August has always been a special time for football fans. As others lament the passing of summer and fret about the long winter days to come football fans rub their hands together with glee.
It’s all about to kick off again: the sound, fury and outright madness of the English football season.
Some might say the madness has started early. If Paul Pogba’s heavily rumoured 120 million euro transfer from Juventus to Manchester United goes through (including a reported fee of 20 million euros for his agent), it would be tough to argue with them.
The transfer market appears to have completely lost touch with reality this summer, but then football has never been about reality, has it? Just ask reigning champions Leicester City.
Football fans like to dream and everyone can dream in August. There are no crushing defeats, no relegation dogfights and no new signings written off as flops in August. Every fan’s team can be a world-beater before a ball has been kicked and every new signing a hidden gem.
Pogba’s impending transfer aside, the major additions to the Premier League this summer have unquestionably been the managers.
Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are arguably the best two coaches of this century and bitter rivals to boot.
The prospect of them tussling for supremacy in Manchester is so enticing the arrival of Antonio Conte at Chelsea has almost been overlooked. Conte is not easily overlooked.
A fiery, controversial and hugely successful figure at Juventus, Conte will make plenty of headlines in the Premier League.
Add Mourinho, Guardiola and Conte to a cast of managers that already includes Arsene Wenger, Claudio Ranieri, part-time rock star Slavan Bilic and everyone’s favourite German Jurgen Klopp and you’ve probably sold a sitcom script.
There has never been a stronger line-up of Premiership managers, each with a different vision and something to prove, but Guardiola’s journey may well be the one to watch this season.
The word genius is overused nowadays, but anyone who witnessed Guardiola’s Barcelona at their mesmerising best – whirling opponents around on Alex Ferguson’s “carousel” of passing – witnessed true sporting genius.
Barcelona, at their best, made championship-winning sides assembled for hundreds of millions look like pub teams.
Their 5-0 trouncing of Real Madrid in the Camp Nou and their 2011 Champions League Final victory against Ferguson’s United are the most famous examples.
Barcelona dominated both games so completely it looked like they had extra players on the field.
With Mourinho and Ferguson helpless on the sidelines and Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney equally helpless on the pitch, Barca’s precision passing and high-intensity pressing saw them swarm all over their rivals, stinging them at will.
Guardiola’s detractors argue that it was the presence of genius players, moulded into a unit through the club’s celebrated La Masia academy, that sparked Barca’s success.
Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are undoubtedly exceptional talents, but the argument overlooks Barca’s performance pre-Guardiola.
In the 2007/08, season an ill-disciplined team featuring an out of shape Ronaldinho stumbled to third in the league, were bullied out of the Champions League by a powerful and disciplined Manchester United and were humbled 4-1 by rivals Real Madrid.
Guardiola took over and won the first eight trophies available to him, including the Champions League and an unprecedented sextuple that included the Club World Cup and European Super Cup.
The talented but disruptive Deco and Ronaldinho were shipped out as Guardiola constructed a team willing to marry their talent to robust tactical application.
Guardiola’s tactical acumen and single-minded insistence that players commit to his style of play are the keys to his success. Though the Champions League eluded him at Bayern, he successfully altered the team’s style of play.
Bayern, previously the epitome of a German counter-attacking team who loved to surge into space, became an intricate passing team where fullbacks moved inside to add numbers to the midfield.
“Talk to any of the former greats on the Bayern board or even to employees who can view the senior team’s training pitch from their canteen, and they all, to a man, volunteer that they have never seen a manager as brilliant as Guardiola at work,” Guardian journalist Raphael Honigstein reports.
So what will Pep bring to Manchester City? The same style of play, without question. Guardiola is committed to his penetrative brand of tiki-taka and, given the success it’s brought him, why wouldn’t he be?
“If there isn’t a sequence of 15 previous passes, a good transition between attack and defence is impossible,” the coach has said. This is Pep’s fundamental tenet: the link between passing and pressing.
In essence, Guardiola demands that his players move up the pitch as a unit with a sequence of short passing which ensures that, when the ball is lost, they can then win it back swiftly by crowding the ball.
In this way the team can protect itself against counterattacks and, eventually, give the ball to attackers in positions where they can use their talent to wound the opposition
Can this philosophy work in the helter-skelter of the Premier League? There are many who’ve doubted it. “Can they do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?” has become part of the footballing parlance in Britain.
It signifies the belief that there is something about the Premier League and English football in general that is wild and untamable, resistant to sophisticated tactics and ready to kill off any tiki-taka type pretension in the cold, hard winter.
Guardiola could be the man to bury the myth. His record against English teams is impressive. Chelsea bundled Barcelona out of the Champions League the year they won it, but Manchester United (three times) and Arsenal (four times) have been knocked out by Guardiola teams.
Pep’s story is set to be the most compulsive of the new season because it isn’t simply about him.
Manchester City won’t just be taking on their rivals this season, they’ll be taking on a footballing culture. They’re currently favourites to win the league with bet365. Be warned: Guardiola usually wins.