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Premier League Management: how 2017/18 ignited the managerial merry-go-round

The Premier League is renowned for its unpredictability; it’s quite difficult to predict which team will emerge from the shadows and take the league by storm, which one would collapse unexpectedly, and which team would resuscitate their chances of survival after having been submerged under the most devastating of waves.

However, there is one element of inevitability in every Premier League season, which is unmistakably realised season after season after season – It’s the fact that a handful of seasoned, relegation-handling, old school survival experts will be appointed mid-season by one struggling club or another.

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Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes, Roy Hodgson and David Moyes have been around the block for seemingly forever, never too far away from another brief stint at a drowning club. These British managers have, between them, managed 25 times in the Premier League, and won a grand total of zero major honours. It’s been said extremely often that young British managers are denied opportunities at the top levels owing to the influx of foreign managers, by Allardyce and Harry Redknapp themselves! The truth of the matter, however, is that it’s owing to the regeneration and repeated reinstallations of these old British managers on the ‘managerial merry-go-round’, as the phrase has been coined.

So why is it that they are appointed at such high frequencies?

The Premier League’s TV deals brings in a huge amount of revenue to every single club, proven how Sunderland received a higher sum for being relegated that Monaco, Bayern and Juventus did for winning their respective leagues. That is incentive enough to remain in the PL, but clubs always aim for more. The business side of football is becoming increasingly evident, and the fact that the total sum received by a club is in direct proportion to their finish in the league table is a huge factor. Add to that the lucratively of European football and the glamour and revenue that brings, and it’s extremely clear why every club aims to secure a berth much higher than what is realistic. For the very same reason, a club that would have been quite happy to secure Premier League status for another season, wants to crack that Top 10 which it was credibly able to do last season (Yes West Brom, it’s you). It’s why Everton, who wanted instant success after giving Koeman all the authority to spend in the summer, showed him the door early on. Bluntly said, they had the squad of a top eight club, the playing style of a Top 10 one, but the aspirations of a top four one.

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So it’s when a club sets an unrealistically high bar for its manager to achieve that this problem’s roots are sowed. Consequently, the manager is then judged on his ability, not to achieve, but to overachieve, just the sound of which is quite absurd. And in attempting to overachieve, the manager is forced to work upon something fresh rather than a formula that is proven to work in the past, something more glamourous than pragmatic, and something more out of the blocks than steady, and something more fantasy based than implementable.

And then once the club comes to realise its errors in setting the targets, the reality of the situation dawns upon them, and they’re forced to take a good, hard look at the present state of things, a positive approach rather than a normative one, in economics terminology. At such a time, the epitome of the club’s ambitions is redirected to one thing: Premier League survival.

And herein starts the recycling of those handful relegation specialists who ply their trade in and around the 15th – 20th places clubs. They do nothing too special – They take clubs back to very basics. “If you don’t concede, you won’t lose” is an old mantra of football, and it sums up the playing style of all these seasoned old men. Defence is sorted out as the topmost priority, with crossing drills being repeated over and over and over, and clearing the ball from dangerous emphasised, with playing it out from the back condemned. A lineup that is defence oriented beyond the superlative is employed, and the clubs looks to climb the league table, trudging through 90 minutes at a time. In attack, crossing the ball into a big, powerful, aerial threat seems to come naturally to most of them, and it’s by soaking up pressure for 85 minutes with little to no ambition, they lie in wait, waiting for the opposition to overcommit and enable themselves to be hit on the counter, or from a set piece.

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These managers bisect the team into defensive and attacking units, and develop the pair of them independent of each other. When the air gets a little easier to breathe, the integration is attempted. But once they secure their goal, and are tasked with taking the club to the next level, do they find the task beyond their forte. These are people whose expertise is securing survival, and building something for the future, something attractive, something that is pleasing to the eye and makes you want to really get behind the team is uncharted territory for them – Not because they haven’t attempted it, but because, in 25 appointments, they never found the right formula. Roy Hogson at Crystal Palace this season, and Alan Pardew in the first two months of his spell at Selhurst Park is about as close as they’ve come to achieving the targets of the men they were brought to replace.

Phil Neville, a few months back, revealed that when he was working towards attaining his coaching licence, he was educated on something known as a ‘5 year plan’ over the course of which he would implement in its entirety, his vision for the club. However, when he next spoke to Tony Pulis on the same subject, Pulis rubbished the idea, and said the only thing that really matters is the ‘6 month plan’. Very simply put, if you fail to get the first 6 months right, you’d be out of a job before you can finish saying ‘5 year plan’. And based on current evidence, it is extremely hard to say anything against what Pulis narrated. Crystal Palace’s Frank De Boer arrived at the helm from a foreign nation with a very respectable reputation and a good tactical approach to a game. One game in, Wilfrid Zaha suffered an injury which mandated a lengthy spell away from the football field. De Boer, trying to get his side to play a more ‘wholesome’ brand of football, built his team around Zaha, in the absence of whom, a vital cog was missing from the engine. De Boer paid for that with his job, 77 days after his appointment. Ronald Koeman spent lavishly during the summer, a sort of Déjà vu of the season in which Bale departed Tottenham and Villas Boas was in charge of reinforcing the squad. Koeman signed the big names but struggled to find balance, his ideal starting XI and Sigurdsson’s natural position. Consequently, he was out a job 6 days after Craig Shakespeare suffered the same setback.

The longest serving current PL managers, in order are – Arsene Wenger* (21 years), Eddie Howe (5 years), Sean Dyche (5 years), and Mauricio Pochettino (3 years). After Arsene Wenger’s recent decision to step down, 2 of the 3 remainders are from recently promoted clubs. For them, the goal is very clear – Survival. Anything other than that can be considered an added bonus. Of the other, Mauricio Pochettino took over a side in decline, and had to spend considerable time and effort ironing out the frailties, and making them a force to be reckoned with, and not just mere pushovers. However, the key factor being that both were afforded time at the helm. Pochettino was seen as the ideal man by Danial Levy to topple Arsenal and Chelsea’s dominance in London, and he’s come remarkably close to doing exactly that. It took him a considerable while to rebuild Tottenham, but facing the Lilywhites now is a very daunting task for any club, which is a huge measure of his success, and also shows how Levy’s faith was repaid. Before Mark Hughes left Stoke devoid of any urgency and any inspiration, he helped their makeover from a very physical side with little technical ability to a team the big dogs feared to take on away, owing to a splendid mix of technical skill, endless stamina and a clear game plan.

[*Arsene Wenger will be leaving Arsenal at the end of the season]

Aiming for an unrealistic finish at the start of the season, seeing the team’s incapability of matching those high expectations, giving the man in charge a pink slip for failing to achieve those high targets, and then bringing another one in just to secure the status of a PL club for another season seems to be a very unproductive, and rather volatile cycle to me. Even when a manager is brought in, not to secure top flight status but to build from scratch, it shows inefficiency and a lack of patience by the club’s hierarchy in the man they considered was the best to achieve that very same task a brief while ago. To that respect, will it be reasonable to comment that newly and recently promoted clubs are better run than the established mid table Premier League clubs?

But putting that aside, if we look at what’s in store if the right man, be it an Englishman or someone from another league and nation, with the right plan is allowed to get in early enough (Start of pre-season period) to really get to know his players inside out, the weaknesses and strengths, the positions that need upgrading and, more than anything, time to get the players on his side and wanting to play for him, the fans, the club and for silverware with a genuine thirst, the results have the potential to be truly remarkable.

Examples in this regard would be Slaven Bilic – The Croatian’s first season in charge was revolutionary, with the Hammers embarrassing the Top 4 regularly, and playing an incredibly attractive brand of football whilst doing that. The second season was characterised by a rift between his playmaker extraordinaire, Dimitri Payet, and a transfer window which exemplified panic. His third season in charge, he lost the dressing room, which meant only one thing – Parting ways. It seems paradoxical to state that a manager can work wonders and then saying the first example was a manager whose revolution lasted a mere season. But here again I’m trying to reinstall the point about success being measured against overachievement. Bilic became a victim of his own success and the ego of the man he built his team around, and paid the price.

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The second example in this regard would be Portugese Marco Silva at Watford, who was exceeding expectations on a weekly basis for the first few months of this Premier League season. His Watford side were playing some stupendous football, and picking up a very, very healthy points tally whilst doing so. Unfortunately, he got ahead of himself when Everton came calling, and forgot about the team he was presently in charge of. He let his ambition get the better of him, and paid the price, rightfully so.

Other recent examples that spring to mind are Italy’s Claudio Ranieri at Leicester (Who has been exempted from the examples, owing to the fact that his achievement shall stay unparalleled and irreplicable), Argentine Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton and Englishman Paul Clement at Swansea.

It further reinforces the need to find a manager whose vision for the club suits the club, and that of the board of executives. The prime examples in this regard are Tottenham Hotspur. In Pochettino, they found just the right man to carry them forward on the way to success. He reinvented Tottenham’s every dynamic to the point that finishing 2nd and 3rd in the league seem bitter defeats and failed seasons. He was able to do this all because he was afforded the time and the confidence of his superiors.

The achievements of West Ham under Bilic, Southampton under Koeman, Burnley under Dyche are all fantastic achievements, without a trace of an exaggeration. The feather in the cap was the incredulous, fairy tale like success of Leicester City in the Premier League, and then a run beyond their wildest expectations in the Champions League.

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These cases are by no means flawless, but the flaw is common to all, barring Poch. It’s one bad transfer window seeing the club lose some big names to bigger clubs which puts an aura of doubt over every top player’s future, the manager consequently losing his players, and thereby losing any and every urgency to perform, and then not being afforded enough time to steer the ship back to safety. The results of the aforementioned managers left their fans open mouthed, the neutrals wowed, and the teams they beat stunned. This presents enough of a case to propose that the route taken by the clubs who appointed them are worthy of emulation. And that when a manager is brought in with a vision, he should be afforded enough time to be able to work it to its core. And more often than not, its the foreign managers who have this vision. If the board is able to provide enough support to their managers to fend off departures of the club’s biggest stars, the building process can occur steadily and smoothly. In today’s world, it is near impossible to guarantee this, so can it not be balanced for by offering a little more of the only resource that parallels money to a struggling club – time?

That seems one obstacle that the Premier League clubs have failed to surmount, and is the reason why the so called ‘Merry Go-Round’ still flourishes.

Written by Ayush Verma.

Ayush Verma

20. Student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Manchester City correspondent for 90MAAT

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