Premier League Chaos Has Claimed the Elite: Can Incoming Bosses Rise Above It?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2016

Bayern Munich's Spanish head coach Pep Guardiola takes part in a press conference at the Luz stadium in Lisbon on April 12, 2016, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League second leg quarter finals football match SL Benfica vs FC Bayern Munich. / AFP / FRANCISCO LEONG        (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)

The new year had just arrived, and the most emblematic of weeks had just closed.

It was January 2, and at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal had moved two points clear at the top of the table with a 1-0 victory over Newcastle United. In one way, it seemed relatively logical at the time, but in another, it felt absurd.

Just seven days earlier, Arsenal—then the division's best, so said the table—had been bulldozed 4-0 by Southampton and owned a points tally that would have had them peering up at several above in any other season of the past decade.  

Again, the Premier League's 2015-16 chaos was reigning supreme, so it was put to Wenger whether this frenetic unpredictability was indicative of a good league or otherwise. 

"That's the question people ask at the moment," said the Frenchman. "Is this the worst league ever, or is it the best league ever? I haven't analysed it, but you can go both ways."

You can.

This is a question that's hung over the the Premier League all season, and one with strong arguments on each side. To its supporters, the current campaign is something to savour, with its entertainment, diversity, volatility and possibilities unrivalled; to its detractors, such an environment has been able to take hold because of an absence of top-end quality. 

Throughout, it's felt that such a question would inevitably cease to be relevant, that the previous status quo would eventually resume. But no: Leicester City's astonishing rise has continued. Tottenham Hotspur have surged. West Ham United are coming. The league's middle class might be the strongest it's ever been.  

Amid that, the country's traditional elite have barely been able to comprehend what's hit them; Wenger's question has remained pertinent. It will stay that way into the summer, too, and even into the beginning of next season due to the landscape-altering arrivals (and return?) that loom: Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Antonio Conte at Chelsea and maybe even Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. 

It looks juicy, and it's significant. England has always had an obsession with the manager like no other and a love for the head-to-head narratives that come with it. But this goes beyond that.  

In relation to Wenger's line, these heavyweight bosses and their heavyweight clubs are extremely relevant here, as their success or failure next season will tell us much about this one.

Indeed, if Guardiola, Conte and Mourinho (Jurgen Klopp, too) struggle to reinstate the customary modus operandi, it will strengthen the argument the Premier League has become a brutal free-for-all and that 2015-16 is a forerunner rather than an outlier. But if they triumph—particularly if they do so with conviction—it will reinforce the counter-argument that the failures of the traditional elite are solely what have created this.

The question becomes, then: Can the incoming bosses rise above the chaos? 

Bayern Munich's Spanish head coach Pep Guardiola arrives for the German first division Bundesliga football match between Hertha BSC and FC Bayern Munich in Berlin, on April 23, 2016.   / AFP / ODD ANDERSEN / RESTRICTIONS: DURING MATCH TIME: DFL RULES TO L

In truth, the rise of this chaos has been multifaceted and in some ways perplexing, but what's certain is that a primary driver has been the tidal wave of cash heading the Premier League's way. 

Thanks to the historic £5.14 billion TV rights deal signed by the league last year (that deal doesn't kick in until next season but the effects are already being seen, while the addition of overseas rights will take the figure beyond £8 billion), England's top division now has a landscape in which everyone's pockets are loaded.

Suddenly, squad depth across the league has soared. Mid-level English clubs are now buying players from title contenders in Europe and no longer need to sell their best to stay afloat. Last summer, Crystal Palace went shopping at Paris Saint-Germain; West Ham went shopping at Juventus; Stoke City dropped in and left with goods from Inter Milan. 

Sunderland have more money than Napoli

The result has been a league in which those who've lived in the shadows have shrugged off any inferiority complex. Now, they just go for it. West Ham can look at Chelsea and say bring it on. Bournemouth can eye up United and think we're in this—full-steam ahead, foot flat to the floor. 

It's turned the Premier League into a world of helter-skelter football, where freneticism is the overriding theme and reputation means little unless you can rise above what could be termed a movement. 

But—and this is possibly the key bit—there are potential lessons here, too. 

Right now, Leicester and Tottenham sit atop the Premier League and will almost certainly finish the season that way. For months now, it's been clear they're the division's standouts, and yet neither club has many of the things you typically associate with leaders: the greatest number of stars, the deepest pool of talent or colossal resources.

But still, there they are. How? Why?

It's because of tactical coherence. 

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 20:  Claudio Ranieri the manager of Leicester City greets Mauricio Pochettino the manager of Spurs prior to kickoff during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay match between Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur at The King P
Michael Regan/Getty Images

In 2015-16, no teams have had clearer identities than Leicester and Tottenham, and the clarity in their purpose has been striking. 

At the King Power Stadium, the fairytale-ness of it all and Claudio Ranieri's endearing we're-the-adorable-little-guys discourse has distracted many from the brilliance and sophistication of Leicester's approach. 

Indeed, despite the club's off-field moves and success in scouting, none of that translates directly to what Leicester are achieving unless you get it bang on come matchday.

And Leicester have.

The way they cover for one another is extraordinary. Ditto for their ability to close space, to deny teams the central channel, to avoid being run at and to wreak havoc with minimal possession. This is a team that's only played a central "two" all season but has never been overrun in midfield. A team that, in the perceived madness of this campaign, has conceded eight goals since the turn of the year. Eight

Arsenal in that time? Conceded 16. Liverpool? 23. West Ham? 20. Chelsea? 17. The two Manchester giants? 14 apiece. 

You don't achieve such an advantage because you're "plucky" or "admirable" or merely "fighters"; you achieve it because you're brilliant, because you've developed and cultivated a matchday method of clarity that has allowed you to rise above the growing chaos that has affected others.

Yet, that doesn't mean the Leicester method is the method, the only one. It's not.

Just look at Tottenham.

At White Hart Lane, Mauricio Pochettino has created a side that's very different to the Foxes but similarly impressive. Spurs are now extremely athletic, relentless, suffocating and utterly painful to play against. In February, after his Watford side had been asphyxiated and then killed off, Quique Sanchez Flores dubbed Pochettino's men "animals."

He's right: First Tottenham physically overwhelm you, then they outplay you. Though they contrast with Leicester, the certainty in the encompassing idea is the same; the parts may change, but the identity doesn't.

It's identity the traditional heavyweights have battled with in 2015-16, and the incoming bosses and their existing high-profile rivals will be looking to address it. 

UDINE, ITALY - MARCH 24:  Head coach of Italy Antonio Conte answers to the media during a press conference following the international friendly match between Italy and Spain at Stadio Friuli (Dacia Arena) on March 24, 2016 in Udine, Italy.  (Photo by Jean
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

At Manchester City, Guardiola will soon arrive at a club whose Premier League points aren't yet reflective of talent or resources, and who have existed in a disjointed funk all season. 

In the campaign's opening weeks, City threatened to make all of this a non-event, but structural flaws have undermined them. In midfield, they remain too easy to play through; in defence, they're curiously brittle, with each issue compounding the other. 

Admittedly, the consistent absence of Vincent Kompany has hurt them, but the difference seen in this side when the captain is there and when he's not is reflective of a tactical approach lacking sophistication and durability.  

Just look at Atletico Madrid for contrast. On Wednesday against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg, Diego Simeone's men played without the world's premier centre-back in Diego Godin and were forced into fielding Stefan Savic, and yet it made no difference. Two weeks earlier against Barcelona in the competition's quarter-final, Simeone had to make do without Jose Gimenez and turn to the 20-year-old Lucas Hernandez.

Again, it made no difference. 

It's an important example for City: At Atletico, the tactical approach stands as the foundation for everything, with the talent there to build on it; at City, it's the opposite.

In years gone by, such flaws might have been possible to mask in the Premier League, but in the current chaotic climate, they haven't been. The freneticism and strengthened middle tier have exposed them. 

Across town at Manchester United, the specific issues are very different, but the presence of a muddled on-field structure has been similar. Sometimes United go forward, other times it's sideways; sometimes they go short, other times it's long; sometimes they go fast, other times it's painfully slow. 

The dearth of goals clangs (42 in 34 games), but perhaps more damning is the lack of identity or personality to Louis Van Gaal's side. Unlike at those who lead the division, it's hard to discern a method or an idea that's being embraced at Old Trafford. 

For possibly Mourinho and definitely Guardiola, this is what's needing to be reversed in England's north-west, while down in London, Conte faces something not too dissimilar.  

The incumbents are facing challenges, too.  

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19:  Former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (R) looks on from the stands prior to the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton and Hove Albion and Middlesbrough at Amex Stadium on December 19, 2015 in Brighton, United Kingdom
Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

At Arsenal, a too-cosy relationship between ownership and manager continues to impose stasis upon the north London outfit, yet in 2015-16, just as problematic has been Wenger and his staff's inability to oversee tactical cohesion. 

The current incarnation of Arsenal seems to lack both the power of Wenger's pre-2004 sides and the artistry or incision of those since. Now, it's as if there's a disconnect in attack, a sudden loss of clarity that has grown to exist in addition to the questionable balance, with the indifference now preyed upon. 

Remember the 3-3 against Liverpool in January? When Arsenal looked brilliant in flashes but ended the contest in a systematic mess trying to hang on, essentially playing without a midfield in a 6-0-4?

That game stands among the most stylistically symbolic of the Premier League season, and it said as much about Liverpool as it did about Arsenal. Indeed, the Reds that night were blistering at times, dominant in large stretches. Twice they took the lead emphatically.

And yet still, Klopp's men were 3-2 down in the closing minutes to a side without a midfield.

Since, Klopp has spoken about the intensity of English football and it's relentless nature. The Premier League, it seems, has even surprised him. 

"We knew about it [prior to arriving]," said Klopp in January, "but to feel it is different."

The German has now watched the chaos of England's top division for six months, and as one of the game's most high-profile managers, he will be joined by two and possibly three more in the months to come. It will be juicy. Fascinating. Packed with duels and narratives that will satisfy the appetites for such. 

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is what those men and their success or failure will tell us about this extraordinary season. Can Guardiola, Conte, Klopp and possibly Mourinho develop the superior identities and tactical methods that have been absent this season at their respective clubs to counter the league's growing strength elsewhere? Can they restore the traditional elite?

Can they rise above the chaos of 2015-16?

If they can, this season will come to represent an outlier of sorts. If they can't, it could stand as an indication of what's to come.