Pep Guardiola’s admission that his Manchester City side had been outplayed by Tottenham in their 2-0 defeat on Sunday was a statement of the obvious. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear one of his explanations for their superiority.
“We played against a team who had the same trainer for the last two or three years,” he said. “They were one step in front of us today.”
Continuity, or lack thereof, is something of a theme this season. One of the reasons the top of the Premier League is so intriguing is that three of the main contenders for the title (Man United, City and Chelsea) have new managers: not just men who have their own styles, but men whose styles contrast significantly with their predecessors.
That was certainly something Antonio Conte lingered on after Chelsea’s nerve-calming 2-0 win over Hull City. The first weeks of the Italian’s tenure at Stamford Bridge have been rather uneven, Saturday representing their first victory since August. Questions have been asked about their lack of defensive solidity, to the point that Conte almost seemed more pleased with the clean sheet (also their first since August) than the win.
Conte changed Chelsea’s system to a three-man defence on Saturday, and while Hull’s attack didn’t exactly provide the sternest of tests, the players did at least show they could cope with the formation he often deployed to great success with Juventus and Italy.
Conte noted afterwards that the “principles are more important than the system” and Chelsea’s sticky start to the season is, at least in part, down to the instilling of those principles. It will not come immediately.
“I think today I saw a lot of things I like,” said Conte. “We worked to put pressure, to win the ball back, and I like this. To do this it needs time, because we have to change the habits of the past.”
That last point didn’t seem to be a particular dig at Jose Mourinho, or interim coach Guus Hiddink, but simply to emphasise that changing a manager is not like changing a t-shirt. Conte stressed that he wants his sides to be compact, to maintain width, to win the ball back quickly and to pressure the opposition, all things that he wants the team to do in his own way.
“Now we must work,” he added. “Because we know to change the past we need to work a lot, to work together, to understand there is a lot to improve.”
The point about changing the past is arguably even more apposite to one of Conte’s predecessors. Mourinho not only has to deal with a new club, but with a Manchester United team who spent last season playing what we’ll diplomatically call “a particular type” of football.
Under Louis van Gaal, United’s players were instructed — nay, ordered, under pain of punishment — to build slowly, to dominate possession and pass, pass, pass. At points it’s been frustrating to watch United this season, but it must be remembered that, like Conte, Mourinho has had to change the habits of the past.
This is perhaps one of the more underrated problems that new managers have to face at their clubs: it must be difficult enough to get one player to forget everything they’d been told before by the previous regime, never mind a whole squad of them.
A good manager will imbue his charges with his own style, his own instructions, to the extent that it becomes second nature: a new manager has to change that nature.
It’s no wonder that Conte has been asking for time, reportedly meeting Roman Abramovich three times last week and having lunch with the owner in the Chelsea canteen. And given this is something Conte has done before, granting him this time is justified: he took Juventus from seventh place to three consecutive Serie A titles, and took an Italy side who had departed the 2014 World Cup in the first round to the quarterfinals at Euro 2016.
Hull’s caretaker manager Mike Phelan, as experienced a man as you will find in the game and Conte’s opponent on Saturday, was asked what he made of Chelsea. Without knowing what the Italian had said a few minutes before, Phelan picked up on the point. “They’ve got a new manager with new methods, that shows at times that it’s still a work in progress,” he said. “He knows what he wants, but it’s difficult to impose those beliefs on a group of players that have perhaps had two or three different managers.”
These are three works in progress, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, and one thinks of the immortal Brendan Rodgers line, when he said that managing a football team was “like trying to build an airplane while it’s flying.”
The Premier League is so relentless that these teams are busy building while travelling at a thousand miles an hour, so while that pace inevitably comes with a degree of impatience, these managers deserve some understanding as they try to move their squads from the old to the new. We are essentially watching revolution disguised as evolution — a tricky task to manage, to say the least.
Guardiola has seemingly coped with the problem of transformation a little better than his opponents, but as Tottenham and to a lesser extent Celtic proved last week, there are still kinks to work out. As for Conte and Mourinho, as well as having the same issues to confront, the two men have identical records: both Chelsea and United have won four, drawn one and lost two.
“The work we’ve done is good,” said Conte, “but we must continue.”
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.