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Elite Pre & In Game Management

The English League and European campaigns are officially over. With two major finals now concluded, much can be made of the pre & in-game management of the four coaches involved. The pre-game selections aside, it can often take those decisive tactical alterations to sway a final. Rafa Benitez stands as a Liverpool legend for his miracle in Istanbul, and his 2005 Champions League win owes much to his in game management, when all seemed lost.

Prior to the Europa League Final, Villarreal were dismissed rather disrespectfully by the BT Sport lineup, with their chances rarely even considered in the build up. Regardless of the fact that Unai Emery is Europa League royalty, the rhetoric seemed to focus on how United would win, and nothing more.

In a game of such high importance, this Europa League Final represented the chance for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to finally silence the remaining critics. The fan base had, for the most part, stood by the Norwegian striker of old, and the ex players were beating the drum for a one sided victory. This kind of confidence seemed seemed both disrespectful and misplaced, and would come back to bite the ex United pundits.

In the aftermath of United’s loss, there has to be some form of dissection as to the inept failure of this team. All disrespect aside, this Manchester United side probably should have beaten Villarreal, and the finger must be pointed firmly in the direction of the current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær. With a very expensively assembled side, a team full of internationals and a forward line full of goal scorers, United started favourites. The manager had decided to move Paul Pogba into a midfield two (at the expense of box to box Fred), and Mason Greenwood into a strong forward line. This decision, pre game, to drop the reliable McFred paring & start Pogba alongside Mctominay could be seen as a positive, attacking step. The issue in there lies that Paul Pogba requires the freedom of a middle three, or the recent inside m left role in order to assert his best game. His performances, despite the mouth watering fee to re-sign him, have been inconsistent throughout his United career. His best years came in a Juventus midfield 3, where freedom was always forthcoming. Some years after resigning, he is still moved around his current side at will, despite now being in his prime years. This perhaps shows Ole’s dismissive look towards the Villarreal team, in looking to overload from the outset, and creating a structure not suited to their players & style of play.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær deciding to start the game on the front foot is of course admirable, but his withdrawn presence away from the pitch does not allow for what was probably needed, constant instruction. The serial winners in today’s game, Guardiola, Klopp, Simeone, Conte and now Tuchel all pace the sidelines and deliver encouragement and instruction throughout games, making slight alterations as the game develops. Ole Gunnar Solskjær does not follow this trend, and given the alteration to his commonmy trusted set up (and the defence minus their captain, Harry Maguire, it seems odd that Ole would not look to engineer and adjust his team throughout the game. The stuttering performance was crying out for adjustment, but none was forthcoming.

With a concerning lack of leadership within the United team, the role of a manger must be more direct during his sides matches. Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Gary Neville & Bryan Robson stand out as organisational captains that could both structure and drive a team forward, through experience and strong leadership. Only Bruno Fernandes carries such characteristics, but is in no way representative of these former Old Trafford captains, just yet. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, needed to be that vocal dictator, and within this final, he simply was not.

Unai Emery is probably regarded in this country as a failure, due to his problematic time at Arsenal. The job has been a drag on all takers since before the legendary Arsene Wenger stood down, and Emery was no exception. With a strange recruitment policy, strange contact renewal policy and ever changing structure of play, it is no longer the cherished job it one was.

Unai Emery (in contrast to his reputation within these shores), is regarded across the rest of Europe as a proven winner. His unbelievable record in knockout competitions is astounding, and his Villarreal side is a team well shaped to navigate their way through one off games or two legged ties. This was the same at Arsenal, and especially his extraordinary stint at Sevilla. To dismiss this side so publicly was a mistake, that may have filtered too much false confidence into the United dressing room, prior to kick off. Whether or not Ole chose to build their confidence or show caution is anyone’s guess, but the team setting up in a slightly unfamiliar way, does not bold well given the result. A somewhat toothless display mirrored the structure in its lack of fluidity. This was not altered any any real point, when adjustments were being cried out for.

Since COVID-19 emerged to cause havoc with our way of life, UEFA has adopted a 5 sub law. This temporary law enables changes to be made on 3 separate occasions (not including half time), to a total of 5 substitute per team. This permitted changes to be made in game more tactically, without the need to worry as much about potential injuries. The lack of a pre-season of merit this term, and the congested fixtures gave managers a little more room to safe guard both the players, and the team. If a game moves into extra time, a further substitute slot was added, as long as the changes in personnel remain at 5 or below.

One manager used this to his benefit, one did not.

Prior to the end of normal play, Emery had made 4 substitutions in his three allotted slots, as allowed in the 90 minutes of normal time. Each change represented either a mild or substantial tweak in order to best manage the game, much in Villarreal’s favour. It took Ole no less than 100 minutes to make his first substitution, something which I’m sure anxious United fans were thrilled about. Given the monies spent and the personnel available to come into the game, it’s a strange decision by Ole. The Donny Van Der Beek situation is bizarre, but the lack of in game management is not. The team must be more than just picked, it must be managed. The story to come out of a new contract for Ole may leave many bemused, as he closes in on three years at the helm. Only time will tell whether Ole can become what so many die hard United fans need him to be.

Moving onto the greater and grander stage, Manchester City waltzed into the Champions League Final with a never clearer chance of becoming European Champions. A team financed by near limitless wealth, the domestically dominant side were touted as clear favourites. The team was settling remarkably without the once vital Sergio Aguero, and Pep, despite some missteps once the league was all but won, was all set.

Within an hour of kick off, the team news fell and Pep Guardiola surprised all with a strange starting line up. The bed rock of Manchester City’s run to the title had been their reinvigorated back line, with a constant holding midfielder in front. Rodri had excelled all season, with Fernandinho still involved when needed. This structure suited the side, and Ilkay Gundogan especially, prospered from its effectiveness. The front line for the game, started with what seemed to be an additional attacking threat, in place of a designated holding midfielder m. The idea was clear, to dominate and overrun Chelsea with movement and control. This decision, one not taken during the season, proved fatal.

The choice to remove Frank Lampard (an all time Chelsea legend), saw Thomas Tuchel arrive to take the helm mid season. Tuchel had an identical Bundesliga route (in Mainz and later Borussia Dortmund) to that of Jurgen Klopp. Overachieving in the German league, much had Klopp had done, saw him land the Paris Saint Germain post. The PSG job, a position littered with money hungry mercenaries, has proved too much for all that stood before him. The constant need to win the Champions League is an all consuming must, much like City’s. The issue has always been the somewhat limited pedigree of Ligue 1, and the inability to find the domestic rhythm needed to win the converted European Cup. His parting of ways with PSG was a huge benefit to Chelsea, as recent times have proved.

In the half season that Tuchel has been in charge, Chelsea have found a structure and resilience to beat Machsster City multiple times. His overloading 3-4-3 system was a vast improvement on Lampard’s version, with players working the pitch tirelessly in a solid formation.

Being able to view Pep’s line up must have surely altered the Chelsea pre game strategy, with a clearer path to attack the somewhat vacant City midfield. As stated in a previous piece, the ability of Kai Havertz would be vital in unlocking a Ruben Dias run defense. With no specialist holding midfielder, Chelsea were able to penetrate the space created by their altered formation. The goal was a wonderfully taken effort, and the build up pointed to over confidence in City’s line up,  exposing an often protected back line.

Parallels can be made in the in game management of both winning managers, in their means of overcoming a superior adversary. Equally so, the same parallels can be made of the two failing coaches, and the hesitance to make earlier tactical changes. Pep Guardiola is an all time great, but when opposing managers (such as Jurgen Klopp), have gotten the better of them, the tinkering of the line up often arises. A view that overthinking has been Pep’s undoing is sound, and when chasing a game of such magnitude, the team defending their advantage will often work that bit harder to succeed. Ngolo Kante is a big game player, able to press & harass at will when paired in a double pivot. This energy can drive a team, and with substitutes arriving on point, Thomas Tuchel, as Unai Emery comfortably won their managerial battles and European trophies with strong off field displays, to mirror their teams efforts.

Kevin De Bruyne being taken off would have deflated the City side, but it was the late second half introduction of the evergreen Fernandinho that pointed to the real issue. Understanding the tactical side of football will always see Guardiola as ground breaking, this is not in doubt. The problem on this occasion was giving Chelsea the initiative and failing to correct this, as the minutes ticked by. Jurgen Klopp has been guilty of much misjudged in game management this term, but with the injuries and a personal tragedy, it’s somewhat understandable. Pep, however, had a full roster of players and a system which had taken his side to the League title. The later introduction of Sergio Aguero was not enough to turn the tide, and Chelsea fully deserved their win.

Thomas Tuchel rallying his troops & the royal blue crowd was a delight to see, as his side’s work rate never faltered. His ability to overcome Manchester City, yet again, is a marvellous achievement, one that could propel his Chelsea into another period of greatness.

As we enter a summer where pandemics may be behind us, there will be the inevitable shuffling of managers and player rosters. But where marquee signings can elevate a fan base, they should never forget the importance an elite manager can have on his team, pre & in game.

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