With the possible exception of Manchester United’s mega-signings of Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Paul Pogba, the most exciting additions to the Premier League this season are a trio of managers. Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, and Antonio Conte are now in charge of Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea respectively. One game isn’t enough to really say anything about how these managers and their new clubs will fare over the course of a season, so first impressions of their opening weekend victories (plus an extra Friday helping of the Special One) will have to do.
Pep Guardiola (Manchester City 2 – Sunderland 1).Embed from Getty Images
Just one game in, Manchester City already bears their new manager’s imprint. Playing without new signings İlkay Gündoğan and Leroy Sané, without rumored transfer target Claudio Bravo, and with John Stones at the club less than a week, Guardiola has already significantly reshaped the side in his image.
The most obvious and discussed element of this transformation are the inverted (or inside, or false) fullbacks. Rather than providing width on the flanks, Guardiola had both Gaël Clichy and Bacary Sagna tucking into the middle to perform a holding midfield role, sometimes individually and sometimes together. While that aspect of Guardiola’s Bayern Munich seemed to be based on the special talents of Philippe Lahm and David Alaba, Clichy and Sagna are simply very good players, suggesting that Guardiola has come to view this as an optimal general strategy for his style of possession-oriented football.
Part and parcel of that strategy is to have Fernandinho (and eventually, one suspects, Gündoğan) dropping back between the center backs to help with defensive cover and distributing the ball. (Though now closely associated with Guardiola, this tactic was developed by peripatetic former Mexican national coach Ricardo La Volpe, and is known as the salida lavolpiana). With Nolito and Raheem Sterling (or Sané) providing width high up in the attack, this formation actually starts to look very much like Herbert Chapman’s WM (or 3-2-2-3) formation that transformed football tactics at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Probably the most surprising aspect of Guardiola’s first game, however, was the decision to play left fullback Aleksandar Kolarov at center back alongside Stones. Whether Guardiola sees Kolarov as a stand in for the injured Vincent Kompany or a longer term solution remains to be seen. In his post-match press conference, Guardiola declared Kolarov’s game one of the best performances he had ever seen from a central defender. Guardiola has never been overly attached to traditional player positions, so Kolarov is likely to see at least some more time in the middle. Though Nicolás Otamendi played mid-week against Steaua Bucharest with Kolarov back at left back, both he and Eliaquim Mangala seem likely to join Joe Hart on the outside looking in.
That defense remains the least settled part of Guardiola’s side. Both Clichy and Sagna still look uncomfortable in their new roles, and when Sunderland did finally manage to challenge them, Jermain Defoe’s goal revealed the lack of understanding and communication between the back four at present. Mourinho’s Manchester United at Old Trafford on September 10th will provide a much sterner measure, one that the current side will need to improve significantly to meet.
Critics dismiss all of this ceaseless innovation as needless tinkering (even tactical guru Michael Cox has sometimes suggested as much), and slow-going against a Sunderland side that only just escaped relegation last season will do little to change their mind. While positionally, City reflect Guardiola’s Bayern side, in terms of pace and (lack of) directness of play they are more like his tiki-taka Barcelona.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing–those “boring” Barcelona sides did manage to win a trophy every now and then–but it will ensure that the criticism that has followed Guardiola since his Barcelona (and Del Bosque’s Spain) reframed tactical thinking in world football will continue unabated. Based on the narratives generated about his Bayern side, Guardiola’s City will be labeled a failure unless they win both the Premier and Champions League. That’s a tall order, but I wouldn’t bet against them doing the former.
(If you’re interested reading more about Guardiola’s radical tactical thinking, check out Adin Osmanbasic’s account of Guardiola’s Positional Play philosophy.)
José Mourinho (Bournemouth 1 – Manchester United 3, Manchester United 2 – Southampton 0).Embed from Getty Images
Part of the interest in José Mourinho’s arrival at England’s largest club has to do with the soap-opera-for-men narratives that dominate contemporary sports writing: Ferguson’s rejected son returns, his old enemy Guardiola (the favored son of Barcelona in an earlier rejection narrative) set to recreate El Clásico in Manchester, the specter of Chelsea’s collapse last season haunting the whole affair (and added point by the presence of previous scapegoat Juan Mata in the side).
But there is also significant interest in how Mourinho’s Manchester United will actually incorporate it’s newest recruits with last year’s team and particularly with Wayne Rooney. Despite the general consensus (see both Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox) that Pogba is best served by a 4-3-3, Mourinho has deployed a 4-2-3-1 in both early games. That makes sense in terms of providing Rooney a starting spot in the middle; whether it will cause problems against sterner competition than United has thus far faced remains to be seen.
United’s current 4-2-3-1, however, is already tilting in the direction of 4-3-3. In both games, one of the deep-lying players was clearly in a shuttling role, joining the attack. In the opening game against Bournemouth, Marouane Fellaini was shuttling while Ander Herrera retained a more defensive position. In that game, Rooney was actually pushing up from the No. 10 spot frequently enough that the team often looked like a 4-1-3-2.
Against Southampton today, it was Fellaini holding and Pogba shuttling; and he did not seem to be hampered in the system, though Claude Puel’s Southampton did not look like top competition. Fellaini’s disciplined positioning suggests that he might just prove the physical holder that Mourinho is likely to desire, especially if Pogba is there to help distribute the ball and/or drive it forward. It seems likely that Mourinho will maintain this 4-2-3-1 at least in the short term.
There remains the drama of Mata, who has started both Premier League games on the right despite his history with Mourinho at Chelsea and his being a substituted substitute in the Community Shield. It seems certain that Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who replaced Mata for the final fifteen minutes of today’s game, will eventually replace him in the starting line-up as well. Whether Mourinho is simply putting Mata in the shop window or believes he will need him as a squad player this season remains to be seen.
What seems absolutely certain is Zlatan Ibrahimović’s position as the lone striker up top. He has scored in all three games and is looking very much the superstar he believes himself to be.
Mourinho is usually framed as a pragmatist, code language for a coach that will park the bus at the first opportunity. But in reality, Mourinho’s sides have always mixed an absolutely non-negotiable defensive solidity with thrilling attacking options. Ibrahimović, Pogba, Martial, Rooney, Mkhitaryan, and even Mata (should he remain) offer just such possibilities going forward. If Mourinho can produce a riveting and effective counter-attacking side that is also comfortable in possession against inferior competition–and the opening two games look promising in this regard–he will be a refreshing change at Old Trafford. What sort of team he will field against his old enemy’s Manchester City in just under a month, however, remains to be seen.
Antonio Conte (Chelsea 2 – West Ham United 1).Embed from Getty Images
That Conte’s Chelsea looks more like its predecessor than Guardiola’s City or Mourinho’s United should not be surprising. Conte, after all, has inherited a team that is only one season removed from winning the Premier League. However one explains Chelsea’s catastrophic first half of last season, the capacity of its players to return to an elite level, with the possible exception of aging left back Branislav Ivanović, is not in doubt. Against a solid West Ham side, Conte’s Chelsea looked very much like Mourinho’s league-winning side.
Where Conte’s Juventus and his more recent Italian national team both played with three at the back (the same three, as it happens), Chelsea retained their traditional back four of Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Ivanović. Indeed, they more generally echoed Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, albeit with new signing N’Golo Kanté playing alongside Nemanja Matić.
But it would be foolish to dismiss Conte as primarily a player motivator brought in just to raise spirits and steady the ship. He is that, and fiercely so, but even in this first game, the beginnings of his tactical vision can be seen in Chelsea’s midfield. Though Matić started the game beside Kanté in what looked like a 2nd holding role, Conte described his side as a 4-3-3, and you could see Matić slowly shifting his position forward when Chelsea was in attack.
This description seems even more apt in explaining Oscar’s role in the side. Though Oscar was clearly the furtherest forward of the midfield trio, acting in something like a traditional No. 10 role when in attack, he would usually fall back to the right of Kanté in defensive phases, creating Conte’s midfield three. In this regard, Oscar might be imagined as replicating Pogba’s shuttling role at Juventus.
But where that Juventus midfield was built around the deep-lying distribution of Andrea Pirlo, Chelsea’s midfield three looked more like the hard-working trio of Conte’s Italy, Kanté a rich man’s Daniele Di Rossi flanked by hard-working two-way players. Neither Matić nor Cesc Fabregas seem quite suited to this role, and it will be interesting to see whether one of those two can adapt or convince Conte to alter his plans. If not, perhaps Willian will take up a more central role alongside Oscar, with Juan Cuadrado or Victor Moses given a more substantial chance at right wing.
However Conte eventually sets his side up, do not be fooled by xenophobic British pundits who dismiss Chelsea’s chances this year. In the already fiercely competitive arena of professional sports, Conte’s reputation for ferocity nonetheless stands out. He will make Chelsea competitive with other top sides, even if it kills a few of them.