The Cult of the Manager: Half-Time Report

  • How have the Premier League’s big-name managers fared in the first half of the 2016/17 season?
  • Does the rest of the field have a chance of catching Conte’s Chelsea juggernaut?
  • Who have been the biggest success stories both on and off the field?

We've reached the halfway point of the season and the excitement promised by the summer's Premier League managerial arrivals has been fulfilled.

The top of the table has brought the intense battle that many would have predicted. The team leading the way will have surprised those ready to declare Pep Guardiola and Manchester City champions in July though.

After a difficult start - highlighted by a 3-0 thrashing from Arsenal at the Emirates - Antonio Conte has transformed Chelsea from last season's biggest underachievers into the league's most effective unit.

The former Italy manager endured a difficult summer - continually being priced out of his top targets and being met with ridicule when the club eventually re-signed David Luiz.

That result against Arsenal turned out to be exactly the catalyst Chelsea needed though.

Conte had persevered with the formation and tactics that had led the team to a 10th place finish in 2015/16, but has since switched to the 3-4-3 that characterised his all-conquering Juventus teams.

This change has brought out the best in several players.

Eden Hazard has returned to his Player of the Year winning form; Nemanja Matic is revitalised after nearly departing the club; Cesar Azpilicueta looks like one of the league's best defenders as part of the back three; and Victor Moses has returned from his loan exile to be one of the first names on the team sheet.

Leading the line is of course Diego Costa. Much was made of how his personality would clash with Conte's fiery temperament, but he has managed to curtail the darker aspects the Brazilian's game while maximising the sheer brutality he is able to bring upon a defence.

Coupled with the outstanding play of new signings N'Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso, Conte has built a defensively solid and ruthlessly counter-attacking team that are now clear title favourites.

Currently pushing the London side closest is Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. Despite arriving halfway through last season, it was widely accepted that he needed a full summer's transfer window and pre-season to really stamp his mark.

The signings of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum alongside the continued development of Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and the outstanding Phillipe Coutinho has provided the German the perfect blend of pace, creativity, tactical intelligence and direct football he so expertly managed at Borussia Dortmund.

However, there are still question marks about the defence - several injuries to new signing Joel Matip haven't helped - and Klopp's choice for the club's starting goalkeeper is still up in the air.

But when the attack is performing at this level it covers up a multitude of defensive sins.

The promise of Coutinho's return from a horrific ankle injury suffered against Sunderland should push Klopp's hyperkinetic attack and 'gegenpressing' back to full strength where they can potentially mount a serious title challenge.

Just behind Liverpool are Guardiola's City team, who have experienced a season of ups and downs in almost direct contrast to Chelsea.

While Conte was struggling to find his best team at the start of the season, Guardiola had the City machine purring, a seamless connection of footballing genius on and off the pitch based on position-less and possession-obsessed dominance of the opposition.

Six straight wins to start the season showcased exactly what everyone though Guardiola would bring to City - a full unleashing of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne's talent combined with the revitalisation of Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho.

A 2-0 defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur in October threw a spanner in the works, though, and the Spaniard struggled to quickly recover from it.

Three draws in the team's next four games meant six points from 15 including the result against Spurs, and there have since been heavy defeats from Chelsea (3-1) and a previously struggling Leicester City side (4-2).

Questions over the team's defensive frailty that had been quietened by their strong start to the season have reared themselves again.

Now, as at Bayern Munich, Guardiola has faced criticism over his range of tactical variations used within each match.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest managers of all time has been given very little in terms of time to adapt to the differences in English football - a league whose tempo, physicality, relentlessness and technical flaws makes it vastly different from both La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Spending just shy of £150m on new players to improve what is probably already the best team on paper in the league will heap that kind of pressure on a manager, though, and with a seven point gap now between them and Chelsea the New Year's Eve fixture at Anfield looks critical to their season.

The final new arrival to the traditional title favourites this season is of course Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, an appointment that finally had the red side of Manchester cheering since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure three seasons previously.

The arrivals of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan signalled Mourinho's intent, and hopes were high to start the season despite the manager's highly publicised troubles with Chelsea last year.

United instead endured a disastrous start to the season, picking up just 20 points from their opening 13 games to have their worst opening of the Premier League era.

Highlighted (or lowlighted) by a 2-1 defeat to local rivals City and a 4-0 hammering by former club Chelsea, the team looked in disarray with little evidence that Mourinho knew what his best side was.

Not helping matters were the Portuguese manager's continuing battles with both the media and referees. Formerly the darling of English football, he has been in danger of becoming football's grumpy old uncle - living on his past glories while failing to keep up with the trends of the modern game as they whizz past him.

Since their 1-1 draw against Everton in December, though, results have turned around for Mourinho as he has fought back against anyone attempting to make sweeping conclusions less than half a season in (this writer included).

Finally unleashing last year's Bundesliga Player of the Year in Mkhitaryan, who had been mysteriously absent from the team since arriving, United have been playing with the power and dynamism that so effectively characterised Mourinho's early Chelsea teams.

They are now firmly solidified in the sixth position with a real opportunity to push Tottenham and maybe even Arsenal for European qualification, and it's arguable that they have the biggest leap still to make in terms of forming their collective identity on the field.

The title race then looks like Chelsea's to lose but given the highs and lows we've already experienced this season with these teams, it seems foolish to declare anything for certain now.

All that can be guaranteed, is that these managers will continue to excite us for the rest of a truly engaging season.

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The Cult of the Manager: Half-Time Report

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