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.