Saturday 24 March 2018

Big-name bosses looking over their shoulders

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola shake hands. Both United and City will be fighting for the title this season. Photo: PA
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola shake hands. Both United and City will be fighting for the title this season. Photo: PA

Chris Bascombe

There has been an unusual lack of managerial volatility among the Premier League's leading clubs this summer. History tells us it will not last.

When the top seven last opted against managerial change in the summer of 2015, only two (Arsène Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino) started the following year in their job.

If season one is a bedding-in period, season two of the 'process' is where judgments are made. Clubs are intolerant of a downward trajectory.

For Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Ronald Koeman - those about to begin their second full season in charge of their respective clubs - the slack they have been cut so far gets thinner from herein.

Guardiola is causing ructions within football's philosophy department. Anticipation about how his puritan ethos will impose itself on English football has been balanced by bewilderment as to how spending his way to success will differentiate him from Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.

The Spaniard may seek to achieve the same goals with a more alluring style but will it really be so extraordinary and worthy of deification given he has plundered so much on proven talent rather than followed a development ethos? Only if Guardiola wins the Premier League and leads City into unknown territory in the Champions League can he emerge favourably from comparisons with his title-winning predecessors.

Guardiola's rivals will need no invitation to point with envy and disparagement at City's latest expense sheet. Mourinho will deliver weekly bulletins as the clash of personalities deepens as stakes rise.

Mourinho's campaign to portray Manchester United as plucky underdogs seeking to regain their throne amid insurmountable financial odds fools no one, but it is entertaining. The United manager has a philosophical divide of his own to deal with. Fans mumbling about his cautious style were silenced by two trophies in his first season. They expect more artistry than pragmatism as he constructs his own side. Mourinho will calculate that as long as he is winning, such dissent is insignificant. He is probably correct. The United challenge will be significantly stronger and this could be the year Paul Pogba proves his value.

For Klopp, the question is how much has he learnt from the mistakes not just of last season, but before he became Liverpool manager? Liverpool games are a pleasure to watch, but not just because of attacking blitzes. Their defensive vulnerability is as much a guarantee of goals. And they have purchased only one new defender.

Last year a couple of injuries were the difference between Liverpool going the distance in the title race and fighting to hold onto fourth. That could be the case again.

Wenger starts under stress. Should Arsenal stumble out of the blocks the excruciating atmosphere at the Emirates will surely overwhelm his side.

Despite signing for two more years, Wenger is in the midst of scrap for a dignified exit. If he leaves on his own terms his twilight years in North London will be extraordinary.

For Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur the arduous challenge is to recreate more of the same but better. Antonio Conte seeks to reverse the trend of dysfunctional campaigns following title-winning years.

Pochettino must shed a nearly man tag and overcome a Wembley curse. There has been much discussion about Spurs' relative lack of new additions, but the loss of White Hart Lane will have most impact.

Of those seeking to break into the top six, Everton have been most proactive, Koeman seeking out the best players who many top four sides considered but did not feel would improve them. Losing Romelu Lukaku has left a void but the Merseysiders should go closer to the top four.

The rest of the Premier League is divided between those trying to push through a ceiling of seventh and others who would willingly accept 16th. Leicester's chances of "doing another Leicester" appear remote, despite Craig Shakespeare restoring order at the end of last season.

West Ham and Southampton have pushed on in recent years, but must improve on disappointments last season. West Brom will probably stop playing when they get to 40 points. There is much to admire about Hawthorns stability, but it is hard to imagine the Tony Pulis/Gary Megson coaching dream team will have Baggies fans skipping with anticipation to home games.

Stoke are firmly established in the same mid-table zone, perpetually wondering whether they are in the midst of a golden era of Premier League security, or in a ceaseless quest to find some kind of drama from repetitive campaigns.

More adventure may be found at Crystal Palace, where the season begins with anticipation and trepidation. Frank De Boer's fashion makeover will need time, but boards often get twitchy if admiration for the intent is not matched by results. De Boer is wise to have retained Sammy Lee.

For Watford, Bournemouth, Burnley and Swansea, there will be an anxious glance at the quality of those promoted from The Championship.

Newcastle will surely never go down while Rafa Benítez is in charge, although each transfer window will expose tensions between manager and board, the ongoing "briefing wars" making St James' Park resemble Donald Trump's White House.

Chris Hughton has a point to prove at Brighton - especially when he travels to Newcastle - and David Wagner's Huddersfield are the most welcome of guests. Charismatic Wagner will instantly become the neutrals' favourites wherever Huddersfield travel, whatever the results.

In this latest summer of absurd spending, it would be something for European football to cherish if Huddersfield are empowered by goodwill and bloody the noses of the aristocrats.


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