The Pep Supremacy

pep-guardiola

Pep Guardiola. Photo by: Felipe Quintanilha, http://www.flickr.com

The build-up was more like that of a fight in boxing: two individuals, two heavyweights, the next contest in a bitter rivalry. Mourinho v Guardiola.

Oh, and Manchester united and Manchester City were also playing a football match.

Bragging rights go to the Spaniard but this was a much bigger win than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. City were miles ahead of their neighbours; 4 or 5-1 would not have flattered them.

This game was proof that United have flattered to deceive so far this season. The extent to which their early season ‘form’ has been heralded, only serves to highlight how dire they were in the last campaign.

Mourinho has brought a bit of grit and made the side more physically imposing, but the swagger that was once the hallmark of Manchester United is yet to return. Even the swaggering Special One has been a little muted and subdued since arriving in the Old Trafford dugout.

One man who presumably swaggered out of the womb is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede continued the excellent start that he’s made to life in the Premier League with another superbly taken goal. At the start of the season, I suggested that Zlatan’s Cantona-esque aura could even make United slight title favourites. I’m glad I haven’t risked any money on that prediction.

They will be a stronger force this time round, more feared and more ruthless, but already I see too many problems to be fixed before they become genuine title contenders again.

Chief among them is what to do with Rooney. If ever a man was living off his reputation then it’s Wayne. When was the last time Rooney dominated a game for club or country? I ask because I honestly can’t remember.

His commitment cannot be faulted but the spark is missing. Rooney is a number 10 and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to positional experimentation, he’s not really a Kama Sutra sort of a guy. He’s willing, but increasingly he’s not able.

Mourinho has a big decision to make: play Rooney at 10 behind Zlatan (and see if they can develop an understanding) or drop him. The captain is rightly a club legend but sometimes even club legends don’t get to choose when their time is up. That clock is ticking for Rooney and I think Manchester Untied would now be a more threatening and more balanced side without him.

The same is true of England incidentally.

Guardiola has already taken the bold step of axing club Legend Joe Hart, who is now off in search of love and redemption in Italy at Torino.

In his place, Guardiola has signed Claudio Bravo, who, unusually for a goalkeeper, is better with his feet than his hands. At least most of the time he is. On quite a few occasions on Saturday he played himself into trouble by taking an extra touch and unnecessary risks in his penalty area. He also managed to drop a cross under minimal pressure, allowing Ibrahimovic to score.

But he also showed just enough to demonstrate why his boss wanted him in his team again. City are already playing the ‘Guardiola way’ and it’s only mid-September. Be warned the rest of the league.

That ‘way’ requires everyone to be comfortable on the ball, including the goalkeeper. Bravo is. He helps to give City a platform to play out from the back and that platform will get more secure as he develops a better understanding with the defenders in front of him.

The evidence of training ground drilling was abundant in the angles that City’s players found, the subtlety of their movement, and the speed at which they broke. De Bruyne was the epitome of that style. He was man of the match and his opponents didn’t come close to figuring out how to stop him.

That too should worry Mourinho.

Guardiola has a footballing philosophy and his City players are showing themselves to be committed scholars. They will only improve further under the master’s guidance. If Pep’s style of play proves to be successful in England, it may be the most revolutionary development in the Premier League since Wenger’s arrival two decades ago.

Patience and quality of movement are not attributes typically associated with even the best Premier League teams. City fans may not now require much patience before they once again find themselves celebrating a league title.

Mourinho won’t give up without a fight and it is of course early days, but the early warning signs are there. City are going to take some stopping.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreline; this was a demolition derby.

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Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Football for sale (one careful owner)

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete www.flickr.com

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete
http://www.flickr.com

The football I refer to is of course the top flight in England and the owner is the Premier League. The price? £5.136 billion paid by Sky and BT Sport for Premier League TV rights packages. For Sky it works out at £10.2 million per game. That might be decent value for Chelsea v Manchester United; with the greatest respect it seems a tad expensive for Hull v Sunderland.

Those latter sides and other smaller teams in the Premier League are arguably the big winners from this deal. Currently all 20 Premier League teams number among the 40 richest clubs in the world, Burnley are reportedly richer than Ajax. Finishing bottom of the league in the 2016/2017 season will come with compensation of almost £100 million.

There’s no question that TV money has utterly transformed football in England with considerable debate about whether that transformation has been for the better. New stadiums, an influx of foreign players and skyrocketing wages for footballers are just some of the changes that have come with the broadcasting bonanza prompted by the formation of the Premier League.

Former Arsenal striker John Hartson has suggested that it won’t be too long until we see the first £1m a week footballer (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/31427562). Some of the top players in the Premier League are currently earning around £300,000 a week. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, the average weekly wage in the Premier League was £3,393 in 1995; by 2005 it had risen to £18,367. Today it is estimated to be £43,717. That average wage is being earned by some very average players.

Mention of such figures quickly prompts complaints that they are obscene. In some senses they are, I’m sure there are even a few players who are a little embarrassed by what they earn. The fact remains though that the spectacle they provide is watched by millions of people all over the world. Broadcasters judge that £10m is a reasonable price to pay to show a single game. Corporate sponsors are also willing to pay huge sums for a piece of the action. With so much money attracted into the game, why shouldn’t players be the chief beneficiaries?

After the TV rights deal was concluded, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore observed that “in 1986 there was no one that wanted to broadcast football. There was not even a highlights programme.” Now, however, we “put on a show that people want to watch and attend – and in ever increasing numbers. There’s more interest than ever before.” That is true and living in South East Asia I have seen that it’s as true here as in the UK, as it is in just about every other part of the world.

What about the fans back in the UK who attend Premier League games? Just after the TV deal was announced Crystal Palace fans held up a banner at their home game against Arsenal protesting that supporters are ‘still exploited.’ I have some sympathy with them (apparently a ticket for the Arsenal game cost around £45) but they are protesting inside the stadium after paying for the privilege of being there. It’s not a very effective method of protest. ‘Treat us with respect or else … we’ll just keep paying and keep coming’ seems to be the message.

I’ve written before that overall I think ticket prices are too high and that clubs could and should do more to at least offer a wider tier of prices. But nobody forces fans to go to games – it is their choice. There’s not much incentive for clubs to lower ticket prices when attendances are on the increase.

I have considerable sympathy for fans when it comes to the scheduling of games. This is now almost entirely driven by the demands of TV audiences. Thus we now have super Sundays (many of which only justify the latter half of their billing), Monday night football and, with the new TV deal, the advent of Friday night football in the Premier League. It’s good news for the ‘remote’ supporters on the sofa, less so for those making their way out the door and to the grounds.

It can all get a little too much even for those watching at home. In this week’s NewStatesman magazine, Hunter Davies finds himself surprised to ask, ‘can you have too much football?’ (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/02/i-never-thought-it-was-possible-have-too-much-football). This question occurred to him after spending 11 hours in a single day watching football on TV. We’ve all been there, at least I have. It’s probably not the healthiest place to be.

The latest Premier League TV deal will likely provoke comment and controversy for some time yet. The sums involved are gigantic and it’s understandable to wonder if the Premier League represents a bubble on the verge of bursting. It’s possible but I don’t think it’s likely any time soon. Football is phenomenally popular and the big English sides are among the most popular on the planet.

Compared to today’s Premier League, the old English First Division looks a bit like an old banger: loveable for sure, full of character certainly, and by no means lacking in quality. The 2015 version is more premium though, it’s faster, and it has become a huge export. You can have it in almost any colour and pick it up almost any day of the week. And it doesn’t come cheap.