Ralf Rangnick’s confirmation as the next Manchester United manager – for now – signals a significant shift in tack at Old Trafford. For the Premier League, however, it is the advancement of a trend.
Time was when philosophers wore togas. Brooding, beardy sorts, usually to be found sat under the arbour in the academy, deep in dialogue on the finer points of morality or governance. At the very least, they wore tweed. Sat outside Parisian cafés, gesticulating at each other through plumes of Gauloise smoke. In lamplit studies under piles of leather-bound books, or with a pipe on a park bench, cogitating, Or whatever.
Those days are gone. Now, you’ll likely find them stood beside a football pitch. Some have glasses, some don’t. Some are partial to the odd fag. Very few wear tweed, and even fewer togas, opting instead for the club-issue blazer, the initialled tracksuit or the gillet-under-jacket Argestes culture hike get-up of the 21st century manager.
Because the Premier League has gone philosopher-crazy, drunk on the cerebral exploits of Messrs Bielsa and Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel; and now The Godfather of the Gegenpress himself, Ralf Rangnick. So much so that having a philosophy is now non-negotiable, as evidenced by Gary Lineker’s line of questioning on Saturday’s Match of the Day, if not exactly by Steven Gerrard’s answer.
But when did this happen? Has it actually happened or is it just a figment of journalistic discourse, and therefore all bollocks? And how do you quantify something as famously unquantifiable as philosophy?
Well, with graphs. Charting a selection of key markers in managerial demographics – or Mamographics™ – we’ve attempted to do just that. The following is an overview of how the make-up of the Premier League manager has changed over time, which may shed some light on things.
A note: The data begins in 2003/04. This is not because there was no such thing as footballing philosophy before then, but because this coincides with the defining moment in the career of The Professor himself, Arsène Wenger. There is data for 2007/08, the year that renowned philistine Sir Alex Ferguson last won the Champions League, which according to some he could never do now. 2012/13, as this was his last Premier League win, and 2017/18, as this was Pep’s first – a watershed if ever there was one. And, of course, 2021/22. All data is taken with 14 games played, or as close as possible.
It is the only place to start. Not because all British managers are morons, but because this side of the sixties, every major tactical revolution has come from abroad; see Michels, Lobanovskyi, Cruyff, et al. And let’s face it, the all-British Isles cast of the pre-Wenger years was not exactly a symposium.
The first point of note is an obvious one: the rise in continental bosses, and the decline in those from the British Isles. From 03/04 (17) to 21/22 (7) is a decline of almost 60%. However, more insightful is the kind of jobs that English managers, specifically, are doing. In 2003/04, five top-half clubs had one, including Charlton’s Alan Curbishley, our sole representative in the dizzy heights of the top five. Since then, the overwhelming majority of Englishmen are found in the lower reaches. If you wanted to play successful, expansive football as the 2010s moved towards the arch-philosopher age, you were increasingly likely to favour a foreigner; if you were in a dogfight and needed someone to instil some stability, you remained quite likely to go Bulldog. Think latter-day Big Sam, who is personally responsible for three of those bottom half positions.
Special mention here also for the Scottish situation. In the not-too-distant past, Scotland was the hotbed of managerial talent. Now, only one is left: David Moyes, who, incidentally, is the only man to feature in every list, and in 4th is currently sat in his highest position.
If the philosopher is what we are after, then study time is important, and the rise of the thinker has coincided with a new path into management. A movement away from the boot-trodden route – down through the leagues as the body slows, and back up through the hard knocks and Wednesday nights at Walsall – and towards something else. A kind of calling, coaching as a life’s work. A principal career, as opposed to one fallen into, when the legs stop working.
Yet, whilst by all metrics retirement ages have dropped, the difference is maybe not as stark as imagined.
Yes, 43% more of current managers retired before 35 than in 2003/04, and the average boot-hanging age has fallen from 34.58 to 32.94, which is not insignificant. But the Premier League of yesteryear wasn’t all gnarly old pros who still got stuck in at training. There was certainly some of that, with the likes of Souness, Strachan and Hughes playing well into their dotage, but there have always been early retirements. Often more by injury than design, proper football blokes like Steve Coppell, David Pleat and Dave Jones all quit playing well before 30.
That said, the fact that of the present crop, five out of 18 (28%) retired in their 20s, does feel instructive. Especially when considering who they are. Brendan Rodgers and the very nearly ever-present Rafa Benitez can both count themselves amongst the footballing intelligentsia, but it is Bielsa and Rangnick that really stand out. Both quit playing voluntarily, and in keeping with the grand philosophical tradition, both have inspired legions of distinguished disciples. Pep Guardiola’s famous visit to Bielsa’s ranch in 2009 is held as a foundational moment in his career, whilst Rangnick has influenced practically every graduate of the German School, including the last of the pre-30 retirees, Thomas Tuchel.
In this, a real tutor-tutee, Socrates-Plato vibe. And as such, early retirement does feel like a key driver of the philosophical revolution.
The logical extension of this idea is a change in the level played. A gentle edging away from old staples such as top-flight experience and big-game know-how, towards the brave new world of theory. And the data here is possibly the most remarkable.
The number of those who played top-flight football has almost halved over the time period. And, bearing in mind that one of 21/22’s number is Graham Potter, who played eight games for Southampton in the mid-90s, this represents an undeniable paradigm shift. Just as the modern game has finally come to terms with the notion that being a great player is not pre-requisite to being a great boss, the inverse is also an increasingly established truth. It doesn’t matter how the modern philosopher acquired his knowledge; just that he has it.
Similar, if not quite as emphatic, is the fall in those who played internationally. League tables that were once comprised of the likes of Keane and Keegan, Lambert and Southgate, now have fewer international stalwarts. Only five, at present, although four of them – Gerrard, Vieira, Conte and Guardiola – were really quite handy. The other? Ralph Hasenhüttl. Nope, me neither.
However, the non-playing career-coach, which feels like an intensely modern phenomenon, is in fact older than Jude Bellingham. Bruno Lage and Thomas Frank are treading a path that stretches back to Gérard Houllier in 2003, via Paul Clement, Andre Villas-Boas and Avram Grant. Whilst these thinkers who never did are indeed more prevalent in our philosopher age, they have been in the game since way back. And for those who did play professionally, the change in their positions is also striking.
Whilst you may have been forgiven for presuming that the modern game, with its technicality and tactical nuance, all passing angles and attacking patterns, would be the preserve of the midfielder – some Guardiola-type figure, a real-time artist of moving pictures – this is in fact not the case. Over the five seasons examined, midfield domination of the managerial ranks has ceded spectacularly to defenders, who are now almost twice as prominent.
And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. To be a modern philosopher is essentially equivalent to playing some variety of high-intensity pressing game, which is essentially equivalent to hyper-aggressive, attack-minded defending. It is all about systems and positioning, line and shape and organisation. And many of its chief proponents – Klopp, Tuchel, Bielsa, all defenders – have spent their entire careers marshalling this kind of unitary behaviour, since the days when midfielders could run wherever they liked. The artist and the philosopher are very different beasts, after all. Only one of them can operate without boundaries.
Of passing relevance is the near-total absence of goalkeepers, which is strange when you consider that the most famous actual philosopher to play the game, Albert Camus, was himself one. And the man ploughing that particular furrow? Nigel Adkins, before being unceremoniously sacked in favour of some Argentinian fella.
Finally, and obviously, the philosopher has to learn.
And they have, with increasing frequency. Whilst some of the five-fold increase in managers with degrees can be explained by societal trends, not all of it can. Not including honorary degrees – because Sir Alex Ferguson’s eight would have skewed things a little – there are ten currently hung from the walls of managers’ offices. Of the owners, some usual suspects emerge. Klopp has one, Tuchel also, and Rangnick and Conte, but most impressively qualified are Potter and Frank, with two apiece. The latter has even taught at Ishoj College, in his native Denmark.
So, there you have it. The average Premier league manager is now more qualified and more continental, more expert at structured thought, who was never any good as a player and retired early. The archetypal, to use Klopp’s description of himself, “fourth-division talent with a first division head”, who has had more time to study, and from greater distance than his forebears.
All of which, it must be said, offers a pretty interesting glimpse into the future. I’m off down the café for a good old cogitate.
Ed Capstick – follow him on Twitter