Be it through circumstance or otherwise, Jamie Carragher and Arsene Wenger were both absolutely right. ‘The world championship of managers,’ they dubbed it. Looking at the bosses in this season’s Premier League, it is impossible to argue.
There is something for everyone. For the thinkers among us, there is Pep Guardiola. For those seeking a dose of passion with their tactics, there is Antonio Conte or Jurgen Klopp. For those with more understated and underrated tastes, Ronald Koeman or Mauricio Pochettino are ideal. And for those who want a delicate blend of sh*thousery and success, try a taste of Jose Mourinho. Louis van Gaal, Manuel Pellegrini and Guus Hiddink are distant memories; we are being spoilt.
That is just to cover the current top six managers in this nascent campaign. For while the heavyweights battle it out at the Premier League’s summit, an even more intense battle is unfolding at the bottom. As we head into September, the participants in this season’s sack race have been chosen.
It does not take a great deal of research to note the correlation between three of the four top-flight managers tipped as most likely to leave their post first. Excluding Francesco Guidolin, the remaining candidates are Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes and current favourite Tony Pulis; the band of Brits. Two Welshmen and the one showman hold the three worst calendar-year records of any Premier League manager who has remained with the same club through 2016. So whose position is most under threat?
The overwhelming majority would answer Tony Pulis. After being appointed West Brom manager in January 2015, he has led the club to 13th and 14th in successive seasons. That the Baggies currently reside in 12th will please the Welshman in a way only a team of eleven central defenders previously could. By now clubs are all too aware of the side effects of Pulis’ particular brand of medicine. A long ball a day will keep relegation away, but it will also have you questioning your very purpose. Stoke outgrew him, and West Brom fans feel their club has now done the same. Or, as their supporters quaintly worded it on Saturday: “Tony Pulis, your football is sh*t.”
That defeat to Bournemouth represented West Brom’s ninth defeat of the year, and means they have won just five matches of a possible 23 in 2016; ‘you draw some, you lose some,’ has become the new mantra. Pulis will insist that his remit was to maintain the club’s top-flight status during potential takeover talks but, while that may be true, it does little to appease fans. Survival is his and the club’s aim, not that of the supporters. Only the three promoted sides and a similarly unambitious Stoke side spent less this summer – a more telling statistic does not exist. The manager wants to be at a club where he is given money to spend, but West Brom do not trust him with such funds. That his third-most expensive signing ever is Peter Crouch speaks volumes.
If the new Chinese owners do wish to spare the club’s stock of football caps by sacking Pulis, it is a decision many fans would welcome. Pulis would hardly be too upset himself; he can either get pushed or walk first, safe in the knowledge that another panicky bottom-half club will be prescribed a dose of his survival methods soon enough. He is in the most danger of any Premier League manager of losing his job, yet he should be the least worried about his future.
Of the sides currently residing in the Premier League’s bottom three, two may have expected such an inauspicious start. Southampton endured another summer of loss, with their manager and a number of key players departing. Sunderland experienced the exit of their manager, and their preparations for the season suffered as a result. Stoke kept their manager and their players, but Mark Hughes is slowly losing the faith of the fans.
The year began with the Welshman being linked with the Manchester United job. In the summer came speculation surrounding the post at Everton. The year could end with Hughes facing increasing uncertainty over his questionable tactics and tiresome post-match verdicts. “They seem to be vigilant and more of a stickler for the rules when Stoke City are involved, I think,” said the manager after another defeat – a 12th of 23 in 2016 – on Saturday. You’d think Tottenham had beaten the Potters 1-0, and had been beneficiaries of a contentious penalty call, rather than inflicting a second 4-0 defeat on Hughes’ side since April. Stoke provided scant resistance.
From 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with a brief flirt with a 3-5-2 in pre-season, Hughes clearly still has yet to decide on his best side or shape. But after a summer in which only Hull spent less, fans are running out of patience. This is a manager who has finished ten seasons as a Premier League manager. His average placing over those campaigns is tenth; is he paying for the over-achievement of three successive ninth-place finishes?
“Let’s cement ourselves in sixth,” said Alan Pardew last year. What Crystal Palace fans would give for those halcyon days. In the period from September to December 2015, the south London club won nine games; they were fifth after 19 games of last season. In the seven months and 23 games of club football since, they have won three times; no club has registered fewer points in 2016.
Not that you would know it. Pardew remains a confident caricature in front of the press; Palace support their man unequivocally, and certainly did so in the summer transfer window; the fans appear generally content with the current manager’s tenure. He may have delivered only 15 Premier League points in the calendar year, but Pardew’s position seems to be under no clear threat.
It is almost impossible to truly analyse Pardew’s tenure. Palace were never a side capable of competing for the Champions League places, but they should never have been battling relegation. They spent the first half of the season planning excursions around Europe, before the latter half left them panicking over their Premier League status. Palace and Pardew were never as good as their best or as bad as their worst last season, but there was no middle ground to judge either against.
Now, Pardew has no excuses. He has shattered the club’s record fee to bring in Christian Benteke, and they had an uncharacteristically middling tenth-highest expenditure in the top flight this summer. Add a heartbreaking defeat in the FA Cup final and a storied history as a player at Selhurst Park, and there is enough goodwill to suggest that the supposed threat surrounding his position is artificial.
Dick Advocaat, Neil Warnock, Paolo Di Canio, Roberto Di Matteo, Steve Bruce, Chris Hughton, Paul Hart, Juande Ramos, Martin Jol and Iain Dowie. Each have suffered the ignominy of being the first manager to be sacked by a Premier League club over the past ten seasons. One would not bet against Pulis, Hughes or Pardew joining them before the end of this year.