If you're inclined to waste a load of time staring at football coverage on Sky Sports News or the tabloid back pages — that diet of who's been talking big, who's moving where, who's doing what to whom — you can't have escaped the feeling that our national game is just one big soap opera. It's been like this ever since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, not least because of the huge wager made by Sky that the public's desire to watch football all week would keep growing. It was immediately clear the game would need a new breed of iconic star footballers, and it got them, in Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney et al. Remarkably, the English top flight has found another way to generate drama and glamour, but beyond the white touchline of the pitch. Again, it's money that has made the change.
Since 2003, the various Russian, American and Arab tycoons who have bought England's elite teams — if only as prestige items in their broader business portfolios — have readily paid top dollar for big players. But, even more avidly, they have sought to install a world-class coach: as both an imagined guarantor of success, and a sort of luxury brand in the modern football marketplace. Today, one can fairly say top football coaches provide as much media marquee value as their best players. Big, complex, colourful personalities, they engage in battles of wits and ego with their opposite numbers — without the physical edge of the pitch but which can get fairly fierce nonetheless.
The Premier League's 2016–'17 season began with its starriest ever line-up of international coaching talent. Pep Guardiola, a big winner at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, had descended on Sheikh Mansour's Manchester City, hotly pursued by old enemy José Mourinho at US-owned Manchester United. Ex-Italian national coach Antonio Conte had taken over at Mourinho's old manor, Chelsea, bauble of the sphinx-like Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. These legends took their positions alongside the league's existing luminaries: Arsène Wenger, the first of England's great foreign coaching imports, still a notable face — if a declining force — at Arsenal; and Jürgen Klopp, the former Borussia Dortmund boss whom Liverpool brought to Anfield in 2015.
These are blue-chip bosses, men courted with crazily rich contracts to accept the onus of delivering success. That said, in football as in other capitalistic enterprises, a failure of leadership is still rewarded by a king's ransom of a pay-off. These coaches are already rich men, their futures secure; what drives them is the contest, the honour, the pride: the Premier League permits only one winner. Additional sizzle comes from the fact that they have feuded and fought before, in other football arenas.
What has made them such compelling characters? It's partly in contrast to the kinds of gaffers we were used to in the English game (so acutely caricatured by Private Eye's Ron Knee, "tight-lipped, ashen-faced supremo" of Neasden FC, or Ricky Tomlinson's blustering, bench-coated character in Mike Bassett: England Manager). The likes of Guardiola, Mourinho, Conte are a "different class", as the pundits say. They have charisma and complexity; football brains but also visibly driving passions.
In a little over a decade, the narrative of the game has shifted very notably: where once we saw it through the eyes of the young stars on the pitch, now we live football through the smart-suited, scheming veterans who sit — or rather leap, shout and swear — in the dugout. How did this happen?
In the mid-Nineties' firstflush of the Premier League, the idea of a "celebrity manager" was vested usually in the figure of a brilliant ex-player given a fast-track promotion. Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool then Blackburn, Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Glenn Hoddle at Chelsea all got to be bosses without an official coaching badge between them, bringing instead a priceless connection with adoring fans and carrying the hopes of the board that football genius was a transferable skill, from the thick of the pitch to the remove of the technical area.
But it was Manchester United's Alex Ferguson — not a hugely distinguished player in his day and no one's idea of a style icon, boiled and bothered in his Umbro coat — who became the model of managerial success in the game's new era. When a proper rival to Ferguson emerged, he was a game-changing figure: Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, mocked at first for his gangling, academic demeanour and a curious stint managing in Japan. But Wenger brought finesse to English football, the idea of a football brain. He got Arsenal players off beer, onto good diets and training habits and injected French flair players into a more functional English side.
From 1996–2004, the Premier League title was destined only for Old Trafford or Highbury and the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry dominated the English game; until Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and sought to install a trophy winner as coach, a mastermind who might deliver instant success for his millions. José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix had made himself a big name in football by bossing Porto to the Champions League trophy in 2004, dumping out Manchester United on the way. His talents were exceptional and he knew it: so committed to a romance with himself he made an open goal for Paul Whitehouse's "José Arrogantio" comedy take-off. "I'm European champion," Mourinho announced at his first Chelsea press conference, as if he'd scored all three of Porto's goals in the final. "I think I'm a special one."
Mourinho commanded our attention. It wasn't just silverware, it was the sheer cut of the man. ("He's a good looking swine, isn't he?" cooed the usually brusque then-Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock.) Moisturised and self-possessed, Mourinho was suave in Hugo Boss or Giorgio Armani, pioneer of the dark knotted scarf and soft wool topcoat as touchline essentials. (If chanting fans of the era liked to enquire joyously of their main striker, "How'd you score that goal?", what they asked of Mourinho was, "Where'd you get that coat?")
The romance between Chelsea and Mourinho soured, though. He delivered back-to-back titles but not the Champions League, which Abramovich coveted. When the Russian owner bought striker Andriy Shevchenko, whom Mourinho didn't fancy (since the player didn't fit his preferred team formation), the writing was on the wall and Mourinho was out of the club in 2007.
Mourinho's example, however, cast a lingering shadow in the minds of English football's new plutocrats: clearly the experiment would be repeated. Chelsea would hire other foreign coaches with grand reputations (albeit who looked less like Mourinho and more like your dad): Brazilian Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, Italian Carlo Ancelotti. After Manchester City had been bought, first by Thai businessman/politician Thaksin Shinawatra who sold it to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, the Chelsea experiment was replicated. Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson lasted a season there before being replaced by Mark Hughes, who was more profitably succeeded by Italian Roberto Mancini and Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, until Pep Guardiola agreed to join after three seasons at Bayern Munich.
The rapid revolving-door tendency in top-level management is so hectic that one could be forgiven for thinking (just as fans chant at referees) that rich owners don't know what they're doing and are blindly following the fashion for a "luxury brand" foreign coach. The owners do know, though, that fans expect such a name as proof of the club's ambition. Fans, moreover, are not the only customers who have to be considered. The profits of today's big clubs are not mainly through the turnstiles but by ancillary forms: TV rights, shirts, advertising, selling services. A telegenic coach who speaks more than one language is a vital weapon in domestic and overseas markets: he will be, as sportswriter Jim White says, "the most visible face of the business". Sky, of course, desires things this way, too, as a super-coach makes headlines and delivers sound bites, their success or failure is a story all of its own.
Born in hyperbole, the Premier League still insists that it is the finest league in the world; but it doesn't have the finest players, not compared to Spain's La Liga at least, whose league heroes dominate the annual Ballon d'Or list. But the English top-flight does have the world's best coaches drawn, no doubt, by money and attention, but also the urge to match wits with their peers, play out their rivalries for that large audience. The Premier League is a bauble worth having on the mantelpiece, a special test for this elite mini-league of special ones.
Those rather more jaundiced by the national obsession with football might still look at the cult of the coaches and wonder if some sort of con isn't being perpetrated on fans? Are they really so crucial? How much can they influence a game from across the touchline? In the extolling of these great football brains is there not some wishful thinking going on? Arguably, older fans who no longer
have the legs for five-a-side but imagine themselves "discerning" scholars of good football (I see such a man in the shaving mirror each morning) perhaps prefer to identify with these well-travelled coaches than with the extravagantly tattooed young multi-millionaires on the pitch. You never see a coach who isn't passionately immersed in the team's fortunes. Whereas surely every 40-something fan has had the same thought about their team's top talent at one time or another: why do I bother with these rich-as-Croesus airheads who don't care about the club as much as what they're driving, who they're dating and which other club might pay them more?
By contrast, Pep Guardiola cuts the figure of a football man fully committed to the pursuit of excellence, one who exudes refinement from the impeccable trim of his beard to his covetable monochromatic tailoring. I'd rather discuss tactics with Guardiola over a good Rioja, say, than join his Manchester City squad for a big night out on the tiles.
Undeniably, it's players who have to do the business on the pitch and fans cannot help but love them. There remains a certain vintage of English supporter who believes the gaffer's main jobs are to pick 11 good players then motivate them — wind them up — in a good old-fashioned way. If results are bad, the boss gets blamed first; before the show pony who doesn't bother to track back, or the number 10 who misses that golden opportunity when the scores are level etc.
Conversely, and with some frustration, sportswriter Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: the History of Football Tactics, laments a continued English unwillingness to see that formation and tactics are not secondary in football but, rather, "the only thing that's important". It is genuinely an art — the coach's art — to set up teams against an opposition and demand they do things a certain way; and it is the reason why teams win enough games to win league titles.
So, all very well — tutto bene — if you count yourself a connoisseur of football, content with this continental flavour in the English game. But even experienced English managers complain about today's fancy tactical terminology as a mere tarting-up of what good footballers do by nature and always have done. Possibly this tells us more about the current puddle-like talent pool of English management. Sam Allardyce, a coach mainly renowned for surviving relegation fights at Blackburn and Sunderland, once airily declared his gifts would be "more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid" where he'd "win the double or the league every time". But this is what is known in public houses as "talk".
For older English fans, the 4-4-2 formation is nature's way: "two up top", one little, one large; two pacy wingers, two central midfield battlers; and a hard back four with a capable goalkeeper. It was good enough for Bob Paisley's all-conquering Seventies Liverpool side, for Alex Ferguson's Manchester United treble-winners, and for Arsène Wenger starting at Arsenal, albeit dressed up with highly skilled French ball-players for added finesse.
It was Mourinho post-2004 that put 4-4-2 in a box for a while, forcing Premier League teams to consider more exotic styles. Mourinho's favoured formation was about midfield superiority, a 4-3-3 that could even look like 4-1-2-3 (depending on whether his team had possession of the ball), but gave Chelsea the advantage of an influential extra man in the middle of the park. The man who arose to challenge Mourinho's status as the game's foremost brain was Guardiola, who at Barcelona put his imprint on a style of play that really changed football: both disciplined and attack-minded, players focused on short passing and keeping possession, moving intelligently but holding the positions Guardiola allotted them. Known as "tiki-taka", much as Guardiola himself disliked the term, it was a force to be reckoned with. Since 2008, Guardiola has won 21 trophies in two countries with this system, 14 of which came in the first four years of his managerial career.
In his first year in Manchester, Guardiola's City have yet to dominate the league with the ease and grace many predicted. His struggles have occasioned some schadenfreude not least since City spent over £165m on recruitments last summer. Sceptics wonder is the great Guardiola maybe only as great as his players? His old adversary Mourinho has, in the past, sought to stick the knife into Guardiola on this very point. After winning his third Premier League title at Chelsea in 2015, Mourinho implied he had succeeded the hard way, whereas Guardiola had things easy with talent-stuffed sides. "Maybe," Mourinho mused, with a little poison, "I will go to a country where a kit-man can be coach and win the title." Mourinho is no stranger to a verbal feud: he and Wenger have traded jabs for over a decade, each clearly believing he knows football best. But between Mourinho and Guardiola, the animosity stems from a more intimate wound.
In 1997, Mourinho was forging a promising coaching career as Bobby Robson's assistant at Barcelona while Guardiola played for and captained the Catalan giants. But a decade later, having driven himself to coaching superstardom, Mourinho suffered an irredeemable blow to his ego when he applied for the Camp Nou's top job, only to see Guardiola (then Barcelona's B-team coach) preferred. When Mourinho arrived to coach Barca's fiercest rivals Real Madrid in 2010, it seemed brazenly obvious he wished to pursue a vendetta with Guardiola and Barcelona. But in Spain, Guardiola won their major duels: five victories in 11 contests (Mourinho won two), including an emphatic 5–0 victory for Pep's Barcelona in what was Mourinho's first El Clásico as Real boss.
Fans and media love a coaches' feud: Ferguson was at it with Dalglish and Keegan before Wenger arrived. But it shouldn't be forgotten that the high pitch of the Arsenal–Manchester United rivalry was the point when Mourinho surfaced at Chelsea to cruise past them both. Mourinho knew of what he spoke in 2016 when he proposed he and Guardiola could not afford to be obsessed by one another; otherwise "someone else is going to win the league".
This year, many reckoned that someone might be Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, a rangy and vigorous guy who has endearingly compared his brand of football to heavy metal ("I always want it loud") and whose animation is reflected in his team. Klopp's signature style is what Germans call "gegenpressing" ("countering the counter-attack"), the team hunting the ball in high-intensity packs, ganging up to win possession as high up the pitch (and as close to the opposition goal) as possible. Liverpool have looked great for a while this season. And Tottenham Hotspur, coached by the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, have played a comparable high-energy game to notable effect. That said, wise heads in the coaching business have questioned whether any team can sustain such high-tempo tactics over a full season.
As 2016 wore on, Spurs and Liverpool seemed suddenly to run out of gas as another rival began to purr. When Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea from managing Italy commendably at Euro 2016, pundits suggested he might find the Premier League daunting (as if three consecutive Serie A titles won coaching Juventus didn't count). But Conte, always immaculately tailored and serious in interview, is clearly a tough character. With his gimlet blue eyes and the heavy bangs of his hairdo (a successful transplant, as it happens) Conte could pass for a gunslinger in a spaghetti Western. It's through astute formation and tactics, however, that Conte has made himself the big man at Stamford Bridge. In September 2016, Chelsea suffered a humiliating 3–0 defeat away to Arsenal; in response, Conte refashioned his team in a 3-4-3 set-up. It has turned Chelsea's season around as the Blues followed this defeat with a 13-game winning streak that carried them from tenth to top place.
If Conte clinches the Premier League — if not Guardiola or Pochettino, Mourinho or Klopp — can we truly say the story was so much about one man with a masterplan? It's a lad on the pitch, after all, who has to put the ball in the net and another who has to keep it out. But as followers of the game we have undeniably come to invest in coaches as the maximum leaders and prime movers of success. Those of us who love football, however misguidedly, feel a connection with these figures who stand alone and exposed in the technical area — special ones in quality overcoats, studies in grace under pressure. Just like us, they appear to kick every ball, exult in every goal, and seem, too, to really suffer in defeat (more so, quite often, than their players).
But football offers hardly a better sight than the coach whose plans have come to fruition, racing onto the pitch at the final whistle to hug his boys. Maybe it doesn't quite measure up to the fantasy of scoring the winner in a cup final. But if you want an image of football bliss, consider any of the classic shots of Guardiola being thrown in the air by his exultant Barcelona side with one more title in the bag. It's because he's worth it and, like so much of what makes football our national obsession, it looks an awful lot like the dream of every schoolboy.