Although the eyes of the national football scene, from Lands End to Berwick-upon-Tweed, will be fixated on the diminishing array of FA Cup fixtures this weekend (or last weekend, if you’re reading this later into its life cycle), I thought, in all my dumbfounded desperation for a topic this week, I’d take the opportunity to analyse the trio of high-profile overseas managerial revelations who are grabbing headlines in an unprecedented manner currently. Contemplating the success, or lack thereof, in the cases of Antonio Conte, the high-octane Italian at Chelsea, Jürgen Klopp, the methodical German steering Liverpool’s erratic ship, and Pep, or more correctly Josep, Guardiola – a fragile Spanish soul in the wake of worrying performances from his Manchester City side, in translating their entirely unique footballing philosophies into points and potential trophies on the English stage, is our goal this week, one that I’m sure will pose a number of thought-provoking queries along the path. Discussing tactics, signings, potential final league positons this season and the threat of owner impatience hanging over their highly-coveted heads, direct comparisons at such early stages in their respective careers at their chosen clubs could be viewed as unfair, but when the stakes are clear; achieve to line the owner’s, and inevitably the club’s pockets, or face the wrath of both the fickle fans and the unrepentantly callous board members, such objective critiques are necessary.
The benefits of hindsight should never be underestimated, especially in football, where the unfolding of certain recent events can be clearly pinpointed to the actions of particular individuals just months or weeks earlier, prior to even the appointment of the likes of Conte, Klopp and Guardiola. It is in this mind that we kick off our deconstruction of the events of the Premier League, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Champions League campaigns of each of these three distinct sides, under the helm of some undoubtedly world-class bosses, both this season, and in one case, partly last term too.
West London, and to the soon-to-be reimagined Stamford Bridge, is where we head first, in accordance with current table position. Appointed all the way back in April, but having only linked up with the Blues in the aftermath of his impressively resurgent European Championship campaign with Italy, in which the Azzurri dethroned Spain, only to suffer the heartbreak of having Simone Zaza’s infamous penalty, amongst a string of poorly executed spot-kicks, mark their defeat after 120 minutes of heroic action against world champions Germany, it’s fair to say Conte has been a masterstroke of an appointment by the notoriously picky Roman Abramovich. Continuing his wing-back-reliant tradition – from which he made his name at Juventus, and on international duty – in the British capital, after some gentle encouragement, it must be said, the conversationally reclusive, but typically passionate Italian successfully negotiated what had appeared a low-key, straightforward opening set of fixtures back in August. Using the period as a gauge of the side’s adaptation to various tactics which he was employing on the training pitch, Conte soon decided, bravely some may argue, to abandon a more common, in recent tradition, 4-2-3-1, in which Willian and Eden Hazard were relied upon to provide for Diego Costa in a re-enactment of their roles under previous boss Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, while on the subject, had to be commended for leaving the club in good health and rapidly recovering form following the implosion of Jose Mourinho just months after winning the 2014-15 season, as without his selfless efforts, Conte would surely not have had the groundwork on which to mount a title challenge.
This was by no means a minor tactical tweak, however. In the immediate wake of a damaging 3-0 defeat to a technically inspired Arsenal in late September, Conte soon realised his attacking midfielders, or number 10’s, at the time – Oscar and Cesc Fabregas, were the weak links in his team. Dropping them, which later led to the exit of the former to China, and the regular benching of the latter, in favour of an extra centre-back, the pushing forward of two wing-backs – with the seemingly out-of-favour Victor Moses and predicted bench-warmer Marcos Alonso being handed their chances – into midfield, and the formation of a new front three, including Pedro, for once, who seized his opportunity in place of Willian, was this momentous alteration. A series of tactical swaps which possibly decided the direction of the Premier League trophy, even by October. Soon demolishing Manchester United and Everton 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, the tactic, which gave his pacey, yet increasingly technically sound, attacking firing squad more freedom in which to work off each other – with lynchpins Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante, as well as mobile defenders David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta, himself a vitally, and dependably, versatile option, relied upon to cover more space than ever in stemming opposition forays. Since, it has been nothing short of outstanding, one of the single most ruthless solutions to the numerous challenges of the English Premier League in its history, and all by a manager completely alien to the division. Leading to a consecutive twelve weeks at the top of the table since that demolishing of Everton, the rest, as they say, is history.
Chelsea’s dominance to this stage, nevertheless, is not solely attributable to Conte’s imported tactical processes. His adept transfer tactics, as well as a man management strategy starkly opposite to that of, say, Mourinho, has aided his cause in arguably the ultimate test of domestic club football in the world no end, with his ability as a manager to turn his hand to many a distinct role akin to that of his highly talented squad. Targeting options for his 3-4-3, or in some cases 3-5-2, Marcos Alonso, as previously mentioned, was an inspired signing, but one that few Blues fans would’ve predicted on a transfer deadline day on which they also re-signed Luiz for a cut-price £30 million, given his pedigree as a former Bolton rotation option, with a loan spell at Sunderland also to his name, albeit one that could be attributed to the world-renowned Real Madrid academy. Noting his distinct development at Fiorentina, however, Conte swooped for the left-back, adding to the considerably earlier business - purchasing Michy Batshuayi and Kante, two stars with inflated prices from their productive Euro campaigns, and Premier League success in the latter’s case, and a vital duo who added different skills to the already title-worthy list of names on their books. Coaching these egos to fit the roles of his favoured tactic, and cutting those who didn’t fit the grade (which almost included Costa, before he backtracked from a move to China) meanwhile, is Conte’s biggest acclaim, as enforcing the discipline, along with a vital bond with natural instinct, has been a deciding factor in the West Londoners’ astounding, and overdue, return to the top.
Drilling such intricate tactical procedures into previously underperforming individuals is not a skill unique to Conte in this season’s title race, however, far from it in fact, and another leading face in this field just happens to be heading the resurgence of Merseyside’s primary club – Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. The perennially stubble-masked, bespectacled footballing philosopher, perhaps the jewel in the crown of the German FA’s well-esteemed coaching system with his revolutionary Gegenpressing scheme, has a universally appealing sense of humour, rarely attributed to managers and German citizens alike, making him a rare breed in an extremely competitive pond - and a refreshing contrast to the ever-pokerfaced Conte and Guardiola. It is not his personality that the Fenway Sports Group judge him upon though, and ultimately, results are what will prove his methods a success, with the buds of such accomplishments finally beginning to burst through the groundwork of the club this season. The Reds’ poor month to this point cannot be ignored, yet to prove their winning ability - other than when edging past Plymouth in a third round replay - without the perhaps undervalued presence of Senegalese pace demon Sadio Mane, having previously impressed in periods in which they had lost key figures Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, and a definite concern for Klopp heading into this weekend’s tie with Wolves (which at point of edit they seem likely to lose).
Yet, to the point at which Mane did depart for Gabon just three weeks ago, the Scouse outfit had hit domestic heights unrecognisable in the past 30 years for them – other than perhaps during Brendan Rodgers’ reign, and the infamous last-minute collapse of 2013/14 – with a footballing style that took the masses by surprise. Sporting a fluid 4-3-3 formation more commonly attributed to the Spanish obsession, perfected by Vicente Del Bosque on the international stage, with a high-tempo, fitness-dependent preference for rapid closing down of opposition threats, usually encouraging multiple players on a single opponent, Klopp has taken to Premier League life in a peculiar manner. While vastly improving performances, perhaps without patching up an unreliable defensive quintet – including the farcical goalkeeping battle of attrition between Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet – his overall effect on tournament performances has been put into question, particularly in the past few weeks. Falling to a previously out-of-form Southampton in a EFL Cup Semi-Final, a Swansea side clearly not as defensively incompetent as the Reds themselves in the league, and, as aforementioned, being taken to an FA Cup replay by a dogged Plymouth outfit, Klopp’s tactical tendencies have been brought into serious question this week, with only a single cup to fight for, and now all of ten points behind Chelsea in the league table.
Perhaps opposition managers have finally found the chinks in Klopp’s supposedly efficiently-formed chainmail, maybe the sub-standard calibre of his playing options, at least in comparison with their title rivals, has been uncovered, with their tactical understanding maximised, or, alternatively, the extent of his considerably slighter budget has been reached. Even with the tactical mastery of an outstanding individual in his field, a man who led a side, not unalike from his current employers, fallen giants reliant on top coaching and adept financial management, in Borussia Dortmund, to be consecutive Bundesliga winners and Champions League runners-up in just five years in charge, the physical, and mental, capabilities of his players can only take him so far.
Be honest, who at Liverpool do you consider to be world-class in their role? Phillipe Coutinho? Roberto Firmino maybe? To be bluntly objective, these two represent about the extent of the club’s financial potential at this point in time, and, even as leading Premier League players, they can’t regularly break into the Brazilian national team. Forced into selecting James Milner, although revelling in life after retirement from England duty, at left-back is not what managers in a position to be winning the Premier League title should be doing. Employing Georginio Wijnaldum, Divock Origi and Trent Alexander-Arnold as replacements in the event of squad injuries, in the biggest of games as well, should not, similarly, be the option available to a boss of Klopp’s quality. His aficionado-like knack for developing young talent should not be dismissed, but to be openly performing this practice while in the midst of what could be a very tight title fight is an unenviable position to be in, and one that both Conte and Guardiola will be grateful, given their respective clubs’ financial positions, not to be in themselves.
Perhaps Klopp, the mystifying figure he is, revels in this task, building a squad specific to his needs, and has the support of John Henry and co. in this plan, but to witness his aspirations screeching to a bit of a halt recently has been painful for the neutral, and I’m sure amplified for those of the Liverpudlian faith. Comparing Dejan Lovren, Emre Can and Sadio Mane currently to Gary Cahill, N’Golo Kante and Pedro, or to Nicolas Otamendi, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling, is an unfair contest, as even in very similar roles, on their best days, there is a vast distance between their respective calibres for me. It will take time, and funds, for the Reds to develop into the side I’m sure Klopp envisages – challenging not just for national silverware, but also competitive on the continental stage (Champions, rather than Europa, League, preferred) – but in a league more competitive, both football-wise and financially, than any other in the world, with far more to prove in a shorter period, this is time and money that the Fenway Group can ill afford, even for a once-in-a-generation boss like Klopp.
As for our Mancunian representative on this managerial break-down, Pep Guardiola, it’s fair to say, isn’t having the best season of his career, which I’m sure has more to do with the off-kilter returns of his side, rather than the miserable Lancashire rain. Following a ten-match winning run (in all competitions) that seemed to have set the Catalan, hired for his highly-regarded, yet widely misunderstood philosophy, not to mention his track record of delivering trophies at financially well-endowed clubs, on a run that could even culminate in an unprecedented debut title, the dream, which the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss would’ve shared with Sheikh Mansour, has appeared to fizzle out since. Convoluting, needlessly trigger-happy and pompous are just some of the barrages that have been thrown at a seemingly broken Guardiola since, though perhaps in less eloquent terms, with the shocking 4-0 deconstruction to the hands of Everton, as well as the embarrassing implosions against both Chelsea, and, more erroneously, Leicester, markers of teething problems. A lack of discipline, in sharp distinction with a Chelsea side built on the attribute, has too often spelled their downfall, with four red cards more than Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United (each of whom have none), and the highest number of yellow cards of any side in the top seven being flashed their way over the course of 22 matches so far.
Defensive organisation, too, has been a noteworthy point of focus for fans and pundits alike, with Nicolas Otamendi the only regular fixture in a much-tampered back line that at some points features the highly-berated John Stones, at others Aleksander Kolarov, almost a City veteran and utility man better known for his free-kicks than his marking, and at various points, Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy and on rare occasions, even Vincent Kompany, a ghostly presence around the club in the event of his unfortunate injuries. Without a true back-up to Stones, in the awkward position that Guardiola appreciates his style, but not his execution, City are lacking stability alongside a rock in Otamendi, who, when partnered with a reliable ball-player, can live up to his experience as a World Cup finalist. Not to mention Claudio Bravo, the confidence-shot Chilean, a disaster of an executive decision by Guardiola, in that while widely berated for his tendency to ‘play with his feet, not his hands’, his command of the 18-yard box has been a distant shadow of that which the likes of Otamendi enjoyed from Joe Hart.
In my eyes, Guardiola has gone head-first with a foolishly un-English game, not an apparent issue when the likes of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Conte arrived, with the three playing distinct systems; one based on flowing passing moves, another on methodical, even torturous spring-trap counter attacks, and the final on expansive pitch coverage, but certainly a concern for a plan which places a large burden on the intelligence of existing individuals. Asking his side to adapt to positional techniques never previously demanded, for example Clichy and Sagna, ageing and unheralded full-backs, relied upon less to join attacking moves in the traditional sense, but to join the midfield, which mainly consists of just Fernandinho, behind a vastly more attacking quartet most commonly of Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and David Silva, Guardiola, has been expecting far too much from his resources. This is certainly true when considering his demeanour when things haven’t gone his way, batting off journalists and remaining strategically silent on refereeing issues. Misinterpretations of the background of his position haven’t gone amiss on the great Pep’s part either – with the team suffering when Toure is dropped deeper alongside either Fernandinho or Fernando, and Sterling, resurgent under what a system which personally allows more freedom, seemingly encouraged to dive for results after a last week’s draw with a markedly settled, well-structured side in Spurs – which would only reverse the winger’s issues back to when he was lambasted for diving a couple of years ago.
I feel that the marked separation between Guardiola and his Italian and German counterparts here is that while the latter duo have sacrificed much for the success, or potential future accomplishment, of their sides in a credibly selfless manner, the Spaniard has headed to England entirely self-conscious, aware that his record – a truly unbelievable one with 14 trophies in the space of just four years - was on the line, and sacrificing the understanding of his side for personal glory. By persisting with a tactic that, while appearing to make the best of what the club had, tinkered with individual roles to the nth degree, thereby creating a workload far greater for his players, far from the youngest, compared to that of Conte’s, Klopp’s, Pochettino’s or Mourinho’s, Guardiola created his own problems in a job that has become increasingly about a personal mission to prove his tag. Clearly, Guardiola is a footballing genius, one that many, myself included, may never fully comprehend the inner wirings of, but when it comes to the Premier League, I can’t help but feeling it is bound against him in its very existence.
There are no Messi’s, no Xavi’s, no Iniesta’s or Thomas Mueller’s for him here; he has to work with what he has, which currently encompasses Sergio Aguero, too often suspended, Kevin De Bruyne, not quite the player he was last season and David Silva, lacking the explosive give-and-go ability of years gone by, as its chief qualities. Guardiola has before adapted and built new approaches, yet his next tactical move will have to be drastic to bring evident accomplishment before a transfer window or two’s worth of preferred talent is recruited, by which time Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Stones and Sterling may have developed mightily. For this, Guardiola can but hope, while also dropping his stubborn pursuit of former glories, as inspiring the form of many of his players’ lives is the single most important factor in a manager of his qualities, behind even the strategic procedures of which for his players to successfully create openings, as with players of their calibre, that is always possible. Perhaps his regimental, conclusively cold approach is a turn-off for the likes of Stones, whereas the unremittingly positive psyche of Klopp encourages performances above expectations. Certainly, their respective managerial dilemmas apply to the phrase ‘it’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there’.
Yet what parallels can we see between these three special managers? Given their very immediate tactical approaches, each highly distinct and picked apart by pundits into oblivion, which define them as men, not just as professional bosses, they each appear a shock to the English norm. How any of them have succeeded is a testament to the universally appealing nature of the modern Premier League, encapsulating the best of a global melting pot of intellectual and physical brawn in which only the very best, or at least those who apply themselves at the pinnacle of their personal abilities, accomplish serious feats. It is a test unalike to any other; that is why so many have failed, and so many from outside the region have been recruited. English coaching systems are geared against such a rigorous procedure, with a vast majority of truly unique, inspired tactical attitudes sourced from foreign watering holes, and, from my outlook on the game, it is only these individual strategies which do ultimately succeed. Ultimately, Conte, Klopp and Guardiola will succeed. Whether each will be in England at the time is a tougher matter to gauge, as only one has so far exceeded expectations, importing the correct balance of managerial qualities. Our remaining duo certainly have made admirable attempts at this, but with little to show yet, the jury is still firmly out on Messrs Klopp and Guardiola heading into a historically decisive stage in the season.
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!