Written By: Olusegun Odegbami
It is still morning in the 2016/2017 EPL football season. There is still a long way to travel in the journey to the English Premier League, EPL, title.
But 6 weeks into the season the EPL is already jam packed with action, and the boys are rapidly and steadily been separated from the men.
The chase for the priciest trophy in domestic European club football has started in earnest, and as the teams settle into the league, we can already see the faint outline of those that are likely to be challenging for the championship title at the very end.
Manchester City have been playing almost flawlessly. Pep Guardiola’s methods, imported from the Barcelona school of football, are written all over the team – composure, confidence, creativity, ball possession and a winning spirit
Many think, even this early in the season, that we may already be gleaning the outlines of the eventual champion. That’s how good City have been so far this season.
Amongst the Manchester City FC fans there is an open acknowledgement of the genius of Guardiola, a man firmly in charge, although very friendly with his players but also not ready or willing to brook any shenanigans. Any player not in synch with his philosophy and style is dropped like hot potato.
When a player of Yaya Toure’s stature (probably Africa’s greatest footballer ever) was dropped by Guardiola as a regular member of his team many thought the world would come to an end. But shockingly, it happened and the world did not even miss a bit.
Guardiola’s action spoke louder than any amount of words could have done about his expectations from the players – mutual respect, complete obedience and adherence to his style, discipline and football philosophy. No player is indispensible, not even if his name is Yaya Toure.
Under Guardiola, Manchester City FC have been a better organised team, a confirmation of the direct impact of the manager’s technical competency with a simple but effective football style hinged on possession football. Pep Guardiola is successfully imparting the FC Barcelona style of play on Manchester City FC and it is working!
Manchester City FC are already on a cruise so far in the league, playing great football with a one hundred percent success story, and looking stronger and more cohesive with every match.
Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of his main rivals this season – Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.
The expectation of millions of Manchester United fans all over the world in hiring the ‘Special One’, the coach with the Midas touch who, before the start of his ‘hiccup’ last season with Chelsea, was considered the only man capable of matching the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson in stature and in credentials, is clear – to return the team to winning ways and end the season with a trophy.
Nothing was spared to achieve this objective. Mourinho had a big fat purse to play with and introduced some major changes to the team. Of these changes, three stood out.
He reinforced the defense line, hired the player considered currently as one of the best in the world to his midfield, and added a very experienced and very accomplished goal scorer in Europe to his front line.
6 weeks into the season, even after a staccato start, things do not appear to be going right for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.
From leading the table in the first three weeks the team has dropped dramatically to 6th or 7th place after losing its last three matches in a trot!
Mourinho is looking more rattled by the poor performance of the team that he promised at the onset is aiming for nothing but the title.
Paul Pogba is not living up to his pre-season promise as well as the fans expectations. He appears weighed down by the burden of the expectations from being the most expensive player in the world. Many observers now think he is either over-rated or over priced. Pogba looks to be struggling to keep up with the frenetic pace of the EPL.
Zlatan Ibrahimovich, bought to harvest whatever is left in his rich chest of goals, is past his prime. His once razor sharpness is now blunted by wear and tear from age and long battering. He still possesses the instincts of a goal scorer, but has lost the edge in quickness, power and pace that once made him one of the deadliest strikers in Europe.
For Zlatan to also succeed he needed a Wayne Rooney at his very best in creativity to support him from an attacking midfield position.
Unfortunately, this genius, also in the twilight of an incredible career, is also weighted with age, injuries, and the added responsibility of the captaincy.
It is not the best practice for forwards to be great captains of a team. That responsibility, added to that of scoring goals when things become rough and tough, becomes a physical as well as psychological burden that often affect optimum productivity.
That’s why I believe that Lionel Messi’s failure to lead Argentina to the World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014 was the consequence of the additional burden of being his team’s captain. That’s just my view by the way.
Rooney, slowed down by age and injuries, has failed so develop a rhythm with Pogba in midfield and connect with Zlatan upfront to win matches this season.
And then there is Fellani! I understand that Mourinho requires the services of an effective defensive midfield player to anchor his usual defensive strategy. But no one imagined he would give this responsibility, critical to his football philosophy and style, to a player that has no such talents, records, or stature. Fellani?
Forgive me, but Felani is not the most colourful, classy and nimble of defensive midfield players in the world. He does not deserve a regular place in a big team like Manchester United.
So, Manchester United have started to falter even though it is too early to write the team off as potential champions. It now appears that Pogba was not worth the humongous fee paid to buy him this season; that Zlatan Ibrahimovich, well into his 30s, is not quite as sharp upfront as he used to be when he was considered one of the best goal scorers in European football a few seasons ago at PSG, and Rooney is past his best and is not delivering.
Critics are already wondering how Mourinho could have got it all so wrong. Even in the mind games that he used to effectively deploy to intimidate his opposing managers in the past, Jose Mourinho appears to be losing out to Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and even his old ‘foe’ Arsene Wenger.
Rhetoric must be backed with action on the field.
In the unfolding drama of the EPL this season, with a long way still to go, Manchester United and Jose Mourinho appear to have some ways still to go to catch up with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola and possibly win the league title.