How long is too long? At what point do players, on hearing a manager’s motivational words, begin to shrug and think we’ve heard it all before? At what point does a manager, having worked out a successful way to play, have to accept that others have begun to suss him out and that he needs to make significant changes? At what point do players, used to playing with the same team-mates
in the same style, become stale? When, in football, does evolution become necessary?
It was the Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, one of the game’s great wanderers, who popularised the
expression “the third year is fatal” – even though it was in his third season at Benfica that they produced probably their definitive performance under him, beating Real Madrid 5-2 in 1962 to retain the European Cup. But then again, despite Eusebio breaking into the team that season, Benfica failed to complete a hat-trick of league titles, finishing second behind Sporting. It may be that the
early symptoms of decline had begun to emerge even before Guttmann’s meeting with the Benfica board, at which they rejected his demand for a bonus for winning the European Cup, precipitating his departure and the “curse” that has seen Benfica lose in eight European Finals since.
Jose Mourinho, who is often compared to Guttmann although their backgrounds and footballing
philosophies could hardly be more different, has only once lasted more than three years at a club, and that was in his first spell at Chelsea when he was deposed in the September of his fourth season, by which time his relationship with his squad and the board had deteriorated.
It’s notable, too, that Pep Guardiola struggled in his fourth season in charge at Barcelona and is now finding life difficult in his fourth campaign at Manchester City.
Mauricio Pochettino, sacked by Tottenham Hotspur in November in his sixth season in charge, had begun to fear entropy two years ago, begging for significant investment to refresh the squad. Perhaps for a club on the way up – each season reaching new ground as Spurs did, both literally in the stadium move and metaphorically in terms of their progress – decay can be deferred, but what was striking this season was how weary Pochettino’s players seemed, how much less focused their pressing appeared.
In part, the issue is directly tactical as teams get worked out. A prime example is that of Ipswich Town, who were promoted under Alf Ramsey in 1961. Their use of Jimmy Leadbitter as a withdrawn left-winger foxed opponents, who didn’t even have the advantage of regular television coverage, and in their first season up they won the league. The following season they faced Tottenham in the Charity Shield and Spurs, having played them twice before, had worked out a way of combating Leadbitter. Ipswich lost 5-1 and were involved in a relegation scrap when Ramsey was made England manager the following March.
Plan... Jetro Willems of Newcastle scores against Man City
To suggest Manchester City have been worked out is over-simplistic, but what is true is that Guardiola’s brand of high-tempo possession football, based on positional mastery, does not terrify teams as it once did. There’s no longer a sense of shame for an opponent in having only 25 per cent of the ball. Teams like Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United know that City can be frustrated if you sit deep against them and deny them space. And if you can do that, City are vulnerable defensively. It’s not easy, obviously, but sides now have a basic plan and some sense of hope.
It is also a matter of personality. Guardiola is ferociously intense; it is part of what has made him so successful. He drives himself exceptionally hard and analyses opponents with ferocious rigour. His game preparation is unimpeachable and no manager is less likely to be taken unawares. But that approach takes its toll on the players.
At Bayern Munich there was a collective sigh of relief when Guardiola left as players felt they could breathe again. Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti, his successor, was ultimately too laid back but there was no doubt that the players relished the more relaxed atmosphere in his first few months in charge – just as Ajax responded to the departure of Rinus Michels and his iron fist in 1971 by producing arguably their best football under Ștefan Kovács.
There are other issues at City this season. For example, the decision not to replace Vincent Kompany was exposed as a needless gamble by the injury to Aymeric Laporte. While Fernandinho has dropped back to operate as a central defender, Rodri has struggled to replicate his team-mate’s consistent excellence at the back of midfield.
While City have been a little unlucky this season, Liverpool have been both fortunate and relentless. The “expected goals” charts show City comfortably at the top of the table – that they are not similarly placed in the Premier League is not just a matter of luck but also of something equally intangible: confidence, form, ruthlessness. Call it what you will, but City this season have so far, somehow, lacked the edge of the past two seasons. That judgement is hugely subject to confirmation bias – they aren’t getting the same results so something must be wrong. Yet we also know that players tire of being remorselessly drilled and we know Guardiola, intense as he is, seems to feel the pressure more at a club as time goes by.
Regeneration, in terms of tactics, approach and personnel, may be the hardest thing in management.