Pep and Jose Go to Manchester
The European season kicks off this Saturday with the first day of fixtures in the Premier League. We tried to write a brief preview by sending emails back and forth. A Slack Chat if you will, except without any fancy productivity software. Unsurprisingly, we failed. It’s not brief. We had so much to say we decided to break up the conversation into four exquisitely edited parts. This is PART ONE.
Jesse: So I bet you’re really, really, really excited about Pep’s arrival at Man City. What kind of impact will he have at City? Will we see the same effect he had at Barcelona and Bayern? Do you think a team can dominate possession in the Premier League, week in and week out, the way Bayern and Barcelona did in Germany and Spain under Pep? I’m just not sure a Pep club can effectively play the same way in the Prem given the financial resources of even mid-table teams. The Premier League featured 17 of the 30 richest teams in the world in 2014/15. Only three teams in Germany (Bayern, Dortmond and Schalke) and Spain (Madrids and Barcelona) made the list.
Matt: I think a Pep club can absolutely play the same way in the Premier League, on a cold wet night in Stoke. His teams have repeatedly dominated possession against Arsenal, the most ball-dominant side in England throughout Pep’s managerial career. Plop his Barcelona or Bayern teams in the Prem, and I think they’d be even more ball dominant (and would maintain their effectiveness) in a league that tends to eschew technical philosophy in favor of hard running and one with so many teams that try to hit on the counter attack.
However, I don’t think THIS team will be able to be so ball dominant AND effective, yet. Manchester City doesn’t have the horses. The squad pales in comparison to his Barcelona side, and to a lesser extent his Bayern side, when it comes to the ability to maintain possession and knock the ball around in the engine room. His summer purchases–particular Gundogan–are an effort to address this, but they don’t make up the slack. As currently constructed, they will likely have a harder time pressing and winning the ball back quickly than his other sides too.
But don’t underrate the Philosopher. He’s more flexible than people give him credit for. His Barcelona side in 2008-2009, with Eto, Henry, and Messi in the front 3 and Yaya Toure in center midfield alongside Xavi and Iniesta played very differently from his latter Barcelona sides, with less possession. And his Bayern team was very different from his Barcelona: attacking far more with pace on the flanks in Robben, Ribery, and later Costa and Koeman, and relying on a more traditional central striker to put away crosses and tidy up around the box. I’d say 6 of the 7 years he’s been a manager, his team was Europe’s best (his second year at Bayern being the exception, when Madrid and Barcelona were both stronger when fit), and while he always managed great players, his best players’ strengths varied a lot. And he always got the most out of them.
To answer your question, he’ll have an effect; he’ll figure out a way to match his philosophy to what is currently a side in transition. He’s almost universally regarded as the best by the people who he’s worked with, players and brass, at Bayern and Barcelona. But the team that was built around Kompany, Silva and Toure is no more, and no one has emerged to take their place, save maybe De Bruyne (who I expect to take a at least a step forward under his new manager). I think I’m uniquely low on Kun, but he doesn’t do it for me at all. That’s what to me is so fascinating about this team. It’s not can Pep do it in the Premier League–we see time and again in European competition that the league is overrated and despite it’s resources it has been a technical notch below Spain. It’s can Pep do it with a middling side–I don’t think they are a top 4 team on talent–that doesn’t play to his strengths as a manager in a league famous for its players’ indiscipline. And if he can, then how, cause it will look different.
Jesse: I tend to agree. With the right set of players, City under Pep probably could control games in the same way he has at Barcelona and Bayern. For instance, if you dropped Bayern in the Prem, they’d be just fine. Man City just don’t have the players at the moment. I think you ARE uniquely low on Kun. When healthy, he’s probably the best striker in the Prem. His fitness issues over the past three years, however, have made that a somewhat irrelevant fact. I think Pep will begin to transform City into a high pressing, possession dominant side this year. But it’ll be two years before we really see the finished article. City and Pep are good enough, however, to compete in both the Prem and Champions League while Pep is overhauling the squad.
Matt: There’s been another big managerial arrival in Manchester. How do you think Jose Mourinho will fair at a ZLATAN!ized Manchester United? And is it possible that the two biggest stars in soccer, or at least the Premier League, are managers?
Jesse: Jose and Pep go to Manchester might just be the biggest transfer story of the summer and a great title for a children’s book. Sir Alex always said that the most important person at any club is the manager so he would definitely support that statement. As great as Pep and Jose are, I tend to think that the top coaches are essentially interchangeable. Bayern played different under Pep, they were more dominant, but the results were not necessarily better than under Heynckes. How many extra wins would you say that Jose or Pep generate over someone like Pellegrini?
Matt: I think good managers affect things beyond the margins in games, where their impact can be minimal over the course of one season (although it’s often significant). They create a successful culture, and they attract the best talent. Bayern would have only been a little bit worse if Pep didn’t replace Heynckes in 2013-14. But they would have been a lot worse by last year–it’s worth noting that the only healthy members of what really made up their pre-Pep core were Muller, Lahm, and Neuer. Barcelona are still profiting off the legacy of Pep; Chelsea managed to win a Champions League six years after Mourinho left and it somehow still felt like Jose’s team. Pellegrini–who is one of the world’s better managers, if a notch below the top-top circuit–will leave nothing at City.
Jesse: That’s a good point. Perhaps the biggest impacts a top-tier manager has on a club is the development of a philosophy and culture, and attracting talent. For all of LVG’s flaws, tactically, and philosophically, he did bring lots of talent to United.
Matt: And by “star” I didn’t mean most important or influential. I meant star in the true meaning of the word–a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. A generator of attention. Where the flashbulbs are directed. I don’t think there is any doubt that Mourinho has been the biggest star in the Premier League over the last three years. And the four biggest stars since I started watching soccer religiously in 2008 are Pep, Jose, Messi, and Ronaldo, in no particular order (although maybe in that order). So to answer my own question–since you refused to acknowledge its true meaning–yes, the two biggest stars in the Premier League are managers.
Jesse: Ok, then. I guess by your definition of stars, Pep and Jose rank up there. Might want to throw Neymar into the mix. He’s kind of a big deal. But I take your point. Jose stole the headlines for much of the past three years with Wenger’s sideline shove, his description of Wenger as a specialist in failure and his bizarre takedown of the universally liked Chelsea team doctor, Eva Caneiro, as perhaps the three highlights (and not in a positive way).
We know Pep will keep his head down and avoid conflict if left to his own devices. But Jose is unlikely to to let that happen. He’s already taken a swipe at Klopp and Wenger. And i don’t doubt that his attention will turn to his old nemesis Pep before long. Jose is not going to change. He is what he is.
Putting aside the off-the-field Jose-related distractions (and i think we can expect quite a few), I do think United will be really really, good this year. Their financial strength has no equal in the Prem, and they’ve spent a ton over the past few seasons. I think we can agree that LVG forgot how to coach during his stay in Manchester. His decisions were baffling and his style of play, infuriating. Moyes did a better job with a substantially worse team than LVG. Moyes is back too, btw, at Sunderland! Man U may have the deepest and best squad in the league at this point, and Zlatan, even at 34, is utterly dominant. His combination of skill and size is unique, and it’s a skill-set that should allow him to play at a very high level for at least two or three more years.
Jose tends to get the best out of his players, at least for the first two years, and I don’t see why Man U will be any different. I’m curious as to how Rooney is going to fare. We’ve both felt that the criticism of Rooney has been unfair over the last three or four years, particularly in light of LVG’s suffocating stranglehold over the team, but Rooney’s level has undeniably dipped and the United front five looks pretty crowded at the moment. I think we’ll see a very strong season from Rooney. I actually think United is probably a slight favorite to win the league, especially with Arsenal’s thin squad and a City team in transition. Jose has a bit of work to do integrating all the new pieces together, but that’s one of his strengths.
Matt: I agree United will be a lot better with Jose, mostly because they remove the giant, gaping hole that is LVG, whose inability to accommodate the talents of Angel Di Maria was mind-boggling. And it’s a mischaracterization to say he forgot how to coach while at United. Since his time at Ajax in the mid-90s, he oversaw two fallow periods at Barcelona, failed to qualify for the World Cup with the Netherlands, spent a bunch of time coaching at AZ Alkmaar in a league that was no longer relevant, under-performed and was driven out after two years at Bayern, did okay and got really lucky on the managerial retirement circuit he was again relegated to that is International soccer, and then fell on his face at United. Amazing that he keeps getting good jobs, and amazing that the press at United treated him with kid gloves and graded him on a curve for a year and a half, mostly because he was an overconfident jackass. Says something about very problematic perceptions of and infatuation with swashbuckling masculinity. But I digress.
Rooney–I kiiiinda think he won’t have a great year? He’ll be 31, which for a player like him is really a good five or six years past his prime. Mourinho has indicated (which doesn’t mean much to me) that he’ll be playing behind the striker (ZLATAN!) as a number 10. Which I think is partially true–if the manager’s most recent stints, at Madrid and Chelsea, are anything to go by, he’ll play a 4-2-3-1, with 3 buzzards who are somewhat interchangeable behind ZLATAN! As it currently stands, those buzzards include the likes of Martial, Lindgard, Rashford, Depay, Mata, maybe even Valencia, and the Mouthful Transfer of the Summer Henrikh Mkhitaryan. I’m not saying they are all better than Rooney, but even though a couple of those will be shipped out it’s very crowded, and Mourinho likes to play a consistent 11. A lot depends on who can develop a good relationship with the mercurial (but unselfish) Swede.
With (the dare I say overpriced) Pogba coming in, he’ll probably partner with Schneiderlin in the midfield, and their defense will be buoyed by the return of the adorable (if not gay) Luke Shaw. Writing this has got me excited for them, they should be fun, even if Mourinho is the worst.
Jesse: United should be fascinating to watch, Rooney in particular. He obviously can’t be the marauding swashbuckling striker of his more youthful days, but I think he has the skill set, passing range, and tackling ability, to be effective in a deeper role. It is just a question of whether he can tactically make the transition. I wouldn’t put much stock into Jose’s initial press conferences. Jose is a pure pragmatist and will play Rooney wherever he feels Rooney will be more effective than his competition. We know he’s not going to be more effective than Zlatan, but that leaves 4 or 5 other positions where Rooney might play. I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves Rooney back to a deeper role, like he did with Cesc. Also wouldn’t be surprised to see Rooney floating behind Zlatan. And wouldn’t be that surprised if Rooney finds himself a substitute for much of the season.
I’m excited to see how it all shakes out. Should be fun to watch. If only they still had Di Maria. I’m getting upset just thinking about the waste of talent masterminded by LVG.
Matt: You’re wrong about Rooney. But I’m just super stoked that Pep and Jose will be in the same city, battling it out. I don’t think the English press is ready. Take those kid gloves off!