O’Neill and Pulis struggles illustrate changing Premier League, part two
Published: 01.05.13 / Written by: David Gold
Then of course there is the fascinating case of Southampton. Like Norwich, they won back to back promotions into the Premier League.
They too had an attack minded coach in Nigel Adkins who liked to vary his team’s play at time, but who fundamentally wanted his team playing short passing football. They were doing very well too when Adkins was harshly fired back in January, with the team well placed to avoid dropping back into the Championship. Nicola Cortese, the club owner, was quickly vindicated though in his decision as he appointed Mauricio Pochettino. The former Espanyol coach comes filled with the ideology of his countryman Marcelo Bielsa, possibly the most important manager in the modern game. Bielsa has influenced a number of coaches, including notably Pep Guardiola, with his philosophy of an intensely high pressing game with rapid short passing movements. Pochettino has instilled that philosophy quickly at St Mary’s and Southampton have excelled since, playing some wonderful intricate football. They have dominated games against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool with that approach.
Contrast that with the style of O’Neill at Sunderland. Here was a manager who was becoming increasingly out dated. His teams relied on traditional British characteristics. They made use of fast wingers, were inherently cautious but broke with speed and looked to cross the ball into a big man in the centre. Flair play was restricted to wingers, rather than central midielders, whose job was mainly to harass the opposition. This more British style became ineffective. O’Neill tended to buy British players who had played in the Premier League previously, and his aversion to signing cheap but skilled foreign recruits, as Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup might, saw him left behind.
Pulis has a similar problem. His Stoke team have capitulated in the second half of the season mainly, if reports are to be believed, because half the dressing room want them to play more expansively. Stoke are famously robust and direct. They play football right on the edge, bullying opponents into submission with their aggressive and direct brand of football. No team epitomise the British style more than Stoke, whose first instinct upon winning position is to lump it quickly and directly into the penalty area. Rarely does Pulis buy a player who is not at least six feet tall, and when he does they are rarely utilised. Frequently among the lowest scorers in the league, with the lowest possession, Stoke’s system simply does not work anymore. It is out dated and opposition has arisen both among playing staff it seems, as well as the fans, who are not willing to tolerate their brand of football. Of course we’re often told there is no right way to play – but how often does a team committed to fast attacking football decide it would rather play it long?
Almost never. Except in the case of West Ham of course, who are a team traditionally committed to enterprising and attacking football. Their marriage of convenience with Allardyce may well end this season, now that he has served his purpose of restoring Premier League status and keeping them in the division.
It may well be then, that come next season there is not a single team in the Premier League committed to long ball, direct football. That would mark a significant cultural shift. The change is notable at the top of the league too. Arsenal have for years tried to emulate Barcelona’s style and the principles of total football. Intriguingly, given how often Wenger is castigated for his tactics, Arsenal’s slip in standards is as much as anything down to the fact that other sides have copied them. Years ago, Arsenal went unbeaten because they were the only side playing short passing and high pressing football. Chelsea have fired manager after manager in search of one who can bring in the style Wenger has to Arsenal, in spite of continual success on the pitch. Manchester City have brought in two former Barcelona directors to achieve the same goal, whilst Manchester United have attempted to change their style in response to being between twice in three years by the Catalans in the Champions League final. Liverpool have of course brought in Brendan Rodgers as they look to do something similar, and Tottenham also have a manager, Andre Villas Boas, committed to the Barcelona, or Bielsa, way.