“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
The quote once stated by former United Kingdom prime minister Winston Churchill, is now served as a guideline to success across Europe. The significance of evolving a squad is often overlooked, and with the competition amid the top European sides constantly rising, it would be delusional to avoid it.
In the past few years, we’ve witnessed successful teams fail to improve their squad, and ultimately endure a severe decline. Look no further than the 2012/2013 Manchester City side, post-Mourinho 2010/2011 Inter Milan and Carlo Ancelotti’s second year at Chelsea – these sides came off remarkable achievements, but were naïve in terms of improving on their success, the following year.
However, as we embarked upon a new European season a few weeks ago, there was a distinct theme amongst the top sides in Europe. While a few made slight alterations to their squads, the significant feat was the vast majority of managerial turnover that occurred at some of Europe’s top clubs.
The champions in England, Germany, Portugal, France and Spain chose to take different approaches to their success, while Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli – runners up in their domestic leagues – also followed suit. Never has their been such a large amount of managerial turnover amongst Europe’s top clubs, leaving many to believe the Champions League in particular, has no clear-cut favorite.
High profile managers made their way across Europe, tinkering with their new club’s philosophy, as they aimed to provide a new identity. It’s evident that club football now emphasizes on the importance of building a strong squad opposed to a starting eleven, thus leading to limited playing time, player competition and various options off the bench – if executed properly.
In particular, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, Europe’s most successful teams over the past two years – based on success in European competitions – underwent interesting transformations this summer. The arrival of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho – two men that developed a rivalry in Spain – took over the helm at these prestigious clubs, and weren’t afraid to quickly implement their style into their new squads.
Over the summer both sides spent large sums of money to add the required depth – Bayern picked up Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara, whereas Chelsea also added young talent in Kevin De Bruyne, Willian and Andre Schurrle, just to name a few. Most importantly, despite the positive aspects that may come from a new hire – such as eagerness to impress and fight for a position – there can also be negative facets when a new manager decides to implement his philosophy, and surprisingly both side’s face identical issues.
Juan Mata and Javi Martinez, arguably legitimate world-class talent and the best players for their respected clubs last year, have been out of favour this season. Surprisingly, they also played minimal roles in Spain’s second place finish at the Confederations Cup, despite their great form. Del Bosque steered away from the double-pivot due to the injury of Xabi Alonso – which is odd considering Martinez was the ideal candidate to play in this system – while Mata’s immediacy in the final third continues to be his kryptonite in a Spanish side accustomed to playing a tiki-taka brand.
Despite a disappointing summer, it seemed certain that both men would feature regularly for their respected club. Martinez’s bellicose style, physical presence, and ability to break forward in possession provided Bayern’s double-pivot a different element in attack and astute defensive cover. Whereas Mata’s direct approach in the final third, movement in key areas, and impressive goal and assist stat, saw him gradually develop into the best midfielder in the Premier League last season.
Yet, neither man has solidified a regular spot in their side’s starting lineup. Recurring injuries have prevented Martinez from featuring in the Bayern starting eleven, but with Guardiola’s formation change, it’s uncertain as to where Martinez would play. Bayern has adopted a 4-1-4-1 system, which leaves them vulnerable at the back – and the chances of Martinez replacing reliable passers in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago, when fit, is slim.
But it’s been heavily rumoured that Martinez will take up a centre back role – a position he’s played in the past, but doesn’t allow him to express his abilities fully. Guardiola has always been an admirer of a ball playing centre-back – based on Martinez’s proficient passing and ability to join the attack, when required, the Spaniard would be an ideal candidate
It’s unfair to ridicule Guardiola’s approach, based on the duration of his tenure, but the newly adopted Bayern system has left them vulnerable defensively – and Martinez’s presence has been missed. Bayern’s ability to cope with teams that press them higher up the pitch was down to poor finishing, and Schweinsteiger’s knack of finding pockets of space in deep areas on either flank of Bayern’s third – as Martinez was positioned in an advanced positions.
As of late, teams have decided to target Schweinsteiger – who tucks in between the centrebacks – forcing him to be dispossessed or concede possession, which present’s the opposition an opportunity to expose Bayern on quick breaks. With both full backs pushing higher to provide width, Bayern are left with three players at the back – who aren’t very mobile – which has seen them blitzed on the counter several times this season.
On the other hand, Mata has also seen his playing time diminish. The two-time Chelsea player of the year, has apparently fallen down the pecking order, as Mourinho has added three attacking midfielders to the squad. More so, the creative dynamo doesn’t fit the mold of the no.10 that the Portuguese manager requires, as Oscar has slowly cemented that role.
Mourinho has reiterated in several interviews that he has plans for Mata, and wants him to stay with the club.
“I have my idea about him, about where he produces better and where he has more difficulty,” Mourinho said.
“We will try to help him perform better in those situations. I’ve always liked a right-sided player to be left-footed. I like wingers coming in on the inside for the penetrative movement, for the pass, for the shot,” he added.
Although, Mourinho failed to evolve Real Madrid’s side during his tenure, he did learn a few tactical lessons, one being the role of a complete no.10. Toni Kroos dominated Real Madrid’s midfield 16 months ago, where as Mourinho’s central playmaker Mesut Ozil was a peripheral figure. Kroos’ ability to find pockets of space, drop deep to form a midfield three and play incisive passes in the final third was pivotal – whereas Ozil was an isolated figure for large portions of the match.
That Champions League exit was disappointing for Mourinho but it was also an indicator that the no.10 role requires more defensive work, off the ball movement, and tactical/positional IQ. For all of Mata’s attacking threat, defensively he’s a liability, which has been overlooked over the last two seasons.
The Spaniard often stays higher up the pitch allowing the deep-lying midfielder freedom to dictate the match, and he rarely tracks back for defensive cover. When assembling a side, one of the many factors Mourinho focuses on is defensive solidity and tactically disciplined players – although the Portuguese manager has stated lack of match fitness has led to Mata’s absence, the real issue could be down to trust.
Mata’s exclusion from the squad is understandable, but Mourinho’s ignorance towards evolution should also be questioned. Frankly, it’s led to his downfall in the past, but the Portuguese manager could stray away from his beliefs, and develop a system around Mata. If not, it’s difficult to see where the Spaniard will fit in, as he’s become a liability defensively and struggles to execute quick transitions, a component Mourinho demands in his counter-attacking system.
Guardiola is somewhat of a perfectionist, and his drive to evolve yearly led to his downfall at Barcelona, whereas Mourinho inability to enhance Madrid tactically resulted in his sacking. With both sides containing fairly large squads, we’re beginning to see a core being built, which currently sees neither player possess a main role at their club.
It’s rare to see two top midfielders in their respected domestic leagues go down this road – considering their world-class status and the fact that neither suffered a loss of form or major injury. With the World Cup swiftly approaching, playing a bit-part role for the national team in another major competition would be a setback in either player’s international career, as positions in the Spanish squad are scarce.
Frankly, it’d be disappointing to see both men limited to such a role – Martinez’s physical presence is essential in midfield, while Mata adds a direct element of attack in the final third that could be beneficial to Chelsea and his national squad. Spain, Bayern Munich and Chelsea possess an abundance of top talent in their squads, and although the importance of change is significant, failure to utilize these legitimate world-class players would have a greater impact.