It used to be about the players on the pitch. It used to be about the fight, the heart and the passion: English football’s holy trinity. It’s now about the chess masters; not the pawns, bishops and queens.
And when Manchester City welcome Tottenham to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening, that trend will only continue.
While some of the best players in the game will take to the pitch and perform in front of a capacity crowd and a worldwide television audience, the main focus will inevitably fall not on the virtues of individual players but on Manchester City’s passing game and Tottenham’s high pressing.
There will be great interest in Kevin de Bruyne and Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Dele Alli, of course. There will also be eyes focused in on how Spurs defend without Jan Vertonghen, and whether Claudio Bravo will out in another nervous performance.
But all of those things will take on a managerial twist in one way or another: will Vertonghen’s absence mean Pochettino reverts back to a four at the back system rather than three? If that’s the case, will Dele Alli be able to continue his great form, will Harry Kane? How will Manchester City cope with the high pressing? Will Claudio Bravo keep his place? All of the questions of the day are asked with reference to a manager’s decision.
In many ways, that’s a good thing. We now seem to look at football in a much more philosophical way. Blood and guts are still welcome, but more thought is put into how teams win games, not just their desire to actually win the game. Yet that means the biggest games are now battles between the biggest coaches.
Each member of the Premier League’s top six has a big name manager known for setting the tone in games with his use of tactics. Outside that top six, Ronaldo Koeman and Tony Pulis are in seventh and eighth, both have their own distinctive style of play, and when they face top six teams they too will become about the managers: Pulis v Guardiola, Koeman v Pochettino.
We’re unlikely to see that change anytime soon. Although Marco van Basten’s proposed reforms to football have caused quite a bit of debate, the fact that he has proposed scrapping the offside rule means he can be dismissed as a lunatic radical. Even if his ideas on penalty shootouts and sin bin style for some fouls which seem to warrant more than a yellow card but less than all out expulsion.
One of the stranger ideas he has come up with – in a similar vein to his sin bin idea, it has been received as not quite as bad as getting rid of offside, but not as good an idea some of his others – is to change the structure of games from two half to four quarters.
Whatever you think of the idea itself, it shows that the trend of managers becoming more and more important is entering into thought about the game at the highest levels.
Switching to four quarters would, to many in Britain, seem like an overly American idea. And it’s certainly reminiscent of American football. It’s reminiscent of most American sports, of course, but American football is probably one of the the most coach-based sports there is.
Various tactics, ‘plays’, are devised by coaches and practised tirelessly on the training pitch before being executed to the letter on the field, whilst coaches get time in between quarters to make changes, to give team talks, and generally exert more influence than they do in football.
We may never get four quarters to replace two halves in football, and the opposition to such a move would probably be huge. But it does show that thinking about the game now revolves around coaches and ideas, and not necessarily about the players on the pitch.
City Spurs this weekend will be just another example of that.