It is a little more than a month since Sam Allardyce appeared alongside Richard Keys and Andy Gray in their TV studio in Doha and moaned, without a hint of irony, about foreigners taking all the plum jobs. Well, more or less. What Allardyce claimed exactly was British managers are viewed as “second class” in their own country and have “nowhere to go” because the Premier League is a “foreign league in England”.
Nonsense then and even more so in a week when Allardyce took charge at Everton and Alan Pardew did the same at West Bromwich Albion, with the pair following in the footsteps of Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace and David Moyes at West Ham United. British managers have never had it so good. Certainly not those who have been there, done that.
The debate around these appointments is raging and, to some extent, it is not straightforward. For starters, is it fair to describe them all as old? There are 16 years between the youngest (Moyes, at 54) and the oldest (Hodgson, who is 70) and in manager terms what is old, anyway? Also, in the case of Allardyce, there is a history of embracing modern trends, so is he really the dinosaur most portray him to be?
Whatever the view, a sense of dreary deja vu is justified. Between them, Hodgson, Moyes, Allardyce and Pardew have been handed 18 Premier League jobs and won zero English trophies, while Moyes and Pardew have suffered Premier League relegation. Mediocrity, it appears, will always be rewarded by top-flight powerbrokers gripped by fear and a lack of imagination.
The irony is that this narrow thinking is in contrast to the generally cosmopolitan and creative feel of the Premier League. Step back and look at what is happening in England’s leading division and the sense is that it is opening up more than ever to new ideas and broader principles.
Manchester City are the standard bearers. A team made up of Brazilians, Argentinians, Belgians, Germans and – among other nationalities – young Englishmen encouraged to be better at their job, storming towards glory on the back of the deep principles of a Catalan manager who had supposedly been “found out” during his first season in this country.
Pep Guardiola refused to wilt and is thriving, with the joy not confined to the Etihad Stadium. As Barney Ronay recently wrote in these pages, City’s domination is something neutrals can also savour, such is the bewitching manner of their play.
City have spent a lot of money getting to this juncture – eight points clear, having won 12 matches in succession, following Wednesday’s dramatic 2-1 victory over Southampton. This is a top‑down revolution instigated by sovereign wealth, so we should take a breath before throwing too many garlands of virtue over their collective shoulders. But equally, while money can buy talent it does not necessarily buy the level of expression and ambition City have generally shown this season.
It is not just at City that intriguing things are brewing. At Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the development of thrilling teams built on the attacking principles of Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino continues to unfold.
In both cases it is not perfect – Liverpool’s defensive frailties continue to undermine them while Tottenham are in the midst of a poor domestic run that puts their hopes of a title challenge in serious doubt – but what is happening on Merseyside and in north London is exciting, progressive and ambitious. It is something that can also be said of the work being done by Marco Silva at Watford, transforming a bunch of players who appeared to be playing with the effects of a heavy pub lunch last season into one of the most dynamic and devastating teams in the country. Even in defeat, they did themselves credit against Manchester United on Tuesday.
Silva’s status as the saviour to all clubs’ ills is overblown but there is increasingly little doubt he is the real thing, something that can also be said of David Wagner, who took Huddersfield from 18th in the Championship to promotion to the Premier League inside 18 months.
Pochettino, Silva and Wagner in particular highlight the benefits of turning a cheek to the safe option. All three arrived in this country (at Southampton, Hull City and Huddersfield, respectively) amid deep suspicion of their ability to “cut it over here” yet quickly proved to be not only competent but capable of getting far more out of the players at their disposal than most suspected was possible.
All of this is not entirely new, of course. The Premier League has for some time been rich with ideas born from a fusion of different nationalities, in the dugout and on the pitch, and no overseas figure has had a greater impact on football in this country than Arsène Wenger, who arrived at Arsenal in the same year the BBC showed the first episode of Changing Rooms and Tiger Woods turned professional. In other words, a long time ago.
But the spread is now wider, taking in clubs at the top and bottom of the league (in the season Wenger won his first title at Arsenal, 1997-98, discounting caretakers there were never more than four non-British managers in the Premier League, and one of those was Joe Kinnear), and it is not all high‑energy, high-pressing tactics; Chelsea won the Premier League last season playing with a three‑man defence, something that had all but disappeared in English football. Imported and operated by Antonio Conte, it worked a treat.
This mix of ideas from different parts of the world is particularly significant amid the climate of Brexit. Divisions have formed and the sense has grown that people from other countries are not as welcome as they thought, yet in the country’s leading division the top five teams are managed by a Spaniard, a Portuguese, an Italian, a Frenchman and a German, while elsewhere those of similar and other nationalities also thrive. Foreigners are not only welcome in the Premier League – they are routinely celebrated.
And who is that in sixth? Why, it is Burnley, and here it feels important to make the point that noteworthy progression is also being instigated by domestic figures, away from the tried and tested. Sean Dyche, in only his second managerial post and first in the Premier League, has not only established a small-to-middling club in the elite but is advancing their style of play, making it more progressive and attractive, as seen most vividly in the 24-pass move that led to Jeff Hendrick’s goal in their 1-0 victory over Everton in October and in general during their 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Wednesday, who, it should be remembered, are in their third successive Premier League season having stuck to the possession-based principles of their 40-year-old, Amersham-born manager, Eddie Howe.
It hasn’t always worked, as was the case again this week, but it is at least forward thinking, something that can also be said of Gareth Southgate, who has made clear his desire to elevate England’s ambition – moulding them into a team comfortable in possession and at ease playing in a formation that is not, to quote his fictitious predecessor Mike Bassett, “four-four-fucking-two”. It may blow up in Southgate’s face next summer but at least he is trying something new, something interesting.
And that’s what English football is at the moment – interesting. Even the row over the relevance of statistics sparked by Jeff Stelling’s rant about expected goals adds to that because it forces us to look at the sport in different ways.
The mix is heady and going up a gear as the games come thick and fast – 70 Premier League fixtures between Saturday and New Year’s Eve. So enjoy the ride and try not to get too downhearted by the returning ghosts of seasons’ pasts.
The Guardian Sport