Positivity isn't easy in the Premier League
Background photo: Jbmg40, CC BY-SA 3.0
Both by design and demand, the influx of foreign managers to the Premier League bring with them a new brand of football. Some implement their tactics successfully. Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte rewrote the record books. Other managers struggle. One or two fail miserably.
Attacking football, which removes Conte from further inclusion in this discussion, lends itself to terms such as vibrant, positive, artistic, modern and cutting edge. Most people want to be associated with such things. Football clubs want to sell their product to the most people so they can make the most money.
In England, however, most is not necessarily an overwhelming number. It is more like a slight advantage. Many fans of the English game prefer terms like industry, work-rate, graft and 'get in!' Many English players are taught from a young age to be physical, to chase every ball and win every 50-50 battle.
Wolves recently stole a victory from Newcastle at the death when Toon keeper Martin Dubravka tried to catch a cross rather than punch it away. With the full-time whistle imminent, Wolverhampton defender Willy Boly was in the box. He went up with Dubravka. Both his arms came down on the goalkeeper's head and shoulders, at the very least blinding the Slovakian if not interfering with his ability to play the ball while Boly headed home the equaliser.
At first, Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez was incensed. After he'd seen the replay he agreed with the referee and pundits that the blame was Dubravka's. When an interviewer asked him if he thought the contact warranted a foul, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "This is England."
Make no mistake. English fans love positive football. They also value stout defending and a hard tackle. They expect their team to keep goals out first, score second.
Fulham is a case in point. manager Slavisa Jokanovic delivered Premier League promotion with positive play. Once in the top flight, he stuck to his tactics. Opponents picked his squad apart. He refused to adapt and the board brought in Claudio Ranieri. Not known as a relegation specialist, the Italian hasn't been able to patch the leaks.
The season before, Everton hired Sam Allardyce to turn around their fortunes. Fans hated his negative tactics but they delivered results that carried the Toffees from the relegation zone to the table's top half. Even so, the club sacked Big Sam after the job was done and brought in Marco Silva. The Portuguese's project has yielded mediocre results to date.
Teams are committing to a new culture for the long term. Many hire sporting directors to avoid the expense and inconsistency that comes from every manager attempting to remake the squad to fit his vision. Even Manchester United is said to be recruiting a sporting director.
On the one hand, costs are controlled and a consistent strategy employed. On the other, managers wield less influence over the club. They become mere coaches. Meanwhile, player power grows. If the squad doesn't like the manager, he can be disposed of far more easily than when he is the one signing players.
Jose Mourinho's sack from Manchester United illustrates the issue. Chelsea is another club with a reputation for pandering to players. On the other hand, Arsenal backed new boss Unai Emery when he benched £350,000/wk playmaker Mesut Ozil.
Pace and skill are now the primary requirements for players, attacking football the dominant strategy but sound defending and team play still have their proponents. England enjoyed its best World Cup performance in decades when Gareth Southgate attempted to strike a balance between the two philosophies. As long as English football continues to follow Southgate's lead, adopting the best the world has to offer without forsaking its roots, the Premier League should remain the best competition on the planet.