23 Feb Premier League Preview: Personality Cult Clash at Old Trafford, Battle at The Bottom Reaches Pivotal Point
It’s a league weekend where the biggest game is built around the cult of the managers.
And for once it may well be deserved, and it may well tell us something of a story.
On the whole we focus too much on those men on the side-lines. What they can do is dictated by the quality of the players in front of them. The Basel manager, for instance, lamented he couldn’t set a side up like Manchester City for training purposes. What City do is too bespoke around the quality they have. Is that to say Pep Guardiola isn’t good at his job? Absolutely not. As a coach of elite footballers he may just be the best in the world. There are some managers who are simply brilliant at making elite players better and some who are simply brilliant at making elite players win. The former tends to lead to the latter while the latter doesn’t always lend itself to the former.
Arguably two managers who fall into the former category see their sides clash on Sunday at Old Trafford. And the expectation is that they themselves will clash. There will be better informed people than me writing words about the bad blood between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, but from the outside the rumbles were those of men who have found their influence and significance to be very much on the wane in comparison to seasons gone by. Both are eclipsed briefly or for an entire campaign by Manchester City, but also in part by the football played elsewhere in the division. Neither quite have the dying of the light to rage against yet, but neither have managed teams that have seemed essential this campaign at home or abroad.
There remain eleven weeks in the season for that to change. Both got draws that could become useful for their respective second legs in European competition in midweek. Chelsea’s looked better, United’s will likely prove more useful.
The story we could well be told is about whose set of players buy into not just their manager’s plan but also their manager as a whole. Chelsea looked all in for Conte midweek against Barcelona but also had to put a great deal into that game for their scant reward. Manchester United look short of inspiration and structure in attack but are more than capable of pulling something together for a big home game and there hasn’t been a manager across the last fifteen years of European football better able to get his players to die for him than Jose Mourinho. Nor, perhaps, better able at getting his players to want to kill him, either. That’s the thing about emotional hothouses. They are emotional. They are hot. Expect both at Old Trafford. Expect not losing to mean more than winning as the game wears on too. Face to be saved prior to a handshake to be avoided. The cults will live on.
Tales of six-pointers will abound but really, in the bottom half, they are all six pointers now. Every week for eleven weeks. This week’s instalment: Bournemouth/Newcastle., Brighton/Swansea, and West Brom/Huddersfield. Football matches that feel like they take place on treacle. What are you meant to do with the bottom of the Premier League this season? It doesn’t really seem to matter who wins and who loses; nine sides are linking arms and walking across no man’s land. Three will fall, the others will survive and the feeling persists it will simply be a ricochet, bad luck as to who bites the dust. The key ricochet or rick may well come on Saturday at 3pm. It may well be deferred for another few weeks. Being fair Bournemouth might just be a weekend win away from being able to feel they have emerged the other side. Being accurate West Brom almost certainly are a defeat away from the sweet release, from the final nail. For the rest, in the meantime they go onwards, onwards towards death or glory, if glory can be described as doing it all again next year. Or next week for that matter.
Elsewhere Liverpool face a West Ham side who have only lost one in six and are still in danger of going down. For Liverpool it is an afternoon they will have to repeat five more times between now and the end of the season. A set of lads turning up to Anfield and hoping to get away with a draw or a tight defeat. Goal difference will matter. Some observers will say this: “Liverpool just need to get one here and the opposition will have to come out and attack.” No they won’t, folks. No they won’t. Liverpool getting one will lead to opposition defending becoming even more last ditch and desperate. West Ham, nor the five other opponents Liverpool have at Anfield between now and they end of the season, won’t want to get battered. They will want to stay in the game. They will want to nick one. They will want to just be in the game in any capacity after 80 minutes.
It’s a weekend which feels huge, but then they all do at this stage of the season. There will be nothing terminal inflicted on anyone, but in all of these fixtures an emphatic result in any direction will feel more significant than it should. Nothing is meaningless but little will be decided.
Few sides are going to be able to get their buckets and spades out for their holidays before April turns to May, and if absolutely everything between now and then is so important, how do we know which matches truly count the most?