The Premier League has never seen managerial talent like this before
Is it talent or is it scheme? Is winning simply a function of having better players than your opponent, or does a great coach genuinely add value? It's the perpetual debate in any team sport, and odds are, you stake a position somewhere on the continuum of talent vs. coaching.
The 2016-17 Premier League season may be remembered as the one where the biggest clubs decisively decided to throw their resources at the coaching end of the spectrum. In fact, the men managing England's six biggest clubs are arguably as good as any half-dozen ever assembled in any single league at any point in football history.
Five of the six have won multiple league titles in major European leagues. (The one who hasn't, Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, finished third in the Premier League last year.) Four of the six have reached the Champions League final and, of course, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, who now coach Manchester City and Manchester United respectively, have both won the biggest prize in club football more than once.
That will likely be one of the defining qualities of the 2016-17 season: outsized personalities and storylines on the bench often eclipsing the guys on the pitch. In many ways, it's the reverse of what has happened of late at Barcelona and Real Madrid, where the narratives have centered on the superstars.
Guardiola, whose arrival in England was as telegraphed and eagerly anticipated as any manager's, outshines both his incumbent stars (Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany) and his bright young signings (Leroy Sane and John Stones, above all). Across town, the same is true of Jose Mourinho, even after the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
Arsene Wenger, the ageless redwood in the North London forest, continues to dominate every sinew at Arsenal in part because his biggest stars (from Mesut Ozil to Alexis Sanchez) are more of the low-key variety. The same could be said of Liverpool: A club defined by outsized icons like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Luis Suarez is now epitomized by Jurgen Klopp, the gangly, bespectacled coach, more so than the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane.
After their limp season last year, Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas are edged out of the spotlight by their new, combustible Italian drill sergeant, Antonio Conte. And at White Hart Lane, Dele Alli does have the stuff of superstars -- maybe more so than the understated Harry Kane -- but he doesn't even turn 21 until April. So, for now, it really is all about Pochettino, the man who pulls the strings.
It's not just the big personalities on the bench. It's the commitment they've received from the clubs and the expectations they've generated.
Manchester United's net spend in this transfer window is almost equal to what was spent under Louis Van Gaal (who wasn't particularly thrifty) in the previous four combined. (It will come down, of course, provided the club can shift some assets as Mourinho hopes, but it's still a massive and necessary commitment.) The Special One said he wanted four signings and he got them: A one-man wrecking crew (Ibrahimovic), a subtle creator (Henrikh Mkhitaryan), an imposing centre-back (Eric Bailly) and the world's most expensive player (Pogba).
City, having already been hard at work Guardiola-izing the club for the past few seasons, have spent more in net terms thus far this summer than ever before. With Stones on board, he has the ball-playing center-back his system demands, while Ilkay Gundogan is the creative brain of the operation. Nolito is the unsung hero who gets Pep's system; Sane and the South American boys (Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno, who'll start the year elsewhere but can be recalled) are the ones for the future.
Liverpool's net spend is in line with previous seasons, but the big difference is the faith shown in Klopp, who was given a monster extension through 2022 less than eight months after arriving at Anfield. Critics point out that Liverpool will once again be too reliant on Daniel Sturridge's fitness, which has let him down time and again. But this is where you need the leap of faith. This is the team Klopp wants, and these are the players he wants. And if he thinks that a raft of tricky midfielder-forward hybrids (Roberto Firmino, Coutinho, Mane) are what he needs as an alternative to Sturridge, you tend to believe him. At least, the club did with their six years extension.
Chelsea's net spend with Conte at the helm is roughly equal to what they spent in net terms over three seasons with Mourinho. N'Golo Kante stiffens up the midfield, Michy Batshuayi is an exciting up-and-comer and you get a sense that their transfer business isn't quite over: There's a lot of ground to make up after the club's worst league finish in 20 years.
Tottenham are also ahead of previous campaigns in net spending. Pochettino got the dynamic midfielder he wanted (Victor Wanyama) and the legit centre-forward to help out Kane (Vincent Janssen). And he got the peace of mind that comes with the huge extension through 2021 he signed in May.
At Arsenal, Wenger again marches to the beat of his own drum. Like last season, his trasnfer business was both early and minimalist: he's signed just one significant newcomer, but like Petr Cech a year ago, it is a cast-iron starter in Granit Xhaka. That's how he rolls, and he usually finishes above most, though crucially not all, of his high-end peers. Even after two decades and with just a one-year contract, you sometimes feel he's more secure than any of his Premier League colleagues.
What all this points to is a greater number of proven, hugely respected and sometimes hero-worshipped managers being given more of the tools to strut their stuff than at any point in recent history. We get to see some of the sharpest minds in the game bring their vision to life. And that's new and different and, to a certain type of fan, more exciting.
In some ways, all of this is curious. Because if you look back just three months to last season, the team lifting the Premier League trophy, Leicester City, featured a manager who few would describe as visionary, fewer still would see as a long-term choice and possibly nobody at all would call "exciting." And yet Claudio Ranieri tiptoed into the Leicester job, tweaked a few roles, kept everyone grounded and together and finished ahead of everyone, pulling off perhaps the greatest upset in the history of team sports.
But hey, that was just a blip, a quirk of history, Richard III's body under the parking lot and other supernatural hoodoo, right?
Because titles are won, above all, by genius managers with clearly defined philosophies, plenty of "attention to detail" -- quick thought: find me a top coach who isn't described as "detail-oriented" in those familiar, fawning profiles -- tons of charisma and, of course, that intangible quality we like to call "a winning mentality." At least, that's the thinking in the Premier League this season.
We've got more of those than ever before. And it's going to be one heck of a ride, the kind that might well bruise egos and burst reputations.
Enjoy every minute.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.