It has long been a criticism in the mainstream of English football punditry that British managers don’t get the opportunities to take over top clubs. But if this season has shown anything, it is that the quality of coaching coming into the Premier League is better than elements of what is being developed here already.
In reality, the entire argument is built on a myth. There are many examples of British coaches getting top jobs, even in cases when they perhaps didn’t deserve them. Most pertinent is Steven Gerrard’s career trajectory; as an iconic player with both Liverpool and England, his reputation preceded him and he walked into a first senior job at Rangers, one of the biggest clubs in Europe, and was even afforded the luxury of having his ideal career path mapped out for him, with Anfield the ultimate destination. Even when he took over at Aston Villa, a wealthy, highly ambitious Premier League club with aims of challenging at the top.
Gerrard, though, stepped through the door as a big name appointment who reflected those ambitions, rather than someone who was being given a first opportunity at that level. Tactically and in terms of coaching, he rarely looked as though he had built on the image of being an inspirational captain on the pitch at Liverpool, and his harshest critics would potentially argue that he didn’t believe he had to work on the details and that his presence would simply be enough.
He was sacked with Villa hovering just above the relegation zone at the beginning of last season; since Unai Emery has replaced him they have exceeded their potential and, as of right now, cannot be ruled out of the title race. Emery may be viewed as one of Europe’s best coaches, with a track record for success at different clubs over a distinguished career, but there is nuance to the point. His success is because of his intensity, tactical philosophy and attention to detail on the training pitch, and that is exactly why he has managed to turn things around at Villa Park.
Gerrard is now flailing in mid table at Saudi Arabia Pro League side Al Ettifaq, making no discernible progress. You could also follow the story of other British managers Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Sol Campbell for similar stories of flattering to deceive, admittedly to varying degrees. In the case of Rooney at Birmingham City, his star power was enough to see him replace another Englishman, John Eustace, and take the club from play-off hopefuls to relegation fighters in under 100 days.
Bournemouth, too, are a good example of how trusting a philosophy can pay off. After keeping them up last season, many thought the summer dismissal of British manager Gary O’Neil was unfair. But Cherries fans weren’t too disappointed, even when Andoni Iraola struggled in the early weeks of his reign. The belief from the stands, and new American owners led by William Foley, believed they hobbled over the line and they wanted a stronger identity running through the club. As a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, he has instilled a high pressing, energetic style of play and crucially been able to build around a core of players that he inherited at the club.
Being a good manager is nothing to do with nationality. To his credit, O’Neil has done a good job with Wolves in tough circumstances after taking over just before the start of the season. Rob Edwards’ Luton side have more than a fighting chance in their battle to stay in the top flight this season because everybody works together from his lead, leaving no stone unturned.
Eddie Howe’s work at Newcastle has been praised, and although he has been through a rough patch of late, he remains popular with the fans and ownership because he has developed a style of play, improved players that were already at the club in terms of output and fitness levels and risen the standards of the club in his image. It is no coincidence that, after leaving Bournemouth in the summer of 2020, that he travelled around Europe to further develop his philosophy, even learning from other sports.
Good coaching goes further than anything. This has been an unprecedented season of patience in terms of managerial sackings, with just two so far by January. Perhaps the reason for that is, finally, the depth and detail in the work on the training ground is at a very high level. That should dictate whether somebody is appointed, not their playing career or country of origin.