The walks, the handshakes, the hugs. The roars, the songs, the insults. The angles, the cameras, the close-ups. The pre-match talk, the analysis, the build-up.
This isn’t about Zlatan Ibrahimović, Alexis Sánchez or Eden Hazard, Diego Costa or Jamie Vardy. This is not about Paul Pogba or Roberto Firmino or Harry Kane. A strange change has come over English football.
The show-starters and the showstoppers are now different. They prowl touchlines and wear suits. Some wear sports jackets and track pants. They have greying hair and drink wine after matches. They prod their expensive timepieces and scream at star players. They watch, they observe, they pontificate. They are José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. They are Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp; Arsène Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino and Claudio Ranieri.
They are the managers.
If La Liga is home to the skill of Lionel Messi and Neymar and the audacity of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, then José-Pep-Antonio and Co. bring to English football something unprecedented: a collection of the world’s most successful and famous football managers, all working in the same league. Imagine Napoléon Bonaparte, Geronimo, Dwight Eisenhower, Erwin Rommel and George Patton lined up against each other in battle.
The biggest battle (so far) of the football generals came on 10 September, when Mourinho and Guardiola, long-time adversaries, met after a four-year gap. The two managers are polar opposites in terms of football philosophy. The Manchester Derby was their 17th clash. Mourinho was looking to arrest Manchester United’s chaotic descent into mediocrity after three years under two failed managers; and Guardiola was looking to take Manchester City to greater heights, as he had done with Barcelona.
It was a thrilling match, with Guardiola emerging victorious for the ninth time in one of football’s most storied rivalries. Mourinho’s United couldn’t afford to sit back once they had conceded two goals, with the Portuguese sacrificing defensive players for attackers in a bid to steal an equalizer after Ibrahimović had made it 1-2. There was no parking the bus against City, led buoyantly by former Mourinho-reject Kevin De Bruyne. As soon as United got going, Guardiola threw in the burly Fernando, shifting to a False 9 formation and stifling United’s attacks in the final third. In the furiously paced tactical battle, Guardiola just about edged out his old rival.
Mourinho conceded defeat at the end, graciously. This time, there was no eye-gouging. But all the cameras were poised on the two men. They hugged. For now, there is peace. But the gauntlet has been laid down. Guardiola said after the match that “there is no negotiating” that his team will play with the ball. Mourinho lost two more games and dropped his captain, Wayne Rooney, a decision David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, the two managers who preceded him, never had the courage to take. It worked. United beat league champions Leicester City 4-1 with the lens placed firmly on Rooney’s face, reddening with every goal his team scored. And on Mourinho, who later said, “Rooney is still my man....” Since then, Rooney has not started for United.
Then came the battle between Klopp’s Liverpool and Conte’s Chelsea. Klopp, in his black tracksuit, rage simmering on his face, breaking into spectacle-smashing celebrations induced by breakneck football and gegenpressing (harrying the opponent ceaselessly), his singular contribution to football. Conte, fired up, passion boiling in touchline rants at players, jacket flapping in a tangle of adrenalin-fuelled gestures, forcing his team to defend like Italians and counter-attack like Germans.
Gegenpressing won the day. Klopp’s adrenalin-fuelled antics trumped Conte’s histrionics. Liverpool have now beaten Arsenal, drawn with Tottenham and hammered champions Leicester; they have suddenly come to life under Klopp, who isn’t shy of asking his team to play a chaotic style of football.
“He (Wenger) likes having the ball, playing football, passes. It’s like an orchestra. But it’s a silent song. I like heavy metal,” he said at a conference recently.
The great Conte, the invincible midfield general of Juventus, who led the team to five Serie A titles as a player, and three consecutive ones as a manager, is not having a good time.
And it was Arsenal’s orchestra that brought Conte another defeat. Wenger, who has been at the club for 20 years, untouched by the clamour to sack him and the demand to buy a world-class striker, later proclaimed he was “hungrier than ever” after the 3-0 win against Chelsea. There is place in this league yet for its most legendary managers; Wenger not only made Arsenal the great team it is, but is widely regarded as the man who changed English football forever, bringing in a kind of professionalism and data-backed management style that has now become de rigueur in all top-flight football.
Conte was reduced to rubbing his chin in vain. Yes, Conte has managed to make winger Eden Hazard play with joy again and bring back Costa’s annoyingly edgy demeanour. But all those positives are quickly undone in the cut-throat world of the Premier League, where Chelsea languish in seventh place: “Today, we understood—me first, then the players—that this league is very tough,” Conte said after that defeat. “I don’t sleep. This is normal. After this game, this defeat, it’s normal for me not to sleep. Not only one night, but for two nights. When I don’t sleep, I reflect. And it’s important to reflect.”
Conte must reflect, and quickly. Winning in England now means winning against the best tactical brains in the sport. Guardiola himself has some reflecting to do. After 10 straight wins, his team first drew against Celtic in the Champions League and were bullied by Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspurs in City’s first league loss of the season. For large parts of the match, it seemed Spurs were playing with 22 men rather than 11. Such lung-busting displays are rare in any league in the world. Spurs’ 2-0 win over City had shock value and served as a message to the master of tiki-taka: His system can be broken, it will be broken.
Klopp’s Liverpool have already scored 18 goals in seven games. Mourinho has tasted a hat-trick of defeats. Twenty years into the job, and Wenger still has to prove his worth. And there are those who go under the radar: Dutch legend Ronald Koeman’s Everton are, surprisingly, in fifth place. Pochettino’s Spurs, powered by unlikely South Korean star Son Heung-min, are in second place. Champions Leicester, under the wily Ranieri, sit at 12th spot but still managed to win both their Champions League games.
Years ago, when Mourinho was one of the only managers in the league with the outsized personality and razor-sharp tactical acumen to challenge the hegemony of Alex Ferguson and Wenger, he anointed himself “the special one”. He wisely uses another epithet for himself now, for this is a league full of special ones.