Friday 9 December 2016

Brian Kerr: Endless intrigue in a league like no other

Influx of superstar names ramps up excitement ahead of big cross-channel kick-off

Brian Kerr

Published 13/08/2016 | 02:30

Jose Mourinho’s every move at Manchester United will be under the microscope. Picture credit: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
Jose Mourinho’s every move at Manchester United will be under the microscope. Picture credit: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

It will be remembered as the summer when the big names either arrived or returned to English football. Pep Guardiola. Jose Mourinho. Antonio Conte. Paul Pogba. Zlatan.

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Note that three of those five names belong to managers. And we haven't even mentioned the fact that this is Jurgen Klopp's first full season in charge of Liverpool, that it may be Arsene Wenger's last at Arsenal, and that there is a case to be made for Mauricio Pochettino bridging a gap back to 1961.

Read More: Paul Pogba: The inside story of the world's most expensive footballer

And that's before we get to the challenge facing Leicester or the one Ronald Koeman is staring at with Everton. All these stories, all these angles, and a ball hasn't even been kicked yet.

That's why there is such fascination with the English Premier League. It breeds intrigue and colour. In what other country would you get a story like David Moyes, who three years ago was Manchester United's No 1 choice to replace Alex Ferguson, but whose first job back in English football, after a two-year absence, is at Sunderland?

In most other countries, that would be the kind of story that'd dominate the sports pages. But this summer it's seen as little more than a sub-plot, as the narrative shifts from Leicester one week to Liverpool the next, then onto London but mainly to Manchester, where two managerial Galácticos have arrived.

In Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have the man they have wanted since 2012, when the former Barcelona director of football, Txiki Begiristain moved to Eastlands.

Magical

So it appears to be the perfect marriage, this reunion of former colleagues from Catalonia who share this magical vision of how the game should be played, backed up by owners who have the money to turn a vision into a reality.

And yet the words of Klopp from last week struck a chord: "Pep will find it way harder here than he did in Germany or Spain."

He certainly will. While I have been an admirer of Guardiola's managerial career, and consider the evening we saw his Barcelona team defeat Manchester United at Wembley in the 2011 Champions League final to be the night when we saw football played at a higher level than ever before, a question mark still remains.

In Spain, his only challenge came from Real Madrid, Atletico not being the force back then that they are now.

So, as a result, Guardiola could pick and choose his games to allow his best players rest and recuperate, all the while knowing they would be too strong for the likes of Levante, Sporting Gijon. Then, when he arrived in Germany, he landed at a club who had won a league, cup and European Cup treble the season before.

The house had already been built. All Guardiola had to do was refurnish it. And because Bayern Munich were so financially superior to all their rivals, he did so without any great difficulty.

In comparison to most of the other great managers in the game's history, Guardiola has never had to build a team in the way that Ferguson did with Aberdeen, and then Manchester United, and the way Mourinho did with Porto, in particular, but also, to a lesser degree, with Chelsea.

So there is reason to admire him for taking on this job. It will be the hardest of his career.

To start with, he has inherited an ageing team. Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta are 31, Bacary Sagna 33, Aleksandar Kolarov 30. Vincent Kompany, too, is 30 and has endured two injury-ravaged seasons, playing just 22 times for City last season.

So you can see why Guardiola has signed the players he did.

John Stones is young, just 22, a modern type centre-half who fits into the Guardiola philosophy and while he appeared to be too much of a risk-taker last season, if he can remember to be a defender first and an initiator of attacks second, then City will be better off.

The rest of Guardiola's signings - Nolito, Aaron Mooy, Leroy Sane, Oleksandr Zinchenko - are either attacking or midfield players, and it will be fascinating to see how they fit in.

Will Stones be the key man in defence? And if so who is going to play with - Kompany or Fernandinho? Can Guardiola keep Aguero fit? Can he get more out of David Silva? Can he sort out his defence?

And most of all, can Guardiola adapt to the peculiar nature of English football?

To Monday night matches in Stoke? To the relentless schedule of twice-weekly fixtures in a mixture of competitions where you don't always dominate games, where it is not like Germany or Spain, where teams drop off and adopt a Hail Mary approach of survival?

In England, the helter-skelter approach of games see teams like Leicester, Stoke, even newly promoted sides like Burnley, show far less respect for their opponents than the weaker Spanish or German sides do towards Barcelona and Bayern.

And that is where Mourinho and Wenger will have an advantage over him. They have been there. They know what mentality is required to get results from midweek and weekend road trips over the winter. They know that anyone can beat anyone on any given day.

Depth

They know the Premier League has greater depth than La Liga - where, last season, Barca could finish 27 points ahead of Villarreal in fourth. Similarly in Germany, Bayern were 28 points ahead of the team in third, whereas there was a 15-point gap between Premier League winners Leicester and fifth-placed.

So how Guardiola adapts to England's different culture will be a source of intrigue.

And yet it may not even be the most interesting story to come out of Manchester, where the arrival of Mourinho is worth watching on two levels: firstly to see if he can rehabilitate his own reputation, secondly to see if he can revive United's.

Until last season, he appeared to be the perfect solution to any club who were prepared to employ him. He could win a Champions League off a tight budget (as he proved with Porto) or he could end a half-century title famine (as he did at Chelsea).

With Inter he won their first European Cup in 45 years. And while he failed to usurp Barcelona when he was at Madrid, he still won La Liga in one of his three seasons there.

Plus, he reclaimed the title with Chelsea in the second year of his second spell. Then came last season when, for once, he looked to be just as fallible as other managers.

I was there when they lost to West Ham in October and whereas previously I always considered his behaviour to have a purpose behind it, when he set up conflicts with either the referee or opposing managers to get more out of his own players, on this occasion he lost it completely, getting himself sent off, frustrated with his team and his own failings.

It was the tenth game of the season and they had only won twice. For once, he was not in control of events, whereas in the past, when he was a serial provider of trophies, his anger always appeared to be an act.

That was a primary reason why he was overlooked for the United job three years ago - because his apparent addiction to conflict was not in keeping with the club's tradition.

Three years ago, United were not prepared to risk working with someone whose comments would trigger respected referee Anders Frisk to retire. Nor would his goading of other managers been viewed as acceptable. But three years of dull football can change the view of supporters.

They yearn for colour and excitement, for trophies and a title challenge. They don't want to see their manager sit emotionless in the stand with a clipboard, seemingly unmoved by dire football or defeat, as Louis van Gaal did. They want passion from the sideline - like Conte provided for Italy, like Mourinho provides wherever he goes.

And all these ingredients serve to make this year's title race the most anticipated one in years.

Conte, remember, has the 2014-15 title winning side at his disposal. When he took over Juventus they had finished seventh the two previous seasons. And yet they ended up as champions in his first campaign.

With Italy, he turned a tired team into a winning one. He will bring colour - as, once again, will Tottenham, who aren't being pressurised into selling their best players this season.

They almost did it last season, improving on the fifth, sixth, fifth and fourth-placed finishes from previous seasons to challenge Leicester with the most resolve.

Holding on to Pochettino is significant yet not as significant as the advantage Liverpool and Chelsea will have by not being involved in European football.

United, too, have an edge on City by the fact they are in the Europa League rather than the Champions League.

So Chelsea, United, City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs all have a chance. It's a sign of the strength in depth of this league that I have mentioned six possible winners and ignored Leicester, the defending champions as well as West Ham, another of last year's surprise packages.

This is why England have the most exciting league in the world - although Euro 2012 proved they certainly don't have the best international team.

Irish Independent

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