Around the world of soccer, 2016 has been the year of the Cinderella Story. From Portugal in the European Championships to Leicester City in the Premier League, the unexpected and seemingly impossible became the norm in the global footballing landscape. Fairytales like Wales and Iceland’s runs in the Euro’s coincided with Chile’s wild run to back-to-back Copa America titles. Leagues from Latin America to Europe and beyond gave us storylines that kept us coming back for more.
The personalities of the beautiful game we love so much placed themselves in our collective mind, and refused to leave. Players, managers, and fans alike took center stage in spectacular, strange, and unique ways throughout 2016. Keep it tuned to Soccer Nation, as we count down the 16 biggest stories of the year that was.
With numbers 14 and 13, we focus in on the year that was for a handful of the world’s best football managers. There was an influx of technical area talent in the Premier League, with many now calling England any number of variations of “the land of the big name coach”. We first look at the strange year that was for man who some claim is not as special as he used to be.
Number 14: Jose lands his dream job
When 2016 commenced, Jose Mourinho was unemployed. He was a well dressed drifter of a soccer watcher, a notation specialist, and a routine shaker of high profile hands.
2015 ended with Mourinho getting canned by Russian billionaire owner and walking ego Roman Abramovich at Chelsea with the club mired in an almost unfathomable slump, stuck in the bottom half while having what was statistically the worst title defense in Premier League history.
The fashion in which Mourinho left was ugly. The Chelsea dressing room was divided in terms of loyalty to their gaffer. Blues’ stars Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, and Diego Costa were alleged to be major culprits in the eventual decision of the Chelsea hierarchy to sack Mourinho, those players subsequently being labeled as “rats” by thousands of Chelsea fans.
It was an extremely unsavory fallout for Mourinho, a man who is truly a legend at Stamford Bridge, having been the manager to break an over half century title drought when he brought back-to-back Premier League crowns to West London in his first two seasons in England from 2004-2006. The way The Special One came back to Chelsea was impressively strong, a decent return season followed by his side being dominant champions in the 2014/15 campaign. He left like a wounded bird, flapping to safety after the rodents below got their revenge.
For the next six months, from late 2015 into the latter springtime of 2016, Mourinho was spotted all over the European continent, taking in football matches, eating fine lunches, quaffing delectable wine, and seemingly socializing with others in the high-grade soccer landscape in a way you would associate with someone who was “just trying to enjoy themselves”.
As soon as Mourinho got the boot at Chelsea, his name was being thrown around rather liberally in relation to the job at Manchester United, a post then occupied by the ever-scrutinized Louis Van Gaal. United fans from greater Manchester to California were desperate to get Mourinho to Old Trafford, with many wondering why LVG wasn’t axed during the season in favor of the freed up Portuguese leader who had long had a not-so-secret aspiration to be the head man for the Red Devils.
There was a drawn out game of cat and mouse that was played, part of it between Mourinho and the European media, Jose showing that even when out of a job, he could still manipulate the press to his advantage. He was doing a great job putting the nastiness of his Chelsea exit to rest, and rekindling the flames of soccer love. Most all of his sightings were looked at as sweet visuals, friendly outings with old friends and such.
It was around the early spring months of 2016 when people began noticing that Mourinho was spending an awful lot of time in Paris. That time included numerous meetings with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the talismanic footballing ninja who was rounding out his time at Paris Saint Germain, and surely taking the initiative of weighing his future options as early as possible while still casually lighting up the pitches of Ligue 1.
Van Gaal, to the chagrin of some and the surprise of most, was given until the end of the season. Mourinho continued his continental safari, making stops in a variety of countries and leagues ripe with talent along the way.
There are United insiders who honestly believe that if the club would’ve finished in fourth place and gained a spot in the Champions League, that LVG would still be the manager. There are others who think that’s a load of crap, and that the seat was being warmed for Jose all along.
To suggest that Mourinho and Ibrahimovic both knew in March exactly what they were going to do with their respective careers once June and July rolled around could be perceived as a bit of a conspiracy theory. But the fact that the two men who admire one another like knights of the same court both ended up at United as two of the most high profile signings of the English summer makes you wonder what was really going on at the tables of those Parisian cafes, when an unemployed coach was meeting with a PSG player.
Flash forward to the end of 2016, and Mourinho is knee deep in another batch of English quicksand. His first seventeen Premier League matches in charge see United in 6th place, the same position the David Moyes led Devils occupied at the calendar end of 2013. (Meanwhile back at Chelsea, new boss Antonie Conte has the Blues flying high, six points clear of second place Liverpool atop the Premier League table after seventeen matches, with the Belgian-Spanish trio of “rats” all pitching in fantastic performances in the process.)
It has not been sunshine and roses for United this season. The sluggish start to the season followed an outrageous splurge of over $200 million in the summer transfer window (Paul Pogba’s return to Old Trafford making up over half of that transfer total). Mourinho has also been surprisingly public about his own psychological issues off the field, referencing his living situation as something that has added to his high stress level. (The manager has been living out of a Manchester hotel since taking the job, with his family living in their home back down south in the capital.)
Mourinho’s case of the London Homesick Blues shall pass, at least one would hope if they support United. The club has put its near to mid-range future in the hands of a highly capable manager, a man the club coveted for some time and, perhaps most symbolically, has the blessing of one Sir Alex Ferguson.
Will there eventually be glory for The Special One in his dream job? Or will Mourinho inevitably see the same fate as his post-Fergie, managerial predecessors at Old Trafford and go the way of Moyes and LVG?
We’ll check back in 2017.
Number 13: The League of Extraordinary Genius
Some of the brightest coaching minds of this footballing era are currently plying their trade in England. None of these individuals are English.
Just weeks after the quirky, mild mannered Italian named Claudio Ranieri guided Leicester City to the most improbable of Premier League titles, the touchlines of the world’s most popular competition were invaded by some of the biggest names from around the globe.
Antonio Conte, likened by some to Johnny Cash for his propensity to handle business while wearing all black, has had the best start of any manager this Premier League season. Chelsea are the cream of the crop, and the innovative, impeccably balanced 3-4-3 set-up of the Italian boss (what you may call a 7-3, depending on your level of soccer cynicism) has the Blues looking poised for a title run.
Jurgen Klopp, who took over for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool in October of 2015, has won the hearts of not only Scousers, but millions of Premier League fans. He preaches a style of soccer that yields admiration, his fast paced brand of “heavy metal football” being quite easy on the eye. The club of Shankly and Paisley is currently being led by a goofy German who constantly loses his glasses, believes hugs and piggy back rides are the cure to almost all problems, and celebrates goals like he scored them.
(Earlier this year, I asked Liverpool legend and longtime New England Revolution Manager Steve Nicol what he thought the great Bill Shankly would think of Jurgen Klopp if Shankly were alive today.
“Honestly,” Nicol said. “I know Klopp’s got all the quirks and has a totally different energy, but I think Shanks would like him being in charge of the club. He’s got his own style, but most of all, he’s got the players backs and he believes in the core values of Liverpool FC. You can’t ask for much more.”)
Pep Guardiola has been quite candid about the challenges of the Premier League since taking over at Manchester City in 2016. Guardiola has not found winning quite as easy of a task as it was with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but there is still plenty of time for a City turnaround, maybe even one akin to that iconic run the club had in 2012 under Roberto Mancini, the one that ended with some guy named “Agueroooooooooooooooooo”. City are the top dogs in Manchester, with Mourinho and the Red Devils going through their well documented rough patches early in the season. But the folks in the Etihad group are not interested in Manchester supremacy. It is title or bust for Pep.
Arsene Wenger (who has been the Arsenal boss for more years than every other manager in the league has been at their respective club, combined!) looks destined for another casual top 4 finish and a round of 16 exit in the Champions League, while just down the road in North London, Maurico Pochettino continues to work tirelessly to turn Tottenham into a top tier club. Despite a disappointing performance in Europe, Spurs are still hanging around domestically, and are very much in striking distance of their bitter Gooner rivals.
Dutchman Ronald Koeman at Everton and Frenchman Claude Puel at Koeman’s former club Southampton have both had impressive spells in the early goings of the 2016/17 campaign with their new teams.
Even down at the bottom of the table, the circle of managers gearing up for a bloody scrap to avoid relegation include some extremely talented and intelligent soccer minds. Among them is the manager, among the current 20, with the least amount of Premier League matches under his belt. His name is Bob Bradley. He’s an American. He’s a big fan of road games and PK’s. He’ll need a holy performance from his players in the second half of this season if his Swansea side are to survive and avoid the drop. Hopefully he’ll be judged purely on his record as a manager.
(For a no holds barred take on the treatment Bradley has received from the English media since taking the Swansea job, look no further than this short video from former Premier League midfielder Craig Burley, now a well known member of the ESPN FC crew.)