The cult of the 'new breed' Premier League manager
Van Gaal has reminded us that nobody is more important than the super-coach
Published 08/08/2014 | 02:30
Here they are, the superstars of the Premier League in their designer suits, six o'clock shadows and those hard, meaningful stares. What a picture gallery of serious intent and soaring ambition they make on the countdown to a new season.
So who do we have here? Diego Costa, the new lion of Chelsea? The platoon of fresh Liverpool names mobilised at huge cost to fill the gap left by Luis Suarez?
Perhaps it is Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez who will seize the centre of the stage – or maybe an allegedly recharged Wayne Rooney at Manchester United?
Maybe yes, maybe no – because we might just be missing the most intriguing cast list of all. We may have been a little slow to pick up on football's fastest growing cult.
It is the one attaching itself to the men who are increasingly seen as the true arbiters of the new campaign, the super-coaches around whom the odds-makers are increasingly shaping their forecasts.
If you doubt this you only have to check the shortening odds against Manchester United, consigned to the wilderness so recently, making an instant return to the Champions League and a serious charge at the title they surrendered so haplessly last season.
Is this because they have signed the impressive, but scarcely earth-moving midfielder Ander Herrera from Spain and the young and now hard-training full-back Luke Shaw? Of course not. It is because Louis van Gaal has reminded us, as his predecessor Alex Ferguson did year-in, year-out, that nobody is more important than the man that shapes the ethos and the tactics of his club.
Under Van Gaal, United look like a serious proposition again and the more you delve into his background, his success in such varied theatres of action as Holland, Spain and Germany, the more you see why the bookmakers have nominated his team to finish close to the Big Two, Manchester City and Chelsea, and ahead of Arsenal – despite the Sanchez splash – and streets in front of Liverpool, despite their frantic efforts to fill the Suarez vacuum.
Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers delivered a multi-point warning to Van Gaal on the unique perils of the Premier League – shortly before seeing his team outplayed by United in the final of the close-season tournament in America. What the bookmakers are saying is that United have acquired the biggest aid to momentum of all, a coach who knows how to get the players he likes to play – and those he doesn't onto the ride out of town.
Van Gaal could hardly have made a more arresting impact at Old Trafford after his inspired stewardship of third-placed Holland in the World Cup. For the moment that makes him the leader of the pack – but of course it is some pack with senior members anxious to re-establish their credentials in the next few weeks and months.
Across town, Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini runs a long way second to Van Gaal in the matter of self-projection and mystique-making, but then what a debut he made in charge of the Premier League's classic under-achievers. After years of fine work in Spain – where he systematically enhanced his reputation as "the builder" at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga – the Chilean landed his first big trophy on this side of the Atlantic.
But if it was above all a triumph of patient husbanding of impressive resources, it also suggested that in winning the trust of a group of players who seemed most adept at making civil war he may have announced himself as just about perfectly fit for purpose at this stage of the hugely rich club's development.
Pellegrini certainly looks comfortable in the front row of any roll call of the new cult of the coaches.
More so at this point, certainly, than the more familiar figures of Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.
Wenger ended a nine-year trophy drought in the FA Cup but he finished no nearer to banishing fears that his team's brittleness at the hard end of Premier League and Champions League business had become endemic.
Now he comes into the season snarling his criticism of Manchester City's acquisition of the time-expired Frank Lampard. If you like your cult figures bathed in a little more devil-may-care conviction about their own activities, rather than excessive concern about the moves of others, you may just be inclined to turn Wenger's picture to the wall.
Could that, too, be the impending fate of the man who seemed to have so comprehensively cornered the market in personal aura – Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho has now gone two full seasons without a trophy, which is something many will see as not so much a thin streak for the Special One as an encroaching disaster. He needs a big season, a major re-statement of his power to be a winner in even the most discouraging circumstances – it is a basic obligation now of someone who wants to be a leading light in the new aristocracy of football.
With his resources, and proven ability to re-invent himself, not least in his own bathroom mirror, Mourinho is still given sufficient benefit of the doubt to be made favourite to carry off the Premier League title.
That seemed inevitable last season when he went to City's Etihad stadium and produced a tactical masterpiece in a 1-0 victory. That gave the Mourinho brand a huge boost – but only a temporary one.
Certainly there is a delicious edge of intrigue as Van Gaal seeks to build on an opening offensive of brilliant authority, Pellegrini works to entrench his own and Mourinho, Rodgers and Wenger strive to win back lost ground.
And behind them there are other coaches aching to expand their impact – Roberto Martinez at Everton, Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham and, in the white knuckle salvation department, Sunderland's Gus Poyet.
It has, of course, always been at the heart of football, the demand on men like Bill Shankly or Matt Busby or Ferguson to make new empires. What Van Gaal, and his cult rivals, have maybe achieved is a new understanding of why it is so important for one football man to decide what is right and what is wrong.
The rewards have never been higher – nor, it has become increasingly clear these last few weeks, the demands.