By Christopher Schachter, EPL Talk correspondent
In a packed and stifling media room just off the team dressing rooms in the bowels of Toyota Park, I learned some interesting things about the culture of the EPL. The Gaffer reigns imperiously and the players submit to his authority in a way that is completely alien to American major sports. Case in point: Prior to Jose Mourinho strolling in to talk with the press (here, about 60/40 US to Brit), Shaun Wright-Phillips, accompanied by a PR handler, was regurgitating the party line about training, MLS, his role on the squad, what he’s learned from last year (how to remove splinters from his hindquarters), etc…He tap danced around any question posed to him regarding the manager’s role for him last season in the coming year. Then, Jose appears, SWP sits up straight, becomes sheepish and makes a quick exit. Jose, who already did a sweep of the interview room prior to the media’s arrival (let’s just say he’s wound tight), is aloof and engaging at once. Handles the fluff and pointed questions with aplomb. I asked if the pressure in midfield may be relieved with a loan agreement before the summer window closes to which to he categorically denied it would happen (sorry SWP). A Brit then asked about tactics for the MLS and Community Shield matches. The Special one revealed that although winning the “next” game is always “imperative,” due to their lack of pre season games compared to the three competitors for the top end of the table, he would need to use these games to prepare for 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 and expected to maximize substitutions. He then told the corp that today’s practice would be light, just to get used to the MLS ball (Adidas v. Prem Nike ball they’ve been training with in LA).
I was astonished at the pace and intensity of this light session. It began with a 11 v 11 game of one touch passing using the hands only, scoring only with the head. I’ve been to training sessions for NFL, NBA, MLB teams. I was amazed at the intensity and sheer joy that players making 70-100+ thousand a week played with. They moved on to a 1/3 field, 11 v 11 game and the pace was increased. Terry, Sheva, Frank, Ballack, Drogba (very important coif revision, thank you Didier), Robben, Mikel (he’s as big as a linebacker) who went down for a bit, putting each other at risk, risky looking tackles that would have led to a World Cup booking and going nuts after scoring a goal all whilst playing up to the paying supporters whose total may have surpassed an MLS game or two. I’m jaded, I think athletes are prima donnas, etc. Not here, not in front of Jose, who watches every touch in every drill. The speed compared to the earlier MLS practice was embarrassingly stark in contrast, the skill level is truly breathtaking. If you’re following along with the pix, you’ll see Cech, training and struggling to deal with his recently operated on shoulder. He was not smiling.