There was a moment in Manchester City’s resounding victory over Cardiff, when the ball fell to Raheem Sterling around twenty yards from goal on the left flank. Using his trademark speed and quick feet, the England international darted past four hapless Cardiff defenders and was in behind the Bluebird’s defensive line for a cut back to Sergio Aguero. The chance was eventually crowed out on the six-yard line and hacked clear by the home side, who breathed a sigh of relief and roused themselves for yet another onslaught by the champions.
On a wet and miserable September day, Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City were pulverised by Guardiola’s men, a five-nil drubbing at home, which on a different day could have been an even more emphatic scoreline. In fairness to Warnock and Cardiff, this is not the match to ultimately judge them on; there will be more important scraps as the season goes on, but what was perhaps the most telling thing on the day was the gulf in class between the two top-flight teams.
The changing face of English football
This game is perhaps the perfect demonstration for the changing face of English football over the past decade. Despite their efforts and deep defensive line, Cardiff just could not contain the ferocity of movement, speed and skill thrown at them on Saturday afternoon.
There used to be a tired phrase about Lionel Messi and his ilk which went something along the lines of: “Yes he’s good, but could he do it on a wet Monday night in Stoke?” Perhaps now, those people will have a definitive answer to such a cynical question. Week after week, City, Chelsea and Liverpool regularly make light work of deep sitting defences and lunging tackles, despite the precipitation and geography of proceedings.
Not for one minute, should anyone turn their noses up at what Warnock has done at Cardiff City. For only the second time in more than half a century, they are a top-flight side and playing host to the best in the land on a weekly basis. Warnock is a master at this kind of transition and Cardiff are lucky to have him. But one thing is for sure: he represents a dying breed of football manager in this country; one that was once celebrated and even lauded over by a significant and defensive number of fans of the old way of doing things.
Getting stuck in, clattering tackles and a good old-fashioned direct ball to a number nine were once hallmarks of the English game, even until very recently. However, slowly but surely, this style is being strangled out of fashion by the total football of Guardiola and his fellow students of Johann Cruyff and Arrigo Sacchi.
In the Premier League, you are now much more likely to see a 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2. Eddie Howe, Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Di Matteo to name but three, are all coaches to have emerged over the past decade with the mantra of playing the ball, keeping possession and creating chances organically with movement and pace. Wave after wave of successful continental coaches have also won top jobs, arriving in the Premier League with glittering CVs and reputations of playing breathtaking football.
The reality for men like Warnock is that standards and expectations have risen massively as a result of this influx and shifting focus. Manchester City can easily dismantle a deep sitting defensive line, whereas perhaps ten years ago, top four sides would have struggled a lot more with the spectre of two banks of five opposition defenders. The speed at which the top teams now operate, their cease shifting and clever one-touch football, has made these almost static, siege lines more brittle than ever. Yes on their day, they can frustrate and put in meaty challenges to disrupt the flow and upset more pampered players, but it is looking more and more antiquated and cynical as the years go by.
“I’d still consider myself in the elite group of managers. If it was me against someone else I’d trust myself. If I got offered the same today, I would say yes.”
This was David Moyes’ assessment of his managerial pedigree in a recent interview about his future in the dugout. You cannot help but feel the Scot is still very much living off his record at Everton if that is his assessment of his status as a manager.
His last three jobs in England have ended poorly, with a generally forgettable brand of football played. During his time at United, his style and approach to games were brutally exposed as outdated and lacking in ambition for such a big club. It’s problem both of his successors have had at Old Trafford, as fans yearn for a more progressive and attack-minded style of football.
All across the English game, we are seeing this transformation. Steve Bruce is wobbling with Aston Villa in The Championship, Sam Allardyce was vehemently rejected by the Everton faithful last season for his perceived negative style and seemingly arrogant refusal to change his approach. Yes, you still have the likes of Tony Pullis getting results, but he too has dropped out of the Premier League and sought employment in the second tier.
To exacerbate things further for Warnock and his crew, fellow Premier League new boys Wolves and Fulham have adopted a braver approach and tried to come at teams with more aggressive football. Wolves’ style may not be straight from the Guardiola handbook but they do have the ability and the inclination to play some good stuff. At Old Trafford yesterday, Wolves forged a point at a very difficult ground to go to, not by parking the bus and getting lucky with a set piece, they did it by attacking United and playing some lovely football. They were ultimately very unlucky not to win.
Wolves and Fulham are newly promoted sides but already look to possess more than enough quality to avoid danger this season. They are doing it with good football and coaches who encourage their players to come out with the ball. Yes, heavy investment by wealthy owners is also at the heart of their renaissance, but you cannot discount their style of football and approach to games in their recent success.
We may yet see a return of the old guard as the season wears on and team’s positions near the bottom become more precarious, but it is now obvious, these men no longer represent the long-term future of coaching in this country. Those wet and windy nights in Stoke are looking less and less daunting for the new wave of superstars in the new era of Premier League football.
Image credit: Man City