Perhaps, there was no better time to have a stellar managerial line-up in the Premier League. After all, it was only last month that Fernando Santos guided Portugal to its first major triumph at the Euro tournament in France. It was a victory for superior coaching – a manager demonstrating what could be achieved with a side that was clearly not the best.
However, the acknowledgement has not always been there. In an interview to The Blizzard, Juanma Lillo — whose ideas have heavily influenced Manchester City’s new manager Pep Guardiola — was dismissive of the cult of the manager.
“This is a game, played by players. Those [coaches] who have expressed their significance seem to want to claim some personal protagonism or status through others. Our role is less than many coaches realise or want to believe,” said Lillo. He makes a point that is not entirely unreasonable.
Sometimes, there is too much focus on a manager. It’s the media’s love for the narrative that engenders obsessive reactions on quotes, mind games and what not. Perhaps, there is a case of misplaced priorities.
By focusing too much on the sound bites that sends everyone into a stir, there is a danger that the information that is useful to understand a coach’s methods is not given its due. Lillo, who has managed a host of sides for more than three decades, is not one to deny the significant role played by a coach. His philosophical musings are worth anyone’s salt, particularly on coaching and media’s coverage of football. The words below, from the same interview, bear consideration.
“You have to ask what is a coach? Some are more didactic, some have a desire for protagonism, some are orthodox, some aren’t. Some are stimulated by competition, others by the game itself,” Lillo said.
That’s a fairly diverse net that arguably encompasses the breadth of managerial talent on offer in the Premier League season that begins on Saturday. An interesting group of figures, not all of them at sides competing for the title, strengthen the plot of a tale that promises to excite and intrigue.
There are those who were part of the league before this summer. Arsene Wenger (Arsenal), Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool), Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham Hotspur) and Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City) are the names that stand out immediately. However, the likes of Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) and Slaven Bilic (West Ham United) made a name for themselves too last season.
Then there are those who have managed in England previously but find themselves in charge of a different team. Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) and Ronald Koeman — now at Everton after leaving Southampton in the summer — are widely considered to be among the brightest minds in football today.
Although the latter does not enjoy the pedigree that his Portugal counterpart boasts, he has now been entrusted with overseeing a transition for the second time. It’s not a challenge that should be considered lightly. If his record at Southampton is a fair indication, Everton should feel comfortable.
The Saints have replaced Koeman with another manager who is highly regarded by his fellow counterparts, Frenchman Claude Puel. He will not be the only one, however, to experience the Premier League for the first time. Even in this season of eye-catching transfers, it’s difficult to look beyond Pep Guardiola as the most high profile arrival. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager will take the reins at Manchester City after years of speculation.
Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea with a lower buzz but the success of his stratagems with Italy in France has lifted the anticipation. Another noteworthy appointment who will make a Premier League debut is ex-Napoli manager Walter Mazzarri. He will grace the relatively less glamorous environs of Vicarage Road where his new side Watford plays.
The eleven managers named above are, of course, not the only intriguing coaches in the league. However, they represent the sense that the bounteous riches that Premier League clubs possess are not just limited to recruiting the best players.
Perhaps belatedly, English sides have recognised that a bunch of talented players is just that in the absence of an elite coach who can turn them into a highly productive unit. This is by no means a sudden trend but one can feel that, in this moment, the stock of elite managers has reached unprecedented heights.
So now that the line-up is set—ignoring the mess at manager-less Hull City who seem to plumb new depths every few days — where does it leave the Premier League? Is the mediocrity that has afflicted the competition in the past few seasons soon to be banished for a wave of excellence? Or do the problems run deeper?
Certainly, expecting an instant change in the way football is played in the league is wishful. Even though the quality of managers has undergone a conspicuous upgrade in the last twelve months, it will take time for the new managers to make their plans work. Short-termism seems to plague the current football culture but it is clear that patience will need to be summoned every now and then.
Particularly on the continent, English clubs have spectacularly conceded ground. In the last five seasons, only four out of a possible 40 spots have been taken by a Premier League side in the Champions League quarterfinals. This is a massive downturn if you consider that the number stood at 16 for the preceding five campaigns. English sides no longer live up to their billing in continental competitions.
However, with the current set of riches and personnel, a reasoned approach could bring the heydays back. Despite possessing a spluttering side, Manuel Pellegrini was able to guide Manchester City to the Champions League semis last term.
It’s a bit unfortunate that we will have to wait 12 months in some cases to learn how the manager and team will deal with continental concerns. Klopp’s Liverpool comes to mind. He has spent his first pre-season with the club and, for now, the returns will have to be judged in the domestic context. Pochettino’s Spurs, of course, will be tested in Europe and it remains to be seen if the big stage overawes the Lilywhites.
However, considering the vast riches the Premier Leagues possesses now, domestic standards may provide a more accurate appraisal of teams. Despite the romantic rise of Leicester City last campaign, it was a season that will also be remembered for the remarkable inconsistency that dogged the established teams.
Of course, the onus will now be on the big sides to show it was a blip but it will also be a test of Ranieri and his side’s credentials. Can underdogs really displace the elites every now and then or was it a dream that is waiting to be extinguished by waking life?
Wenger’s Arsenal, one supposes, needs the dream. After an incredibly long title drought, the players probably need to believe in more than they see. Wenger has an important litmus test to pass as well. There’s no doubt over his world class credentials but is he a part of the pantheon? When the Premier League finds itself awash with managerial riches, can he prove once again that he is no less to those who have achieved bigger prizes in recent years?
Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte are the kind of coaches who possess tactical and silverware leverage over Wenger in this moment. But of course, football management encompasses a wider sweep. It’s certain that their methods work but will they be able to replicate past success at their new workplaces? Conte’s European record is not the most pleasing and he possesses a Chelsea side that does not look ready for a title challenge yet.
If Guardiola and Mourinho’s sides find themselves in a close race for the Premier League trophy, the managers’ shared history is likely to underlay further tension between the clubs. The coaches’ legacy is another issue worth pondering.
There is little blame that Guardiola deserves to bear for his time at Bayern but there was an inescapable sense at the club that there was more that should have been achieved. Mourinho’s Chelsea, of course, collapsed spectacularly last season. The Manchester United manager finds himself at a crossroads. The next chapter is likely to leave an indelible mark on Mourinho and his arch-nemesis.
Arguably, the same could be said of the Premier League. The financial supremacy of the competition is not under any doubt but is that the limit of its ambition? Over the past few seasons, it has become clear that the Premier League is not the centre for the highest standard of football.
The entertainment and thrill of the competition is unquestionable. Considering its global popularity, perhaps there is no need for a product of undisputed quality. But there’s a gap between the Premier League’s supposed excellence and its actual substance. The thrill, the headiness is endearing. Wouldn’t it be better if there was pre-eminence too?