Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow (meadow!)
One man and his dog (Spot!), went to mow a meadow
Two men went to mow, went to mow a meadow (meadow!)
Two men, one man and his dog (Spot!), went to mow a meadow
...And so on, all the way up to 10 men, getting increasingly more complex as you reach the higher numbers, until you’re forced to get Dylan-esque with the phrasing around about the six-men part when you have to fit in “six men, five men, four men, three men, two men, one man and his dog” without losing complete control of the rhythm and trailing off.
A very long and complex football chant, but not a very threatening or ominous one, under most circumstances, except maybe for this season when it’s being sung by Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge, or wherever else they’ve travelled. This has been one of the favoured chants among ‘The Pensioners’ since at least 1980, intended to goad the opposition supporters into a groaning, agitated frenzy, because as soon as they hear the opening line of Verse 1 they know they’re in for nine more repetitive verses of meaningless gibberish that will slowly beat them down into a dull surrender and wear out their resolve with dreary, maddening tedium.
This season it’s also been a song of annihilation, like all Chelsea chants have now become, with recent performances now lending any chant emanating from the Chelsea terraces a very menacing edge, even if the crowd were to suddenly burst into a mournful chorus of ‘Nearer, My God to Thee’. When you hear the ‘One Man Went to Mow’ chant now, as an opposition supporter, it probably means that your team is currently suffering or is about to endure a similar but more physical submission on the pitch.
Saturday’s 4-2 win over Stoke means that Chelsea have now won 13 straight games, a record-equalling run of Premier League victories. Suddenly clicking after the 3-0 loss to Arsenal (who share the record) in late September, which left them 8th, they’re now six points clear at the top...A relentless and terrifying march towards an end that a lot of people figured was beyond them this season. Even when it was 1-1 against Stoke, and then 2-2, the eventual victory never seemed to be in much doubt.
Once you get sucked into a heavy winning habit, or the habit of not losing, the momentum can be almost as hard to arrest as the grim thrust of a chronic losing streak. The same thing is happening in Spain this season to Real Madrid, who are unbeaten in 35 games. Trailing Deportivo 1-2 on December 10th with 25 minutes to go, it was apparent to everyone that Madrid would win, which they eventually did 3-2. When it was 2-2 in the 90th minute, a Madrid victory seemed even more plausible than a draw.
Only a plague of injuries can stop Chelsea now, it’s widely believed, and maybe not even that...Which is a bummer for the neutral, who after looking forward to a very close season-long title race between City and United, has had to swiftly alter their expectations as they’ve watched Chelsea essentially ruin the season by settling into such a hot winning streak over the last two months that the Guardiola/Mourinho duel now looks like it won’t amount to much beyond a scrap for fourth.
With Chelsea overpowering Stoke at The Bridge on Saturday, a lot of people are now putting their faith in Tottenham to open up the title race by beating or even drawing with Chelsea on Wednesday. Even Chelsea drawing with Spurs could be enough to alter the race to the point where it’s interesting again, and it could then get very interesting with Chelsea set to go to Anfield on January 31st before hosting Arsenal on February 4th.
January 4th...January 31st...February 4th...A stumble on any of these three key dates represents the best chance of the gap being narrowed. After that, looking at Chelsea’s fixture schedule, there is not much hope of them being halted again until April when they have to play City and United. A ‘shock upset’ is still possible in the meantime, but from February 5th all the way through to the City game on April 5th Chelsea will not have to face a club that’s currently in the top half of the table.
Very concerning for the chasers, especially with Chelsea’s absence of European football. Third favourites with 11/2 odds at the start of the season, it’s easy to understand why Chelsea are now favourites for the title with odds of 4/6. The Liverpool v City result that might have crippled City’s title bid, also cemented Liverpool’s status as the Main Threat. Liverpool could now very possibly gain significant ground on Chelsea on January 31st, but between now and then Liverpool could drop points of their own against Man United, which is what made the Spurs v. Chelsea game so critical.
Now 10 points behind Chelsea, another defeat for City would probably be enough to safely rule them out of contention for the title, which is a strange thing to have to write in early January, but it’s hard to make any other prognosis after watching a team slide from 1st to 5th in the space of two months. The collapse actually started earlier, in early October, but they were so far ahead at the time they were able to take two points from three games that month and still be on top.
Which is neither here nor there, for now. The point is that the title race is steadily evolving into a two-horse race between Chelsea and Liverpool, but the current six-point gap makes Liverpool reliant on Arsenal and Tottenham doing their part if they’re to have any realistic chance of overtaking Chelsea.
Conte understands perfectly the threat that Spurs represent, which is why he’s been preparing the team for this clash for some time, in the knowledge that they would only have three days to prepare for it when it eventually loomed up. Chelsea will draw on “work done in the past” to help them against Spurs, Conte has said. “For sure, [Tottenham] is the biggest challenge.”
Chelsea’s success has largely been put down to Conte’s switch to the 3-4-3 system, a formation that the players grasped instantly. The other clear difference, from last season, is that in Conte the players have a manager who they want to play for – an obvious and necessary component to any winning formula that was absent in the last days of the Mourinho Era when key players like Hazard and Costa shut down. This season, Hazard and Costa have racked up over 20 goals between them so far, over half of Chelsea’s total.
“The manager has come, he’s applied his ideas, and things are going well,” Costa recently explained. “The truth is the manager is good with the players, every time making more jokes with the players. That’s good for us to have a manager who is not just a boss but like a person we can talk with, someone whose support we can count on in difficult moments. He is calm with the players and you can see the people love him more all the time.”
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Contrary to a lot of wishful thinking, and my own optimistic feelings about Bob Bradley when he was hired by Swansea almost three months ago, he’s gone now and will not be in charge when Swansea host Bournemouth on New Year’s Eve.
“We are sorry to lose Bob after such a short period of time. Unfortunately things haven’t worked out as planned and we felt we had to make the change with half the Premier League season remaining,” said club Chairman Huw Jenkins in a statement on Tuesday evening.
“With the club going through such a tough time, we have to try and find the answers to get ourselves out of trouble. Personally, I have nothing but praise for Bob. He is a good man; a good person who gave everything to the job. His work-rate is phenomenal and we wish him well for the future.”
“Bradley arrived with a wealth of experience in the game,” the club stated. “He spent five years as the United States’ national boss, winning the CONCACAF Cup in 2007, while he also led them to the 2010 World Cup last 16.”
“He joined the Swans from Le Havre in France. Swansea City would like to thank Bob for his tireless efforts and wish him well for the future. The club will update supporters on the search for a new manager in due course.”
Many had said it would happen this week, while others thought he would be given two more games to effect a dramatic improvement, but either way it didn’t look good for the man from New Jersey; the first American to manage in the Premier League who came to prove he could walk tall and endure ‘in a world he never made’.
Bradley’s odds of being sacked in the hours leading up to his eventual dismissal were 1/4, and the 1-4 capitulation at home to West Ham on Monday was for many people the final confirmation that the experiment had failed...That whatever kind of manager Bradley is or was, and however qualified he might have been, that he was no right fit for The Swans and should probably be put in a dinghy and pushed off Mumbles Pier.
Large sections of the home crowd turned ugly on Monday, settling into a zealous rendition of the ‘WE WANT BRADLEY OUT’ chant shortly after they went two goals down, followed soon after by the ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING’ chant, and the now-familiar ‘GET OUT OF OUR CLUB’ chant aimed at the club’s American owners...Doomful noises for an American manager to hear while watching his team heading for their fifth home defeat of the season without putting up much of a fight.
The frustration and hostility among Swansea supporters was understandable, and Bradley himself would probably have called it fair. In the short space of time since his arrival, Swansea won just two games, took eight points from a possible 33, are still 19th (the same league position they were in when he took over), and conceded 29 goals, 15 of them coming in their last five games, cementing the ignominy of having the worst defence in the league. Swansea’s defensive problem didn’t begin with Bradley, but it did get worse - their leakage increasing from 1.7 goals per game before he arrived to 2.6 goals per game now.
A little over two months ago I wrote that there was “little doubt” that Bradley would at least keep Swansea up this season, which seemed like a safe enough prediction to make at the time when they were just three points from safety. Bradley was a relative unknown when he arrived in October talking about wanting to understand Swansea’s ‘soul’. He was an obvious outsider, but his track record and self-assurance was enough to convince me that he could pull Swansea out of their rut. If he was to be sacked, I thought, then it would probably happen sometime next season after his initial impact and the ‘new manager lift’ had worn off.
Instead there was no lift or noticeable impact at all. Yet even now, I still don’t think I overestimated Bradley by much. Under different circumstances, or with a different club, he might now be making a name for himself in England in line with the reputation he gained in America, but Swansea’s results over the last two months demanded a drastic reappraisal of his chances. Somehow the gap has widened only slightly to five points, but it’s been the manner of the defeats that’s sucked a lot of the hope out of The Jack Army, manifesting itself in the kind of ugly vocal outbursts that were heard on Monday.
Bradley may have failed, but it was always hard to shake the natural sympathy his situation elicited and the sense that he got a raw deal. Let down by the club’s transfer business in the summer before he arrived, he has now been let go before the next window opened, meaning he has come and gone without being given the opportunity to oversee any transfer business at all. Club captain and stalwart defender Ashley Williams was sold to Everton, forcing Bradley to make do with an inexperienced defence, and last season’s top goal scorer André Ayew was sold to West Ham.
If given the chance to acquire the players he wanted in January, Bradley might still have turned things around, but the dilemma for Swansea’s board was whether to bank on that or make the change now so that the new manager can go after the players that he wants instead. Sacking Bradley after three months in charge is a shameful admission that they made a massive error in hiring him in the first place, but the absence of any improvement at all under his watch couldn’t be ignored, and it’s far easier to make a decision based on what he’s done, or hasn’t been able to do, rather than what he might have done in the future.
First-team coach and former Swansea forward and caretaker manager Alan Curtis, and Assistant Manager Paul Williams, will be in charge for the Bournemouth game, but a permanent replacement has yet to be lined up. Among the list of potential replacements are names like Gary Rowett, Chris Coleman, Alan Pardew, and Ryan Giggs...’Proper British’ men, who don’t use strange terminology like ‘road games’ and ‘PKs’ – Americanisms that Bradley, an American, was for some reason forced to defend/explain his use of when he was questioned about it in a recent press conference.
Just why any reporter thought Bradley’s native vocabulary was a reasonable or necessary thing to ask him about, is unclear, but it wasn’t much of a surprise given the big deal that was made of his nationality by the British media when his appointment was announced. Regarded upon arrival by many as a queer novelty act, in some circles Bradley’s shared nationality with the club’s owners was thought to be the only reason he got the job, and it didn’t help to quell the outrage that people like Giggs were interviewed and passed over.
Bradley’s nationality didn’t have much to do with his failure to win over Swansea’s supporters. There’s no cultural difference or disconnect in football that a manager can’t overcome with good results, but it was sadly inevitable that if things didn’t go well his foreign identity would become an issue.
‘Bradley, an American, unfortunately couldn’t survive the intense Premier League...’ This is the underlying, unspoken theme a lot of his epitaphs will go with. ‘He came, he saw, he failed...’
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Mourinho’s thinking has not always been easy to comprehend since arriving in Manchester, but he’s already been vindicated for some of the perceived mistakes he’s said to have made over the last few months. Mkhitaryan, for instance, looks far better now than he did prior to being taken out of the team for a period to whip himself into shape.
As United’s league prospects for this season continued to diminish in late October and into November, Mourinho took a lot of flak for underutilizing and then brutally discarding a player who had 15 assists in the Bundesliga last season and who he paid over £26 million for.
From the outside Mkhitaryan’s exile made no sense at all, but in the four games since his reintroduction he has two goals and two assists, compared to none in eight appearances prior to that, and Mourinho is now being praised for his expert handling of the situation.
The wisdom of his late substitutions has been the latest aspect of Mourinho’s decision making to be questioned, particularly the perverted impulse that prompted him to bring on Marouane Fellaini as an 85th minute substitute against Everton to help ‘see out’ the 1-0 win. Time might also prove Mourinho right for his persistent faith in Fellaini, who he’s now backed publically as a player who will always have his “trust and protection”. But again, in a much different way, Mourinho has found himself operating against the main tide of supporters’ opinion.
"Everton is not a passing team any more like they were in the past,” Mourinho explained. “Everton is a team that plays direct: goalkeeper direct, Ashley Williams direct, Funes Mori direct. Everything direct. When you have on the bench a player with two metres (in height) you play the player in front of the defensive line to help the team to win the match.”
Which makes a certain kind of sense, except, perhaps, when the player you are thrusting into the fray is Fellaini, a graceless, spindly brute who’s racked up almost 70 bookings and committed over 700 fouls since coming to the Premier League in 2008...A man Howard Webb once referred to as a “thug”, and perhaps the only United player that fans talk about in terms as strong as ‘not being fit to wear the shirt’.
Four minutes later, Mourinho’s decision to bring Fellaini on backfired horribly when he clumsily fouled Idrissa Gueye in the box to concede a penalty – a typical Fellaini moment that explained why fans routinely curse his name, and why many of them booed him and howled with anguish when they saw him warming up on the sidelines on Sunday against Spurs and when he was brought on some minutes later.
They were wrong to boo their own player, but it was an understandable reaction, given that they were probably gripped by horrifying flashbacks at the time; that when they saw Fellaini warming up, taking his tracksuit top off and being fed instructions, their minds were flooded with powerful and distressing nightmare visions of what he did the week before and all the things he might have been about to do to jeopardize the victory again.
The dominant thinking among fans when a player is introduced in the closing minutes to help defend their team’s lead should not be the hope that he stays as far away from his own box as possible, but that is now the attitude that Fellaini will have to try to win over. And he will probably be given a lot of opportunities to do so, because he’s now in the ‘inner circle’, with Mourinho stating that he likes Fellaini both as a player and a person.
Considered a misfit by a large portion of supporters when he was signed by David Moyes over three years ago, there was an assumption when Mourinho was put in charge that he would ‘rectify’ matters by either selling Fellaini or condemning him to a Schweinsteiger-style freeze out, but by the time Fellaini was starting against Chelsea in late October it was clear that Mourinho saw the same functional merits in him as van Gaal did.
Having thought about it, it’s probably less of a shock that Fellaini has been relied upon by Mourinho than it was when he became a stalwart under van Gaal. As a tall, physical player with substantial stamina, on a surface level Fellaini fits the mould of the ideal Mourinho midfielder. The problem and contradiction with Fellaini is that he possesses all of the outer physical attributes suited for playing in a deep defensive role, but not the ability or dexterity for it. A strange crossbreed of some kind between a second striker and box-to-box midfielder, Fellaini defies a clear-cut definition, and a few years ago even Fellaini himself was quoted as saying he wasn’t quite sure what his best position was.
A player with useful aerial skills, particularly in ‘duel’ situations, it’s understandable why Mourinho might have felt that the situation called for Fellaini in the closing stages against Everton, but what he perhaps failed to weigh into his thinking were the characteristics that also make Fellaini a liability who’s hard to like or warm to; a lumbering, overly aggressive style that comes across as a product of reckless stupidity rather than anything born out of a calculated maliciousness.
Any opponent challenging for a 50/50 ball with Fellaini can reasonably expect to catch a wild flailing elbow to the jaw or the floating rib. For a long time I had struggled to accurately define or describe Fellaini’s off-the-ball defensive style, but it dawned on me about a year and a half ago when I was watching a Barcelona match.
Neymar, who was having a poor game generally, had attempted one trick too many, was dispossessed, and in an attempt to make amends for it and win back possession quickly he ‘lashed out’ and committed a rash and clumsy foul out of clear embarrassment and built-up frustration.
“Now that’s just plain stupid,” the person beside me remarked. “What’s he trying to do? God, what a damn fool...” I agreed. It happens all the time, but it was only then, after watching several slow motion replays of Neymar’s foul, that I recognised it as Fellaini’s default style going into almost every tackle he makes - like a player operating with a permanent blood rush to the head, overcompensating after making a mistake or giving the ball away, in a constant state of frantic atonement.
The penalty Fellaini conceded against Everton made perfect sense. Even his former teammate Leon Osman, in the post-match analysis, said he wasn’t surprised by it. “When he played for us we wanted him as far away from our box as possible,” Osman said. “I find it strange that Man Utd play him on the edge of their own box.”
The opinion of Gary Neville was that Mourinho’s substitution was correct and that Fellaini had let him down with an individual blunder, which was true, but didn’t prevent Mourinho from being blamed for the ‘negative’ move of injecting into the mix a player with known tendencies to foul, hurt, assault and jab, and assign him a defensive role.
Mkhitaryan is injured now, which means that Fellaini might start tonight against Crystal Palace...And he might also score, but that would still probably not redeem him in the eyes of fans who have designated him a perpetual interloper – a player who will not only always fail to live up to expectations, but someone who even operating at his best would never quite be considered worthy. The high standards at Old Trafford remain, regardless of what their league position might suggest.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
On Sunday, Manchester United got the win they deserved, after a maddening run of three 1-1 draws where they had played well but ultimately paid a heavy price for botches in game management. A deserving win at last...That is how Jose Mourinho and a lot of other people will have viewed Sunday’s result against Tottenham, and there is not much wrong with that appraisal. United were the better team and deserved the three points, and they had also been the better team against Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton.
Yes, cruelly denied the three points in those three fixtures. It could also be argued that the late equalizers conceded against Arsenal and Everton were the punishments United deserved for not being able to kill the games off with a second goal or effectively ‘shut up shop’, and that the Spurs game was a rare lucky break after the second goal eluded them once more.
Either way, after a weekend where City lost and Liverpool drew, United’s circumstances are now much healthier and their spirits higher as they enter the frantic Christmas period. Beating Spurs, some say, could be the ‘turning point’ of a campaign that a week ago seemed hopeless from every angle, even as far as a Champions League place was concerned. Following draws with Liverpool and Arsenal and defeats against City and Chelsea, Sunday’s 1-0 victory was also their first ‘big’ win of the season against another top six club, giving them a significant psychological lift and putting them within three points of Spurs, seven points of Liverpool, and six points of 4th place Man City.
Still a lot of ground to make up, in other words, but not an impossible climb. If the title is still an unrealistic target, a top-four place no longer looks beyond them, which is a significant improvement, because going into the weekend, with 14 games played, United were trailing City and Liverpool by nine points - a reminder of how ugly their situation might have looked this week if results had gone the way most people thought they would.
“The gap might be already too large”, Jose Mourinho admitted two days before United dropped another two points against Everton. “I don’t know when we will [become Champions]. Maybe when I am not here, but that is what we are working towards and I think it will happen.”
It’s possible...But Mourinho was probably right to keep the timeline vague. Since the horror show at Stamford Bridge on October 23rd and before beating Spurs, United were unbeaten in five league games but won just one of them – a 3-1 win over struggling Swansea on November 6th…A second-rate string of results that were a stark contrast to their Europa League and League Cup form. The 4-0 stomping of Feyenoord, 4-1 victory over West Ham and 2-0 win over Zorya have been regarded as strange anomalies amidst a league run where they’ve scored just seven goals in the six Premier League games since the game Sky Sports dubbed ‘The Return’.
“Sometimes when a manager takes over a new club the differences in approach are not significant,” Mourinho said. “In that case all it needs is a little touch, just a fingerprint from the new man and you can get a lot from what was already there. Here we are trying to do something completely different. We could probably get better results if we weren’t trying to go in an opposite direction. I am not talking about tactical systems here. I am talking about the way this team wants to play and that is the most difficult thing in football to change. In the league we have not been getting the goals our performances deserve. There is no doubt we are improving, though.”
No doubt...United’s performances over the last few weeks, in a general sense, have been decent. The disappointment for fans this time round has been largely in the results, a grim clot of mediocre draws reminiscent of the van Gaal era, but which this time were put down to a combination of bad luck, poor finishing, and impressive opposition goalkeeping rather than any overall major fault with the style of play or tactics, as was the main gripe last season when the thought of even having to watch their team perform filled most United fans with dread.
The theory that Mourinho appears to be peddling, and that his apologizers are keen to go along with, is that what he’s trying to do is to change/restore United’s DNA while essentially working with van Gaal humanoids, attempting to get the team into some kind of untethered pre-van Gaal headspace and make them unlearn everything they’d been taught over the two preceding seasons...To get them back to ‘The United Way’, or some close incarnation of it. Which is a nice idea that most fans would consider worth waiting for, but many feel that after six months of working with the squad and the acquisition of players like Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Mkhitaryan, their league position should be higher than it is regardless of whatever overhaul Mourinho is trying to accomplish, and the goal tally should be higher.
United’s goal-scoring problem is an issue Mourinho publicly addressed last Friday when he called for more goals from the likes of Rooney, Martial and Rashford, who have scored less goals between them than Ibrahimovic has on his own...An obvious problem that will cripple their chances of mounting any kind of sustained challenge for a top-four spot, but one that Mourinho would probably feel a lot more comfortable acknowledging and talking about than the other main factor being attributed to United’s stuttering form – Mourinho himself.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Burnley were ‘unlucky’ not to get at least a point against Manchester City on Nov.26, according to Sean Dyche, who was keen to get across in his post-match interview that he was pleased with the performance if not the result.
“That was a great marker today, after what happened last Monday,” he told BT Sport. “We know we have to take that on the road, but today I was delighted and equally so with the crowd’s reaction.”
It was Burley’s second consecutive defeat, and though they’ve gone from fourth favourites for relegation to third favourites over the last two weeks, the last time they were in the Premier League it took them 20 games to gain as many points as they have now after 13...and with Bournemouth, West Ham, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland all to be faced between now and December 31st, there’s a healthy chance of Burnley (on 14 points now) going into January with over 20 points, which would give them a decent chance of staying around a while longer than they did last time.
“I think it’s a solid start,” Dyche said back in October. “A lot was made the last time in the Premier League of not winning the first game and we got that one out of the way early doors with a hard fought win against Liverpool.”
Dyche himself, a 45-year-old former Chesterfield defender from Kettering, has been in management for just five years and is already regarded as one of the most underrated managers in English football. Operating in a league with only six other British managers, for most people he lacks the appeal of an Eddie Howe or the widespread respect of a Tony Pulis, but there are a lot of people who say this will be the season where Dyche gets the recognition he deserves.
Going down as noble losers in 2014/15 without ever climbing higher than 17th all season, Burnley kept their faith in Dyche who steered them to an instant promotion as Championship title winners in 2015/16, and he appears to have taken whatever lessons he got in 2014/15 to heart. It was only a few weeks ago that Burnley were within four points of 6th place Everton, and even now they’re only five points from 8th.
Burly and shaven-headed with a red circle-beard, Dyche looks more like a retired heavyweight boxer than a football manager. The press like him, because he talks straight and has a sense of humour, and does things like answer journalists’ phones during press conferences, but nobody has been able to properly categorise him. With a healthy disregard for stylistic trends and words like ‘philosophy’, and a grievance about British managers not getting the credit they deserve, he’s a young up-and-coming manager regarded as being closer to an Allardyce/throwback model than a trendy Howe...but he would also shirk that Big Sam comparison, and when it’s made he just shrugs it off.
He would consider himself to be very much his ‘own man’, not a disciple of any school of thought or proponent of any particular style other than whatever working model is right for the players he has to work with. The act of buying certain players to fit into a rigid system, or going into a dressing room to preach about how he wants his team to play out from the back and keep the ball on the floor, would embarrass Dyche.
In an era when most young managers are trying to emulate Guardiola or instil their teams with a distinctive style, Dyche is comfortable being an anti-Guardiola of some kind – a man without any apparent dogma or clear beliefs about how the game should be played beyond the pure and simple ideas of loyalty, disciplined defensive shape, a strong mentality, hard work, and steadfast faith in the essential atavistic merits of the 4-4-2 system. Dyche’s main strength as a coach is thought to lie in his ability to ‘drill’ his players and make them want to play for him; to not overwork their brains and man-manage them well so that they’re intensely motivated.
It’s hard to know what Dyche would make of that appraisal. He’s a man who said in an interview with The Telegraph a while ago that “football management is about managing people...I don’t use words like philosophy, that sort of stuff isn’t for me.”...Which may be true, but nor would Dyche consider it fair if he were to be lambasted as a tactical philistine, a label that’s dogged many a British coach – sometimes unfairly – and that Dyche would resent as a manager who employs very basic tactics in an era where it’s unfashionable not to be dogmatic about style.
“There is a thirst for foreign coaches who are always tactical geniuses,” Dyche said back in August. “[Antonio] Conte came in at Chelsea and got commended for bringing a hard, fast, new leadership which involved doing 800m runs, 400m runs, 200m runs. Come to my training and see Sean Dyche doing that and you’d say ‘dinosaur, a young English dinosaur manager, hasn’t got a clue’.”
Many interpreted those remarks as a direct swipe at Conte, a defiant stand that said “Well, if I’m a dinosaur, then so is he,”...but Dyche’s mention of Conte was incidental. What he was really trying to take aim at was the prevailing perception and attitude when it comes to all foreign managers; the assumption that a manager from mainland Europe or South America is automatically considered to be more tactically sophisticated and superior than his British counterpart, to the point where even their very rudimentary and ‘British-style’ training methods and tactics are seen as exotic innovations.
Dyche wasn’t being critical of Conte’s methods – he would probably agree with them. He was just wrong in thinking that Conte’s nationality had anything to do why he gets so much praise. The point he seemed to be trying to make was that Conte wouldn’t be as widely celebrated if his name was Jim Jones and he came from Coventry...But the essential flaw in his argument was that that wouldn’t necessarily be true if Jim Jones had also won three league titles in Italy, or if Jones had taken over a team that finished 10th last season and now had them top of the league.
“There are dinosaurs and geniuses in all departments all over the world – in Italy, England, Argentina, Spain, Germany,” Conte responded. “You have to understand who is the dinosaur and who is the genius. That’s what you have to judge.”
In truth, Conte was a bad example, and Dyche’s point might have been better made if he’d named a foreign coach who wasn’t also considered to be one of the best in Europe...He’s also mentioned Jurgen Klopp, saying that Klopp “came in and played sort of a 4-4-2 and let's run really hard and press, people thought it was incredible...wasn't Sean Dyche doing that years ago when he got here? Oh well’.”
Maybe so...But the difference between Liverpool’s pressing game and those who try to emulate it without grasping the cerebral, highly coordinated workings of it, is the difference between fire and the firefly. There’s a reason why Klopp’s teams have been held up as a perfect model of the ‘counter press’, and his nationality doesn’t have much to do with it.
Dyche was understandably backed up by Pulis, who said "That's the way it is, they (foreign managers) come into the country, they're sexy, they're new, they're bright. That's fine, brilliant, not a problem for me. I'll listen to them, they say Klopp trains them three times a day in pre-season, absolutely amazing. I'd never have thought of that. That's what Sean's on about, they do stuff that is astonishing that we've 'never heard of'."
Right...’No problem’ for Pulis, or for Dyche, for that matter...Just something they’ve both felt the need to complain about in public. There’s a degree of foreign favouritism among some Premier League club owners and chairmen, but the point Dyche and Pulis miss is that neither Conte nor Klopp get the praise they do because they’re foreign. They get it because they’ve won titles, and their teams happen to play some of the most attractive football in the country. Running and pressing are essential components of Klopp’s style, and though triple training sessions might be a necessary means to achieving it, to put their acclaim down to a foreign nationality would be to oversimplify matters.
Thinking on it for a while, I’ve come to realise that this is the only thing about Dyche that bothers me. You can’t set yourself up as the anti-Guardiola by rejecting all pretences of having any playing philosophy or identity, and then get to bitch and complain when managers like Guardiola and Klopp get credit for their achievements.
Written by @9_false
Notice: This piece was originally published on October 9
Default Starting 11 & Formation
Jurgen Klopp has opted to deploy a narrow 4-3-2-1 system this season, a formation which served him well during his earlier months as Liverpool manager. It was the system that Klopp used in his first match in charge of the Reds away to Tottenham and in the big victories at Manchester City and Chelsea.
In net, Loris Karius has all but cemented his number one spot at Anfield, with Simon Mignolet demoted to the bench. Klopp has preferred a back four of Nathaniel Clyne, summer signing Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and James Milner so far this term, with Jordan Henderson ahead of them. An unfamiliar role to him, Henderson has been deployed as the deepest Liverpool midfielder, tasked with breaking up opposition play and starting Liverpool attacks, winged by a duo of effortless running and excellent workrate in Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. A front three of Sadio Mane, Phillipe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino has proved deadly, with Klopp encouraging slick interplay between the trio. A tactical move used by Klopp in those wins at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge last season, Firmino has almost surely cemented his false nine role.
The importance of the full-backs
Liverpool’s attacking narrowness, which I will come back to later in this post, means that neither Mane nor Coutinho occupy wide positions. Firmino, operating as a false nine, has the licence to move into wide positions, as do Coutinho and Mane, but neither are deployed as out-and-out wingers. The Reds’ width comes predominantly from the full-backs in Clyne and Milner, and their importance is huge.
In the still above, the Liverpool midfield is narrow and creating a central overload while Milner and Clyne are both very high up the pitch. This creates more passing options for the man in possession, Wijnaldum in the still above, and provides Liverpool with some much-needed width.
With Clyne priced at £5.5m in Fantasy Premier League, and Milner a non-option due to being classified as a midfielder and thus reverse OOP, I am seriously considering him. Such is the manner in which Coutinho and Mane occupy the left and right half-spaces, Clyne becomes a right winger when Liverpool are in possession. The onus is on the England right-back to provide the width and the whole of the right flank is left to him to drive into the space as Mane is tucked infield.
The image above compares Clyne’s touch map in the Premier League match against Leicester City and that of Antonio Valencia against Manchester City. Clyne’s attacking output is considerably greater, but the right-back’s fantasy potential is somewhat dented by Liverpool’s inability to keep clean sheets so far. However, Klopp’s men have conceded the least shots per game in the league this season, which points to imminent clean sheets, even more so given Liverpool’s enticing fixture schedule.
Liverpool’s attacking prowess
With Firmino operating as a false nine, Coutinho occupying the left half-space, Mane the right half-space, Lallana and Wijnaldum providing further attacking intent in the midfield and Clyne and Milner marauding down the flanks, it is no surprise that Liverpool have scored the joint most goals this season, with 18.
This ensures Liverpool attack all 5 vertical columns: the wide left, the left half space, the centre, the right half space and the wide right.
Essentially, with Firmino dropping deep to fulfil his false nine duties, Liverpool have six in midfield – a significant central overload. The movement between the front three of Firmino, Coutinho and Mane, complimented excellently by the late runs of Lallana and Wijnaldum, wreaks havoc into opposition defences.
As such, the Liverpool midfielders have become must-haves in Fantasy Premier League, most prominently Firmino, Coutinho, Mane and Lallana. Although Lallana offers a great value option, I prefer Firmino, Coutinho and Mane as more reliable options for returns.
The purpose of a system like a 4-3-2-1 is to overload the central areas and thus create goalscoring opportunities and press the opposition. Klopp’s style is somewhat similar to that of Tottenham counterpart Mauricio Pochettino and perhaps even Pep Guardiola at Man City, who both instil attacking narrowness into their respective sides with the intention of overloading the central areas.
The still above is taken from Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of champions Leicester, in which Daniel Sturridge started with Mane and Firmino the two behind him. Notice the space both Mane and Firmino are in, albeit courtesy of Leicester’s disorganised defensive block. As Mane and Firmino are tucked very infield, Leicester’s full-backs have also tucked narrow. This affords Clyne (far right in the still) a wealth of space in which to attack and drive into.
Liverpool, when in possession, morph into something resembling a 2-3-5. Matip and Lovren the two, Henderson-Lallana-WIjnaldum the three, and Clyne-Mane-Firmino-Coutinho-Milner the five. This, however, depends on how high up the attacking third both Lallana and Wijnaldum are.
Impact of summer signings
It is a mystery as to why Klopp opted away from the 4-3-2-1 last season, and to a 4-2-3-1 system shorn of attacking fluency, despite it having served him so well in some memorable encounters. Perhaps the German felt he did not have the right personnel to execute the system aptly and sought to address those issues in the summer transfer window.
Joel Matip, signed on a free from Schalke, could turn out to be the signing of the season come the term’s end. Good in the air but also very comfortable on the ball, the Cameroonian enables Liverpool to play out from the back and aides the Reds’ build up play.
In this instance we see the clear benefits of having defenders that are sufficiently competent in possession to bring the ball out from the back.
Joel Matip has the ball on the left hand side of the defence and he is under a reasonable amount of pressure.
The pass that Matip plays cuts out six Leicester players and finds a team mate who has moved in to space between the midfield and defence. By cutting through the defensive lines in this manner you are giving yourself a great chance to create an overload in the final third against the opponents defence.
Mane has added a direct and aggressive threat to Liverpool’s play through his pace and movement, adapting wonderfully to Klopp’s demands. Although the most expensive Fantasy option of all Liverpool midfielders, the Senegalese promises returns. Wijnaldum ticks all the boxes for a box-to-box midfielder – work rate, running, dribbling and incisive passing from deep.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Another weekend, another probable defeat for Sunderland, whose odds of being relegated are now 1/3, which happen to be the same as David Moyes’ odds of being the second managerial casualty of the season. In his post-match interview after being steamrolled 4-1 at home to Arsenal last weekend, Moyes appeared dazed, struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. “I certainly didn’t think we deserved to lose 4-1,” he said.
“A second-half fightback turned to dust at the Stadium of Light as Sunderland imploded,” was how Sunderland’s own official website summed it up; a strong and honest opening line from Oscar Chamberlain, who performs the grim duty of writing up the match reports for safc.com. A chronicler of disaster and anguish, Chamberlain’s job this season has been like that of a correspondent for a pro-Union gazette in 1876 sent to cover the Battle of Little Bighorn, with instructions from his editor to shadow Custer closely and try and put a positive spin on it. Except that in Chamberlain’s case, he has to repeat this task almost every week. If you were to pick up Chamberlain’s thesaurus and leaf through it, you would find sweat stains from where his thumbs and fingers have rested for too long on the pages around the words ‘collapse’, ‘defeat’ and ‘pain’, and he will be needing to open those pages many more times before the season is done.
Level with 20 minutes left, Sunderland went all to pieces, conceding three goals between the 71st and 79th minute, including two from Olivier Giroud with his first two touches of the game after coming on as a 69th minute substitute. A massive capitulation, ensuring that, unlike the previous weekend, there was not much sympathizing with Sunderland in the aftermath of this one, with even Niall Quinn likening their playing style to a “death by a thousand cuts”.
Against West Ham in the London Stadium the Saturday before, The Black Cats were actually complimented for their performance, and came very close to earning their third point from a possible 27, until Winston Reid’s contentious 94th-minute winner that condemned Moyes to another week riding the whipsaw and prompted him to wait by the tunnel entrance after the final whistle to complain to the match officials that the goal should have been ruled out for offside.
“The match official thinks it’s onside, I think it’s offside,” he said afterwards. “We should have dealt better with the corner but we still needed a decision to go our way, and it didn’t go our way.”
Not much is going Sunderland’s way these days, and it’s beginning to look like the pressure is getting on top of Moyes, who was sent off against Southampton in the League Cup for swearing at Fourth Official James Adock, and who will now be forced to watch this weekend’s game against Bournemouth from the stands.
The only positive press the club has been able to generate lately came during the week when, in a bid to strengthen the bond between players and supporters and lift spirits, Moyes took members of the first team to the local Nissan factory where they got to observe the production process, meet and greet employees, and learn the value of honest labour.
“It is important the players see what success looks like, in a work sense,” Moyes was reported as saying. “Seeing this is overwhelming. Mind-blowing. The robots, the workers, the production line. Most importantly what a workforce, showing us you need a team to get to the end goal […] We have to make the players realise where people in this part of the country work. Where our fans work — we have a lot of new players. We are building a team. They have to know where the supporters come from, where they work, the hours they work — in there from 7 til 3, three til 11 — long-night shift. Relentless work. It is where our fans come from. We are not doing very well at the moment so we have to be out there showing people we are doing the best we can.”
It probably can’t hurt. Winless in 10 league games now, and just two draws, has left Sunderland dead last – nailed to the foot of the table and needing eight points just to lift themselves out of the Relegation Zone. No clean sheets, an average of two goals per game conceded, and a dismaying minus-13 goal difference.
All depressing reading, but their late-goal problem that raised its ugly head again against West Ham, and to a certain extent against Arsenal, is one of the more interesting grave goods that might be placed in Sunderland’s casket with them if/when they go down. They’ve now dropped five points after the 85th minute; an own goal in their opening game of the season against Manchester City in the 87th minute, a late equaliser conceded against Southampton in the 85th minute, and two added-time winners – against Crystal Palace and West Ham.
“It is tight,” Danny Murphy said on Match of the Day regarding Reid’s winner, “but ultimately if you’re conceding lots of goals late in games there’s a problem.”
Sunderland are now very close to being cut adrift, with a strong argument to be made that they already have been. After this weekend, they could find themselves with an 11 point gap to bridge just to claw their way out of the bottom three. At their current rate – the worst ever start by any team to a Premier League campaign – there are not enough games left for Sunderland to even get to 10 points, and even with a dramatic turnaround the season could be past the half-way point by the time their points tally gets into double figures, and by then the gap would almost certainly be unbridgeable. Even Derby, when they went down with just 11 points in 2007/08, had six points at this stage of the season.
This adds a very real sense of urgency to the question of whether to persist with Moyes and see if he can turn things around. Reports in the last few days have suggested that Moyes will be facing his third sacking in so many years if this weekend’s game against Bournemouth ends in anything other than a Sunderland victory. Which is interesting, because a week or two ago the noise leaking out of Sunderland’s boardroom was that there is not much of an appetite right now to change the manager again so soon after hiring Moyes...and if that’s true after 2 points from 10 games, it’s hard to see why they would be thinking much differently when they have 2 points from 11 games, or 6 points from 18 games, unless they were resigned to their fate by then and their mindset had switched from Survival to Promotion, and who they could bring in to give them the best chance of coming back up as quickly as possible.
That Moyes himself could be that saviour figure is not an idea that would seem obvious to most Sunderland supporters right now, but some say that in Moyes, chairman Ellis Short believes he has his man for the long haul, hired as a contingency for the eventuality of demotion. Which would mean that Sunderland really are prepared to sit back and write this season off as a final necessary surrender act – an admission that they’ve rode their luck to a raw and bloody stump and can no longer stave off the inevitable.
There’s a strong parallel between Sunderland this season and Aston Villa last season. The main difference is that Villa had won one game by now, but the sense of doom around the club was essentially the same. Sunderland have existed on the brink of the sinkhole for the last four years, defying all odds and logic to somehow avoid the fatal backslide over the edge. From 2012/13 to 2015/16, they finished 17th, 14th, 16th, and 17th again, only once surviving by more than 3pts; a heinous drawn-out death rattle, leaving a legacy of disappointment and shame.
So Moyes had a point recently when he said “sacking me won’t solve Sunderland’s problems...” Maybe not...The problems go far deeper than Moyes, but there are a lot of people who’ve seen enough in the first 10 games of this season to be convinced that hiring him wasn’t a solution either.
A relegation with Sunderland, or a sacking before the season is over, would make it three successive failures for Moyes since leaving Everton in 2013. With each new development in his career, the more convincing the theory becomes that the Manchester United experience ruined him; 10 months of trauma and torment that shattered everything he thought he knew about himself and bent his public reputation beyond recognition.
One of the most highly regarded managers in the country when he left Everton, Moyes’ name was a byword for failure by the time he was sacked by United less than a year later. Still hugely respected in certain circles, popular opinion of him has plummeted over the last three years. His year in Spain with Real Sociedad was another mismatch that did nothing to revive his image, and now, in the North East of England, he’s made the ill-advised decision to take on the most difficult job in the league with a club that even Big Sam, using all of his powers, was only able to save by a two-point margin.
“When you're at the bottom and you're losing, [sack rumours are] going to happen. That's the world of football management,” Moyes said this week. “When you're in this as a football manager you're always going to have bad times, so if you think you come into football management and it's all good, that's far from it. These are testing times, you have to try and keep doing the right things and keep the players believing and we're trying to do that.”
Moyes is now enduring the most brutal period of his career. He’s become a tragic figure, and his prospects of finding employment with another Premier League club when he finishes at Sunderland are not good, unless he can somehow mastermind a miraculous escape or is allowed to stay long enough to oversee a promotion back into the Premier League next season.
This is the perilous crux. While either of those unlikely possibilities would go a long way towards mending his ailing reputation, failure would take his career to a low point that would have seemed unthinkable just three and a half years ago, which makes the stakes very high; tying the trajectory of his own personal career to the fortunes of Sunderland, who are probably one or two more defeats away from being written off completely.
Written by (@fussbALEXperte)
10 games into the season, there is now enough data available to calculate new team ratings that are stable enough to make some meaningful long term predictions. Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United all improved in their ratings compared to last season, while Tottenham and Arsenals team ratings didn’t change much at all.
All six big clubs managed to set them self clearly apart from the rest of the league in the projected league table:
Here is the distribution of the final league positions. You can see the clear gap developing between the big six and the rest of the league. Sunderland is competing to be this seasons Aston Villa, so it appears.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
“I know normally Mourinho is lucky at Stamford Bridge,” Jose Mourinho quipped prior to the last time he went to Chelsea’s ground to sit in the away team’s dugout. On that occasion, as manager of Inter Milan in the 2nd leg of a Champions tie in 2010, he came away with a 0-1 victory, which was enough to send Milan into the quarterfinals.
Up to about 14 months ago Mourinho would still have still been able to make a comment like that with total sincerity and not be mocked for it...but not now. Between ’04 and ’07, and from August ’13 to August ’15, he made Stamford Bridge an abattoir – a place where good men went to die. By his 99th league game at The Bridge – spanning over five seasons – he’d lost just one home game, a 1-2 defeat against bottom-of-the-league Sunderland in April ’14 as a result of a very late penalty. Then came August 29th 2015 (his 100th home game in charge) and another 1-2 loss, against Crystal Palace this time. By December 5th that year he’d lost four league games at Stamford Bridge since the start of the campaign, and less than two weeks later he was gone.
“Now I have lost a few matches at The Bridge, so I cannot use the same words,” Mourinho said last Friday when asked about that ‘lucky’ comment he made six years ago. “I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later, I had to play against Chelsea and I had to go to Stamford Bridge. The computer has decided that is to be now. And here we go.”
Indeed...United fans would have been more than happy with a mean 0-1 win on Sunday, but what had a lot of them worried was the idea that Mourinho would be satisfied with another scoreless draw akin to last week’s dull stalemate at Anfield, and what filled them with dread was the thought that he might actually try to play for it. The ensuing calamity that actually went down, the slaughter-slab reality of being on the receiving end of a 4-0 whipping, was a shock even to the most pessimistic of United’s travelling supporters who thought they were prepared for the worst.
Mourinho would deny that playing for a draw is ever his intention in any game, but most people have seen enough of him by now to know his tendencies and priorities. United’s performance last Monday at the home field of their main historical enemy was so ugly and cautious it made it clear that he was willing to put aside the significance of any occasion and look at things coldly...A good trait, but one that gets him a lot of criticism, and meant that it was entirely conceivable that he’d adopt a similar game plan for his heavily hyped return to his old stomping ground. Yes; avoid defeat, keep the unbeaten streak going, and emerge intact and buoyant for the Manchester derby in the League Cup on Wednesday.
A fine plan. United were wary at Anfield, but also resolute, and adept enough in executing Mourinho’s instructions to make it half-successful; not scoring themselves, but nullifying Liverpool effectively, and convincing Mourinho that he could ask the same of his players again in Stamford Bridge with reasonable expectations of emerging with at least a point again, or maybe even pinching all three.
Whatever United’s game plan was, the eventuality of going a goal down after thirty seconds was not factored into it. No manager, except maybe one as unlucky as David Moyes these days, would feel it necessary to weigh that into their thinking before a game.
It would not be hard to imagine the Sunderland team hunkered down in the Emirates away dressing room this coming weekend, listening to their manager’s pre-match team talk as he moves the magnetic discs frantically around the tactics board, ladling out the doomful instructions: “Right, boys, we’ve been terribly unlucky in the last few games, so we need to prepare ourselves for a little more bad luck coming our way. What’s that John? No, not last-minute goals, this time we need to be prepared for first-minute goals. It might not happen, but bloody hell do they have some good forward players. So, if Sanchez or Özil happen to score inside the first minute here’s what I want you to do...”
Chelsea’s opening goal on Sunday came so quickly, and jangled United’s nerves so badly, there was no time to get a sense of what United’s initial game plan actually was. From that point they were knocked off their axis and turned to jelly, abandoning whatever original strategy they might have had and conducting themselves like a herd of wildebeest run amok from a pack of hyenas.
It might have gone very differently if Ibrahimovic hadn’t botched a header in the 8th minute which would have leveled the score, or if David Luiz had been given a red card instead of a yellow one in the 41st minute for a horror-show lunge into Marouane Fellaini’s leg with six studs showing...But these were treated as incidental details in most of the match reports that followed – the main story had too much appeal to dwell on them; Mourinho had gone home, and had been stripped and pounded into wailing, gory hamburger meat.
Some United fans are starting to lose faith now. Which is understandable, because United are now 5 points worse off than they were at this stage last season, and going by the performances there has not been any clear progression at all since the end of the van Gaal era, despite spending £150 million in the summer transfer window.
A bad indictment...There are now a small number of United supporters walking around weeping openly, having absorbed the worrying signs and convinced themselves that the last three years support the viewpoint that their club is now the ‘New Liverpool’, in the infant years of its own sterile period that will stretch for two decades or more, and that no matter how much they spend, what players they spend it on, or what manager they appoint, there is no way to stop it.
No...Too soon for that kind of talk, but the comparison has already been made by some in a half-serious kind of way, and if after three years Mourinho has failed, run aground on the same rocks as Moyes and van Gaal, then it might be time to revisit that idea. He was to be the one guarantee; the one bitter but certain comfort that no matter how far the club drifted from its own ideals and style, they would still be dominant, or at least be competitive...And they still could be, but the prevailing wisdom now is that Mourinho will need another couple of transfer windows until he has a team he can call his own and feels he can work with.
“Maybe then he’ll finally start acting like himself,” they say, which raises a point about Mourinho many people have commented on; namely, that since landing the job that he’s thought to have coveted for his entire career, he’s looked listless and low, projecting himself in a sort of muted, self-censored way. An article on The Guardian’s website on Tuesday observed that “Mourinho appears to have lost some of his love for football”, while The Times on the same day reported on how the United players have been ‘stunned’ by Mourinho’s distant, hands-off approach to training.
The only relief for United at the weekend came in the results of other fixtures. City, Arsenal and Tottenham all being held to draws means that despite dropping 15 points so far this season, United are still only six points behind the leaders, going into two very ‘winnable’ games against Burnley and Swansea before a chance to gain some ground against Arsenal on November 19th.
The top seven clubs in the Premier League are now more tightly compressed than the top seven in the Championship – a league that’s long been notorious for having more parity than its higher-ranking counterpart. City, Arsenal and Liverpool are all level on 20 points, followed by Chelsea and Spurs on 19 points, and Everton on 15 points. They will all slice chunks off each other, which will give United hope of working their way back into the Title Race while at the same time presenting them with the obstacle of six clubs they have to climb over in order to get to the top.
United are still in contention, in other words, but only just, and even the more generous estimations are that their title bid is now only two or three defeats away from veering off the road completely. They will need to put together a very consistent run from now until the end of the season, with several victories and a few draws in what are regarded as their remaining ‘key clashes’; Arsenal (H), Everton (A), Spurs (H), Liverpool (H), City (A), Everton (H), Chelsea (H), Arsenal (A), and Spurs (A)...Which does not look achievable at this moment, because in their three encounters with top-six teams so far, United have taken just a single point.
Right, but before all that is the matter of the League Cup 4th Round – a Manchester derby that could not have loomed up at a more inconvenient time for either participant. United’s humiliation against Chelsea and City’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday means that a cup knockout would be enough to bring a very intense media pressure down on either club/manager now, with City winless in five games and United looking to ‘bounce back’ from a serious flaying.
But probably more intense in United’s case; being at home, having already lost to City once this season, and because City, despite their own problems, are still top of the league...Less to lose, but less likely to win, according to the bookmakers who deem United to be very slight favourites.
Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
A losing start, then, to the Bob Bradley era at Swansea City; a 3-2 defeat at The Emirates, leaving The Swans second from bottom with just four points from eight games. Just how much significance should be given to the sluggish start is less clear. That there are at least three teams worse than Swansea in the league is an assumption very few people would dare to argue with. Regardless of how the table looks, Swansea’s odds of beating relegation remain healthier than Burnley’s and Hull’s, for instance, but the heinous start to their 2016/17 campaign has alarmed the club so badly that nobody will be able to breathe easy until there’s at least a six-to-ten point buffer between them and the Relegation Zone.
On the bright side, behind the scoreline last weekend there was probably enough for Bradley to take heart in. The fact they came back from 2-0 down to unnerve Arsenal and ensure a jittery finish; that they went to The Emirates and made more passes than the hosts and also had more possession; and that they got off 13 shots compared to Arsenal’s 16, but matched them for shots on target (6), giving them about 8 percent better shot accuracy. It should probably be kept in mind that Arsenal were playing with 10 men for the last 20 minutes, which might explain some of those passing/possession numbers, but all of the game’s goals had already been scored by the time Granit Xhaka was sent off. In other words, if the game had finished 3-3 Swansea would have been considered good value for the point, and after the initial uncertainty surrounding Bradley’s appointment at the start of the month, and the bad karma it generated, The Jack Army are a lot more comfortable with the idea of Bradley as their manager than they were two weeks ago, and the overall feeling among them about their prospects this season is shifting quickly towards optimism...Especially when the club released footage of Bradley’s first training session with the team and they saw him in action; barking instructions, getting heavily involved and ramping up intensity.
“We are trying hard to re-establish training that is going to bring that sharpness, fitness and quickness back to a really good level,” Bradley said. “But I am not a drill sergeant.”
The main grumble among the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust wasn’t anything personal to do with Bradley, but was centered on how they’d been left out of the decision-making process, offending them enough to prompt them to put out a statement voicing their resentment about how the whole thing was handled.
“The Supporters’ Trust is disappointed to say that this managerial change has happened without consultation with our Supporter Director who has been unable to report back to the Trust board on the matter,” they said. “We have been aware of the speculation thanks to the constant press reports but at no stage have we been involved in the decision to remove Francesco [Guidolin] from his position nor in the appointment of his successor. We are also frustrated and angry that the club have allowed the speculation over the manager’s future to be played out in public and want to thank Francesco and his team for their time at Swansea, in particular the professional way in which Francesco has dealt with the recent speculation. We wish them all the best for the future.”
Guidolin, whose reign at Swansea lasted just 25 league games, would have had a strong sense that his number was up immediately after the final whistle in Swansea’s 2-1 loss against Liverpool on October 1st. Before the game, when asked if defeat could mean his exit, he responded, “Maybe. Could be. It could happen.” Two days later, on his 61st birthday, he was gone, replaced with immediate effect by Bradley.
The announcement of Bradley’s appointment, in general, was not greeted warmly by the British media, the conservative mossback element in its psyche flaring up when they learned that an American they knew little or nothing about had been chosen over a young British coach like Ryan Giggs. On the whole, the press recognised that a change was necessary, but the thinking behind the hiring of Bradley, and the reasoning for why Giggs should be denied relief from his managerial blue balls, was beyond the grasp of a lot of pundits like Chris Sutton and those heard on phone-in shows lamenting “another sad day for British football”.
Which calls to mind Bradley’s first bout with the press corps four days after his appointment, when one of the first questions he had to deal with was, “What do you think you have that Ryan Giggs doesn’t?” Jesus...what a thing to lay on someone in their first press conference. Bradley deflected the question well: “Well, you can’t answer it that way,” he said, half-smiling and shaking his head, before going on to talk about himself without mentioning Giggs’ name once.
A smart move, and in general Bradley handled the whole press conference very skillfully, demonstrating a keen awareness of the fact he’s a relative unknown in Britain by seizing the chance to talk openly about himself, his values and heritage, even offering up personal details that nobody asked for about his upbringing, and striking a fine balance between confidence and humility. An impressive display that dispelled much of the concern and doubt that would have still been lingering among supporters after his dull in-house interview with Swans TV two days beforehand, where we learned absolutely nothing about him at all.
One of the few dissenting voices, criticising the media recoil following Bradley’s appointment, has been Jamie Carragher, who used his Daily Mail column to make the point that the re-appointment of Steve McClaren at Derby was indicative of the ‘real problem’ young British managers are struggling against. The ugly truth that a club would rather put their faith in a 55-year-old who they fired a year and a half ago than take a gamble on anyone young or unproven.
“If ever there looked to be a good role for Ryan to start out in it was at a club such as Derby,” Carragher wrote. “It is a big club with potential that needs lifting back to where it once was. But they have gone for McClaren, who has been sacked from his last two roles. Steve is a good coach who I have worked with, but he is in the later stages of his career. If clubs keep turning to men such as him that is the barrier facing young aspiring coaches.”
Bradley, the first American to manage in the Premier League, has come to prove he has what it takes to hold his own in the bear pit, which is an important distinction to make from proving Americans can handle Premier League management, as Bradley has made it known his trip is a personal one, and has rejected the notion that he’s a pioneer of some kind. “I’m not an American manager, I’m a football manager,” he’s stressed, which may be true, but hasn’t stopped some people from making an issue of Bradley’s nationality anyway, and subscribing to the thinking that the only reason he was even on the shortlist was because the club’s owners (Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan) are also American.
Bradley, 58 years old and with over 30 years of managerial experience, would probably like to think his opportunity to manage in the Premier League has been earned by now, and he would also probably think himself a more qualified coach than Giggs, and so would a lot of other people.
A native of New Jersey, Bradley spent most of the eighties and half the nineties learning the ropes as a young coach on the college soccer scene long before the sport was fashionable in America. From Ohio University’s ‘Bobcats’, to the Virginia Cavaliers and Princeton Tigers before his first proper ‘big-time’ gig when the newly created team Chicago Fire appointed him as their first head coach in ’98.
There he won the double (MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup) in his first season and was named Coach of the Year. He won the Open Cup again two years later, and eventually resigned in 2002 to join the ‘MetroStars’ – now known as the New York Red Bulls – who he guided to the U.S. Open Cup final. He was sacked in ’05, after back-to-back defeats all but killed off their hopes of making the playoffs, but reaffirmed his credentials when he went to Los Angeles to manage a floundering Chivas USA and took them to a third-place finish in the Western Conference.
The second phase of Bradley’s career, when he started gaining recognition outside America, began when he became head coach of the United States National Team, which he managed from ’06 to 2011, winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in ’07. His other notable high point with the national team was ending Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak, and when he was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann he was out of work for just two months before being made head coach of Egypt’s National Team. Admired for staying despite the violent revolution, he came close to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup before ultimately being sacked when the dream died on the vine.
He returned to club football in 2014, and fulfilled an ambition to manage in Europe when he took over at Norwegian side Stabæk Fotball. A year later he moved closer again to football’s epicenter when he was made manager of Le Havre AC in France’s Ligue 2, and came within a hair of getting them promoted, losing out on goal difference by just 1 goal.
Bradley has the appearance of a very intense bald Russian or a street cop, but comes across as understated and personable. Talking in a tone that’s casual on a surface level, he can’t disguise the forceful and measured undercurrent, like a serious staff sergeant trying to make light and casual small talk at a privates’ cocktail party. He talks about himself in a very humble way, yet there’s no denying his self-assurance. In his own mind he’s now exactly where he deserves to be.
“Maybe I’m stupid, but I think I’m a manager in and around the level of Pochettino, Klopp, Guardiola and Ancelotti,” Bradley said on American radio station SiriusXM earlier this year. “I’m not saying I’m better than these guys - I haven’t had those types of opportunities but I think that people who have played for me have always felt that the experience in the team was different, that training was different, that training was challenging, that there were a lot of things done to help them become better players and better people.”
Bradley is probably a better manager than most people give him credit for, and not quite as good as he thinks he is. If the target he’s been set this season is to secure Premier League status for 2017/18, there’s little doubt that he will achieve it. Just how much farther he can take them after that is anyone’s guess, but by then he will at least be on everyone’s radar, and if nothing else he’ll have had the opportunity.