Entering the final quarter of the 2013/14 season, the Premier League's top four teams have broken away from the rest and are separated by just a few points at the top of the table. It is one of the closest title races in years and certainly the most widely contested, given that Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City all still have a genuine chance of being crowned champions.
Each club has a squad filled with talented players, but at this critical time of year more than ever, it is managers who truly come into their own to guide their team to glory. Having a manager that can successfully navigate the final hurdles and pitfalls of the campaign's closing stages can make all the difference between victory and failure.
But what are the key attributes and traits that will help set one manager and his club above the others come May?
In a title race, experience is a key attribute matched by little else. Those who have been there and done it before are better versed to do it again over those who have never found themselves in the situation. It is said experience that will help a manager handle the pressure that comes with fighting for the title. In the past, less experienced individuals like Kevin Keegan and Rafael Benitez famously wilted under the pressure, while Sir Alex Ferguson often thrived.
In January 1996, Keegan's Newcastle held a 12 point advantage over Manchester United, though the Magpies soon began to falter, culminating in the infamous "Love it" rant, as Ferguson's team beat them to the top spot on the final day of the season. Similarly, midway through the 2008/09 season the pressure got to Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez who vented frustrations with Ferguson and United with his "that's a fact" speech. Following the Spaniard's rather public meltdown, Liverpool managed to win just two of their next seven games, which ultimately proved costly as United won the title by four points.
Whilst stemming from the pressure of a title race, such meltdowns can usually trace their origins to the mind games and the planting of seeds of doubt by clever opponents. Ferguson was an expert in the field and often scored a psychological victory over other managers before players even took to the pitch. Any manager who has mastered the art of mind games holds a tremendous advantage over his adversaries.
The legendary Scot may have left the stage, but José Mourinho has continued the Premier League's mind game traditions. This season, the Chelsea boss has regularly discounted his team's chances in the title race, whilst suggesting that Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City are firm favourites. Earlier this year Mourinho compared his own team to a "little horse that needs milk and to learn how to jump" and in the same press conference labelled City as "the best team". Such sentiments often have two desired effects. They serve to give opponents the unwanted burden of expectation whilst alleviating the pressure on their own team.
It is a tactic that was employed by Roberto Mancini in 2012. With just six games of the 2011/12 season remaining, City had fallen eight points behind rivals United at the top of the table and the charismatic Italian outwardly looked to have given up on the title. Publicly, Mancini conceded United were favourites and persistently stuck to his words, even as his club's illustrious neighbours began dropping points. Without the burden of expectation, City won all six of their remaining fixtures and snatched a maiden Premier League crown with virtually the final kick of the season.
In the final weeks of a long campaign, momentum is key and managers must do everything they can to cultivate a winning run. Wins breed confidence, which ultimately leads to more wins. Alex Ferguson coined the phrase "squeaky-bum-time" during the 2003 title run-in to describe the final exciting stretch of the season where the repercussions of results can be huge.
It doesn't matter how a team fighting for the title wins, just as long as they do and keep the momentum flowing. The importance of a scrappy 1-0 victory cannot be underestimated and a manager must be able to impart real resilience and strength of character on his team if things are not necessarily going their way. No team can perform to their very best every game and continuing to win whilst playing below par is so often the hallmark of champions.
Any side that can begin a run of wins at the right time will soon rise above their competitors. In 1998, Arsenal put together a run of 10 consecutive wins between March and May, including five 1-0 score lines, which made them champions. This season, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it seems to be Brendan Rodgers's Liverpool coming into consistent winning form at the right time.
The key to such momentum can usually be traced to consistency in terms of squad selection. If a team is winning, then the manager must resist all desires to tinker with their team, especially in key areas of the pitch, such as the back four or central midfield. In past years, Arsenal's famous back four and United's treble winning midfield quartet were automatic selections that formed the spines of their respective victorious teams.
Managers must also ensure their team always fights until the death and in every game. In football, countless matches are won, lost and drawn in the dying minutes, proving that every second on the pitch is invaluable. The most famous example of late goals and their effect on the Premier League title race came in April 1993 when Steve Bruce's 96th minute winner over Sheffield Wednesday put Manchester United top of the table, a position they never relinquished.
Stoppage time may be something managers think they cannot affect, but in May 2013 Alex Ferguson admitted he regularly tried to pressure referees and officials for things such as more time if his side was losing. The Scot's admission confirmed long held suspicions and a year earlier in 2012, a BBC investigation had actually found United received an average of 79 seconds of additional stoppage time when in a losing position after 90 minutes, proving it does work in a league where every second counts. Managers who want to be successful must press every button in their attempts to win.
Of course, the history of the Premier League has shown that there are occasional exceptions to these guidelines, but the manager who can tap into at least some of these attributes and traits will surely see his side rise above the rest in the final run-in and be crowned Premier League champions.
Looking at the key characteristics, in 2013/14 it would appear to be José Mourinho that ticks more of the boxes than any other. However, with less than 10 games to go and everything still to play for, Arsene Wenger, Manuel Pellegrini or Brendan Rodgers will surely have something to say about it.
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