Manchester City have set the premier league alight this season, as is often the case in England one single team has been completely dominant. Despite the general belief that the premier league is the most competitive around Europe, Chelsea won the league in 2016/17 with 7 points to spare after leading by 11 points during the title run in, the year before the unlikely winner’s Leicester bested the rest of the premier league by 10 points. The year before that Chelsea were champions again winning by 8 points.
Whilst you have to take into account the general drop off in various teams form after the title has been secured, in the last few seasons the destination of the title has been decided well before the final day. Which brings me to the current runaway leaders ; Guardiola’s city team. After a routine victory over Chelsea, Man City now sit a princely 16 points clear of the rest of the premier league.
The premier league is now a foregone conclusion. But this didn’t happen overnight.
Lets look at the path of the previous and likely Champions as an example of the two different courses a team can take.
Lets start with Pep’s City team. Guardiola has been City manager coming up on two full season’s. When he came into the premier league, there was much excitement about his appointment and rightly so. He was a manager with an excellent pedigree joining a plethora of household names in the premier league. Guardiola has a clear way of playing, a distinct style of football, a philosophy, if you will. His style of football and his approach on team building is in direct contrast to Antonio Conte.
Perhaps interestingly Pep is famous for moulding a team into his own philosophies, with many stories of players Pep has coached, lamenting about his intense training sessions, where players learn more about the game and become better players. His imprint could still be seen on the Bayern team long after he left, and no one needs reminding of his legacy at the Camp Nou.
Whereas Conte in his first months at Chelsea insisted he would act like a tailor, finding a tactical ‘suit’ to fit the Chelsea squad he inherited. Two contrasting styles and its been very interesting to see how the two managers have fared two years in.
Getting back to Pep, we saw his ruthlessness and commitment to his philosophy. Pep deemed Joe Hart wasn’t conducive to the way he wanted to play, and off Joe went. Whilst his replacement Claudio Bravo held smoke from every striker from Kane to Diouf. Pep kept faith in his philosophy. He was ridiculed by the english media for casting off their precious England stalwart, Hart and replacing him with a Goal keeper that could do everything but his job. Peps credentials were questioned. Was the mighty premier league too tough for Pep ?
Pep continued to build his team in his image and we see the results, every player seems improved effortlessly, interchanging in the free flowing system. The style of play is clear and defined and the player’ trust and belief in it. Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, John Stones and Nicholas Otamendi, perhaps the most notable improvements under Guardiola. All these players have been questioned at some point, mostly due to their transfer fee.
However Pep buys players that fit his philosophy, young and talented with bags of potential, but ultimately trainable. He needs a left back ? He wants Mendy ? Monaco ask for 40m ? Pep pays the money gets his man and moves on.
Whilst transfers aren’t always this easy the principal remains. There are no singings City made that Pep didn’t want, there are no short term fill-ins that waste money, City sign the players that they need.
Now lets look at Conte’s Chelsea. They struggled initially to find the right ‘suit’, and eventually settled on the infamous ‘3 at the back’ Italian number. This led to success with the mechanical efficiency of the system taking the premier league by storm. However the difference between Chelsea and City or Pep and Conte is that Chelsea’s fix, became their identity and not their, philosophy.
Let me explain the difference.
Chelsea settled on the 3-4-3. It was not Conte’s intention to play this formation it was merely an option that brought success. ‘If it aint broke don’t fix it’. However Chelsea recruited as if they didn’t know how they wanted to play. The 3-4-3 requires 2 central midfielders with energy and dynamism as they have a lot of ground to cover, these central midfielders however must also be adept at building up play and carry a creative influence. Kante carries the energy in this midfield. It seems logical that Chelsea would have brought in a more creative, goal scoring central midfielder along side him. Instead they brought in Bakayoko and Drinkwater. The system also requires creative influence from the 2 wingers. Whilst Hazard provides this, Willian is painfully inconsistent and Pedro is more in the mould of a second striker, or a raumdeuter. Yet this need was not addressed. Chelsea ended up with short term fixes and panic buys, resulting in a squad devoid of any real quality.
I could go on and on but it seems a majority of coaches in England practise functionality over philosophy. Mourinho’s style seems to be a functional desire to avoid defeat, but there is one thing that is easily noticeable. Functionality works for getting a team out a relegation struggle, it can win you a title in your first or second season, however functionality more often than not doesn’t last. As evidenced by Mourinho’s track record, Conte’s struggles, and the tendency of relegation threatened clubs to hire the same functional mangers to escape relegation, only to discover themselves back in the struggle the next year as the functional uninspiring football expires. Im not saying that functional football doesn’t always work long term, look at Burnley, their philosophy is clear for all to see, be solid and not give anything away, but they are fully committed to that system, and they sign players to that end. Hence why you don’t see them in the market for the Pogba’s and co. Unsurprisingly the immense pressure on the managers in the premier league often leads them to turn towards functionality. The few managers that do have the bravery to try to leave their imprint often lose their jobs. See Frank De Boer at Palace.
Is philosophy the way forward ? Do clubs have to give coaches more time and resources to mould teams in their image ?
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