Optus Sport expert Michael Bridges gives his thoughts after an unbelievable week of European football.
Last week I ended off my column with the wise words “next week’s action will be even more thrilling than this week’s,” and even I’m a little surprised at how accurate that statement was. But amongst all the justified hype over Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gini Wijnaldum and Lucas Moura’s performances, to me it's the remarkable evolution of the Premier League manager that is the real story here.
Thanks to Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and of course Mauricio Pochettino, the beautiful game has become even more beautiful over the past few seasons.
While the English teams may not stroke the ball around in the same metronomic triangular style that Barcelona and Ajax displayed in their respective Champions League semi-finals, the Premier League sides instead aspired for practical and effective football. And the results speak for themselves.
As Tottenham trailed 3-0 on aggregate at the half-time break in Amsterdam, Mauricio Pochettino threw on Fernando Llorente in a last ditch attempt to salvage an unlikely result. All of a sudden, Ajax defenders like Matthijs De Ligt and Daley Blind looked entirely uncomfortable.
With Llorente winning every contest and skilfully bringing down hopeful long balls for his overlapping midfielders, Ajax seemed out of answers. We all know how the rest played out.
On Wednesday at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp showed his managerial superiority, sending his team out like rabid dogs frothing at the mouth to steal the ball off the stunned Barcelona players. Klopp’s side were bullies, winning every contest and forcing turnover after turnover.
Liverpool’s incredible fans and the intense atmosphere they generated at Anfield also have to take a lot of credit for what transpired. They created the mentality and belief their players desperately required to put four past Barcelona.
And where did the fans learn that sort of belief and passion? Jurgen Klopp.
Amidst the incredible chaos that football threw up this week, lets not forget the revolutionary influence of Pep Guardiola, a student of the Sir Bobby Robson style of management.
English football used to be known around the world as simple and brutal, with a typical four-four-two setup and the trademark crash and bash style. But with this influx of European coaches taking over at the big six Premier League teams, that has all changed, and Pep has been at the forefront of that.
When I was playing in England, I got sworn at by my manager Peter Reid 16 times in 30 seconds. That’s surely some sort of world record. But try doing that now, you’ll be out of a job in even fewer seconds than that. Times have changed, and Pep has understood that you have to embrace the off-field culture of the new generation of players.
Today, it’s about education and motivation. Man-management is everything, and that's where the new breed of coaches are getting it right. Klopp, Pochettino, Guardiola and even Unai Emery are father-figures to their players, not bosses to be feared.
Legendary manager Sir Bobby Robson used to always have his door open, and all my teammates at Newcastle United felt he was available for a chat at any time. Back then, that was unheard of.
For a manager, if you lose the dressing room, you’re finished. Even in my time in the A-League I had a manager at the Jets who tried to empty the club of all its senior players. The dressing room unsurprisingly didn’t like it and the manager quickly became isolated. It’s not a strategy that works anymore.
In my opinion that father-figure style of management was pioneered by Sir Bobby Robson, developed by Pep Guardiola and replicated by Klopp and Pochettino, with the result manifesting most obviously in the past two weeks of incredible football.
Yet if you would have told me at the start of the season that England would have four teams in the finals of the Champions League and Europa League (and Manchester City wouldn’t even be one of them!) I would have laughed you out of the room.
Even without Guardiola, it’s an outstanding result for Australian viewers. I’ve always been very aware of how big these four teams are in the UK but to be over here and see how many Australians are equally as passionate about these teams, is an incredible thing.
Almost every football fan in Australia will have some sort of affiliation with one of the teams involved in the two finals, and I, like many, just can’t wait to see what those amazing managers deliver in that last week of may.
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