The art of Premier League football imitating life... or not
People say football is a microcosm of life. A mirror image, if you will. The game's machinations do parody society, albeit not always in the same manner. Sometimes the mirror reflects a negative image, like the photo process wherein light is dark and dark light. The Premier League seems to be inverting the light a negative world is emanating at the moment. On Sunday, five managers taking part in three key matches will bring the image into greater focus. But, fair warning, it's a much longer story than that.
On June 23rd, 52 days after Claudio Ranieri's working-class Leicester squad rose up against the wealthy elite to win the Premier League, the UK held the Brexit referendum in which people narrowly voted to leave the European Union. I'm not blaming the Italian or his Foxes for inspiring the Brexit result. Nor am I taking a side on the political issue, although I have an opinion. I'm just noting the mood in the moment and what seems an apt parallel.
A team with a small budget, its best players certain to be tapped up by bigger clubs when the season ended, nevertheless defied the odds, the prevailing philosophy and accepted norms. Months later, with Brexit firmly established, the King Power revolution died the same internal death many political ones suffer. N'Golo Kante left. Riyad Mahrez wanted desperately to follow. The remaining squad flexed their newly entitled muscle, leading Ranieri to the sack and supplanting him with 'one of their own', Craig Shakespeare. Not nearly so nimble with words as the Bard, football's Shakespeare soon suffered the same fate, though less unjustly, as his Leicester predecessor.
Desperate to keep their revolution alive, the board turned to a Frenchman, possibly remembering that citizenry's talent for toppling unpopular governments. Problem. In their limited wisdom, Leicester's brain trust hired the dullest, most dispassionate Gallic manager on the planet. Revolutions are supposed to be exciting, football entertaining. Conflicting desires among King Power faithful, namely a conservative yearning to restore bygone days and the liberal need to be entertained by the dazzling and new, are a perfect reflection of contemporary society. I mean, you're reading this, aren't you?
The Negative Image
Football and life travelled to opposite ends of the spectrum from that point in time to this.
Time now runs out on Brexit negotiations. Many Brits still want to be rid of outsiders. People of darker complexions with ambitions greater than opening a curry takeout. One's even Mayor of London, ffs.
In the United States, Tuesday marked the mid-term elections for Donald Trump's first four years in the White House. While two men who supported the Reality-Show-Host-in-Chief were indicted for [independently] blowing up a synagogue and sending pipe bombs to top Democrats and their celebrity supporters, all attention was centred on a group of political refugees more than a thousand miles from the border. Penniless, on foot, fighting hunger, disease and exhaustion, the 4,000-strong caravan attempts to traverse Mexico, a nation alternating between rough mountainous terrain and arid desert. Their goal: to request asylum at the US border. The group's leaders had the temerity to give three months notice they were coming if you can believe it. Conservative American media labelled them an invasion force [if you can believe it]. The Reality-Show-Host-in-Chief believed it and sent 5,000 armed troops in case these interlopers intended to tie their asylum applications to rocks and throw them at border officials. If you're Nigerian, you know what I'm talking about.
Last week, Brazil, the winningest footballing nation on Earth, elected a man who advocates police killing suspects with impunity and without due process, not to mention jailing political opponents and trade union leaders. Hungary, Poland and Italy's heads of state are all testing the EU's commitments to democracy and human rights. Populism is taking hold around the world.
In every case, it's the same thing. You stay on your patch; we'll stay on ours [until you're not looking]. But, as with Theresa May, who hopes to leave Europe's club while still enjoying all the membership benefits, and Donald Trump, who is busy renegotiating trade deals and deregulating environmental restrictions for multinationals, it's about free movement of goods but not people.
The Premier League, on the other hand, has so long championed free movement of its people that English players, managers and owners at its club are in the minority. Many Manchester United fans, sick of their absentee American ownership and jealous of rival City's Qatari masters, so well-heeled they put KISS, Frank N Furter and Eddie Izzard to shame, were drooling at the prospect of the Saudi Crown Prince purchasing their club even when it became likely he had a journalist killed inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Not that Recep Erdogan isn't throwing stones from his glass house during those moments he isn't posing for pictures with Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan. The point being made here, howbeit, is that if said United fans wish to express their affiliation through sartorial means or see their team play via the telly or broadband streaming, they may only do so legally by purchasing through licensed distributors. Free movement of people but not goods.
I'm still not clear why we can't have both.
While British fans close their eyes, cross their fingers and bite their tongues lest they invite their doom by speaking of it, they issue desperate prayers their Brexit vote won't force the Premier League to divest itself of its foreign talent and financial investment. On the one hand, all these strange people in odd clothes speaking unintelligible languages [Jamie Carragher's Scouse is bad enough] are filling the streets. We can't keep letting them in; there's no room. We can't be this open. We must defend ourselves. To paraphrase Churchill [who sadly wasn't a fan of people whose colour didn't match his], 'We shall park the bus on the beaches, we shall park the bus in the fields and on the streets, we shall park the bus in the hills, but we shall never surrender our open positive football on the pitch.'
At a recent press conference, Pep Guardiola gave a less stirring but nonetheless intriguing dissertation on defending a high line. He termed it defending "far away," because, assuming you were successful at keeping the ball once won, there was little risk involved when you were well up the pitch. Conversely, if you chose to absorb attacks in waves, defending within 18 yards of your goal, "anything could happen." In a sense, it's the perfect description of the once-powerful British Empire and the current American. All the conflict occurring over there, none on their own shores.
That is the past for which Brits pine now that they are the occupied land. If you annex India for a time, though, it's foolish not to expect Karma will be brought home with the curried rice and tandoori.
Conquering means never having to say you're sorry
Where football is concerned, it's a benevolent occupation. Every season brings at least one new innovation to the Premier League. This year, there's more although the biggest is Sarri-ball. The new Chelsea manager's system is different but his philosophy aligns with Guardiola's.
- Rule 1. Attack
- Rule 2. Keep attacking
- Rule 3. See Rule 1
The Blues have won five Premier League titles. Four came under distinctly defensive-minded managers Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. Carlo Ancelotti didn't exactly deviate from that conservative approach when winning his title. Fans were thrilled. The club's oligarchic Russian owner Roman Abramovich was conflicted. Trophies are good for business but negative football isn't the most entertaining.
With Abramovich in an exile brought on by real-world Politik and oh so ironically unable to enjoy it in person, Maurizio Sarri radicalized Chelsea football. The team is unbeaten in the league. Eden Hazard is on a 30-goal pace when he's never posted 20. N'golo Kante keeps showing up in the final third. Sooner or later he must score, even if by accident. It's all about expressing yourself without having to discuss responsibility.
Every cloud has a Silva lining
Sarri was an investment banker with connections and a passion for the game. He switched careers to do what he loved. Not everyone has that luxury in this world. Marco Silva worked his way to the Premier League and gradually up the ladder to one of its bigger clubs. Along the way, he dealt with bosses at Hull and Watford more interested in cost than competitiveness. Arriving Merseyside, he's finally found support and investment for his project.
The Portuguese was allocated roughly £90 million to reunite with his best player at Watford, Richarlison, take centre-half Kurt Zouma on loan from Chelsea, and acquire three budding Barcelona stars, Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne and Andre Gomez, the latter on loan as well. Diminutive Brazilian Bernard arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk on a free but has been as impressive as anyone. On the one hand, Silva's free-flowing football and expensive recruits have Everton in the top ten. On the other, Watford is one place above them, with new boss Javi Gracia displaying a propensity for working with the tools at hand.
Question: Is that a judgment on Silva's limited abilities and an affirmation of Brexit, or will time prove his pedigreed side more durable than Gracia's lunchbucket brigade?
Follow up question: Is there a glass ceiling over both their heads? If everyone is playing free-flowing positive football, won't the wealthiest teams corner the market on talent, leaving scraps for the rest? A bit like the reason so many voted Leave, no?
Wolves at the door
Not everyone is toeing the possession-based movement's line. If you stuffed Guardiola and Mourinho into one of those fancy Ninja Professional blenders, hit frappe and bit into an apple while you waited, in a minute or two you'd be pouring out Nuno Espirito Santo. Forget that he's Portuguese and was Mourinho's second-choice in goal when Porto won the Champions League in 2004, the man has brought Wolves back to the Premier League and played each polarised half of Manchester to a one-goal draw since arriving. He's done it by matching both manager's tactics, Pep attack for attack, Jose, counter for counter. Plus, the beard and the big eyes give him a bit of that crazy Marcelo Bielsa vibe.
Wolves are a balanced, organised squad adaptable to all situations, playing more than one style and producing results. In a world where everyone divides into two camps with vast swathes of no man's land between, Nuno's pack roams freely, understanding both sides, seeing the holes in each and exploiting them. If he was a politician, the world might be a much better place.
When David wants to be Goliath
English speakers who've only brushed up against Spanish might think Unai Emery should be wearing a pirate patch. His given name is Basque, however, not Spanish. Meaning shepherd, it's quite common to the region, perhaps because the biblical David tended sheep before his Conor McGregor turn made him king and kept his social calendar rather busy until Bathsheba strolled into the palace one Tuesday.
Unai did his Conor McGregor turn with Sevilla, winning three Europa Leagues with the Rojiblancos. His comeuppance came at Barcelona's hand in the Champions League. Now, a little wiser, he's trying to put his kingdom back together at the Emirates with Arsenal.
Akin to Nuno Espirito Santo, he isn't married to an all-out attack like Guardiola and Sarri. It didn't work for Arsene Wenger. Why should it work for him? Instead, Emery is patiently attempting to strike a balance. After a difficult start to London life, with matches against Chelsea and Manchester City, the Spaniard ripped off a double-digit winning streak that places him on the edge of the Champions League places. Arsenal can still shred you to pieces with a sudden attack, like the cat who's been purring in your lap for the past 20 minutes, but they're also more mindful of being caught out than in years past.
In his "far away" lecture, Pep stated you can't separate attack and defence and succeed. The current political climate might cool if leaders realised they needed to draw from both sides of the aisle. Premier League football at least has that part right.
Well, for the most part. There are still a few sluggards paying the price for their unwillingness to adapt to the times or to reality. Happy to keep their problems in-house, Real Madrid is letting former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte stew in his juices while Santiago Solari steps up from Real Madrid Castilla B to clear away Julen Lopetegui's debris. Jose Mourinho is grudgingly adopting a more positive style at Manchester United. Unfortunately, last season's most inspiring promotion side, Fulham, sit bottom because manager Slavisa Jokanovic fails to heed Pep Guardiola's warning about painting the house in bright colours while ignoring cracks in the foundation.
Instead, he's echoed Guardiola's mantra that his style will not change. When you attack relentlessly without success and have your defensive third regularly ransacked, even by the only hitherto winless team in the league, a full review of your project might be in order. Undertaking that review at Anfield against last season's Champions League bridesmaids isn't where a manager at the bottom of the table normally wishes to find himself.
Liverpool left everything on the pitch against Arsenal on the weekend, to the point they had nothing to give the Kop against Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday night. Jokanovic has little hope the Merseyside fatigue will extend through Sunday. The scheduling gods gifted Liverpool five days to recover with no need to travel albeit a great deal to think on. If you want to discuss negative images, the lights may very well go dark for Fulham and Jokanovic's tenure this weekend.
Of course, that's only how I see it.