Sunday 21 October 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Who will be the first to crack under the twin burdens of responsibility and expectation?

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho

Eamonn Sweeney

Looking at Jose Mourinho's behaviour over the past couple of seasons at Manchester United it's hard not to feel that his prime concern is avoiding any blame if the team underachieves. Yet his keenness to provide himself with an alibi probably backfired last term.

Second place was actually United's best finish since they won the league in 2013 yet the achievement was overshadowed by the sense, generated by Mourinho's public statements, of a team in a state of constant crisis. His pre-season complaints about a couple of extra signings being necessary if United are to challenge Manchester City suggests Mourinho will carry on in the same way and place both himself and the club under pressure by doing so.

Paul Pogba's performances at the World Cup will add to that pressure. Last season most people tended to blame the French star's inconsistency on the player himself. He was painted as the very model of a pampered modern footballer. But Pogba's dominant performances at the World Cup mean that this season the onus will be on the manager to show he can get the best out of the player. Mourinho's and United's fortunes may hinge on whether he can do so.

The managers under pressure theme will also apply to Jurgen Klopp to an unprecedented extent. In the past couple of seasons expectations weren't as high at Liverpool as they were at the other big clubs. Re-establishing them as serious contenders and playing the Premier League's most entertaining football was good enough for a club who weren't spending the same kind of money as United, City and Chelsea.

That's all changed now after the addition of Fabinho, Alisson, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri. The £75 million lashed out on Virgil Van Dijk last season was the first indication of the size of Liverpool's ambitions. That made the Dutchman the world's most expensive defender and the similar fee paid to Roma for Alisson is a world record for a goalkeeper. It addresses the team's most glaring deficiency and, with the other signings, makes Liverpool look like the side best equipped to challenge Manchester City.

Yet with great power comes great responsibility and you'd imagine that anything lower than second place this season would count as a failure for Liverpool. Such expectations will be a new thing for Klopp at Anfield and it will be interesting to see how he'll cope.

It will be interesting too to see how the two high-profile newcomers do at the helm of Chelsea and Arsenal. Chelsea seemed to be beaten before last season started at all with Antonio Conte making his unhappiness plain. His replacement Maurizio Sarri is an intriguing character who not long ago seemed like one of those journeymen managers condemned to toil in the lower reaches of Serie A.

Before arriving at Napoli in 2015 Sarri had managed 14 pretty undistinguished teams in 19 pretty undistinguished seasons. But the last three years have enormously enhanced his reputation, with Napoli becoming one of the most attractive teams in Europe and finishing second to Juventus in Serie A last season. He should bring a welcome change in style for a club who've been used to bosses placing a heavy emphasis on pragmatism rather than flair.

Unai Emery arrives at Arsenal after a season in which he won every domestic trophy with Paris St-Germain but again fell short in Europe. That failure made him decide to jump ship before he was pushed and he seems a good choice for the Gunners. There's an air of excitement and expectation at the Emirates and also a certain relief after the degeneration evident in the final seasons of Arsene Wenger's reign. Expect them to be back challenging for a top-four spot this season.

Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola's Manchester City await. Guardiola is under no real pressure, except that created by setting the bar so high last season. A spectacular performance both on and off the field will be required to topple him. I have a hunch Klopp and Liverpool might manage it.

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