“The Last Judgement is clearly one of the most beautiful paintings ever but could Michelangelo do it in watercolors on the ceiling of Stoke Minster? I think not. And until he does, there will always be questions over his talent.” – Football fan at the Sistine Chapel, 1541.
On Wednesday, football fans witnessed a magnificent 2-1 win by Manchester City over Manchester United but before the milk had even dried on Jose Mourinho’s jacket, the complaints started rolling in: “sure”, they went, “Pep Guardiola has Man City playing beautiful football but he’s a checkbook manager, there will always be doubts about his managerial skills until he proves he can do it with a smaller club. Could he do it with Stoke?”
Somewhere along the line “Stoke” has become shorthand for some kind of Midlands Socialist Brutalism. Like the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, Stoke City are the football equivalent of a long, squat building with rows of apartments. Not real pretty to look at, not really a place you’d like to visit, and you don’t want to live there, but if the point is to just have a building, then job well done.
Whenever Lionel Messi has a brilliant evening in Spain the calls come out “yeah, but could he do it on a cold night in Stoke?” Meaning, sure, he’s the world’s most talented footballer who just put on a dazzling display of football but there’s no way he could perform at his very best in the Bet365Gamble24/7 Stadium while arctic winds blew in strands of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna and Ryan Shawcross lumbered around like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV muttering “I must break you.”
And so now, of course after Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City put on a masterclass of attacking football at Old Trafford we hear that there’s no way Pep could do it at Stoke. Just like Lewis Hamilton couldn’t do it in an old Soviet Lada.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of Pep’s achievement. Guardiola’s win over Mourinho marks just the 2nd time Jose has lost a Premier League match at Old Trafford (both times to Pep). It is also Mourinho’s 7th overall loss at home when we count all of his matches as a Premier League manager. That’s 7 losses at home in 133 matches, two of them at the hands of Pep Guardiola.
Ironically, while Stoke is the symbol of English Football’s Brutalist movement, it’s Jose Mourinho and his fear of losing which has shaped his multi-million-Pound United side into a Stoke-style team. Despite having spent nearly the same on transfers as Man City and having the highest wage bill in England, against any team with attacking talent, Mourinho plays “pragmatic” football. This is just a nice way of saying that he plays with two banks of four in defense, eschewing possession and instead looking to stifle space and wait for an opportunity for one of his extremely expensive forwards to get out on a break and nick a goal. Mourinho’s football is a 20 story council estate, just lavishly appointed.
But what of the fan complaint? Could Pep Guardiola “do it” (win the Premier League) with Stoke? I turn that question around, could any manager win the League with Stoke? I doubt it.
Stoke have spent £60m over the last three seasons on player acquisition (Transfermarkt), which would have been a decent amount 10 years ago but this is the era when Mourinho paid £45m for Matic and Guardiola paid £50m for Kyle Walker. Both Manchester teams spent over £130m on transfers (so far) this season, which is more than Stoke has spent in its entire history. So, transfer activity would be severely curtailed and any manager would have to search wide and far in Europe for bargains if they wanted to be successful.
Both managers would also be hamstrung by Stoke’s wage bill which is already maxed out at around £80m (Guardian) and ranked 12th best in the Premier League. According to the same source (which are two year old figures) Man Utd have the highest wage bill in the League at £232m and Man City were 4th at a paltry £198m. Both teams have probably exceeded those amounts this season but at the very least we are talking about a Stoke team that can afford about 40% of the wages that the big teams can. Again, this places a huge burden on recruitment and retention of top players. That means that whatever human manages Stoke City they would be under huge financial constraints and highly unlikely to win the Premier League.
Money buys the Premier League title, it always has. Michael Caley did an analysis of the Premier League from 2000-2014 and found that 80% of the top four finishes went to teams whose wages were also top four. Only one team outside of the top four wage spend challenged for the title during that time, that was Liverpool, who were 5th highest and spent £144m on wages. Stoke City’s entire turnover was £104m for 2015.
In 25 years of Premier League football there was just one team who broke this mold and that was Leicester City. Their wages were the same as Stoke, £80m, and they “only” spent £100m in transfers during their rise from the League Championship to the Premier League. Leicester City worked hard, they were smart about player fitness, and they managed to find some amazing bargains in the transfer market. But there was also a ton of luck in their rise.
Leicester won the League during a season when the previous year’s winners (and 2nd in wage bill) Chelsea imploded under the crazed management of none other than Jose Mourinho. Chelsea sacked Mourinho in December but it wasn’t enough to get them back into the top four and they finished 10th. Liverpool, the team with the third highest wage bill, also sacked their manager and brought in Jurgen Klopp who, despite his rather bubbly television personality, only raised them two places and they finished 8th. Top wage spenders Manchester United bumbled along under Louis van Gaal, who tried his best to earn a draw in every match by having his players pass the ball back and forth between defenders, they finished 5th. Arsenal (5th highest wage bill) finished 2nd, Tottenham (6th highest wage bill) finished 3rd, and Man City (4th highest wage bill) finished 4th.
But could Pep Guardiola improve results at Stoke? Almost certainly. Stoke are managed by Mark Hughes and are in 15th place, 4 points above the bottom of the table. Any manager would improve Stoke. Replacing Hughes with an old tube television that pays a VCR tape titled “how to play football” would probably improve Stoke.
More than just a checkbook manager, Guardiola is a teacher who prides himself on getting the best out of his players. Leroy Sane said “[Pep] helped me so much. I can say he changed my game completely, I improved so much with so many issues, and he still tries to be perfect and to give me pressure.” And former Arsenal fullback Bacary Sagna was more specific, “It’s little things, the way I position my body and how I anticipate things and communicate with players. I love it. I came to City to improve my game and keep working really hard. I needed a change and to challenge myself again and that’s what I’m doing here.”
The Guardiola effect shows in other players as well. Fabian Delph has revived his career under Pep, John Stones went from defensive liability to one of the best center backs in the world, and Raheem Sterling has been a revelation in the Guardiola system.
Could Guardiola “do it” on a cold night in Stoke? The odds would be against him but he would certainly have Stoke playing some great football. And what about Jose Mourinho? Could Jose win the League with Stoke? Despite spending the same money on his team as Guardiola, Jose’s team already plays like Stoke. And given his managerial career to date, there’s no doubt that Mourinho would be looking more likely to get the sack with Stoke than to win the League.