Pressure’s Off - The Manchester Distraction

“I would have loved to have seen Guardiola in Manchester [United]. He is the only one to change Manchester. He is in Manchester, but at the wrong one.” - Eric Cantona in conversation with Owen Gibson. The Guardian interview, May 2016

Arsène Wenger pours himself another glass of Alsatian pinot blanc, Antonio Conte swills a mouthful of Grappa, Jurgen Klopp slams his tankard on the bar and orders another weissbier; smoke still rising from the row of flaming sambucas he has drunk Sam Allardyce under the table with.  

Across England, managers are rejoicing at the sight of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho once again locking horns, and this time not even having a city to themselves. For as the football press corps descend on Manchester like ancient Romans expecting bloodsport in the Coliseum, many others will welcome the chance to go about their business under the radar.  

Chelsea finished in 10th position last season, the Hiddink-bounce being slightly overstated in what was a water-bailing rather than a ship-steadying exercise. Liverpool meanwhile stuttered and spluttered to an eighth-place finish; two places higher than where they stood when Brendan Rodgers was given his marching orders in October. Both clubs must have been privately relieved at Leicester City’s title triumph as it deflected much of the scrutiny surrounding their own poor campaigns. Likewise, the Mourinho-Guardiola saga (note how both Manchester clubs have already become little more than a red and blue backdrop to the melodrama) will create a similar media vacuum.

It must be clarified at this point that there is nothing wrong with two of the most high-profile managers in world football attracting their fair share of media attention as battle lines are drawn in an iconic English derby rivalry. Although the Spanish press grew weary of the story with time, it is hard to deny that the period Guardiola and Mourinho shared in Iberia was anything less than compelling - even if it occasionally descended to Eastenders-style levels of controversial and unedifying storylines.  

“I don’t fancy talking about him, but it’s clear that Mourinho did more harm than good; he damaged Spanish football.” - Andres Iniesta

The main beneficiaries of the latest Manchester phenomenon may well be the England national team. For once there is not the same scrutiny from the press that normally accompanies the twilight zone between the end of the domestic season and a major international tournament.  Given this is often seen as a hindrance to the Three Lions, Roy Hodgson must be relieved that his decisions are not dominating the back pages. Jose Mourinho is expected to be unveiled on the eve of England’s next friendly - leaving sports editors and hacks alike with a difficult decision to make.

A typical Mourinho soundbite would no doubt merit backpage coverage, and what chance of another declaration of being The Happy/Special/Innocent One come Thursday at Old Trafford? Could this be the end of the overblown coverage of the English national team? It may well appear over the coming days that interest is on the wane, although the hype machine will kick back into life once the team takes to the fields of France.  

One can’t help feeling that most other Premier League managers, Alan Pardew excepted, will be happy to work in the shadows as Mourinho takes the spotlight. Both Arsenal and Liverpool have moved swiftly to bolster their squads in the shape of Granit Xhaka and Loris Karius respectively; efficiently sourcing players that will solve problems for the teams before the transfer window has even opened.

That both teams have finally identified their weakest points and acted accordingly, the lack of interest in the implications of the signings as far as league predictions are concerned is telling. Again, the media here are doing nothing wrong, with Mourinho and Guardiola landing in the Premier League easily being a watershed moment for English football comparable to Arsène Wenger’s introduction of pasta to club canteens. But just like Wenger’s arrival all those years ago - an appointment that raised eyebrows - it may be that we fail to see the significance of other events amid the Manchester maelstrom.  

"I remember when Bruce Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names. It was Terry Venables, Johan Cruyff and then, at the end, Arsène Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan, I bet it's fucking Arsène Wenger, because I haven't heard of him and I've heard of the other two. Trust Arsenal to appoint the boring one that you haven't heard of." - Nick Hornby

Perceptions are easily garnered yet notoriously difficult to shrug off. Given the significance placed on managerial appointments at Manchester since Pep Guardiola was announced, it would be easy to think that next season’s Premier League is a two-horse race - or as Spanish newspaper Marca have suggested, a winner-takes-all shootout. The reality is altogether more complex, but it is difficult to see beyond the smoking guns.  

Even without counting Leicester - that most enigmatic of unknown quantities heading into next season - Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool will all be vying for top four places, and none of their respective managers would discount the possibility of a title charge. Six into four just doesn’t go, and in that respect there is a chance that as well as the Premier League title continuing its trial separation with Manchester next May, one or the other club could also miss out on a Champions League place.

Successful managers are no guarantee of success in such a relentless league. Much like the Championship clubs that gambled on expensive signings last summer to achieve a lucrative promotion, the traditional heavyweights face more competition than ever where high risk cannot equate to tangible reward for all. One half of Manchester may well be savouring the sweet taste of schadenfreude come the end of the season, perhaps even consoling themselves that although their title bid failed to launch, they have at least secured Champions League football.  

Enjoy the Mourinho rollercoaster and the Guardiola carousel by all means, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the rest of the carnival. It promises to be just as exciting as the last time the circus tents pitched up, when the marquee names weren’t missed.