Much of the criticism that has been aimed at Jose Mourinho and Manchester United this season has been about their style of play. Irrespective of the fact the club sit second in the Premier League and top of their Champions League group, there has been intense scrutiny placed on how the Portuguese coach has set his team up for matches.
The reason such scrutiny has intensified in recent weeks can be attributed to Manchester’s other club. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are playing some of the finest football England has ever seen, there is no way to argue against that, and it is making United supporters uncomfortable with how their own side is playing.
This is not to say that Jose Mourinho is without fault, he isn’t, yet criticising him, or any other manager, based on how well Manchester City are playing is quite ludicrous, bordering on the infantile.
Whilst people rush to praise the football played by the Spaniard’s team, few actually understand it completely or fully comprehend why it is so good. It is fabulous to watch, that is clear for all to see, yet it is successful because opposing teams can’t deal with it and opposing team’s can’t deal with it because it is a system that is incredibly special and intricate, it literally changed the sport back in 2010 and has come to define a generation of the game.
It is worth noting that no team in the Premier League has ever played this way, it is also worth noting that since the year 2000, only three teams have played in such a way. Those three teams are Manchester City, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The common denominator between those sides? Pep Guardiola.
Few coaches leave their mark on football, they may enjoy success but very few leave a clear imprint behind. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger will perhaps leave one behind in English football; the pair introduced real attacking football and modern coaching methods at a time when England was way behind the rest of Europe.
Most other coaches simply tweak previously successful systems and place their own spin on things, be that in man-management or through the use of a specific player. Make no mistake, this isn’t a criticism, it’s just life, there is only a finite number of ideas and ways to set up 11 football players on a pitch.
Guardiola’s style, whilst influenced by Johan Cruyff, has taken on a life of its own. It represented something fresh back in 2010, seldom had a team played in such a way before. Ball retention was absolutely crucial, yet it was done at the pace that could have been considered cavalier. That is how well coached Guardiola’s Barcelona were.
He has made almost every single player he has ever worked with better, he has achieved success wherever he has managed, there is a reason he will go down as one of the greatest coaches to ever live. People will be talking about his teams and the imprint they left on the sport for 50 to 100 years.
How can anyone try and replicate that?
Manchester United cannot play in the same way, despite what some fans seem to think is possible, it requires such close coaching from one specific individual. It isn’t a plug-and-play system; each team has to focus on what they are good at and what qualities their players have.
The constant search to play attractive football in the Premier League is no bad thing, Crystal Palace shouldn’t be criticised for appointing Frank de Boer, however expecting it to come to fruition after four matches and hardly any transfer activity was nonsensical.
Now you may think that by my previous argument, Pep Guardiola would be able to arrive at Selhurst Park and get the team to play in the same way as Manchester City. Of course this wouldn’t be the case, although he would improve them significantly.
His first season at Manchester City showed how important it is to have the right players for the system. At Barcelona Frank Rijkaard built a strong squad; Guardiola tinkered with a small number of personnel and trusted La Masia academy graduates. At Bayern Munich he walked into an environment which had a readymade team full to the brim with quality players. He then coached them in a different manner and changed the play style of the team.
When he arrived in Manchester, it was the worst squad he had ever encountered as a coach, that is not a disrespectful knock against the Blues, it is just factually correct. There were many players who clearly didn’t fit the system and weren’t young enough to develop, furthermore the wing-back position was a disaster.
It came as no surprise then that results weren’t perfect and City ended up disappointing on every front. Fast-forward a couple of months to when Guardiola had all the players he wanted, it is then a lot easier to coach a team and get them to play his incredibly unique style of football.
What other club would be able to deliver every single transfer requested? The answer is none, certainly not in England. Manchester United’s owners have their own checks and balances procedure for individual transfers, Arsenal do too, whilst Chelsea and Liverpool lack both the capital and inclination to deliver every single player a manager asks for.
You have to appreciate that whilst the Spaniard is an exceptional coach, he has been given the conditions to be sensational. Who is to say that if Jose Mourinho had been allowed to sign Ivan Perisic and Danny Rose, it wouldn’t be Manchester United, playing a completely different brand of football, sat at the top of the table at this present moment?
There is a danger in the Premier League that teams will begin comparing themselves to Guardiola’s City, you can’t strive for something that is totally unattainable, it simply sets you up to fail. There is a reason only three teams have been able to play that style of football and that in itself is the reason why it is so successful.
It is difficult to defend against something you don’t fully understand; very few can truly understand Guardiola’s style, only he and his coaches can truly see every single training session, the players too.
There is a reason why most of the players who worked under the former Barcelona midfielder speak about him in such glowing terms, there is also a reason why opposing teams struggle against his teams. It is because they don’t understand the intricacies of what makes it work and how could they be expected to?
Manchester City are enjoying something quite special at this moment, it is a football revolution that will likely carry them to the Premier League title, perhaps even beyond, yet it shouldn’t be the yardstick for other teams.
They should try to find a way to combat it and compete against it; trying to copy it simply won’t work with lesser players and a lesser coach.
The Premier League has to be careful, with Guardiola there usually comes an improvement in the national team’s fortunes and one specific team improves dramatically, however trying to emulate what is happening at the Etihad Stadium could have disastrous consequences for the league and the general time given to coaches in a job in the future.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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