Adaptability. It’s a skill set which doesn’t normally enjoy the glamour and glitz of its cousins Talent, Innovation, and Inspiration.
It lives the life of Denis Irwin rather than Denis Law, of David Platt rather than David Beckham. It feels more Ronnie than Ronaldo. And yet it is the key characteristic separating the greatest coaches in world football in this year’s Premier League title battle.
When the season began there were plenty of people willing to put aside the names of competing clubs and think of this campaign as Mourinho v Guardiola v Klopp v Wenger v Conte.
Five of the biggest managers in the game, going head to head in one league for the first time.
As suspected, the footprints and fingerprints of those men have been all over the title race in the opening half of the season, but not necessarily in the way we all would have predicted. In fact the biggest of those big names have been the ones to struggle most.
Pep Guardiola, whose legendary and magical spell with all-conquering Barcelona put him into the coaching stratosphere, arrived with his reputation strengthened by continued success at Bayern Munich and by the knowledge he was joining a club with the financial muscle to out-bid just about anyone.
So far, however, his Manchester City revolution has been rather a slow one.
The defence in particular has struggled to cope with the demands of Guardiola’s highly specialised and intricate vision as he bids to recreate the Barcelona model at the Etihad — and there have been some worrying performances, particularly of course in the recent 4-2 defeat at Leicester, a match which not only saw City concede with alarming regularity but which saw them fail to have a shot on target until the 75th minute despite all the talent available to them.
Continuing injury problems for Vincent Kompany haven’t helped the issue but there’s little doubt that City have the strongest squad in the Premier League — they won the opening 10 games of the season — and should be doing better.
So the question has to be asked: Is Guardiola willing or able to adapt his principles and his defined way of playing to the different demands of the English Premier League?
His now infamous post-match press conference at Leicester in which he insisted “I don’t coach tackles” hinted at an underlying issue.
Of course it is too simple to suggest a quick fix of ‘lumping the ball into row Z’ every now and then is what’s required, or that Guardiola should accept that kind of approach as an intrinsic part of the English game.
But the Premier League public does expect a thunderous tackle as part of its entertainment package and the intensity of the play is different to Spain or Germany.
Football principles are admirable, but blindness to the culture in which you are working is not.
The evidence so far is that Guardiola will either need to be a bit more adaptable — or make changes to his playing squad in January.
Jose Mourinho, by contrast, has always been regarded as a manager for whom pragmatism comes naturally — the kind of kind of coach who likes to attack but won’t waste energy doing so if his team is ahead and the opposition shows no sign of making a fight of it.
United, too, are finding that spending money and hiring a big personality as coach do not guarantee instant success.
Five months into the job and Mourinho is still trying to define the personality of his side. There has been an encouraging revival in recent weeks but the build-up play remains slow and the team is heavily reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic for goals.
On the positive side, Mourinho has shown with the way he has embraced the skills of Juan Mata — a player he jettisoned at Chelsea — that he is able to adapt his tactics to his personnel. He knows too, far better than Guardiola, what it takes to win a title in England and what physical and mental stresses the journey provides.
But has he shown the adaptability required to fit with the ideals of Manchester United? Or the understanding of how the club differs from where he has been before? His behaviour would suggest not and it would be a surprise if United split the top three this season.
Over at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s evolution looks a little different. He has largely shied away from grandiose marquee signings, choosing to build his squad carefully and methodically instead.
For this reason he has been able to stamp his own personality and style on the Liverpool team without undermining the history and image of the club, building a bond with the Kop, something that Mourinho is still searching for at Old Trafford.
The team plays fast-paced, energetic, attacking football — getting the maximum from players who as a collective are perhaps less talented than their title rivals. Importantly Klopp hasn’t built a replica of Borussia Dortmund but adjusted his vision to the English game, understanding that the extra intensity requires a tweak.
Where he hasn’t been successful so far is in instilling defensive stability — and perhaps more accurately defensive concentration — into the mix.
It’s quite clear Liverpool concede too often from set pieces and that their cavalier attitude can leave them vulnerable. But there has been significant progress at Anfield and Klopp carries with him an air that he is building something meaningful.
What Klopp has in his favour, of course, is that this isn’t the first year of his project — and that, too, is Arsene Wenger’s trump card.
The Arsenal manager has risen above the constant criticism of recent years to put out a team which has been growing and evolving for quite some time and which looks comfortable in its own skin.
Unfortunately, however, some of the deep-lying problems are just as bedded in.
The days when Wenger was harangued for his refusal to compromise on tactics — the days when even frustrated Arsenal fans screamed ‘shoooot’ as their team attempted to walk the ball into the net — do appear to have gone.
The new Gunners are more pragmatic, more open to change, more robust at the back.
The arrival of the confident and vocal Shkodran Mustafi at centre-half has been key, but so too Wenger’s decision to move Alexis Sanchez into a more central role. At last, Arsenal are adapting to keep up with their title rivals — and they look better for it.
There are still blips — random afternoons when Arsenal suddenly appear to lose all their energy and drive, moments which could still prove their downfall in the long term.
Just take a look at the second half at Manchester City on Sunday. But there is greater grit and greater belief behind it all.
Across London, however, Antonio Conte is the man who gets top marks for the first half of the season, having trumped everyone with a style that seems to combine the best of his four rivals: The pragmatism of Mourinho, the personality of Klopp, the commitment to free-flowing football of Wenger, and the tactical brain of Guardiola.
Conte’s decision to switch to a 3-4-3 formation having seen his side humiliated at the Emirates is perhaps the biggest single turning point of the season so far. The result of that one moment of adaptability has been quite remarkable because ever since Chelsea have looked virtually unbeatable, with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa perfectly suited to the system.
Conte, too, has quickly grasped what’s needed to succeed in English football. “You must have talent and technique, but also run with intensity,” he said.
“You must have the strength to cope with contact. Modern football is this. You must have the talent, but support it with strength, speed and technique. Football has changed. Above all in England, you play with an intensity that is supersonic.”
Supersonic. That perfectly describes Conte’s start to his Chelsea career, too, because in 2016-17’s battle of the managers he is definitely the one who is on the up.
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