The buck always stops with the manager in football. We know this. It’s the reason why Frank Lampard has his feet up at home right now, and the reason why Daniel Levy is probably flipping through his Rolodex trying to find a replacement for Jose Mourinho by summer. During this topsy-turvy season, it’s hard to think of any manager that hasn’t been under pressure for at least a short while. Even Jurgen Klopp, a man who felt untouchable at Anfield in recent years, is the third-favourite in the managerial sack race (behind Mourinho and Roy Hodgson).
But there have been some brilliant decisions from the men in the dugout, and some individual decisions have transformed club’s seasons. Below we pick out five of the best:
Guardiola Goes From Pressing to Possession
Back in mid-December, Man City looked lifeless after a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom. Twelve games into the season, their record was five wins, five draws and two defeats. The next 12 games in the league saw 12 consecutive victories. City are now odds-on in the Premier League betting for the title. What changed? Guardiola recognised that the players were fatigued, and could no longer flourish under high-octane pressing tactics. The Spaniard has changed City back to the possession-first strategy that used to serve him so well. It has proven to be a masterstroke. Fatigue has hit several teams this season after the late start to the season, lack of preseason and condensed fixture list. But possession-based football has allowed City’s players to conserve energy, shore up at the back and win the title with minimum effort. Perhaps one of the best tactical decisions of any season, not just this one.
Dean Smith Gives Grealish the Keys to Villa Park
It’s not quite the house that Jack built, and Villa are far from a one-man team, but allowing Grealish to become the focal point for everything was a smart decision by Dean Smith. Some players shine when given more responsibility, and that seems to be the case with Grealish. He has transformed the way Villa play, and his ability to bring players into the game has help others like Bertrand Traore and Ollie Watkins. There are unsung heroes in this Villa team, including John McGinn and Matty Cash, and they provide Grealish with the foundation to play. But Smith recognised that everything should go through the indefatigable Grealish, and Villa, and Smith himself, have reaped the rewards.
Standing by Paul Pogba
It is still the case that Alex Ferguson casts a shadow over Old Trafford, and everything Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does is judged within the context of the great man. But how would Ferguson have dealt with Paul Pogba after the infamous Mino Raiola interview in December? The combustible Ferguson might have ditched Pogba, perhaps even sold him in January. Solskjaer, however, took a different tact, putting the proverbial arm around the player and saying nothing to the media. It worked. Pogba has been United’s best player in 2021, and it’s not a coincidence that his absence over the last couple of weeks through injury has coincided with the team’s dip in form in the league. Most notably, Pogba’s attitude has been brilliant, doing the ‘dirty work’ in midfield and allowing Bruno Fernandes the glory.
Deep-Lying Harry Kane
Spurs and Jose Mourinho have seemingly imploded in 2021, and the latter looks to be on borrowed time. But we shouldn’t forget that Tottenham were regarded as title candidates at one point earlier in the season. That was down to the Harry Kane/Heung-Min Son axis, with the pair forming the deadliest partnership in the league. Kane moved into a much deeper role for Spurs. It is something akin to what Neymar does for PSG, demanding the ball in midfield to start – and finish – attacks. Kane is the only player in the Premier League so far to hit double figures for goals and assists. It seems to work for Spurs, but will it work for England this summer at the Euros when Kane is likely to be England’s only main striker?
And, Just About Everything David Moyes Has Done
Fun Fact: David Moyes has won more LMA Manager of the Year Awards than Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp combined. His trio of awards came back in his Everton days, but the West Ham manager may be on course for a fourth award after bringing unfancied West Ham into contention for a Champions League place. Moyes has done everything right this season: From getting the best out of Michail Antonio to encouraging Tomas Soucek to burst forward; and providing freedom for Aaron Cresswell to shine. What we like most is that seven academy graduates were in the squad for West Ham’s six successive wins in January 2021. It highlights how Moyes has worked his magic on a shoe-string budget.