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