Winning – What is it Good For?

With the advent of the 2018-2019 Premier League season, also comes the recurring debate of title contenders.

Last year, it was Manchester City by a landslide. They won the league by an impressive 19 points, totaled 100 on the season, and broke the team goalscoring record with 106 while only conceding 27. They were clearly the best team in the league.

This year? Who knows. Liverpool have made quite the splash since bowing out in the Champions League final back in May, and many are saying they’re best equipped to challenge last year’s winner.

But there’s another team who has quietly lurked among the top-4 the past couple years, in Manchester United. Spear-headed by Jose Mourinho, the team had a solid second-place finish, six points ahead of UCL runner-up Liverpool, and four points ahead of Tottenham.

And while many have criticized the way that he manages the team, Mourinho finished with a great record last year. So why all the flak? He spend the cash when he needs to, and has some of the best players in the world. But there’s an angle to it.

“We’re not a team; we’re a group of players.” – Jose Mourinho.

That seems like a terrible mentality as a coach, doesn’t it? To refer to your players as entities in a winning business scheme rather than people who work together?  As a man who’s more apt to grind out results than impress the crowd, it’s a mystery why fans remain on the Reds’ side. It’s boring, lifeless soccer. There’s no art in the way Mourinho coaches. This literally says it all, a comparison of EPL coaches’ perspective of preseason tournaments:

But he does get results, and that’s key isn’t it? Could they still be considered the best team in the league? Manchester United wins games. Does it matter if he’s forcing players to play boring soccer if they’re winning? Maybe, maybe not.

Paul Pogba is a perfect example. Think about how he played in the World Cup; it was beautiful, skilled, and tenacious play. Now compare that to his tenure at Man U; robotic, calculated, and somewhat ascetic. Yes, I used the word “ascetic” in a soccer blog. Players denying themselves the pleasure of free-play takes some of the beauty out of it.

But again, Manchester gets results.

On the other hand, there is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City squad. A near-homage to the early 2010’s Barcelona, they’re lethal. Technical, fast, attack-minded, with a little bit of flash in their play. He manages young talent too, one of the youngest teams in the EPL.

It’s fun to watch, even as a Chelsea fan.

Why is it fun, though? Everyone loves the player who can flick the ball around his or her defender and make them look silly. This isn’t to say Pep tells his players to go out and do that all the time. But you watch a game and you think “wow this is a great team to watch.” It’s exciting football.

The players are actually having fun. They can be dynamic in their play, robotic when they need to be, or have the freedom to choose between the two.

The biggest draw was that they were getting results, in the (debatably) hardest league in the world. They scored over 100 goals, with a near 3 Goals/game average. As a fan I would watch a Manchester City game over a United game for that reason alone. More goals = more action = more fun, to the average listener.

But flashy doesn’t always mean better. In the most dynamic league in the world (not debatable), it’s very rare to see a team have a repeat performance from the year before. I don’t think Manchester City will do quite as well, simply because it’s been a while for teams to figure out their scheme.

Some said, when Pep first arrived, that it “was going to take time,” and “just give him a season with his players and watch what happens.” There’s that definite bond now. It’s scary as a fan of a competitor, to see his genius working.

But while he builds relationships with players for this scheme, there comes the question of: What happens if the trust in his players doesn’t work out? Is giving your players too much trust and freedom a bad thing?

This is all hypothetical, by the way. Speculation. I have no opinion on what might or might not happen – it’s such a dynamic and ever-changing league that nobody knows for sure.

But I think there’s a case to say that sometimes it becomes a matter of “what’s more fun” vs. “what’s more effective.” To further that, then, comes the question of: “could this Manchester United style make them the best team?” I don’t have an answer.

And while we can throw shade in the face of Mourinho all we’d like, the fact remains that he wins games. So as my immaturity slowly leaves with age, I’m starting to understand that I still hate boring soccer, even after analyzing it.

But also, I get it.

And it’s something to consider when you’re watching this year. Manchester United will continue to challenge quietly, leaving the tenacity and flash to the other teams like Man City, Liverpool and even Tottenham.

Chelsea is TBD.

But I will say this. Players are beginning to reject his style of play – we saw it as the transfer window closed the other day. Players are starting to snub playing at Manchester United because they don’t want to play under Mourinho. Boateng said no, Kovacic said no. We’re starting to have players realize that it might not be worth it.

But while we might not agree with the way Mourinho runs things, or how he complains about the spending habits of teams, after he himself has broken spending records, we can’t forget that he still wins games.

Sometimes its not how you win, but that you win. By the same token, its also still ok to hate Manchester United for it.

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