Why ambitious Premier League managers are less likely to park the bus
The Premier League is currently blessed with an unusual level of tactical variety. In particular, last weekend's action featured two entirely different approaches from small sides hosting title challengers.
In Saturday's lunchtime fixture, Wolverhampton Wanderers held Manchester City to a draw with an impressively bold performance. The following day, Newcastle were narrowly defeated by Chelsea, having parked the bus for the duration.
Wolves played an open style of football and caused Manchester City serious problems, and therefore few will begrudge them their fortune, with Willy Boly's opener scored from an offside position, with his hand. Newcastle didn't get that type of luck, conceding twice from a controversially (albeit probably correctly) awarded penalty and a silly own goal. Fortune favours the brave, perhaps.
But both approaches broadly worked well. Wolves caused problems on the counter-attack and created more chances, but they also conceded more: Newcastle didn't allow Chelsea a clear-cut goal-scoring chance from open play.
The two sides were, in fairness, in completely different situations. Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can call upon a genuinely impressive squad of players including, in one the best central midfield pairings in the league, the all-Portuguese central duo of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves. Newcastle, on the other hand, are woefully unstaffed. Rafael Benitez has worked wonders with a squad packed full of players who wouldn't look out of place in the Championship, and feels unable to compete with bigger sides in open matches.
But more important than the nature of the squads when predicting how teams will play against major opposition, however, is the nature of the managers.
Benitez has never been particularly interested in putting on a show. His teams have always been safety-first, disciplined and organised. His favourite word is "compact," constantly urging his side closer together to make them difficult to play through, and it's largely served him well -- Benitez has won league titles and European trophies. Attracted to Newcastle because of the club's historical importance, and convinced to remain after the club's relegation because of the adoration of the supporters, Benitez has nevertheless already demonstrated his ability to coach a bigger club. If he leaves Newcastle, a major club will still come calling.
Nuno is in a more complex position. He's also coached bigger clubs, Valencia and Porto, but endured a mixed experience at both. In his debut campaign with Valencia he performed impressively but left the club in ninth position, while he was dismissed after a lone, trophyless campaign with Porto where the club finished second -- something of a failure at the Dragao. Nuno, therefore, still has a point to prove, and presumably an ambition to coach a major club once again.
Forget about whether Wolves themselves would be giving themselves the best chance of collecting points -- for upwardly mobile managers like Nuno, parking the bus against one of the Premier League's big boys would be disastrous for his career prospects. Managers of mid-table or bottom-half clubs will only impress larger employers if they demonstrate their capacity to play good, attractive football -- particularly when playing those big clubs.
Recent managers who have been promoted from Premier League "outsiders" to major clubs have impressed because of their former club's style. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton were renowned for their aggressive pressing, and his first three victories at the club came against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, games which demonstrated his willingness to attack and press superior sides. In his second campaign, Pochettino's Southampton lost home and away to his future employers, Tottenham, but both were 3-2 victories where Southampton had opened the scoring -- including going 2-0 up at White Hart Lane. Tottenham's hierarchy were clearly impressed, considerably more than had Southampton sat back and lost 1-0.
Brendan Rodgers is another fine example. During his lone Premier League spell with Swansea, his side were capable of taking the game to better opposition, dominating possession and winning against Manchester City and Arsenal, the two best passing sides in the league in 2011-12. Most notably, his Swansea side were applauded off the pitch at Anfield by Liverpool's supporters, an ovation that surely stuck in the minds of Liverpool's owners, who subsequently appointed him at the end of the campaign.
His rival for that job had been Roberto Martinez, who ended up on the opposite side of Stanley Park. Again, Martinez was notable for getting his Wigan side to attack the Premier League's elite. Sometimes this resulted in absolute thrashings -- Wigan once played some fine football away at Stamford Bridge, and lost 8-0. When it came together, though, it worked wonderfully, and a 3-0 victory away at Everton six months before his appointment at Goodison Park was crucial in his subsequent appointment.
Similarly, Marco Silva's Watford went to Everton last season, attacked from the outset and went 2-0 up before eventually losing 3-2. He was appointed at Goodison Park this summer. An entertaining 3-2 defeat, based the experiences of Pochettino and Silva, seems a fine recipe for endearing yourself to future employers.
It's almost inconceivable that any of the "big six" clubs would appoint a manager who has introduced himself to that club's supporters with a display of negative, defensive-minded football. Managers like Nuno, Bournemouth's Eddie Howe and Fulham's Slavisa Jokanovic fancy themselves for a top job, and are keen to impress against them.
Whether an attacking approach is the most logical way to play against big sides, however, is very much debatable. Open games tend to favour the better side, and for smaller clubs the optimum number of goals in a game against a big side is either 0 or 1, depending upon whether they'd be content with a draw.
That's a reductive analysis, of course, and the nuances of the tactical approach is more crucial than the raw level of attacking ambition. And "ambition" is the key word here: The approaches of the Premier League's lesser lights against bigger sides appear to be more dependent on their manager's career plans, than the nature of his squad.
So when Cardiff City hosts Arsenal next weekend, don't expect Neil Warnock -- unlikely to ever be appointed by a bigger club -- to send his team out to do anything but defend.