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A Manager Will Decide the Premier League This Season

The greatest collection of coaching talent in the world is about to do battle in England

Musto Design
Musto Design

When Arsène Wenger arrived in England, in 1996, banning halftime pints of beer was considered exploiting a market inefficiency. The 46-year-old Frenchman showed up at Arsenal’s Highbury in North London with some silly ideas about foreign players, beautiful football, and the importance of a good diet. He’s been there for 20 years, and in that time he revolutionized football in the country.

“When Arsène arrived, he changed things,” said Patrick Vieira, a midfielder under Wenger at Arsenal, and the current manager at New York City FC. “You weren’t allowed to eat chips with brunch. You weren’t allowed the butter. You were doing all the stretching. He’d bring a nutritionist to make us understand how important it is to eat properly.”

He introduced new dietary restrictions to a soccer culture that had none. He placed an emphasis on tactical acumen and individual creativity in a soccer culture that traditionally thought bigger and faster meant always better. And he tore down the figurative border surrounding football in England: When the Premier League began in 1992, less than 5 percent of the playing force was foreign; in 2005, Wenger selected the league’s first all-foreign starting 11.

Since 1996, Wenger has won three Premier League titles and six FA cups. Marshalled on the field by Vieira, Arsenal’s undefeated 2003–04 team, “The Invincibles,” went undefeated in league play, and is still considered among the best sides in league history. They have not finished outside the top four since the 1995–96 season, a feat no other team has accomplished during that time. The highest compliment you could pay Wenger, now in the final year of his contract with the club, is that all of the best managers regularly employ the methods and tactics that he introduced to the game, when he first arrived.

That’s also his biggest problem. He’s got a lot of competition now.

“The game changed from when I was playing because the teams are better organized, the teams are better prepared,” Vieira said. “I think it is more difficult now than it was 10 years ago.”

When the Premier League kicks off this weekend, the top-six teams — Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham — will all be led by one of the top 10 or 15 managers in the sport. Wenger himself has called this season the “world championship of managers.” While many of the best players in the world can be found on Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich, the Premier League now has more managerial talent than any league in the world — and it’s not close.

This season should be one of the most competitive campaigns in Premier League history, as all six of those teams have a legitimate chance to win the title. Across the board, the talent levels are so close that the clash of managerial personalities and playing styles won’t just be the most fascinating story line of the year; it’ll likely determine who’s lifting the trophy come next spring.

Postrevolutionary Pep Guardiola

In 2012, just four years after being purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group and becoming one of European football’s richest clubs, Manchester City won its first Premier League title. From a qualitative standpoint, they’ve been the dominant team in England since then, but they’ve only won one additional Premier League crown during the Sheikh Mansour era. There’s a not-insignificant line of thought that a team with all of City’s resources should basically win the league every year. If there’s one manager in the world who knows how to live under those impossible expectations, it’s their new boss, Pep Guardiola.

In his first four years as a top-flight manager, Guardiola won three league titles and two Champions League trophies with Barcelona. It’s not an overstatement to say that he revolutionized the sport. We’re firmly in the post-Pep era of soccer: Every top team seems to have defined itself in opposition to Guardiola’s Barcelona or taken one of its philosophical tenets to an extreme. His Barca sides could possess the ball for 90 minutes if they wanted to — and if they ever lost it, they’d hunt it down and win it right back. They turned free-flowing soccer into a systematized march forward by creating numerical advantages across the field with 11 players all adept at passing. Then once the ball got into the attacking third, Guardiola empowered his players to be creative:

But when you win everything and you change the game, is there anywhere to go but down? After leaving Barcelona, Guardiola went to Germany in 2013, and took over a treble-winning Bayern Munich team. Under his watch, they demolished the domestic competition and played some of the most trippy high-level soccer Europe has ever seen — positions only vaguely existed, and it often seemed like all 11 players were attacking midfielders. However, a Thomas Müller penalty miss, the existence of Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale, and the arbitrary nature of goalscoring kept Bayern from ever reaching the Champions League final, and Guardiola left Germany without achieving his ultimate goal.

With former Barcelona CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain now in the same roles at City, the club has provided Guardiola an opportunity to recreate his Spanish glory days. Unless Raheem Sterling turns into Lionel Messi, that probably won’t happen. But with Guardiola, the results often feel like they’re secondary; it’s more fun to just watch him try.

José Mourinho vs. Stability

No matter what, José Mourinho is the story. If his team is winning, it’s because they’ve finally bought into Mourinho’s grind-it-out methods. And if they’re losing, Mourinho will poke an opposing assistant coach in the eye, he’ll complain about a cow sitting in the middle of the field, he’ll call another manager fat, or he’ll suggest that Arsène Wenger is a pervert.

Back in 2008, Mourinho had already won the Champions League with FC Porto and a pair of Premier League titles with Chelsea. There was an opening at Barcelona, and Mourinho had worked there before, but Barca chose Guardiola, instead. From that point on, as Jonathan Wilson wrote for Sports Illustrated, “… Mourinho had decided to define himself in opposition to Barcelona: the club had rejected him and he in turn rejected its philosophy.”

Mourinho moved to Italy and took over at Inter Milan, where he won two league titles and a Champions League. The 2010 Champions League semifinal between Inter and Barcelona was a perfect example of Mourinho Ball. His Inter team survived with 10 men against Guardiola’s Barca, holding possession for just 14 percent of the match (they lost, but went through on aggregate score). Maybe you didn’t need the ball to win. (Of course, Barcelona then won the Champions League again the following year.)

Mourinho’s teams are always tightly coordinated defensive units, and they’re at their best when the other team has the ball. Ceding possession lets Mourinho’s teams do what they are best at and draws the opposition farther from their goal, so when Mourinho’s teams do attack, the path to goal isn’t as crowded.

The approach is possibly cynical and often boring, but he’s won trophies at every club he’s managed since 2002. He gets results, but the success isn’t sustainable at one club for too long. He’s yet to manage a team for more than four full seasons, and he almost always leaves a burning building in his wake when he departs.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, Manchester United have been looking for a long-term successor, but there’s very little to suggest that Mourinho will be the guy. In Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the club added three superstar-level players this summer, so the ingredients are certainly there for one special Mourinho season. And that’s what he does better than anyone: He maximizes his team’s performance in the short-term, even if it all eventually goes to shit. But if Mourinho beats Guardiola, he won’t be worrying about what happens next.

Jürgen Klopp and Heavy Metal Football

After signing a six-year contract in July, Jürgen Klopp can look further into the future than any other Premier League manager. He took over for Brendan Rodgers eight games into last season, and his version of the team finished the campaign at a 1.6-points-per-game clip, which was only 0.1 better than Rodgers. Liverpool finished eighth in the league and lost in the final of the Europa League.

So, why is that worth six years of security? First of all, Liverpool were significantly better under Klopp — their expected-goal differential per game with Klopp was 0.53, and 0.33 with Rodgers — even if the results didn’t show it. But more importantly, he gives the team an identity:

In a lot of ways, Klopp feels like the midpoint between Mourinho and Guardiola. He takes Mourinho’s dedication to defending and Guardiola’s progressive philosophy and smashes them together. What comes out of the collision is gegenpressing, a teamwide philosophy built around winning the ball back as soon as you lose it. It’s an inversion of the idea that the best defense is a good offense. His team wants to attack, and they want to score, but they’re only going to attack in a way that’ll leave them in position to immediately try to win the ball back if they lose it. Mourinho’s teams wait for moments of transition; Klopp’s try to create them.

In Germany, he took Borussia Dortmund from a 13th place finish in 2007–08 to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010–11 and 2011–12. If a team can play with a coordinated reckless abandon, then Klopp’s Dortmund teams did just that. They reached their peak with a 4–1 win over Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the semifinals of the 2013 Champions League:

Dortmund went on to lose to Bayern Munich in the final. The next season saw Guardiola arrive in Munich, and Klopp’s team never sniffed another Bundesliga title. During his final season in Germany, the club plummeted into the relegation zone before clawing their way back to seventh place by season’s end. Was the tank finally empty? Was Klopp asking too much of his players? Does heavy metal football have a shelf life? Did that Dortmund team suffer from a stretch of rotten finishing and poor goalkeeping? What went wrong?

A neurotic Liverpool fan (read: me) might worry that Klopp’s philosophy is destined to fizzle out in England — there’s no winter break like there is in Germany — but by the end of this past season, he already had them playing like a pack of wolves. And since Liverpool didn’t qualify for European competition, they’ll have less games to deal with than all of their closest competitors other than Chelsea. With all of the clubs around him either in managerial transition or in Europe, he’s not gonna get a better chance to vault the club up the table.

Maurico Pochettino, Arsène Wenger, Antonio Conte, and the Limits of Control

Arsène Wenger (Getty Images)
Arsène Wenger (Getty Images)

In addition to Guardiola, Mourinho, and Klopp, there’s also Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino. Conte frightened his way into our hearts this summer, and he’s taking over a talented Chelsea side coming off a terrible season; the last time he found himself in a similar situation, he went undefeated with Juventus.

Like Klopp, Pochettino employs a similar high-energy, pressing approach with his players, and his team put up the best shooting numbers in the league last year.

“It will be an exciting league,” Vieira said. “I think all of the managers have something very special that they’re doing, and they all have their own personality, and that should be important.”

And then there’s Wenger. In some ways, he laid the groundwork for all the competition that might finally knock his team out of the top four. And while he hasn’t stopped innovating — the guy mentioned expected goals in a press conference — Arsenal still haven’t bought that striker it seems like they’ve needed for the better part of a decade. Wenger has his methods, and last year, his team put up the kind of numbers that would usually be good enough to win the league.

“To have a relationship with the players and to trust the players. To try to have the door always open. To talk to them,” Vieira said. “That is something that I take from Arsène.”

As his career winds down, maybe that’s what Wenger’s doing: trusting in the guys he has. If it worked for Vieira and The Invincibles, who’s to say it won’t work now?