The phrase “form is temporary, class is permanent” reveals an inherent truth of soccer: players, managers, teams, and tactical trends alternate between a series of booms and busts, sometimes in the same week. A year ago today, Rafa Benitez was the manager at Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho was two weeks removed from leaving Chelsea. Juventus was in fourth place in Serie A when 2015 ended. RB Leipzig was playing in Germany’s second division. 

In recapping a year of writing at RealGM Soccer, we’ve picked four themes that defined the game in 2016, as revisited through our articles: 

The Soccer Spotlight Shines Brightly on Manchester 

With Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola signing with United and City respectively, the two biggest summer moves in the Premier League were figures you wouldn’t see on the field. Add Antonio Conte and Walter Mazzarri to the mix, and the quality of managerial talent in England became as exciting as the prospect of individual players battling head to head. 

Chris Reina wrote on the differences between the two managers in Mourinho, Guardiola, and Their Two Manchesters. Three months into the new season, it’s important to remember the context of where each manager was at in their careers last summer: Guardiola came off a historic three seasons at Bayern Munich with only the Champions League trophy eluding his side. Mourinho struggled at, then parted ways with Chelsea that same winter. The advantage belonged to the Catalan manager. Chris writes: 

“Mourinho has a penchant for fast starts and fast exits and fortunately for him he has more to work with immediately while Guardiola has considerable engineering of the City roster to play his style to his standards. No manager can withstand being powerless but Mourinho’s swift exit from Chelsea in December just months after winning the title demonstrates his perpetual fragility. Mourinho obstinately needs to be engaged in constant combat to survive, whether it’s the media, Arsene Wenger or the best players on his own team.”

City’s domestic and European success to begin the season made us wonder if Guardiola’s 3-2-3-2 formation would revolutionize the Premier League. Meanwhile, Mourinho was embarrassed at Chelsea in losing to Conte’s side 4-0, and hit rock bottom in 8th place a week later after a 0-0 draw against Burnley. There were existential questions of whether the contemporary game surpassed Mourinho.

What a difference two months makes. After back-to-back losses against Chelsea and Leicester City to start off December, Guardiola called his recent Premier League form his most difficult period in coaching. United haven’t lost in eight matches since their Burnley draw. Chris’ piece concluded that City were aiming for relevance as much as results, but the description would have been applicable to United and Mourinho as well. 

Paul Pogba Finally Returns

Ronaldo or Messi are the two best players in the world in some order. But in taking endorsements, Vine virality, and transfer records into consideration, 23-year-old Paul Pogba is the game’s biggest rising star - for both better and worse of the connotations of that description. 

Colin McGowan’s two pieces over the summer titled Paul Pogba and the Chance To Do Anything and Everything At United and Gonzalo Higuain and the Nonstop Domestic Talent Poaching focused on the two largest transfers of the summer, each completed with differing intentions. Pogba’s return to United was a homecoming to the club he left when he was 18 years old. He called his first time at Manchester a vacation compared to the work demanded at Juventus. On the dichotomy of evaluating Pogba, Colin wrote:

“If you watch Pogba play even just a couple of games, he stands out, even when he doesn’t perform well. He’s powerful and fast and he controls the ball sometimes with a lilliputian winger’s grace and sometimes by knocking it an unexpected direction, then crazy-legging past a defender to get to it. He likes to play long, difficult diagonal passes and he can alternately wallop the ball off the outside of his boot or curl it softly in into the path of an attacker. There is so much about his game that’s devastatingly effective, but he adds to that an obvious desire to thrill and impress. He’s brash and playful and is usually wearing a breathtakingly awful haircut; he speaks openly about competing for Ballon D’Ors.”

Higuain’s transfer represented the double blow of Juventus getting the best striker in Italy while weakening perhaps their biggest challenge to the league title. Juventus comfortably sit four points ahead in Serie A with a game in hand, with Napoli in third with seven points behind. Higuain does what he’s always done in Italy, scoring goals out of nowhere like this against Roma. As Colin concludes in that piece, the rich get richer, while the rest hold on for dear life.

Zinedine Zidane Wins Everything 

Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side haven’t lost in 37 matches. Zidane has only lost two matches in the 53 games he’s managed with the club. He won a Champions League in less than six months on the job.

Foolish as it may seem now, and further expanding on the extreme swings of a soccer season, Zidane’s managerial qualifications were in question at one point last year. As Chris Reina wrote in Zizou’s Chance to Fix Perez’s Real Madrid, Zidane inherited a side stuck between two minds of a cohesive team and a new era of Galactico pieces that don’t quite fit. Chris writes:

“Zidane doesn’t need to revolutionize the game the way Guardiola has to be successful. By all accounts Zidane has the work ethic and the drive to synthesize everything he’s learned from other managers and will learn in time on the sidelines. There is no sense of entitlement or arrogance coming from Zidane with his appointment and hopefully for him, he’s not failed by what he’s given to work with by Perez. It shouldn't matter how good a manager was as a player but it does for Perez's Real Madrid and it's for that reason Zidane has as good of a shot as anyone to maximize the potential of this broken assembly of stars.”

Whether Zidane furthered Real Madrid’s aesthetic or tactical style is up to each beholder. But he did not have to be in the Guardiola mold given the circumstance. There have been subtle tactical changes under Zidane, most notably regarding the BBC. Ronaldo completed his switch to a poacher with Gareth Bale now the focal point of the side’s athletic counter attack. Karim Benzema is on the outside looking as Lucas Vazquez, a less talented player, gives Zidane balance. Balance is a key description when describing this current Real Madrid side - Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro compliment each other’s skill set in midfield. James and Isco remain on the bench. 

In analyzing the traits Zidane would translate from his playing days to management - the emphasis on skill, periods of poetic passing, controlling matches with rhythm - it was his intangible winning spirit that resonated the most. We can debate the merits of 3-4-3’s and 4-4-2’s, of possession versus counter attacking. And Zidane certainly showed a tactical savvy as evidenced by a formational change in defeating Atletico Madrid earlier this season. But that would only recognize half of his impact. 

The Chinese Super League Upends the Transfer Market

The global impact of the Chinese Super League’s transfer market dealings was evident as Colin and I examined the league three days apart from differing perspectives. In The Chinese Super League Splashing Cash In Talent-Lust, Colin looked at the ramifications of Jackson Martinez’s record breaking transfer to Guangzhou Evergrande from Atletico Madrid (the record transfer fee for a Chinese club was broken just two days later). Yet the league’s foundation was laid years earlier in attracting high profile European managers. I wrote about Italian World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi’s influence in turning Guangzhou Evergrande into an Asian soccer power in Marcello Lippi Laying the Groundwork For The Super League:

“In addition to bringing in players, the league is looking to Portugal to continue developing technical and tactical talent. The credibility of the league has come along in light years since it was described as 2012, when the country’s game was known for its ineptitude. That article described why Chinese soccer was unlikely to “rule the world” in the near future, focusing on scandals, out of date player development, and a lack of ambition shown by its top players. Four years in the internet age is more than enough time to build a new infrastructure and future, it seems (although the section about scouting players based solely on height is a lesson applicable to any soccer country). “ 

As the trend of high profile moves to the Chinese Super League continues, question of sustainability grows louder. There appears to be no slowing in dealings. Oscar signed with Shanghai SIPG and Carlos Tevez is rumored to make the move on a $700,000 per week contract with Shanghai Shenhua. The traditional approach would be for each Chinese side to build its infrastructure from the ground up through youth academy and coaching. Even with its vast amount of financial resources, any soccer Rome surely cannot be built in a day, or a transfer window.