. For all of the multi-national accomplishments of Pardew, Mark Hughes, Paul Clement and the apparent leading contenders for what appears a poisoned Swansea chalice – continental flavours, and leading 1998 World Cup centre-backs, Slaven Bilić and Frank de Boer – rarely have they been treated as authoritative or sage employees by varying media forms, fans or even boards under which they serve. Certainly not on a consistent basis, at least. This is not an occurrence of mere coincidence. If applying ancient clichés, respect is very much earned in this arena, and actions speak much louder than words. Both adages have benefitted the stature of Pulis; a man of such few conceited utterances, and who has far exceeded the constraints of his playing days. Rarely straying far from his Pillgwenlly birthplace – a season representing Happy Valley in Hong Kong, aside – in familiar coastal settings from Bristol and Newport, to Bournemouth and Gillingham, the centre-back forged a reputation as a relative journeyman in both his playing and early managerial days; never settling in any position of employment, since his first six years of professional football at Bristol Rovers, for more than three seasons until spending the mid-to-late 1990s as Gillingham boss, and only replicating the feat at Stoke for seven consecutive seasons from 2006. Yet he has proven unduly successful even in short-term employment. Despite never holding aloft any individual trophy in his management career – spanning three divisions and eight clubs, never further north than the Britannia Stadium – and only once contributing as a player to a fruitful competition performance in the 1986-87 Third Division season with Bournemouth, his reputation is well founded within the game.
For all of the cultish resonance of his achievements, there are few secrets shrouded behind his character. Ten consecutive seasons of Premier League football pale only in comparison to the historic longevity of an exclusive octuplet including Sir Alex Ferguson (1992-2013), Arsène Wenger (1996-), Harry Redknapp (1994-2001, 2003-13), Sam Allardyce (2001-11, 12-), David Moyes (2002-14, 16-), Mark Hughes (2004-), Steve Bruce (2002-06, 07-12, 13-15) and Martin O’Neill (1996-2000, 06-10, 11-13) in respects of season-by-season experience, yet each of those in the aforementioned pact achieved qualification for continental competition, and – in all but Hughes’ case – lifted trophies, when including play-off final victories, during reigns at their respective clubs. To be entrusted with the security of Premier League livelihoods at Stoke, Crystal Palace and West Brom – clubs now led astray, and possibly fatally, by Hughes, salvaged from de Boer’s misjudged appointment by fellow trusted hand Roy Hodgson and left in a dire position to Pardew, respectively – demonstrates another factor that must cultivate a ‘Pulis effect’.
Could this effect, quite possibly, have found its demise in this era of widespread tactical revolution, however? It, after all, cannot be for any reason yet in public knowledge other than tactical expiration that his Baggies were found out so dramatically this season, leaving Pardew with such a dramatic aversion mission. As far as those in close proximity to the club have revealed, there were no resonant divides in dressing room morale, nor in boardroom relationships, courtesy of what could only be fathomed as uncharacteristic Pulis action, while nor was transfer business – such a forte of the Welshman’s influence – particularly fallible in the most expensive outing of any season, let alone window, of Pulis’ managerial career. To give this prognosis, though, disregards the practical factors of any manager’s employment. The presence that loomed over any potential weakness in his stewardship, fundamentally, was that of Lai Guochuan, the reportedly ‘football-mad’ landscape development/construction entrepreneur who completed a Chinese takeover of all four Birmingham and Black Country clubs, in this instance on behalf of Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Limited. Having established reliable rapports with Jeremy Peace – who, according to a 2013 Daily Express report amidst the sacking of five managers in three years, ran the club with a ‘rod of iron’, while forcing each manager to accept the title of ‘head coach’ – Steve Parish and Peter Coates at the Baggies, Eagles and Potters respectively, Pulis led a stable career prior to the Chinese consortium’s August 2016 Hawthorns buyout. Stable, at least, to the extent that any Premier League manager’s career security can be.
Fundamental to any form of employment – football, other sports, or otherwise – chairmanship, and ownership often entwined within it, cannot feign its culpability in destabilising a working environment. Especially in as volatile an existing atmosphere as the Premier League, to underestimate the impact of corporate expenditure across each individual employee of the institution in question – from coaches, to players, to ground staff, HR and the dearly loved canteen ladies – is to forget one’s place in the structure of any effective organisation. Unfortunately for Guochuan, the first season of his serious influence – after investing only while 2016-17 pre-season preparations reached a culminative stage – only witnessed a continuation of the previous term’s post-February demise; belying a pre-Christmas position of 7th, and 17 consecutive weeks at 8th, to finish 10th, with just five points taken from their closing twelve outings. Enabling Pulis to recruit Jay Rodriguez, Oliver Burke, Kieran Gibbs and Gareth Barry, alongside loan signatures Ahmed Hegazi and Grzegorz Krychowiak, and presumably promoting the concept of Chinese striker Zhang Yuning himself, Guochuan, through the transmission of Chairman John Williams (formerly of Blackburn Rovers), disrupted usual activity to an evidently unacceptable extent. In its entirety, this was not a standard Pulis window; the aforementioned four British permanent signings aligning with a status quo of the Welshman’s desire to revitalise downtrodden and misguided careers, but the valuable Scottish commodity of Darren Fletcher lost to Midlands rivals Stoke, and Yuning representing a £6.5 million outlay that was worthless in the short-term, while being loaned out to Werder Bremen. Never would Pulis be so profligate with his funds, nor with the career of one of his valued playing assets, with whom he often intends to guard with immeasurably principled credit. This was certainly far from the relationship Pulis had with one particular figure; loyalty once professed in the instance that when Coates was prised away from the Stoke chairmanship in 1999, and the duo bonded during the manager’s 2002-05 stint under Icelandic Potteries ownership, four weeks after signing a new contract a Pulis furious with the Stoke Holding SA’s inattentive rule of the club was sacked four weeks later, before being reappointed when the Englishman regained his ownership in May 2006.
This is certainly not to argue Pulis is impervious to blame. A resistance to tactical adaptation defined much of his 2017-18 tenure, with both 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 systems accused of conservatism and a failure to implement the talents of Rodriguez, or goal-shy Venezuelan talisman Salomón Rondón. Persisting with the unorthodox centre-back-at-full-back strategy that proved reasonably effective in the previous campaign in nullifying far-post headed threats, and contributing to personal set-piece menace, and often refuting the need for a creative midfielder in amongst Livermore, Barry and Krychowiak’s merely disruptive bullishness, flexibility was neither available, or enacted. Scorched by a 2-0 defeat suffered at the Emirates in late September, innovation was largely shelved after experimenting with a 3-5-2 approach that only exacerbated the lack of midfield variety. Yet this did not prevent arguably two of the Baggies’ most admirable performances – a King Power Stadium 1-1 which condemned Craig Shakespeare to the chop, and a 3-2 defeat that temporarily threatened Manchester City’s imperious title charge – and their respective moves towards 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 formations, for once with nigh-on the correct personnel; including Gareth McAuley’s return from injury, in the former case Nacer Chadli’s parole from defensive responsibility, and in the latter the responsibility of Allan Nyom and Gibbs as wing-backs, as opposed to Craig Dawson as a maligned full-back. Ultimately, however, further defeats at the hands of Huddersfield and Chelsea, without scoring, condemned the inevitable, given the circumstances.
In many respects, sadly, it is Pulis’ professionalism and principles that both represent his restrictions in the present era, in conjunction with his durability in the preceding period. Confining him from the upper echelon, or even a calibre of management amongst continental competition, has been his reliance on stability, and inability to sacrifice security for temporary entitlement; the kind witnessed, for example, by Harry Redknapp’s travails at Portsmouth. As with every manager, the performances and constraints of his teams have reflected correspondingly on Pulis’ battle-hardened resolve; accentuated in the instance of defeat. A penance which Pardew must heed, Hughes may well feel the reckoning of – albeit at a club, under the aforementioned Coates, where a sacking culture is defiantly opposed – and Clement has since experienced at a Mumbles outfit where American ownership has only delivered austerity, as opposed to the relevance promised; modern’s football foibles glare for all to bear witness to in such callous cases.
What may yet salvage countryman Hughes from the fate of Pulis, however, is the vision in which Coates invested sufficiently enough to topple his ally from an ultimate position at the Potteries. Despite never finishing below 14th in his five years in the Premier League, the bespectacled, perpetually tracksuit-festooned boss equally never lifted the Potters above 11th position at the close of any season, and the immediate eradication of this record by Hughes – 9th upon arrival, in the 2013-14 season – asserted the transfixion with a more expansive, perhaps optimistic, aura surrounding the club, and influencing both transfer policy and tactical innovation. If we are led to believe what mass media perpetuated about the shift of the age, it could have been as if Brian Clough replaced Don Revie at Leeds United all over again – yet without the swift demise of the former, and the title-laden achievements of the latter.
Do his exploits also reveal pertinent queries about the future lifespan of resource-defying coaches including, most prominently, Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and arguably Clement, alongside rising forces Lee Johnson, Gary Rowett, Neil Harris and the re-emergent (but sacked, minutes after this was uploaded) Garry Monk? Akin to Pulis, each of these entities bolsters a majority of management resources unable to cultivate the cultish features of a select few; they are not the modern male chauvinist, nor the slick image of widespread acclaim, or even the grizzly ex-champion. Upon retrospective evidence, it is easy to argue that to achieve at the forefront of modern football, one must – perhaps – protect a potentially vulnerable character courtesy of overawing, and perceptive, media manipulation. Taking a broader stance over the incessant demands of elite-level management, however – tasked with the cultivation of rather particular skills in training, tactical innovation, personnel management, scouting observations, board meetings, commercial demands, community engagements and award evening appearances all before the burden of media duties – observing such a manipulation as pre-emptive, and as a pivotal pre-requisite to fortune, may be a rather cynical perspective. Yet such are the repetitive irks, corrections and elaborations of Messrs Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp, Conte, Wenger and Pochettino that they certainly appear to often have dominance over common perceptions of the sport. The journalistic profession has, in many respects, been forced to accept the cultivation of personalities by a mass commercial machine in the highly monetised Premier League era, and those for whom the results have proven disabling, unfortunately, include Pulis.
If employing the example of Dyche, the depiction of his success with Burnley this season – sixth, at the time of writing, in league proceedings – has been one ever-so short of a miracle, but of an astounding feat only within the capacity of a select few managers. Such, these forms have equally argued, he should be rewarded with positions at Everton and Leicester. Coincidentally, I’m absolutely sure, these were the only vacant positions when Burnley were charging to their current position. Regardless of their statures teetering over the relegation zone, both the Foxes and Toffees were apparently the more suitable environment for one of Dyche’s clearly proven ability. As many have observed over Twitter, these sources equally state the case for Andy Carroll as an ‘alternative option’ for Gareth Southgate’s England side ‘in a tournament environment of various challenges’ after one goal from the towering striker punctuates a torrid injury-ridden recent career, and calls for the head of Wenger in each Arsenal defeat, regardless of the preceding form of the North Londoners. The duplicity is quite often astounding, but evidently effective; once a common rhetoric has been formed, seldom can it be compromised, for fear of the potential inquisition.
Considering their common fate in the media, it is perhaps not the case of tepid or insipid personal relations, but more of an aversion to those excluded from an esteemed class, for which Pulis and those aiming to exceed his modest feats from similarly humble backgrounds have to take umbrage. In remittance of Guochuan’s investment, it should not have been Pulis’ culpability that was heightened by recent events at the Hawthorns, yet neither would I wish the misfortune of the Swansea job upon him as penance. What the chairmen of these clubs require are pliable facets possessing little of Pulis’ bare-faced, brazen steel, and individuals who would not pit factions within what is considered an institution firmly under a billionaire’s prerogative. Quite simply, he was inflexible, and uncontrollable to the point beyond control, for a billionaire used to his own way.
Perhaps it is the fate of a generation beyond the Welshman that, while entering into a managerial environment of such prominent and recurrent pitfalls, subservience and a reliance on investment will only be accentuated. These figures could be stretched beyond all sense of reality in terms of responsibility as such trends in ownership and commercialisation intensify. Contrasting with pragmatic, principled local investment – a practice not upon which the unremarkable Pulis has been solely reliant, but certainly with which he thrives – the ultra-competitive fantasies of global magnates only persecute the livelihoods of those for whom the sport is a true passion.
Some may argue that few would fail to operate successfully in stable, principled hierarchies. When contemplating Pulis’ career, however, it is the extent to which he exceeds the economic capabilities of his outfits that provides the pivotal proof of his abilities. A basic observation of this just underlines how much success is a reciprocal process between management – from both fiscal and practical sporting circumstances. It appears easy to stray into clichés over his influence, but to analyse the truth of a decade of Premier League action, a number of evident correlations surmise the Newport man’s self-effacing achievements, and align with the old adages of various ancient philosophies. A few good men, those of Pulis’ ilk may be, but not without the requisite capacities for pragmatism. These are the greatest credits to their exploits, and though they may not be appreciated by all, will forever define careers that, though not finished in even the 59-year-old Welshman’s case, cannot realistically change course.
Amidst the perpetually calamitous defensive proceedings instilled within West Ham United’s fatally flawed ranks, one man – well, perhaps the second after Slaven Bilić’s sacking – spawns resentment and derision so vitriolic as to render his position untenable. His international career, quite alike, has suffered from a callous media campaign, to the extent that, despite noting two Premier League titles in his repertoire, his position as England’s 75-time-capped mainstay number one is under palpable threat. Yet those within the professional broadcast sectors – so often eager to align ideologically with popular public opinion – of the sport maintain his reputation and prestige, emphasising his continual respect among the game’s realistic kingpins. Charles Joseph John Hart is a relatively unique entity in the modern form of his position, and certainly has drawn into distinct parallels the interpretations of a goalkeeper’s fallibilities and expectations – so much so that his more informal common moniker is now synonymous with the flawed ‘keeper, and the demise of the trust once invested by an anticipating audience. Could such a demonstrable divide be attributable to an enduringly simplistic analysis of goalkeeping in translation from social media to professional punditry, sensationalist tendencies in the journalistic coverage of goals – career-defining events that ‘keepers are so inherently connected – or the immediate blame culture instilled within modern public culture, or potentially each issue, and more?
Masochistic tendencies must define any youthful footballing prospect opting for, and embracing, the responsibilities of goalkeeping. Foolishness, or a highly independent fervour, can be the only other rational explanations for the career path. Only now, quite embarrassingly, are the profession’s tribulations and demands being adequately observed, and the mandate for such investigations realised, by the innovative journalistic facets of FourFourTwo and Tifo Football, amongst others. For Hart, however, you fear this awareness may have arrived a number of seasons late to the fortification of a career that has met rapid demise since the appointment of Pep Guardiola’s disapproving tactical operation at Manchester City; facing, if you believed the interpretations of mainstream media forms, torrid experiences in Turin – quite curiously – and East London. Despite the emergence of Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford, and rise to prominence of both Tom Heaton and Fraser Forster, he has yet retained ownership of the Three Lions’ primary jersey; continuing to belt out God Save the Queen at maximum decibel level in each pre-match procedure under both Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate. Many attribute this allegiance to ideological conservatism within the FA’s ranks, particularly while noting his glaring faults against Wales and Iceland in a 2016 European Championship tournament that eventually witnessed Hodgson’s inconspicuous departure, and the more definitive ambition towards the pronunciation of an apparent national footballing identity.
Now threatened with the permanent loss of his authoritative position even in a West Ham side experienced something of a resurgence under Moyes – barring the chance that a similar fate, or alternative misfortune, befalls the reliably competent Adrián – could the ultimate embarrassment and discredit be to capitalise his ticket to Russia next summer? By no means, of course, is he ever an automatic, nor pre-ordained, selection. This is a man, after all, that cut his goalkeeping teeth in the quaint Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – that of his birth – and who announced himself primarily with a context-defying loan stint at Birmingham City, under Alex McLeish, as just a 22-year-old. His career had never been defined with the most fortunate of environs until the Citizens, as early as 2006, invested their future title ambitions in his qualities. Having performed admirably in all but one of the top five English divisions – the Championship – for the Shrews, Tranmere, Blackpool, Manchester City and Birmingham by just the age of 22, his rise was meteoric.
Yet stability has rarely guided his path. Thrice loaned out by Stuart Pearce – at the time also his England under-21 manager, and now with whom his is of course reunited at the Hammers – and Mark Hughes while ousted from a starting jersey by Shay Given, his development was realised in bases divided by services to both club and country, and centred at the Carrington Training Centre, the English’s national team’s pre-St George’s Park outlets at Lilleshall Park and Bisham Abbey, and – albeit briefly – in considerably less prestigious bases in the dilapidated suburbs of Liverpool and the Lancastrian coast. Much hope was pinned on an imposing, 6’5”, figure Sven-Göran Eriksson – certainly the individual to regard, having resigned as Three Lions boss exactly a year prior to assuming control at the City of Manchester Stadium – described as "one of the biggest talents in this country as a goalkeeper"; reasonably so, in an age where one of England’s glaring chinks was in the goalkeeping position, with David James, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson in indefinite respective occupations of the role. As the beacon of national hope leading into a myriad of eminently achievable tournaments under the profound managerial aptitude of relative coup Fabio Capello, the pressure was immeasurable. One can only ponder the upheaval mounted at his credibility when riding the crest of a seemingly endless wave of upwards mobility. The scrutiny he was certain to encounter, however, is now self-evident, and only protracted by an era of seamless social rapidity, and of brutal, immediately elevated, voices with little internal perspective or objectivity.
It goes without saying that for all of Hart’s flaws – for all of his evident blemishes, broadcast live to an extensive international audience in any such case – he is only human. Cliché-riddled as that statement may be, for each of the perceived ‘blunders’ suffered against Wales, in Rob Green-esque grace against Iceland, and reported without objectivity from Turin, there is an employee shrouded behind the reputation cultivated by incessant competition and commercial duties. Yet pity should not define any observation of his performances; to patronise those of the ilk of his achievements is to grossly understate the importance of the debate, in such an intensely monetised, accountable and exacting industry.
Unfortunately, what is often defied in the function of social media debate is pragmatism, while any remorse towards the individual in question is often belied in the circumstance. Equally so, those within the punditry profession appear decidedly hesitant to apply more than an ephemeral, and audience-satiating mourning of a talent that once held such prestige in their interests. Whether these divergent analytical cultures are replicative of the discipleship of religious commentators – perhaps cautious to guard the delicacies of their establishment – and the cynicism of atheists in debate, or merely the product of a vast footballing expanse of many coinciding subjects, is very much open to interpretation.
Performance, regardless, is a reciprocal process; if not equipped with the sufficient managerial, personnel-fixated or economic circumstances on former scales, it is unnatural, and wildly unrealistic, to expect Hart to recapture the form that saw him lift two Premier League titles and claim four domestic Golden Gloves. To be shelved, in such circumspect proceedings, by a dominant domestic outfit under Pep Guardiola where he legally remains contracted, and, apparently according to personal jurisdiction, immerse himself in an entirely divergent cultural context, could have been little other than the toughest challenge of his career. Pursue this example with a return to a notoriously scathing English press amidst a Hammers backline suffering chronic organisation issues under Bilić – achieving just 17 clean sheets in 70 matches since a triple-consecutive shutout series in December 2015, of which four were against sides that would either continue to be relegated, or currently occupy a drop-zone position – and while departing City under a discourteous cloud of Guardiola’s fully refined doubt, and the salvation of his options was bleak. Yet, at the time, it is understandable that anticipation around his career was resolved; Javier Hernandez, ever reliable under Sir Alex Ferguson’s tutelage, arriving for £16 million, former team-mate Pablo Zabaleta employed on a free transfer and Marko Arnautovic, an entity of occasional wondrous ability at Stoke, drafted to the Olympic Stadium for a club-record fee of up to £25 million. Each has since found personal standards befallen, and collective efforts degraded, in a season of dishevelled embarrassment prior to Moyes’ London derby aptitude – seizing four points from consecutive fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal – and emphatic Potteries victory.
While Zabaleta is reformed under a less culpable wing-back position, and Arnautovic finally achieves offensive liberty without the concern of evidently noncompliant defensive responsibilities – while even Hernandez only finds himself temporarily removed due to injury and tactical demands – however, Hart is defiantly side-lined. It is quite notable that they have not suffered the indignity of Hart’s treatment; a discarding only exacerbated by his position and international distinction. If observing results as a representative gauge of achievement, the decision has proven a masterstroke in reinvigorating and reintroducing stability to a creditable defensive unit. The decision, despite the lauding of Moyes’ bravery in defying years of committed service and reputation, may not be as simplistically principled in practice as on paper; nor, even, as courageous. In many respects comparable to Wayne Rooney’s fallibilities and accused crimes to public frustration over many a year of international service, during which the lynchpin of a gradually ageing ‘Golden Generation’ was burdened with converting the efforts of fellow Premier League, and even Champions League, victors beside him, it is perhaps unfortunate that Hart found fame so young. The 15-year-old schoolboy that travelled occasionally with the Shrewsbury first-team during their 2003-04 Conference National season, and was selected on the bench in the Shrews’ Britannia Stadium-based play-off final, could have scarcely believed future Italian excursions, yet neither may he have conceived a duo of Premier League titles achievable from such humble pedigrees. As he cultivated a reputation as the prodigious youth, it is not one he could ever, evidently, shirk from his foibles. Potentially, it is this constant expectation that has formed a tendency to freeze on the high-profile occasions, and to stall in the fortunes of his club career with it.
Far from beset with glaring errors, however, his authority has been harmed by Guardiola’s dehumanising treatment, while implanted impatiently into condemned teams. Criticism is a much simpler tendency when observing failing sides than when approaching an analysis of outfits charging towards silverware, as finger-pointing emerges so evidently amidst periods of crisis. Thus, it is no coincidence the ‘keeper has befallen the status granted to him by accomplishments at the foot of Roberto Mancini and Mauricio Pochettino’s title-winning collectives. For had it not been for the appointment of a prophetic Spaniard, and the definitive espousal of ‘sweeper-keeper’ qualities, Hart may well have remained a leading light of English domestic goalkeeping. The inquest into the realisation of much-touted ability may never have reached such dramatic heights.
Subsequently, Hart is neither at fault for the lack of a national strategy, nor culpable for the afterthought of any apparent FA contingency plan. Inheriting the starting jersey from the defective Green and expired James, he has continued to outshine those who have rivalled his position from similar stances of relative disadvantage; Ben Foster, Fraser Forster, John Ruddy, Alex McCarthy, Tom Heaton, Jack Butland and now, perhaps, Jordan Pickford, and has earned his position with the trust and rapport of successive helmsmen. These are a series of individuals, from the suburbs of Warwick, Wallsend, Cambridge, Guildford, Chester, Birmingham and Sunderland, who are equally as afflicted by origins from Football League – as opposed to elite-level – and even non-league academies, in the case of Foster, as they are equipped with the psychological resolve from their modest outsets, in all but the steadily deteriorating fortunes of Heaton at Manchester United from the ages of 16 to 24. Contrast this with Germany, Italy or Spain’s goalkeeping selections, and the issue is readily apparent. Current occupants Manuel Neuer, Marc-André ter Stegen and Bernd Leno, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Mattia Perin, David de Gea, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Pepe Reina – of Die Mannschaft, Gli Azzurri and La Furia Roja, respectively – all originate from renowned academies at Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Stuttgart, Parma, AC Milan and Genoa, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona, and demonstrate the benefits of these practices in competition. Resolving the disparity in English environs, however, has proven an eminent ability under the structure of the St George’s Park programme, with youth products Dean Henderson, and the likes, potentially able to alleviate this systemic comparative weakness.
Henderson – of Manchester United – his 2017 Under-20 World Cup contemporary Freddie Woodman – of Newcastle – and Manchester City employee Angus Gunn, recently elevated to senior responsibilities in preparation for November’s Wembley friendly with Brazil, all represent beacons of hope in enforcing a definite English goalkeeping identity. Though not the immediate products of their current sides – purchased from Carlisle, Crystal Palace and Norwich, respectively – these signatures were enacted at the sprightly teenage years of just 14, 16 and 15, with considerable development yet to elapse. Aside from Henderson – selected in just the under-16, under-17, U20 and U21 stages – and although Gunn’s talents omitted the under-18 squad, each has progressed through the national ranks with caps at each stage of youth development, and alongside trusted coaches, astounding forwards, determined midfielders and resolute defenders they would soon rely on in close proximity. These are a contingent of individuals that have derived from similar elite refineries of talent, and have reaped the rewards of a sustainable and supportive national programme. No longer is fortune required – as with the Class of ’92, relied upon so heavily for Eriksson in David Beckham’s talismanic role, the Neville brothers’ dependability, Paul Scholes’ lauded creativity and Nicky Butt’s often-sacrificed defensive screening – in the formation of a cohesive international outfit, in neither goalkeeping nor team production.
None of this is to argue Hart is faultless. To portion blame entirely on his actions, nonetheless, is an irresponsible, and treacherous, tendency when observing the fallibilities of club and country, and enables chairmen, directors, management and coaching to escape rightful blame. He is very much a victim of his circumstance, and in an era of unprecedented goalkeeping ability – capable of a much vaster spectrum of ability than predecessors Bert Trautmann, Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff, Sepp Maier, Cláudio Taffarel and Peter Schmeichel – is posed with intensely accentuated demands. Players are nothing without consistency across multiple platforms now; for each of his acclaimed performances – most memorably against Slovenia, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona – in recent seasons, there are many sub-par exploits for which, often fairly, he has been criticised. Unfortunately for Hart, many opinions have already been formulated, and cynicisms calculated, prior to this stage of his career.
At an age where his employment should be approaching its poignant pinnacle – 30 – and those of his generation (Manuel Neuer, Salvatore Sirigu, Sergio Asenjo and Kenneth Vermeer, from an age, upon retrospect, largely untouched by outstanding talent) remain, in all but Asenjo and the demoted Sirigu’s case, in Champions League and domestically prevailing exploits, this could prove a decisive season in Hart’s professional occupation; if not a second in succession. Little greater statement of the emergence of rivals could have been bestowed than in Pickford’s impervious Wembley runout against Germany, or Adrián’s triple-shutout against teams that had been denied only twice, thrice and four times prior from 15, 16 and 17 2017-18 Premier League matches. These are not unknown entities either. Their challenge has been arising for weeks, upon months, and now is on the verge of permanently overthrowing their former occupant. Or so the common rhetoric goes. It is not a convincing sentiment, certainly not as yet, to condemn Hart as expired in worth; even at a side previously immersed in, and still not far from, the relegation zone; an area, lest we forget, he survived comfortably when at Birmingham in 2009-10, poignantly in a squad that lacked the international flavour or expense of many rivals that finished below them.
This is not merely an argument that professes non-achievement as reasonable grounds upon which to be dropped. Forced into 38 saves from his 14 matches this term – 2.71 per match – compared to Adrián’s 2.75 from four matches, and loading 8.43 goal kicks to the Spaniard’s 13, it appears that the decision, for Hart, of Moyes to move to a 5-3-2 formation has in fact only increased the burden on any Hammers ‘keeper; statistics, as revealing as about their competitors as personal defensive defects, defining this. Overall, having restricted league opponents to ten shots or fewer on five occasions – four under Bilić – this season, demonstrates the fundamental issues in team cohesion, with each of the three clean sheets achieved with Hart in goal witnessed in these such encounters; vs Huddersfield, Swansea and West Brom. Matches against the two presently lowest scoring PL sides, and David Wagner’s outfit who had, prior to their 4-1 victory at Watford this weekend, failed to score away since an opening-day victory at Crystal Palace, do not define the defensive ability of a top-tier side, however. It is noticeable that while Adrián has claimed ownership of the net, but more so that a 5-3-2 formation has unfolded, that exactly 50% of the 82 shots faced, and 80 repelled, have arrived from areas outside of the 18-yard box, and only 3.5% have been applied from within the six-yard box’s hazardous confines. On the only other individual occasions 50% or more of all opponents’ shots have come from further out that 18 yards, seven goals were conceded from 65 total shots in five Bilić matches.
Even leaky when tasked with warding off a majority of hopefully preventable post-18-yard attempts; defence, unfortunately, did not function under the Croat, and Hart failed to either capture inspiration from his manager’s demeanour, nor apply it with his own experience, leaving the outfit to regularly capitulate. This fact is only exacerbated by the degrading matter of conceding 19 goals from nine matches – six under a boss sacked after the last such occurrence, and thrice under the Scot – when they did not face a single shot from within their own six-yard box; that is, to say, shielding their most vulnerable territory effectively, but failing to repel Manchester United, Liverpool or Everton from registering four times, nor Southampton – who benefitted from careless penalty-area tackles from José Fonte and Zabaleta – three times. Quite simply, the basics of resolute defending were not being performed, and that cost, bluntly, both Bilić his job and Hart his authority. Blame the coaching staff for failing to adapt to alternating demands and remaining steadfast to a 4-2-3-1 system that deferred from the populist 3-5-2/3-4-3 status quo, but apportion causation to a range of parties, as opposed to just one whose cadaver is exposed by mass media, in such cases.
What is pivotal is perspective of Hart’s role in arriving at the Olympic Stadium. Though a relative coup for Bilić in procuring the interests of a multiple-accoladed figure, the burdens that eventually overwhelmed the season-long loan signing were evident in all coverage. He was not merely West Ham’s goalkeeper for the season, nor was he an international-standard figure commanding great respect. He was the dishevelled and extradited scapegoat who returned with an apparent point to prove, and in the secure environment to finally achieve this. Regaining the trust of a nation, while shoring up an East London vanguard afflicted with chronic issues, was depicted as his endeavour. It was realised that he would not be judged on equal grounds as any Hammers goalkeeper, perhaps in the establishment’s extensive history. This is far beyond the adversity that we mere mortals can expect to surmount from the immediate outset of our careers in a totally dissimilar working milieu. Now, to announce Moyes’ dissatisfaction and tactical reshuffle as the death knell of his international hopes, is a totally irresponsible journalistic action. Naturally, to evade the tribulations encountered by Hart is to reduce the psychological impacts of the journalistic profession on his own, and to alleviate intense, persistent scrutiny as merely passing statements of critique. To beguile a gullible audience and coax them into believing likewise is to endanger a nation’s moral compass, and to suggest Hart is now a worthless husk of a once-invested entity, now barred from boarding the outbound flight of 23 English Lions from Luton Airport in early June’s mid-morning sunshine, confounds sensibility. It may be a potent footballing matter if conducted sincerely, but when alleviating the focus of his restrictions, and psychological impressions, the debate miscues the crux of the concern. Address, in both debate and parliamentary inquisition, the disparities Hart has confronted obstinately throughout his career, and we may discover modern English goalkeeping is not a fêted profession, after all.
Sadly, the matter is not always as simple as it appears.
Current rhetoric depicts them as impervious, majestic and rampant. Pep Guardiola accedes the figurative tactical throne of a character-fixated media coup d’état victim in Antonio Conte, while the monikers of Sterling, Stones and Delph are restored to credibility only months after searing mainstream criticism. Outlandish statements of their invincibility over a 38-game league season are rapidly becoming the status quo of nationally-broadcast punditry. Yet this is not a hallucinatory spectre; fourteen victories, 46 goals scored and only ten conceded amidst fifteen rigorous matches in the inception of utmost efficiency in the Premier League’s 25-year heritage. In the context of their apparent ambitions, the world-renowned Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-04 stand just eighteenth in those standings, having procured an entire eight fewer points at an equal nigh-on-midway stage of the season. Is it realistically tenable, however, to even suggest the concept of a rejuvenation of the prowess evident in a side respected as the most incisive in English professional footballing history? Approaching a schedule that takes no prisoners in its relentless winter demands, amidst possibly the most physically exacting era in any league title contenders’ exerts, whether Guardiola’s contingent can actually emulate their star-studded, but also astute, hopeful predecessors will establish the extent of power capitals in a sport that has, on face value, altered demonstrably since Arsène Wenger’s last league title. Certainties may become perilous statements at this relatively formative stage, yet when comparing the circumstances of the sides, much can be ascertained.
The differences, generally, between the sides are incomparable. Ederson – Brazil’s archduke-like incarnation of Manuel Neuer’s German goalkeeping throne – contrasts considerably to Jens Lehmann, whose game relied on a long-established organisation of those ahead of him; Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré, Ashley Cole and Lauren, who themselves had complex roles entirely divergent to the modern facets of Nicolás Otamendi, John Stones, Kyle Walker and any of the varied names employed by Guardiola at left-back. From Fabian Delph, Fernandinho, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy – prior to injury – the Spaniard has fostered a range of abilities and options within a role, at full-back or occasionally wing-back, that is renowned as so fundamental to his general footballing philosophy; burdened with an onus on inverting when in possession, complementing the supreme confidence of a free-scoring outfit. Yet these individuals encapsulate the tactical fluidity that has defined few prior domestic champions; Guardiola employing 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 formations throughout the four months, to date, of the 2017-18 season, and profiting abundantly from the versatility he has instilled in his trusted contingent – even more so evident than the reversible attributes of Wenger’s side. Seldom, even in our age of tactical innovation and exploration, can any sides, even at the pinnacle of the Champions League, turn their hand to a range of shapes, and single nuances that may last a season at most prior to elimination from contention. Definitive of this era, the scope of tactical challenge is considerably more diverse, regardless of the ideological orthodoxy espoused by some rigid managerial administrations.
As Chelsea and Tottenham – excelling the previous the season in ostensibly similar interpretations of a 3-4-3 rarely witnessed since Rinus Michels’ 1970s Ajax tenure – falter in the fallout of 2016-17’s overall domestic dominance, and the gradual adoption of the system by Arsène Wenger is being exposed in another season of Emirate-based inconsistency, it is blatantly obvious in the fortunes of Manchesters City and United – the latter, in a testament to José Mourinho’s pragmatism, able to revert fluently between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 concepts – that tactical reversibility predominates the era. Theories derided as predictable, one-dimensional and universally flawed, emerge also in Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Didier Deschamps’ French national team and even arguably Zinedine Zidane’s previously heralded Real Madrid – of whom a global monopoly of silverware was temporarily accredited. It is no longer sufficient to expect reward for the proficiency of a squad in a single tactic, even if presumed faultless by its resolute innovator.
Would it be fair to proclaim that tacticians – Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino – who, for some, are at the forefront of 21st century proceedings, have been found out in the Premier League? Did it seriously take just twelve months for players of the international quality of N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, World Cup winner Cesc Fàbregas, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen and the presently unfavoured David Luiz, to be exposed to the extent of disparities of five and two points at the same stage (gameweek 15) of the 2016-17 season? Evidently not, given the factors of Chelsea’s current position – only three points behind Mourinho’s side – and the six draws and two defeats suffered by early December of Pochettino’s 2016-17 Spurs; albeit in what was a period prior to the Argentine’s full-scale implementation of a 3-4-3, coincidentally in a GW16 3-0 victory at Hull. Many more factors contribute to a temporary fall from grace, and it is certainly not the case that this duo have been embarrassed in their inferiority to emergent challengers; a phenomenon perhaps only otherwise evident in José Mourinho’s 2015-16 capitulation, while leading reigning champions Chelsea to a position just one point clear of the mid-December relegation zone in the statistically poorest title defence since Blackburn Rovers in 1996-97, with just 13 points accrued by their seventeenth match. A lack of reinvestment, fatigue from international involvement and continental competition, the mental impact of aforementioned disastrous title-defending notoriety, internal character conflicts and the distraction of asset courtship attempts from afar are all viable excuses for the short-lived proficiencies of 21st century outfits, and it is practically impossible to avoid to a series of these snares in the present environment. Contingency plans may be drawn up, and attempts at stability enacted, but unless managers profess the domineering influence of Sir Alex Ferguson – a rare managerial quality as the engineer of a dynasty, while unafraid to impose drastic overhaul measures to preserve long-term pre-eminence – however attentive the scouting campaign, or rigorous the pre-season schedule, many will perish. Returning to incisive excellence under a reimagined 3-5-1-1 formation, Conte’s side may yet procure silverware this term, yet when adrift so far early on to alternative inspiration, the Italian’s outfit have diminished undoubtedly in stature.
Luxury players, or Baggio-esque fantasista as the Italian-referencing romantics amongst us would label them, define the attacking qualities of Guardiola’s current entity. It is particularly notable that Leroy Sané, possessing the potential to be lauded as the most electrifying winger of his generation, has contributed his six 2017-18 Premier League goals and five assists almost entirely exclusively – to the tune of a respective five goals and four assists – in 5-0, 7-2, 3-0 and 2-0 City victories. The only exception to this rule is a 3-2 win fought out at a tenacious West Brom, yet with roughly 73% of his decisive scoreline contributions arriving at home, in dominant team performances against Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Stoke and Burnley, you have to question the viability of players like Sané in the various match situations and challenges that arrive for squads with title aspirations. Certainly, he is prolific when dispatching the opportunities that arrive from total midfield dominance, and applies his explosive pace and adept finishing abilities to incisive extents, but if expecting an individual of his ilk – rarely likely to cede possession of his starting left-wing role to Bernardo Silva, or Gabriel Jesus in a tactical alternation, especially if approaching a match with a more defensive mentality – to produce match-winning quality at least every second game, is Guardiola realistic of his squad’s capabilities? May complacency befall the side to capitalise a potentially unbeaten title-winning season?
As explored in earlier stages of this argument, the tactical diversity and fluency of the modern Premier League demands extensive preparation and mental stamina of those attempting to survive, let alone finish as the season’s victors. With the first Mancunian rivalry of the season fast approaching this weekend, Guardiola is presented with the opportunity of a managerial lifetime; seize the occasion, and defeat their both literal and mathematical closest challenges, thus deposing arguably his only tactical equal in present footballing environs, let alone within English employment. Caution will obviously be advised in the wake of United’s clinical dispatch of a possession-dictating, goal-peppering and altogether naïve Arsenal side with little ability to convert beyond a steadfast defensive population and supremely impervious David de Gea last weekend, yet with Mourinho the host of the event, an emphasis is upon his shoulders to seize control, and enthuse the Old Trafford faithful. Potentially bereft of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones through injury, and lacking the aggressive talismanic abilities of Romelu Lukaku’s August incarnation, United start the underdogs. It is certainly not a role Mourinho has shirked in the past.
History will not define 2017-18’s title struggle as definitive of footballing folklore. This Mancunian-based duo are not the tactical revolutionaries of yesteryear, but the exponents of previous decades’ fallibilities, and of the qualities expressed in finely-tuned present playing assets in countering the depth of modern talent. Although Guardiola may be observed by broadcasters both perceptive and sensationalist to profess an unprecedented fluidity and quality of competition, he has recently been ousted as less of the prophetic figure his second season proficiency would have led many to believe.
During what emerged as a challenging year of realisation in the wake of Conte’s more refined and negotiable tactical adaptation to the Premier League, arguably the Spaniard’s fundamental influence within the Etihad’s surrounding infrastructure featured the drastic developments that arose of potentially costly home-grown talents. Nurturing the likes of Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fabian Delph – the latter particularly, alongside Fernandinho, as a formerly steadfast midfielder now equipped to execute a role in total opposition to the modern wing-back status quo of reckless defensive abandon – Guardiola only further consolidated a pedigree formed amidst no mean feats during reigns of unparalleled domestic dominance in Barcelona and Munich. Noting alumni of the ilk of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves, Pedro and Thiago – all originally periphery squad figures, with the first promoted from the Barcelona B side he helmed prior to a 2008-09 hiring, the subsequent duo signed in the same season and the latter duo mere respective 20 and 18-year-olds when granted serious senior action – this reciprocal appreciation is perhaps far beyond that capable at any other club in professional competition. Take his first season in the notoriously pressurised senior ranks of Barça; waging a deliberate campaign of tactical defiance at the Catalan club upon appointment, he could easily have replaced the unfavoured Deco, and ageing World Cup-winning contingent of Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram and Ronaldinho – a Ballon d’Or awardee only three years previous – with equally established profiles for record-breaking fees, but instead opted to both cultivate existing abilities, and employ the unheralded aptitudes of Sevilla’s Alves and Seydou Keita, alongside what amounted to be erroneous expenses on Brazilian Henrique, Arsenal’s Alexander Hleb and the former Southampton centre-back Martín Cáceres; €36.3 million of upfront outlay that amounted to only 32 sum La Liga appearances. In a position of such considerable external influence, we are led to presume not all of these were under his prerogative; yet reputation, and the respect to solely dictate transfer policy, is only granted when providing a divine service.
Guardiola is not the faultless figure many broadcasters depict; his limitations are, in fact, the most resonant of any in the managerial industry in the past decade. Transfer acumen, more widely attributed to the ultimately unsustainable, much-derided three-year stints of a certain Portuguese adversary, is not the forte of City’s helmsman, and nor should it be. Derived from Barça heritage – a product of the famed La Masia framework in both playing and managerial vocations – and temporarily confined within these morals, the adaptation to Bayern Munich’s effective monopoly over the Bundesliga market required sentimental compromise. Further so does the elevation to Mancunian backdrops in the midst of the Premier League’s global economic revolution. Yet to fixate so coherently, and patiently, on the fundamental structure of any potential title pursuit demonstrates sincere ethics, and adept mental clarity; especially in the context of savage media character degradations, particularly of Stones. It is no coincidence that, while imposing tactical innovation far beyond the capabilities of any prior opponents, those critics have become becalmed, and now profess the pivotal qualities of Stones’ expansive defensive interpretations. It is no coincidence that his authoritative presence in the Citizens’ backline has only been lacking in 359 minutes of their league campaign to date; a successive trio of arguably fortunate 2-1 victories against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, and 89 minutes of a fellow 2-1 win, again achieved late on, at Bournemouth in late August. Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, both ineffective when partnered with the similarly physical unit of Otamendi and arguably beyond salvaging from successive injury crises and unreliable form, do not compare in the slightest.
Fundamentally, these are the concerns that afflict the fabled Blue Moon’s fulfilment of an unbeaten league season. Arsène Wenger’s early 2000s side possessed far fewer vulnerabilities that those that have the potential of hindering an imperative statement of indisputable domestic dominance. The Frenchman, while manufacturing an unprecedented tactical brand in the years preceding that 2003-04 season, relied extensively on a vast reserve of talent. Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, José Antonio Reyes, Edu, Pascal Cygan, Gaël Clichy, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and the unheralded Jérémie Aliadière made just 65 league starts between them, but amidst 71 substitute appearances were able to apply the stamina the fatiguing legs of respected first-teamers required to accomplish ultimately decisive late results. Each was highly experienced, and fully trusted in performing to the exacting standards Wenger demanded. In a season where they were single-goal victors on fourteen occasions, and accrued an average of 1.5 bookings every match, this depth was paramount.
Seldom does the same confidence in squad capabilities impose opponents and viewers in the present City side; Kompany, Mangala, Danilo, Bernardo Silva, Yaya Touré, İlkay Gündoğan and the rotation-prone Gabriel Jesus presently the most likely bench fodder, yet inspiring none of the impervious compatibility or reliance that Wenger’s effective supporting cast did; despite, on average, being 1.905 years elder than those replacements who collected champions medals for Arsenal, and housing 28.83 more international caps in personal memorabilia confines. Considering the recurrent injuries of captain Kompany and playmaker Gündoğan, the declining years of Touré, undermining inconsistencies of Mangala and lack of faith demonstrated in either summer signature – a £26.5 million Danilo or £43.5M Silva – as of yet, exacerbated by the unfortunate loss of Benjamin Mendy to long-term ACL impairments, the trepidations of a December schedule that – while preceded by tonight’s 3,538-round mile Donetsk excursion – includes both Mourinho and Pochettino’s frays, sandwiched by a faltering Swansea City side, in the space of a mere six days, appear fraught with hazard. In an age of heightened fitness, both the competitive stakes and potential rewards are accentuated, especially considering the multiple demands compared to an early 2000s era; not of fixtures, but of commercial and media duties, while players now have a recognised and serious threat of excessive mental burden.
Encouragement, also, should not be neglected. Romantics, and optimists, as I may consider myself if it wasn’t for my spite of City’s financially emboldened status amongst a modern European, and global, elite, will regale the circumstances of Wenger’s administration an entire fourteen seasons past. Parallels, quite admittedly, do emerge when considering Le Professeur’s revitalised and emboldened demeanour in that Invincibles season; he embraced the defiance of Manchester United the season prior, as Ferguson’s squad romped from an eight-point deficit to purloin silverware, to strengthen institutional resolve, with the twelve league draws of that fêted season serving as the resounding testament to this.
The psychological inflections and tendencies of a title-pining season are fascinating to immerse oneself in the analysis of. Rather than impede unbeaten ambitions, established squad hierarchies, coupled with Pep’s renowned fervour for rotation, could favour City in a campaign of attrition. As such, the intrigue around Sunday’s post-match comments intensifies, with much revealed by Guardiola’s admittance; “I learned to attack a bit differently. Normally we don’t play with two strikers and two wingers. Maybe to attack this kind of defence it is much better.” Reverting to what was effectively a 4-2-4 formation – or 4-1-1-4, with the indefatigable Kevin de Bruyne as the more withdrawn midfield asset – in a demanding second half against the Hammers, further versatility was encapsulated by the individuals at City’s disposal, and to pivotal repercussions to maintain a 13-match winning run when approaching possibly the most decisive fixture in their entire campaign. By no means is this solely on the basis of mere proficient form. Performances demonstrate much more resonance, and the three consecutive late victories salvaged from the challenge of fluency-disrupting and creativity-stifling defensive performances of sacrificial bodies under the direction of David Wagner, Mauricio Pellegrino and David Moyes – the latter duo of whom certainly adept, from results excessive of financial constraints at Alavés and Everton, of coordinating defensive strangulation – prove tactical tinkering fully effective within the City boss’ armoury. These opponents may have not been to the standard of United’s counter-attacking capabilities, but to unnerve a global monolith of the Red Devils’ stature with the points procured with hard late graft is no mean feat, and should prove pivotal in the pre-match psychological engagements.
To paraphrase one of the many infamous neologisms of Andy Tate; “ten days, make or break a season.” While the circumstance is certainly not as extreme as in the context of what unfolded as an extremely perceptive prophecy of ‘Moyseh’s’ ‘make-or-break your career’ late-March 2014 run against West Ham and Manchester City – predictably only returning three points, before culminating on the calamitous tone of a 3-0 home defeat to the Citizens – the fortunes and repute awaiting a league season of resounding invincibility are fully unprecedented. The opportunity to be referenced for generations to come, and lauded as the pinnacle of this era’s domestic talent in just the second such occurrence of impregnability since Preston North End’s 1888-89 campaign, mounts as an unparalleled prize that truly transcends the societal microcosm of sport. The barrier that once was insurmountable in the professional era was rendered attainable, or at least within the realms of possibility for the absolute zenith of footballing organisation, by Arsène Wenger’s seamlessly-aligned circumstance and administration; never, perhaps, will the accolade hold such testimony. Regardless of Guardiola’s aspirations – striking his audience as the derivation of personality that strives only for perfection – the pre-emptive gushing of acclaim that rears in City’s direction will have a definitive impact on a generation of footballers more immersed in external media than any before them. Just as Wenger was not the sole puppeteer of a fêted 2003-04 campaign, Guardiola will not be the decisive force in any invincible achievement – the resolve of individuals within the squad at various stages, particularly in nearing any potential summit, will provide exacting standards never before encountered, especially for as relatively youth-inclined a team identity as the Citizens’.
Indicative mathematical probabilities insist the opportunity is slim. Unless applying true divination, it is wholly unlikely that Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus or Fernandinho – indicative exponents of the system – will evade the serious injury that so nearly afflicted the first following an Amsterdam taxi crash and a fractured rib in late September. Effectively irreplaceable individuals – certainly in respects of quality, considering the potential resorts only of a false nine or Crystal Palace-style winger-cum-striker, and the perpetually plagued Gündoğan, in their absence – the trio possess particular value, and may, if observing with a rather cynical rhetoric, receive unfavourable opposition treatment in the season’s decisive rivalries. If only Roy Keane were still sporting the red of Manchester…
In a city renovated by high rises funded from opportune overseas investors, and housing the two most commercially advanced footballing institutions in Britain, what better stage for a summit of the year’s proceedings at Old Trafford this weekend. While far from even half of the exploits required to forge an unbeaten domestic season, the ramifications for City could be history-defining. Never may another manager as gilded as Guardiola greet the Etihad in our lifetimes, and nor may there be the chasm of tactical competition of their closest, and outed, rivals. Spurn the occasion, and their place in history will be capitalised. Perspective, and humility, will be fundamental to any such prospective accomplishments. The former of these may be evaluated by the political observations of the prophetic George Orwell; ‘whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.’ Though the physiological exploits of the season may win matches, underlining any potential ultimate achievement will be courtesy of psychological resolve. Whether Guardiola’s nucleus prove capable will indeed unveil in shortly upcoming proceedings. In the meantime, it may be considered, through the perception of reality, that even Joseph Stalin – callous and unrivalled – once lamented that ‘history shows that there are no invincible armies.’ Invincibility, indeed, is only an eternal optimist’s sport.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!