There's Life In The Old Dogs Yet...

For every skinny, suave, young football manager like Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, there's been an old-school boss who has over-achieved this season...

Last Updated: 28/05/14 at 14:02 Post Comment

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In the eyes of many, the last few years have signaled the unstoppable march of a new generation of top-level football manager. You know the guy: young of age, trim of physique and gleaming of tooth. He speaks in relentlessly upbeat tones. His neatly tailored suits reflect the geometric precision of his side's fluid football. His oozes modernity from every pore of his immaculately groomed skin.

The archetype, of course, is Pep Guardiola. But in Premier League terms we're talking about Brendan Rodgers, and about Roberto Martinez. We're also talking about Mauricio Pochettino, about Andre Villas-Boas and about Michael Laudrup. Stylish, articulate and schooled on the continent, this, we're told, is the Premier League manager of tomorrow. And these better-travelled, better-educated newcomers have already embarked upon the process of snatching the baton from British football's managerial establishment - a cliquey, antiquated institution that's long been in need of a shake-up.

And yet, look a little closer and perhaps this influx of continental clever-clogs isn't actually spelling the end for Britain's own brand of old-school manager after all. Martinez, Rodgers and Pochettino have performed admirable feats at each of their clubs this term - but these don't negate the achievements of someone like Tony Pulis. Pulis - in his absurd pensioner's-tracksuit-and-baseball-cap combo - is the perfect embodiment of their polar opposite. Peek a little lower under the radar, and you'll spot Mark Hughes, another grizzled veteran of these islands whose work at Stoke has been exceptional. Lower still, there's Steve Bruce: similarly unfashionable, similarly impressive. And if there's a trio of top-flight managers more distinctly 'old school' than those three, I'd like to hear about it.

Pulis's exploits at Palace have been the most well-documented, and deservedly so. His capacity to instill adventure as well as resilience into a thoroughly doomed-looking outfit - and with the added requirement of absolute immediacy - has been genuinely staggering. Most impressive is how he has adapted his own methods to suit: the number of dribbles averaged by his Palace side across last season, for example, is almost double that of his Stoke team of the season before. Pulis's risk-averse approach may have cost him his job at Stoke, where his conservatism was often on a par with Michael Gove's (and likewise his popularity) but at Palace he has proved himself more versatile than most would have imagined.

Pulis's endeavours have been impossible to miss, but his successor at the Britannia has also done a startlingly fine job, and with a more all-inclusive remit. Mark Hughes has responded splendidly to the task of rehabilitating the division's pantomime villains by turning Stoke into a side that supplement their brutish resilience with panache and incision - much like Hughes the player, in fact. Their demolition of Fulham in the season's penultimate game was most notable for its well-grooved aesthetics, and the way Hughes has offered the likes of Ossuama Assaidi and Marko Arnautovic the freedom to flourish within a formerly rigid side is some feat. Stoke's stylistic shift is obvious to the naked eye, but can also be plainly quantified: their average of 354 short passes per game over last season is significantly up on 2012/13's 274.

Hughes has not only implemented that long-term blueprint well, but done so while taking results forward in the short-term, too - his debut season brought Stoke their record points tally and highest-placed finish since their promotion six years ago. It's not just Roberto Martinez who have spent the year laughing in the face of the 'transition season' notion, and while Hughes's Wrexham intonations may not scream tiki-taka in the manner of his Catalunyan counterpart, his work too deserves serious credit.

And although 15th place may not be the most eye-catching achievement, you won't find a Hull City fan who wouldn't have snapped your hand, arm and half your torso off if they were offered that back in August. What's more, Hull's survival - not to mention their dizzying cup run - was less a result of the stereotypical battling qualities that a veteran Brit would be expected to impart than it was of a season's worth of football founded largely on controlled possession. The composed scheming of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore in central midfield has been the side's stand-out asset, and Hull's patient probing speaks toward training-ground work of which any of Steve Bruce's more fashionable counterparts would be proud. Bruce may well look like he should be running a village B&B rather than an elite-level sports team but he has shown his many doubters that he's more than at home perched in a Premier League dug-out.

Amidst all the fawning over the coaches in the division's upper echelons, it's easy to overlook the achievements of these men, particularly when a cursory glance at the league's final standings fails to tell the whole story. They might not espouse the sort of voguish high-pressing football heralded by the skinny-tied men of tomorrow, but there has been tactical sophistication on show all season long from all three.

The trio may feel like ever-presents in English football, familiar establishment men collecting yet another paycheque from yet another middling club, but in actual fact Hughes and Bruce had been all but written off at the top level as recently as a year ago, while Pulis's methods were regarded by many (most notably his former employers) as archaic and limiting. All three have reputations in need of defending, and, over the past season, each has gone a long way towards dismantling the case for the prosecution.

It's heartening, especially as inquests into the supposed crisis in British coaching rumble on, that the emergence of this new-age continental coach doesn't seem to have sounded the death knell for British football's home-schooled establishment but rather jolted it from its cosy slumber. These young pretenders may be charming the crowds but they aren't the only ones capable of innovating their tactics and renovating their teams. The sharp suit may fare better in front of the cameras, but reports of the old-school manager's death have been greatly exaggerated: there's life in the shabby tracksuit yet.

Alex Hess - follow him on Twitter

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