“The chase for Defensive infallibility & how it is ruining English football.”

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Every year countless new, innovative systems are put in place by an increasingly studious and youthful coaching movement. Whether based on a high press or deep-lying block, these schemes are becoming progressively intricate and the depth of micro-analysis required grows with each counter-tactic developed.

A knock effect of this is the evolution of the mental aspect of football. Tradition dictates that teams of a defensive nature a la the Greek side of Euro 2004 fame, countless incarnations of the Italian national team and possibly the dinosaur of this tactic in Juventus, have a very stringent and detailed approach to defending with varied success in tournament situations.  Each player on the pitch has a very specific role within these systems. One mental lapse and with the pace and technical quality abundant in the modern game, teams are punished and tactical variations are questioned instantaneously.

This shift towards “paint by numbers” structures within the Premier League has had a series of negative effects on the game on a wider scale.

It causes creative players to drift aimlessly through games, stunting their ability to produce the moments of magic their fans pay to see. This is not necessarily due to the opposition, but down to pre-occupation with their own defensive duties and the realisation that if these duties go un-fulfilled, they could find themselves warming the bench the following week. José Mourinho is oft criticised for stifling his game changers with their deep starting positions and commitment to tracking runs in his defensive philosophy, causing them to be ineffectual in what is their supposed main contribution to the team’s success, scoring goals. The problem with success is that it breeds admirers who usually have a less talented means of reproducing said tactic resulting in the poor copycat systems we are seeing throughout English football.

Of the twenty Premier League teams, formations vary from a string of 3-5-2/4-2-3-1 to a straight 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. All allow for a minimum of six defensive (or defensive minded) players week on week. This belief in defensive solidity over controlled attacking possession has caused certain types of players to become more valuable within the average Premier League set up.

Destroyers, athletic box to box midfielders, tall players at CB/CM/ST and direct power runners in the attacking wing positions have become the status quo for teams below the top six who increasingly rely on counter attacking play as their main attacking substance. This premium on specific attributes and player types has resulted in an ongoing issue in the English structural system.

At academy level a more deep-rooted problem has emerged. Youth coaching can begin as early as 7 years of age. The race to produce the next prodigious talent grows every year. Not only in top level academies but more so at lower levels. The explosion of transfer fees and ever-increasing costs of running a club mean the self-sufficiency attainable through a productive youth policy can be the difference between debt and prosperity.

This causes the development of a “prototype player” within academies. Coaches focus on building specific attributes required for current club structures and tactics instead of focusing on developing technique and a rounded overall approach. Pace, power and agility are promoted at the expense of individual thinking and freedom of expression.

Just look at the players coming out of academy structures in the last couple of seasons. Reuben Loftus-Cheek, Nathanial Chalobah, Scott McTominay, Alexi Iwobi, Axel Tuanzebe, Maitland-Niles, Declan Rice, Joe Gomez. These players may vary in nationality and positionally but they all have the combination of attributes spoken of earlier. They can all slot into a couple of positions for their clubs because of the systematic coaching at underage level. There is a reason England are producing a number of serviceable box to box midfielders yet are still relying on Jack Wilshere to be the creative force centrally and it is down to how these structures are utilised.

There should be a lot of admiration for Jadon Sancho, Ademola Lookman and Marcus McGuane as a new set of trailblazers. Unwilling to sit in academies, enduring endless loans to the outposts of European football until their number is called and they slot into a squad player role. A handful of minutes here, a nice soundbite from the manager there. They were willing to think for themselves, bet on themselves and jump into a new environment.

It is the anti-thesis of everything that academy coaches drill into players on a weekly basis in English football and something only another pre-mature World Cup exit and a “Fergusonesque” tenure from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City could solve.

An appreciation of the creative genius is missing from the domestic game in England. Every youngster wants to be the strongest, the quickest, to jump the highest and be the bravest in a challenge. Nobody aspires to control a game, dictate tempo, think outside the box, have the best vision, the best technique. It is believed that deficiencies in these areas can be painted over with increased physical attributes and a role playing defensive system coached from a brilliant manager.

Until this core belief changes within the middle/bottom echelons of Premier League sides, then the international team and the quality of the football on offer to fans every week will continue to deteriorate as a result.

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Why “delayed gratification” has become a tactical strategy in modern sport.

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“Saving the best for last” is a puzzling expression. In everyday life, we use delayed gratification as a motivational tactic far too often. Leaving our happiest moments until the evening, thus creating a positivity bubble allowing us to forget the tribulations of the past day.

The idea becomes further misleading when you apply it to the world of sport. Why are we fixated on tight games which are decided in the final moments? Why does an Olympic gymnast’s routine feature her most difficult moves at the end?

Momentary society has caused us to make snap judgements based on a singular memory. There is a massive emphasis on the closing moments of any sport whether it be to decide the fixture or simply the abiding memories of the supporters in attendance. As this has been statistically acknowledged, it has caused an alteration within the thought processes and actions of management teams across various sports.

Eddie Jones has inexplicably modernised how substitutions are viewed in rugby simply by referring to his bench as “finishers” as opposed to replacements. Outwardly it appeared a vain attempt at massaging the egos of those not selected. If they are better players or in better form why not start with them? Yet within one simple word there is an acknowledgement that the vast majority of key moments in a tight contest come at the conclusion and you require your best players to be present at that juncture.

 

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Eddie Jones puts a lot of emphasis on his “finishers”

Looking at Ireland’s national sport of GAA, Jim Gavin, the manager of the top team in the country for the last three seasons has stated that he selects his finishing team first and then works his starting team around that. Emphasis being on what players can make an impact from the beginning vs. players that are best used for their explosiveness against tired legs late in the contest. Not starting is no longer necessarily a knock back. Impact and Decisiveness from the bench is considered a specialized role within the team set up.

In football, the most prestigious cup competitions are often decided by penalty shoot-outs. The formulation of the five takers is always scrutinised and in this high-pressure situation, we see a great conundrum for “saving the best for last”. Most commonly at lower levels, the strongest players will take the 4th and 5th penalties. Mentality wise this appears smart as the most pressure to succeed is on these shots. However, it often is the case that the team who front loads their takers emerge victorious.

Even within team selection, managers face a similar challenge. Congested fixture lists mean top teams can face three games in less than ten days. It is common for European fixtures and big-league clashes to be prioritised but how often are fans left lamenting a rotational draw or loss to a weaker opponent when eyes turn to later fixtures.

In the same way, it is common for players to be rested for a period in the run up to Christmas. The reasoning given for this usually refers to the player being fresh late in the season. Managers condition their teams to be at their best in the closing 4-6 weeks of a campaign. You can argue that trophies are handed out in May not October but it is also the case that a strong start can lead to a knock-on effect. Just ask any of Leicester City’s title winning squad. It was a strong start, belief and consistency in team and role selection amongst other things which contributed to that incredible season.

Psychologically, the constructs of having a successful season or event individually have changed dramatically in the last ten years. Man-management is taking a back seat and the best players across all sports are being asked to buy into the statistical and ideological views of the management team.

While this change in the very fiber of modern sport was not immediately obvious, when coupled with some basic psychological thinking, the above patterns clearly emerge. This emphasis on an “end goal” or appreciation of “saving the best for last” is an integral facet of any sport in 2017 and when analyzing managers and players over the course of a season, it is important to keep this strategic overview in mind.

by

Robbie Fahy

@RFahy00

ANALYSIS: Chelsea’s 2015&2017 summer windows are increasingly similar and this spells danger for Antonio Conte

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For Chelsea fans, the summer of 2017 must have a remarkably similar feeling to that of their previous post-title winning summer of 2015. Unfortunately, this feeling can only be described as underwhelming and led to their worst league finish since 1996.

If Chelsea fail to back Antonio Conte this summer they run the risk of not only stagnating and allowing their rivals to make advances in squad depth but more crucially they are playing devil’s advocate with the Italian’s future at the club.

Conte has passionate but rash tendencies as his 2014 split from boyhood side Juventus showed. With the club unwilling to turn down big money offers for Chilean Arturo Vidal and without sufficient reinforcements incoming, the Italian took the bold step of resigning as manager out of principle. Something that could be increasingly on the cards at Cobham if his frustration at transfer policy is mirrored.

Back in 2015 then under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea captured the Premier League trophy in much the same circumstances as last season. Comparable winning margins (8pts in 2015/7pts in 2017) along with almost identical defensive records (32GA in 2015/33GA in 2017) with the only tangible differences being drawing six more games in 2015 and scoring twelve more goals in 2017.

That summer saw the departures of Feilipe Luis, Petr Cech, Mohamed Salah, Didier Drogba and Juan Cuadardo. Granted at the time they had a replacement for Cech in Courtois, Drogba was a shadow of his former self at 37 and the other three had been squad players under Mourinho at best. But when you look at the quality of replacement acquired by the Chelsea board that summer, the mystery as to why they failed to sparkle the following season becomes clearer.

In came Asmir Begovic, Baba Rahman, Pedro, Falcao, Marco Amelia and Papy Djilobodji along with youth players Michael Hector, Kenedy, Nathan and Danilo Pantic for a total outlay of €85.9m. To the naked eye this seems like a significant spend but when you consider that they recouped €59m of that through player sales and of that expenditure, only 54% was spent on players who would challenge for first team places the following season, it is clear to see that Mourinho was not backed to a level where he felt he could sustain their place atop the table the following season.

The most telling statistic of that summer window is that only Pedro has been remotely successful after his move with the rest of the senior players signed either sold on or loaned out and only Kenedy has made a first team appearance from this crop of youth signings.

Evidently it was not a well thought out window for the Blues and although there’s a long way to go this summer, it feels like they need to get to the negotiating table or else we could be talking about a summer of missed opportunities in a couple of years’ time.

Antonio Conte must be feeling not to dissimilar to Mourinho in 2015. He delivered the Premier League trophy in his first full season in England with a squad that was not of his building. He expected to then be backed in his overhaul of Chelsea’s playing squad and backroom team but both appear to be at a crossroads.

The Italian let Diego Costa know he was no longer required with the foresight that his identified replacement, Romelu Lukaku would be tied down by the club. He subsequently joined rivals Manchester United amid reports that one of the major hitches was Chelsea’s refusal to pay agent Mino Raiola his fee. This follows on from failure thus far to land another high valued target in Alex Sandro and a very protracted move for Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko.

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New signing Antonio Rudiger was very much welcomed by Chelsea’s fans.

The signing of Antonio Rudiger is a small win but he and reserve keeper Willy Caballero are the only two players through the Stamford Bridge door as of yet and with pre-season training beginning yesterday, Conte must have itchy fingers wondering what is transpiring at boardroom level to make these negotiations so difficult.

These struggles are not limited to the pitch as he also looks to expand Chelsea’s already bloated backroom team. With Steve Holland now departed, Conte has looked for expanded roles for assistants Gianluca Conte and Angelo Alessio as well as adding new technical analyst David Mazzotta and approaching Paulo Vanoli about a role within the youth set up at Cobham, which he wants more influence over.

The latter is viewed as unnecessary with Joe Edwards having just been appointed successor to Adi Viveash as head of the development squads and any further change is considered overkill. This insistence of having “their own men” in charge as such, can only lead to further dissention between Conte and the board and the parallels between 2015 and 2017 continue from there.

Following a successful 2016/17 season and with European football returning to Stamford Bridge, this would have been a summer where Antonio Conte wanted to expand the squad for the rigours of challenging on four fronts. Yet as of now he has only 17 outfield players including academy promotion Charly Musonda and untrusted Michy Batshuayi as the only Striker. Hardly the ideal make up for an expanded fixture list.

Pressure is flooding in from fans across social media in support of Conte’s wishes and should the worst-case scenario happen and he leaves the club at some point because of a mishandled transfer window, the board and particularly owner Roman Abramovich will be under severe scrutiny having overseen the dismissal of some of the best managers in world football during his stewardship. This summer could turn out to be the most crucial in the East London club’s recent history. Time will tell.

The Rise of the “buy-back clause” in player development

 

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The transfer market in 2017 is a complex being. Financial fair play and ever increasing role of agents means deals often contain more small print than a mortgage application and this is even more apparent in the transfers of youth team prospects.

Part of the small print that has become prominent in any transfer of players under 23 is the “buy-back clause”. This is swiftly replacing the traditional loan deal as a way of clubs sending a promising player to gain first team experience while retaining some form of control over his future.

Barcelona who are long since viewed as kingpins of youth development with the vaunted “La Masia” rarely let a player leave without inserting such a clause in case of technical improvement.  Adama Traore, Andreu Fontas, Alen Halilovic and Jon Dos Santos are all players who have left their youth system in the past number of seasons with inactivated buy-back options.

This year Barcelona have activated the option on Gerard Deulofeu’s contract, sealing a €12m return for a man sold to Everton in a €6m deal two seasons ago. Similarly two years ago, Denis Suarez was sold to Villarreal for €4m only to return a year later for €3.25m. Both arrive back still in their early twenties but vastly more experienced. So why not just send them on the conventional loan?

Loan circumstances, their mentality and uncertainty of the situation can end up hindering how a player develops. The current “farm” or “feeder” systems causes youngsters to endure three maybe four seasons of loan moves while consistently; struggling to put down roots, develop off field relationships and become comfortable in their surroundings which are all crucial to allow focus on mental improvement and technical development.

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Christian Atsu had 5 loan spells before a permanent move and has yet to reach the potential Chelsea saw in him. 

The finality gained in a permanent transfer benefits both sides: the player isn’t left thinking about returning to a dead end in a few months’ time and the purchasing club has more incentive to use the player as they’ve invested the cash in his fee and wages. The player may then begin to excel during his first team opportunities and suddenly the buy-back clause becomes a snip compared to his actual value.

It also gives considerable motivation to the player as he knows two things. Both his new club and manager have enough faith in him to sign him permanently and want him to succeed in the first team. Contrastingly his parent club has not given up on his development with the insertion of the “rebuy” and he is therefore encouraged to settle and work hard from two fronts.

If Alvaro Morata seals his mooted €70m move to Manchester United this summer, Real Madrid will have executed a near perfect application of this new system. Mostly a rotation player (37apps 10 goals) between 2010/14, the Spaniard made the €20m move to Juventus where he went on to score 27 goals in two years as a first team regular with the old lady. He then returned to Madrid for €30m last summer and continued his progress, netting 20 goals in 43 appearances for the Spanish Champions.

This improvement means Madrid could net an extra €50m just from their choice not to totally cut the umbilical cord back in 2014, not to mention the practical gain of an improved Morata last season. When you take the €30m rebuy fee into consideration the will still be making a cool €60m profit from the total transfer fees received for his services. It is easily argued that were it not for the type of environment this permanent style transfer offered him, none of the aforementioned business would have occurred.

Ironically it was Manchester United who made the most famous gaffe. Letting Paul Pogba leave the club only to subsequently pay £89m to regain his services causing a panic insertion of this clause in a vast amount of youth transfers in recent times.

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Pogba’s move and development at Juventus and return to Old Trafford has scared top clubs. 

The days of the conventional loan system for smaller clubs is far from a dead market but when it comes to bigger prospects moving across top European clubs, the “permanent/rebuy” market is a massively developing one which will continue expanding as more money is generated by middle income clubs.

It is vastly regarded by academies, scouts and boardroom directors alike as a new way around FFP and another way forward in player development. While its inception is nothing new and has been more common in the continental market for the last 20 years, it is the recent financial successes which will see it ultimately replace the conventional loan as a developmental tool amongst elite clubs.

ANALYSIS: Why the Confederations Cup will never hold the prestige it should in World Football

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Unless you hail from one of the eight participating nations, you would be forgiven for being unaware that one of FIFA’s four major international tournaments has been meandering to a conclusion in Russia the past fortnight.

25 years on from its inception, the Confederations Cup has about the significance of the Club World Cup and similar levels of credibility as a pre-election political promise. In a time when interest in the international game is floundering, a meaningless eight team tournament in the middle of summer will do nothing to change the idea of club superiority.

You only need note that in recent times France, Italy and Germany (twice) have declined to even participate in the tournament to know where it stands on the international podium. The teams who do show up speak of it as a chance to “gain a logistical advantage” before a World Cup instead of the possible glory of success. This should be a tournament crowning the current king of continental football yet it has become a glorified dress rehearsal for the host country.

Many younger fans are unaware that the idea of a tournament containing the winners of all the continental tournaments was actually the brainchild of Saudi Arabia and the first two instances of the competition were held there and called the “King Fahd Cup”. It was not until 1997 where FIFA stepped in and began the shape it into the two weeks of indifference we get today.

This is one of only two senior worldwide international competitions and is considerably more selective in participation than the diluted forms of World Cup we will see in the future.

So why not build it as such?

FIFA speaks about wanting each World Cup not to be a singular event but to leave a lasting legacy. What legacy does the Confederations Cup have? Does anyone even remember who won it 4 years ago? For clarity Brazil have won the last three with experimental squads which also only serves to compound the laissez-faire attitude shown to it.

Of the four semi-finalists, Chile, Germany, Mexico and Portugal only the teams from Central and South America have shown any real passion about winning the cup and if it ever wishes to gain any prestige, this must be the first issue resolved.

The tournament needs a complete rebrand. The trophy is a taller, skinnier replica of the World Cup and has become a means to an end rather than the end of the road itself. No budding talent lists winning it as a career ambition and unless you’re one of the weaker participants, the people don’t draw much honour from winning it either. The problem is undoing 25 years of negligence and building some form of prestige is a monumental task.

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The problem here is as with other issues within the organisation and despite the “new era” post Sepp Blatter it seems FIFA are still too content with that status quo to do anything about the decline in international football and you don’t need to be patriotic to feel mournful regarding that.

One of the few positive moves FIFA made before the start of this tournament was to announce that the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) system would be trialled during the tournament with officials given the power to help referee’s in clutch moments of contention.

Thus far it has endured a mixed rate of success. FIFA’s Massimo Busacca claims it contributed to correct 6 game changing decisions in the group stage, along with aiding referees to rule correctly on 29 other “major incidents” during the competition.

For all this bureaucratic positivity, it cannot be ignored that when it came to the biggest moment of the tournament so far in extra-time of the semi-final, Chile were denied a penalty which was immediately obvious on the replay.

It is understandable that VAR’s are reluctant to artificially alter the result of a game by awarding a penalty so deep in the game but if they are being instructed by FIFA to be cautious in such moments and in doing so be afraid to fulfil their role correctly, then they will become as arbitrary as the assistants behind the goalmouth and what could be the biggest advancement of football since the back-pass was outlawed could be all for nought.

Earlier in the piece I spoke about legacy and regarding the changes required to give this tournament a soul and identity. If one gift is to come from this let it be that after review of the system, it becomes as successful as goal-line technology in the modern game. Don’t let traditionalists fool you, it is required with the pace of football in 2017.

When the Confederations Cup ends this Sunday, there will be de-facto champions of world football. That’s how big this tournament should be but in reality the fireworks will go off, the ticker tape will fly and all we will have learned is, Russia has still a long way to go before June 2018 and this quite possibly, is the greatest disappointment of all.

Written by: RFahy00

ANALYSIS: Does Wayne Rooney really deserve to be dropped? #ENG

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Wayne Rooney stands firmly at a crossroads in his career as a professional footballer. At 31 and after 735 senior appearances, he has lost his automatic place for both club and country.

The former golden boy of English football has become a figure of derision among supporters and his prolonged booing during the home qualifier against Malta has to strike a cord with a man who is the country’s record goalscorer.

You would imagine that a man with this accolade (and one who will probably become their most capped player) would be celebrated as one of the all-time greats, yet his star will fade with the underachievement of England and he will be remembered as a great player who never quite sustained the promise of his youth

He is not the first England stalwart to see his international career tumble in such a fashion.

Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole are just a few in recent times who have been derided by fans unjustly in recent years. Neither Rooney or any of these players should be “booed” during a home international after their careers at international level. Longevity is often overlooked as a sign of greatness and the all-time caps list will tell you, there’s not many that can rival the aforementioned players in that regard.

There is no doubt however that Rooney’s performances have dropped visually in recent times.

The swashbuckling, all-action performances of his early 20’s have been replaced by a much more calculated approach as if he is managing his energy levels to get through a season. This is only highlighted by the youthful enthusiasm, speed and pluckiness of Marcus Rashford since his introduction to the Premier League.

The most mystifying part about the transformation of Rooney is that he appears to be campaigning for a switch to central midfield even though the prototype for the modern midfielder is 6ft+ , athletic and tenacious.

Rooney is 5ft 9, rotund and devout of tenacity.

If one had not watched Rooney play for the last 3 seasons and just looked at his numbers then you would arguably be confused as to what the fuss is all about. If you break his 13 year career down into 4 year segments, the statistics are quite interesting.

In an England shirt, Rooney is actually in the most prolific period of his career (no really). He has scored 21 goals in 39 games between 2013 and 2016 for an average of a goal every 1.86 games. Compare that with the period between 2008 and 2012  where he scored 18 in 38 (1 goal every 2.1 games) and the beginning of his career from 2003 to 2007 where he found the net 14 times in 40 games (1 goal every 2.86 games).

Statistics like this don’t always tell the full story but for those questioning his contribution, Rooney has been consistently finding the net despite not playing up to people’s expectations. You always hear the sign of a great team is winning without playing well, why doesn’t this carry over to players?

One of the biggest gripes from fans is that he only scores against the minnows or in meaningless friendlies. This part is partially true as 30% (16) of his 53 strikes have come in friendlies, 57% (30) in qualifiers for major tournaments and only 13% (7)  at the tournaments themselves.

England in general have grossly under-performed at major tournaments in his time and this could go some way to explaining why his record is so poor in comparison to other stages.

As for scoring against minnows, 32% (17) of his goals have come against teams currently inside the top 20 in the FIFA World Rankings. That is a fairly healthy percentage when you compare it with Cristiano Ronaldo, who stands at 18% (12 of 66 goals).

So while it is evident that Rooney is currently suffering from a loss of confidence and somewhat of an identity crisis as to where he will be playing, his record and contribution over the course of a season cannot be questioned and he should not be subjected to the disrespectful treatment from England fans we heard at Wembley at the weekend.

To come out and face the media after his very public dropping by Gareth Southgate of all people took a lot of character and that is a measure of the man that should not be scoffed at.

What would be best for Wayne Rooney after tonight is to take time to assess what he truly feels he is able to achieve at this stage in his career. Go back to Manchester and tell José Mourinho what position he wishes to be considered for selection in and get his head down in training to find his form and earn back his place for both club and country. Flip flopping between midfield and centre forward will not do him or his legacy any favours and in the end he should be remembered for the marvelous player he was in his prime, not the plodding, indecisive one he has become.

Pep Guardiola bans WIFI at Etihad training complex to build team spirit!

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A lot is made of both modern coaching methods and indeed modern society. The advent of social media and worldwide wifi has meant that the art of communication and team spirit has been called into question several times with today’s players and it seems Pep Guardiola is a fan of some good old fashioned team bonding.

According to Pablo Zabaleta who was talking to Argentinian outlet TYC Sports, the Catalan manager:

“forces us to have breakfast and lunch together at the club. The internet is cut off, we are held incommunicado. We don’t even use 3G”.

Guardiola has got the in house WIFI disconnected in certain areas of the training complex and even has the 3G signal blocked in a bid to encourage some dressing room banter goes on among his Manchester City team in the hope it builds a unity in players that have been accused of lacking heart in many close matches in the past.

Argentine Zabaleta, is clearly a big fan of Pep and his training methods as he went on to say:

 “You always want and dream to be trained by the best coaches, and today I have the opportunity to work with one of the best,” he said. “Actually, you learn a lot, especially the way you live it. Beyond knowledge, his passion for football.”

Some other small changes the Spanish coach have made include swapping post match pizza’s for a nut-mix combo and insisting all of his squad dine together following every home match at the Etihad. It hasn’t yet been reported if he allows them to use ketchup or not.

He does take diet very seriously however as Samir Nasri will testify. With regular weight checks, if you fail one of these checks you will be forced to work on your fitness away from the first team until you get back to the desired level.

Given his success throughout his managerial career, it is hard to argue with these methods. They seem to be working a treat.