It was a weekend of farewells in the English Premier League – to White Hart Lane (1899-2017), to Wayne Rooney as an elite player, to the notion of the manager in perpetuity and, in some important ways, to an era.
The Premier League thrived over its first quarter century as a big-four establishment. The quartet in question turned over every now and again, but almost always included Arsenal and Manchester United. This gave the league a strong (and often tedious) sense of order.
Four teams dominated. Two or three others picked at the edges. Ten or so were happy to survive. Three or four were the chum everyone else got fat on.
The four on top went through to the Champions League, massively boosting revenues and exposure, which in turn allowed them to lure and afford the best players. It was a self-sustaining system.
It isn’t any more. The Premier League has turned into a scintillating free-for-all in its upper third, and proof that the highest possible quality does not always equal the most watchable sporting product. The overall level of play in the EPL is getting worse at the same time the league is getting more interesting.
The two emblematic figures of that change are managers – Chelsea’s Antonio Conte and Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger.
Conte won the league title in his first year on Friday. With the notable exception of midfield Dyson vacuum N’golo Kanté, this team wasn’t much different from the Chelsea squad that failed miserably last year. Under Conte, it was a good side, but often not a pretty one.
The difference in outcome seemed to be that Conte is that rare modern manager who does not arrive in a new job handing out copies of his book, My Philosophy (or, Why Everything You’ve Done Until Now is Wrong). He let good players play in an easily understood, consistent system and – wonders! – they thrived.
All his contemporaries at the top are conspicuously deep thinkers and tinkerers – either about tactics, man-management, formations, training methods, or just about anything anyone asks them about. They’re the sorts of people who can make the team’s assistant nutritionist sound like Thomas Edison.
When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City – a lavishly funded club that hadn’t won anything important in a very long time (i.e. two years) – he fixated immediately on the fundamentals. In this case, the sub-par ball-handling skills of his goalkeeper. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but through the magic of saying something weird often enough, Guardiola made it plausible.
City brought in another goalkeeper who was a silkier passer in the completely empty space between the goalmouth and the fullback. Sadly, however, he could not stop the ball from going into his own net. This is why they call the position goalkeeper and not ball-kicker.
City will finish third or fourth. Girded by his Barcelona and Bayern Munich trophy cases, Guardiola’s job is safe. For maybe six months.
The urbane Spaniard may have mastered the intellectual style of management, but Wenger created it. For 20 years at Arsenal, he has given the impression there are patterns in the game only he can see. His real magic was maintaining the con while his sides were losing. Wenger never failed – players failed him.
That sort of thing was sustainable when Wenger’s contemporaries were bilious screamers or oafish brutes, but as the Wenger mystique became more fashionable, the man himself has become less so.
Arsenal will almost certainly finish outside the top four this season, creating a cascading financial disaster. Wenger’s best player, Alexis Sanchez, is likely to leave in the summer, possibly to a direct rival. He’s engaged in a public knife fight with the club’s CEO over control of soccer decisions.
The harder Wenger grips the reins, the more erratic his horses and their supporters get. He has one last chance to save his job – by beating Conte’s Chelsea in the FA Cup final in two weeks. Even that might not do it.
If and when Wenger goes, the notion of the coaching lifer goes with him. The trade-off for being paid ludicrous amounts (Guardiola is reportedly on $26-million per year) is that the life cycle of a manager has been reduced to guppy lengths.
The world’s elite clubs will no longer wait for great teams to be built. Instead, they are expected to arrive ready-made, transformed overnight through the brilliance of the man on top.
United’s Jose Mourinho arrived in Manchester this year with a reputation as the game’s greatest pragmatist. Manchester gave him a lot of money and latitude. In return, Mourinho’s given it a season no more inspiring than the one that got his predecessor canned. Despite his long history of achievement, he’s already looking shaky.
Winners get the spoils, meaning this year’s fair-haired boys are Conte , (who makes a miserly $11-million and is in line for a doubling of his salary) and Tottenham Hotspurs’ Mauricio Pochettino – the newest genius (until he slips an inch and has his professional head cleaved off).
With the exception of Wenger, no manager in the EPL’s top six has been on the job for more than three years. Three of them are rookies.
That rate of turnover creates organizational chaos, moreso when each new man is expected to change every single thing about his organization and succeed immediately. Conte managed to win in large part because his team’s poor previous season freed it of European commitments. Losing to win. It’s infected soccer as well.
The beneficiaries of all this change are player agents (because new bosses are in constant need of shiny new talent) and neutral supporters.
The complacent oligarchy that ruled the league through most of its modern incarnation is finished (or, at least, pleasingly expanded). It is hard to imagine dynasties any more, not when kings are constantly being dragged out to the chopping block after a couple of seasons.
“The only moment of possible happiness is the present,” Wenger once said. “The past gives regrets. And the future uncertainties.”
Twenty years on the job, he’s only just now about to learn how true that is.Report Typo/Error
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