Louis van Gaal, Mourinho’s sacked predecessor, ultimately paid the price for failing to secure Champions League qualification, but it was the pedestrian nature of the team’s football that provided a lightning rod for criticism during his two-year tenure. The European game’s arch pragmatist, Mourinho is not renowned for dashing football and his poor record of promoting young players — one area where Van Gaal enjoyed some success — has been held against him throughout his career. United’s two greatest managers, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, built their success on youth and the club’s fans are unlikely to react kindly if players like 18-year-old striking sensation Marcus Rashford or teenage full-backs Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson abruptly disappear from view.
Having influenced both José Mourinho, the man due to succeed him, and Pep Guardiola, who is set to alight at cross-town rivals Manchester City, Van Gaal, a former PE teacher, was seen as one of the fathers of modern coaching. But his much-trumpeted “philosophy” was revealed to be an anachronism, his insistence on robotic ball circulation light years behind Guardiola’s turbo-charged attacking or the high-octane pressing game employed by Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp or Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino. Under Alex Ferguson, the United fans’ chant of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” was the rallying cry for a team that never seemed to give up. Under Van Gaal, it became an exasperated lament for a team that never seemed to wake up.
His exit was unedifying and clumsily handled, but Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure at Manchester United exposed him as a spent force. My piece on his Old Trafford reign can be found here.
While the feats of Jamie Vardy (£1 million), Riyad Mahrez (£400,000) and N’Golo Kanté (£5.6 million) demonstrated a new way of spending, Leicester’s football revealed a different way of winning. In an age when many teams continue to worship at the altar of tiki-taka, Claudio Ranieri’s well-drilled, hard-running side averaged 44.8 percent of possession — the third-lowest in the league — and had a pass completion rate of 70.5 percent — the league’s second-lowest. With Tottenham Hotspur, another high-intensity team, challenging for the title under the inspirational Mauricio Pochettino, Football Association chairman Greg Dyke was moved to exclaim: “The old order has broken.” The Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year told its own story, with Leicester and Tottenham contributing four players each. Excepting Harry Kane, the division’s 25-goal top scorer, who came through Tottenham’s youth system, all were signed for fees dwarfed by the £49 million that City spent on Raheem Sterling.
In my review of the Premier League season, I wrote about how Leicester City’s fairytale title triumph has moved the goalposts in English football. You can read it here.
But at least in Agüero, De Bruyne, Sterling and the injured David Silva, Guardiola possesses the nimbleness of thought and foot in attack upon which he has built success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. City have been the top-scoring Premier League team in all three of Pellegrini’s seasons at the helm, but although he loudly espouses attacking football, victories often owe more to flashes of individual brilliance than a cohesive, identifiable attacking strategy. There is also work for Guardiola to do in defence, particularly as captain Vincent Kompany’s physical vulnerability — he succumbed to the 33rd injury of his eight-year City tenure in Madrid — is becoming a serious concern. Neither Nicolás Otamendi nor Eliaquim Mangala, both acquired at lavish expense, have convinced, but Guardiola’s work with Javi Martínez — a holding midfielder turned centre-back — at Bayern shows that he has the patience for defensive grunt work on the training ground.
Following Manchester City’s tame Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid, some thoughts on the task awaiting Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium.
There was only one real wobble — a run of one win in five matches immediately after Christmas — and to date they have been beaten just three times. Even when, no longer misdiagnosed as over-achieving minnows, Leicester found opposing teams massing themselves behind the ball, they ground out five 1-0 wins in six games to move to within sight of the title. Leicester’s triumph also owes a debt to the perfect storm that saw defending champions Chelsea collapse, Manchester United toil and Manchester City and Arsenal fail to last the course. But for an unheralded team composed of players with almost zero title-winning know-how, their success in leading from the front represents an astonishing feat of fortitude and sporting courage.
My piece for AFP on how Leicester City pulled off one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of professional sport can be read here.
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A sweep of the press room before Leicester City’s recent victory over Swansea City confirmed the extent to which their pursuit of Premier League glory has captivated global audiences. Journalists from as far afield as Finland, Turkey, South Korea and Australia mingled in the queue for a pre-match meal, while a 10-strong Japanese contingent sat around a table discussing how Shinji Okazaki would fare in the absence of his suspended strike partner Jamie Vardy. The team that narrowly avoided relegation last season are now just three points from the league title and their Cinderella story has won them admirers in the most unlikely locations. “Last season, no-one really wrote about Leicester in the US and no-one really talked about them,” says Joe Prince-Wright, the lead soccer writer for American broadcasting giant NBC. “This season it’s been incredible — people like [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady and NFL players have been sending them messages. All of a sudden there’s this clamour to latch onto the underdog story.”
How the global media have gone giddy for the Foxes – read my AFP piece here.
The Champions League has at times been a steep learning curve for City, but playing against seasoned elite-level contenders has given Hart a chance to shine. Against eventual champions Barcelona last season, he pulled off 10 saves in a 1-0 second-leg defeat at Camp Nou, which moved Lionel Messi — whose penalty he had saved in the first leg — to brand him a “phenomenon”. “He saved everything,” said the awestruck Argentine, while Barcelona coach Luis Enrique described Hart’s display as “incredible”. When City lined up against Juventus, last season’s beaten finalists, in September, Buffon said “you won’t think of a better goalkeeper in the world”.
Ahead of Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, I’ve written something on Joe Hart, who often saves his best appearances for the competition. You can read it here.
The scrawny striker’s gritty back story, fiery temperament and hard-running playing style have turned him into something of an anti-hero for Leicester’s supporters, who have never seen their club win the title. “Jamie Vardy’s having a party, bring your vodka and your charlie!” is a regular chant at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. Meanwhile, an enigmatically aggressive Facebook post made by Vardy in October 2011 — “Chat shit get banged” — has become the go-to put-down among British youngsters on social media. But while Leicester’s fans revel in Vardy’s outlaw status, the West Ham incident suggested that the rough edges that once saw him convicted of assault during his non-league days have not been smoothed away.
Will Jamie Vardy’s angry dismissal against West Ham United cost Leicester City the title? My piece for AFP can be read here.