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English football as a Bollywood drama

English football as a Bollywood drama

Had Karan Johar been directing the English Premier League this season, he’d have discovered a new Shahrukh Khan by now. Three superstar managers arrived to the Premier League this year, more than 1.4 billion Euros were spent in transfers, and stadium seats have largely all been occupied. This is a season to rival any star-studded, over-budgeted Karan Johar movie, intent on bringing an audience to the cinema and keeping them there for reruns.

Here’s the game: had Karan Johar been directing the Premier League season, who’d have been the new Shahrukh Khan? Who’d be Amitabh? And who’d be the new Amrish Puri or Anupam Kher?

The rules of the game are just like the formula employed by Karan Johar in his movies: a main leading lady, her younger sister, a main male protagonist, his younger brother, a villain or two, and an assortment of uncles with paternalistic ambitions. In our situation, the leading lady, of course, is the Premier League trophy and the little sister is the FA Cup. But who are the Raj and Prem of the Premier League?

Karan Johar’s Shahrukh roles tend to bring him into the plot gradually. Shahrukh starts off as a lovable and unassuming character, whose greatness and guile only begin to surface a few minutes into the movie. There was a time in the Premier League that the 4-4-2 formation was considered as the most aggressive, conducive to incisive, attacking football. As teams from the continent brought the 4-2-3-1 over to England and subsequently prevailed over top English competition, most teams in the Premier League went down the same route and adopted the same formation.

But after many years of the 4-2-3-1, another formation is slowly gaining traction — the 3-4-3 of Antonio Conte.

This change is nothing short of monumental since it is a change of culture and philosophies. If last season’s Leicester were the archetype of counter-attacking and efficiency, this season seems to be about control and pace. Most great managers tend to tweak their systems to best suit their personnel but retain their philosophy. Conte seems to have been cut from the same cloth, using the 3-4-3 to harness the attacking talents of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa but retaining control on the pitch that most Italian managers lust after.

Indeed, even Pep Guardiola had to alter his system last weekend to neutralise Conte’s Chelsea. And yet, Pep failed to gun them down. Having being spanked by Liverpool and Arsenal in the early weeks of the season, Conte’s new formula seems to encourage controlled aggression ala Sir Alex Ferguson. Chelsea’s average of 2.3 goals per game is high but their defensive game is even more impressive. With only 11 goals conceded in the league till now, the three-man defence is building the foundations of a title challenge.

Chelsea’s controlled game against Manchester City last weekend and against Tottenham Hotspurs the weekend before shows just how different this side is as compared to the version that Jose Mourinho led last year. Sitting pretty at the top, clearly that is time being spent well.

As far as the plot goes, the protagonist is slowly endearing himself to the audience with his quiet romantic appeal, the understated advances, and the occasional constipated, contorted face that simultaneously denotes agony and pleasure. Conte is the Premier League’s Shahrukh.

But every Shahrukh needs a Hrithik Roshan to shine. Step forward Jurgen Klopp.

With the advantage of already having half-a-season under his belt, Klopp’s imprint on this Liverpool team is finally beginning to show in earnest. With an average of 2.5 goals per game being scored, Klopp has brought back the fear factor to Anfield. There are the occasional lapses, of course, as Bournemouth reminded Klopp that nobody is impervious to defeat. But as Sunderland’s David Moyes discovered, even parking a double-decker bus does not dissuade Liverpool from breaching defences. An average of 58.7 per cent possession and 18.7 shots per game, the message from Hrithik is clear: he’ll try and become as much of a hero as Shahrukh, if the stars align him for him.

But Hrithik has another problem on his hands: another suitor by the name of Pep Guardiola.

Much like his neighbour across town, Guardiola too is picking up a reputation for using the chequebook more liberally than others. In fact, Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City was nothing short of a coup given City’s comparative stature and history. What has worked in his favour is that his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, also liked to play expansive football that was easy on the eye.

But perhaps Guardiola’s greatest challenge is to prove to doubters that he isn’t a flash in the pan, neither dependant on Lionel Messi’s genius nor on Robert Lewandowski’s goals. He is an innovative manager, keen to leave a legacy that goes beyond winning on a wet, cold night in Stoke. The questions begin when his team are humbled by Chelsea at home.

And yet, the nuanced changes that Guardiola has introduced are taking time to mature. Before this weekend’s round of matches, City are in fourth place, four points off the top. With an average of 2.1 goals per game, and with Sergio Aguero returning to peak fitness, the signs are encouraging. City have averaged 60.6pc possession with a pass accuracy of 84.4pc.

Every great Karan Johar romantic deserves an Amrish Puri. With Jose Mourinho around, who needs another devil in town?

When Mourinho first arrived at Chelsea back in 2004, his brand of winning pragmatism was considered an updated version of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ethos. Fast forward to 2016 and Mourinho has replaced Ferguson albeit sans the football. An old dog did return to the dugout but sadly without new tricks.

The stalemate the weekend before last versus West Ham at the Theatre of Dreams made it Manchester United’s fourth straight game without a win at home. This was followed by yet another draw at Everton. It has been 26 years since the Manchester giants made such a stuttering start, leaving Mourinho to wonder just how big were Ferguson’s boots and how great a rebuilding job he has at his hand. An average of 1.4 goals per game does not scream title-winners either.

The noises about Mourinho being a chequebook manager have never been louder. Having spent well above 130 million pounds to rejuvenate his first team, Manchester United have yet to exhibit the pace, power and pragmatism that his teams are renowned for. Amrish Puri is playing functional football in the short-term but even that isn’t yielding the desired results.

While Mourinho is struggling to shake the ghosts of Ferguson and van Gaal, Conte seems to have purged Stamford Bridge of the ghost of Mourinho. And although Ferguson discounted Chelsea’s title charge this season despite them trouncing Mourinho’s men 4-0 at the Bridge, perhaps he might see himself in Conte and his team later in the season.

And what of Amitabh? The old fox Arsene Wenger is alive and kicking, in second place no less, and with a settled team that is playing better each passing week.

With 2.4 goals scored per game, Amitabh has found the striker that he has been searching for ever since Robin van Persie left the Emirates. With more than a 100 million Euro spend in the summer, the spine of the team has been upgraded and the goals are flowing (2.4 goals per game). Rule him out at your own peril but who rules Amitabh out?!

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016

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