PL Playback: Style over substance?

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STYLISTIC WAR TAKES CENTER STAGE

Do you just want to win? Or does it matter more about how you try to win?

With Manchester City taking on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League in midweek and then Manchester United in the Premier League this Saturday (in case you’ve been living under a rock, a win for City against their crosstown rivals clinches the Premier League title), this topic is at the forefront of conversation.

Especially as Jose Mourinho (shock: he’s firmly in the substance camp) wants people to focus on which teams have the most points rather than how they play.

“We deserve to finish second no matter what the critics say. You all say the teams in third, fourth, fifth and sixth are all better than us, but they are not better than us. We have more points than them. We are going to fight in the seven matches we have left to go to finish second,” Mourinho said.

This argument of who is the “better” team has been a growing theme throughout this season and it is as divisive as it is confusing. You can go around in circles analyzing the team who has the most possession, creates the most chances and runs the furthest at the highest intensity. Every stat imaginable to understand if a team is good to watch or is more economical in winning.

But what does it all mean if you don’t win a trophy?

Defending his defensive, pragmatic tactics which have been hammered by United’s fans and pundits due to the talented attacking players at his disposal, Mourinho is fully aware that results over romance keep you in a managerial job longer.

Or do they?

When you look around the Premier League, specifically at the other teams in the top six, there’s a real argument to be had that teams and owners are now settling for a few seasons of up and down results if they’re going to stick with a manager and his ideology and build something sustainable, something which is admired across the globe and a style of play which is instantly recognizable.

Look at Guardiola. Look at Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Look at Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. And, in a more extreme case, look at Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. They’re clever (or lucky) because they’re in situations where they are getting time to deliver and they continue to just give everyone enough hope that all of this sexy play will amount to a trophy, or a deep run in the Champions League or a title bid.

The aforementioned managers have all been afforded time, and in the case of Guardiola, Klopp and Wenger (to a certain extent), vast resources to build teams that not only win games but also entertain while they’re doing it.

That is still the key. You need to win. But it is now becoming more about how stylish you are than just grinding out victories.

Klopp and Pochettino are now three years and four years into their respective projects and only now is more pressure being applied to Liverpool and Tottenham needing to win something and have something sustainable to show for their high energy, fluid and highly entertaining brand of play. They have both turned their clubs into top four regulars who are competing at Europe’s too table and impressing.

But what is next? What happens when beautiful play doesn’t yield something tangible?

Wenger has been fighting with that for decades and no matter what you say about his recent seasons, Arsenal are still fun to watch most weeks with Mesut Ozil pulling the strings and a host of attack-minded players put in the same team.

Then on the other side of the coin you have Mourinho and his successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte. Both have won a Premier League title in the last three years (both at Chelsea) but both are under pressure for defensive tactics and perhaps being too negative with the players they have at their disposal. At the current time Conte is on his way out at Chelsea and despite Mourinho having signed a new long-term deal at United, it doesn’t seem unlikely that next season may be his last at Old Trafford given his penchant for losing the plot in his third season pretty much wherever he goes.

This season Conte and Mourinho have been criticized publicly for their defensive, pragmatic approach but has it harmed their reputations? Will questions about the supposed lack of progress at United and Chelsea (their defeat to Tottenham accelerated this talk) stop them from getting jobs elsewhere?

Nope.

Conte and Mourinho have boatloads of trophies to back up their choices to build from the back and turn their backs on a risk-reward approach. That is why Conte will get another job easily at a top European club when his inevitable exit from Chelsea occurs in the next few months. Pochettino doesn’t have trophies. Klopp has two Bundesliga titles to his name but the last was almost six years ago.

Guardiola is a trophy winning machine and the outlier in all of this.

He plays attractive, easy to watch soccer and wins trophies too. City weren’t great to watch last season but they had a plan. City invested in Pep’s ideas and gave him the resources to make it happen as they chucked veteran defenders on the scrapheap after seeing if they could adapt and then allowed his project to take shape by signing players who could understand his masterplan.

Mourinho is now under more pressure at United because Guardiola is doing what he does (deliver trophies) in style. That will be in plain sight at the Etihad Stadium this weekend when the first and second place team collide with vastly different playing styles and 16 points separating the two.

In an age where we are fixated on not only winning but winning in the best way and being entertained, it is clear that winning is no longer good enough.

If being entertained on a weekly basis slows down the rate of winning but makes you go home with a smile on your face, is that better than grinding out a plethora of 1-0 victories in a season and being crowned champions? What happens if the success never arrives?

For the moment it seems that style is winning the battle over substance in the Premier League.


SHAMBOLIC SOUTHAMPTON “ASHAMED”

This is a clear case of players thinking they are too good to go down. Too talented to roll up their sleeves and scrap. Too egotistical to put the need of the team before their own ambitions.

We’ve all heard the term “they are too good to go down.”

Those teams never are and that is the main reason why Southampton are in a shambolic situation.

New Saints manager Mark Hughes looked shocked during his first Premier League game in charge as a team full of internationals lost 3-0 at West Ham United (they were 3-0 down at half time) to keep themselves in the relegation zone and two points from safety with seven games to go.

Dusan Tadic summed up the severity of the situation Saints find themselves in as they still have Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Everton and Man City to play and will probably need to win three more games.

“We feel ashamed. It is a very bad feeling and we have to take responsibility. It is just our mistakes, it is not the mistake of somebody else. We need to be men. We need to take responsibility and to know what kind of situation we are in. And we are in a tough situation,” Tadic said. “I have been here when we have had the best results of all time for Southampton and personally I feel very ashamed. I think this is one of the worst moments of my career and it is a tough moment. But we have to show we are men. We need to fight. Every game you play you try to win. But obviously something is wrong. By this I mean something with me and all the players. It is not the fault of the coach, it is not the fault of the fans. It is not the fault of anyone else. It is just our fault. We should be ashamed that we are in this kind of situation.”

Fair play to Tadic for fronting this up as two abject displays on the spin against relegation rivals (Saints lost 3-0 at Newcastle before the international break) were devoid of passion and desire at a pivotal stage of the season.

Sadly, this is no surprise. How much longer could Southampton’s policy of selling their best players each summer then replacing them with younger, cheaper, supposedly hungrier players go on? It couldn’t last forever and whispers around the South Coast club suggest that two of the big summer signings in Wesley Hoedt and Mario Lemina have upset the balance of the dressing room and sum up the newfound issues threatening to wreck eight years of incredible progress for Southampton.

It is unfair to point the finger of blame at just two players but the board, led by Les Reed on the sporting side, have to take a large chunk of the blame too. They have allowed this situation to develop and fester. By not keeping Claude Puel in charge last summer and not sacking Mauricio Pellegrino sooner than eight games of a season to go they have badly mismanaged this situation.

Mismanagement is not something you could label Southampton of for most of the last decade. Which is why this is so shocking and scream complacency.

Their journey from the bottom of the third tier in 2009 to four-straight top eight finishes in the Premier League, two Europa League campaigns back-to-back and a League Cup final defeat has been magnificent and shows how a strong academy and a detailed and persistent recruitment plan can lead to success. Before this season you would have said Saints were the poster boys of how to run a stable, profitable club. Now they’re in danger of slipping to the second tier and unless they spring some surprise results in the finals weeks of the season against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City then they have to be the favorites for the drop along with West Brom (already gone, let’s be honest) and Stoke City (on their way down) as three bastions of midtable PL success will be lost to relegation.

With the wage bill said to have grown to over $130 million per season at Southampton, parachute payments aside, they will be in danger of having to sell off their entire squad and start against in the Championship if they go down.

Saints’ only saving grace is that other teams around them in the table have either played a game more than them or are bang out of form.

Southampton have not only entered the last chance saloon to save themselves. They’ve been wandering around it aimlessly for the past few months avoiding the obvious. It may be too late for them now.


JOSE MOURINHO JR. ON THE BENCH FOR UNITED

You may not have heard of Zuca. He was on the bench for Manchester United on Saturday during their 2-0 win against Swansea City.

Zuca is, of course, better known as Jose Mourinho Jr.

Mourinho’s son, 18, was spotted on United’s bench for the game at Old Trafford wearing a tracksuit which had the initial ZM on them as the 18-year-old undertook “work experience” as part of United’s staff.

Up until last season Zuca was in Fulham’s academy and although he has fallen out of the professional setup as a player, it is believed the goalkeeper could still have a future in the game.

Maybe it will be as an assistant to his father…


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Top Premier League storylines – Week 35

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It’s a short Premier League weekend with the FA Cup taking place, but all eyes will be on the Emirates Stadium after Friday’s stunning news.

Arsene Wenger begins his farewell tour at Arsenal this Sunday as the Gunners host a London derby against West Ham United.

[MORE: Arsene Wenger’s legacy

Arsenal aims to finish season on a high
Arsenal vs. West Ham —  8:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN

The decision to step down has taken attention away from Arsenal’s defeat last Sunday when Newcastle came back from a one-goal deficit to defeat the Gunners, 2-1. Perhaps with the manager on his way out, Arsenal’s players will be extra motivated to end the season on a high note. If Arsenal continue to slip up, it could be out of Europe entirely, as the club sits just two points above seventh place.

For West Ham, a win would all but ensure the club’s place in the Premier League next season, but the club currently sit just six points above the relegation zone, and with the team going through a rough past few months, every point gained at home or away counts.

Does a guard of honor await Manchester City?
Manchester City vs. Swansea City —  11:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN

By virtue of Manchester United’s defeat last Sunday, Manchester City became officially Premier League champions-elect.

The club will get to raise the trophy officially at the end of the season, but for now, it appears Swansea City will be the first club to show its respect to Man City’s dominance throughout the season with a guard of honor. Man City is still chasing more Premier League records, but Swansea City, just four points above the drop zone, needs this win more.

Relegation scrap on tap
Watford vs. Crystal Palace —  10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN

It’s a proverbial six-pointer as Watford, about as far north you can go in the London area, takes on Crystal Palace in south London in a key relegation battle.

Just three points separate the two sides, but a win for Watford would push the club up to 40 points while a win for Palace would put the Eagles even on points with the Hornets at 37 each. Interestingly, via the Premier League, “Watford are winless in their last six home meetings with Crystal Palace in all competitions (D3 L3), since a 2-0 victory in the Championship in February 2009.”

Stats behind Wenger’s time at Arsenal

Arsene Wenger
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When you manage for nearly 22 years, you’re sure to accumulate numerous statistical milestones.

Arsene Wenger holds the record for most Premier League games managed (823), FA Cups won (7) and of course, his incredible run of 49 games without defeat with the 2003/2004 Arsenal invincibles team.

[MORE: ALL COVERAGE OF ARSENE WENGER’S DEPARTURE]

Our friends at Opta have put together some statistics together on Wenger’s achievements over his time at the club that spans three decades.

Arsene Wenger’s Career (as of April 20, 2018)

Titles

Premier League 🏆🏆🏆

FA Cup 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆

Community Shield 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆


Games Managed

Premier League – 823 games, 473 wins, 199 draws, 151 losses, 57.5% winning percentage

UEFA Champions League – 177 games, 83 wins, 41 draws, 53 losses

FA Cup – 109 games, 73 wins, 22 draws, 14 losses

League Cup – 73 games, 42 wins, 9 draws, 22 losses

UEFA Cup/Europa League – 23 games, 14 wins, 5 draws, 4 losses

UEFA Champions League qualifying – 14 games, 13 wins, 1 draw, 0 losses

Community Shield – 9 games, 6 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss

(more…)

Bocanegra, Hucles to chair USSF technical development group

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CHICAGO (AP) Former U.S. men’s captain Carlos Bocanegra and retired women’s midfielder Angela Hucles will chair a new technical development committee established by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The organization also appointed eight chief officers who will report to chief executive officer Dan Flynn, but the final two direct reports remain to be hired: general managers for the men’s and women’s national teams.

Bocanegra currently works as the vice president and technical director for Atlanta United while Hucles is a former CEO and has spoken at sports leadership summits. Both Bocanegra and Hucles are members of the U.S. Soccer board. Bocanegra in particular has been floated for the position of U.S. Men’s National Team general manager, and this appointment could be the first step. And with more than 100 caps for the U.S. Women’s National Team and time spent as an executive, Hucles could also be angling for the USWNT general manager position.

The USSF said its board also established a new commercial committee, raising the board’s committee total to six under new president Carlos Cordeiro, who succeeded Sunil Gulati in February.

Nico Romeijn was promoted to chief sport development officer from head of coaching education, Ryan Mooney to chief soccer officer from director of sport development and Brian Remedi to chief stakeholders officer from chief administrative officer. Tonya Wallach was appointed chief talent and inclusion officer

Department heads continuing senior roles who are direct reports to Flynn include Jay Berhalter (chief commercial and strategy officer), Neil Buethe (chief communications officer), Eric Gleason (chief financial officer) and Lydia Wahlke (chief legal counsel).

Kroenke’s statement on Wenger

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Stan Kroenke has been a mostly hands-off owner for Arsenal over the past 10 years, preferring to put his trust in Arsene Wenger.

But today, with Wenger’s public announcement that he will step away at the end of the season, Kroenke released a poignant statement, calling on the club’s fans around the globe to back the side as it looks to hold on to a place in next season’s Europa League.

[MORE: Reaction to Arsene Wenger’s decision]

“This is one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport,” Kroenke said. “One of the main reasons we got involved with Arsenal was because of what Arsène has brought to the club on and off the pitch. His longevity and consistency over such a sustained period at the highest level of the game will never be matched.

“Arsène has unparalleled class and we will always be grateful to him. Everyone who loves Arsenal and everyone who loves football owes him a debt of gratitude. Three Premier League titles, including an entire season unbeaten, seven FA Cup triumphs and 20 successive years in the Champions League is an exceptional record. He has also transformed the identity of our club and of English football with his vision for how the game can be played.

“We have high ambitions to build on Arsène’s remarkable tenure and to honour his vision by ensuring that Arsenal competes for and wins the biggest and most important prizes in the game.

“We must now focus on making a strong finish to the season and ask our millions of fans around the world to join us in paying appropriate tribute to one of the greats of Arsenal’s history and one of the greats of the game.”

Kroenke has drawn the ire of many Arsenal fans who had been calling for Wenger to be sacked for years, as the Arsenal board year after year continued to offer Wenger a new contract. It appeared that as long as the club was stable financially, with UEFA Champions League television revenues coming in and the team competing for a top-four Premier League position, the board was content.

However, the last two seasons have seen Arsenal slip, with a record amount of defeats during Wenger’s tenure and a second-consecutive season outside of the Champions League, leading to more lost revenue.