Great managers, but no truly great players – why the Premier League never hit the heights this season
The Premier League makes too much of Klopp, Mourinho and Guardiola – and that's why it failed to deliver on its promise argues Simon Barnes
The Premier League season moves into its final frenzies at last and it’s been great, hasn’t it? Well, fairly great. Tremendously exciting, anyway. Well, quite exciting.
And certainly Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have given everyone stuff to cheer, even if the cheers came through gritted teeth. Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante for Chelsea (you have to pretend to like Kante best if you want to impress people with your understanding of the game) and Harry Kane and Dele Alli (don’t we all love an unstoppable young talent?) for Spurs have provided some terrific moments. But we never quite got the football we were promised.
This was supposed to be the season when the greatest league in the world rose to even dizzier heights, with the greatest names in football all competing for the same prize: Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, Jose Mourinho at Manchester United and, most thrilling of all, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
This assessment of the season’s possibilities missed one significant fact: they’re all managers. What they do is have a fit on the touchline, wave their arms in the traditional mad-conductor imitation, and make gnomic remarks at press conferences. They don’t actually play.
It’s a little-known fact that it’s the players who matter in football. The idea that managers are more important is a fantasy of middle-aged men – men who no longer believe they could play for England, but cherish in their secret hearts the idea that they could win eternal glory from the sidelines.
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Guardiola was an attacking genius when he was at Barcelona, though it’s just possible he was helped by having Lionel Messi, the greatest dribbler since George Best, in the team.
And he was a defensive genius at Bayern Munich, though it’s just possible that Manuel Neuer, who reimagined the goalkeeper’s role, helped him out. But, alas, Manchester City did not turn into instant world-beaters when Guardiola arrived, any more than Manchester United and Liverpool did with their own big-name managers.
The fact is that football managers are like jockeys – they can’t go without the horse. The jockey riding Shergar is more likely to win the Derby than the jockey on Dobbin.
The best league in the world: that’s the Premier League’s routine boast. Best for what? There are three kinds of sporting pleasures, broadly speaking: partisanship, drama and excellence. Naturally, you can have any two or all three at the same time.
In the Premier League, partisanship is guaranteed: football operates on the classic us-and-them basis. It provides drama from the intensities and uncertainties of the game.
Perhaps there was added drama from the fact there was no natural and inevitable champion. But excellence? I think not.
The objective measure here is the Champions League. Chelsea weren’t tested in it at all and, of the four Premier League teams taking part in the competition, Spurs lost at the group stage, Arsenal and Manchester City went out in the round of 16 and Leicester City’s heroic charge took them as far as the quarter-finals.
In the Premier League, there have been isolated outbreaks of excellence by Manchester City and Liverpool, but without the sense of certainty that marks great teams.
Chelsea played with swagger at times, and Spurs had some inspiring moments. So, as we approach the season’s last knockings, we must accept that while it’s all been great fun, it hasn’t all been great sport.
The soap opera has been better than the action. Next season will inevitably bring more partisanship and more drama. But excellence? Maybe, maybe. After all, this is sport, and no one knows what happens next. Not even managers.
Premier League fixtures kick off on Sunday at 3pm. Watch on Sky Sports 1, 2 and Mix; listen on 5 Live