Look, this is not brief. But also, it is the briefest it will ever be, because by the end of the season there will probably be 35 blokes in here and at least one of them twice. So, you know, enjoy this while it’s still below 5000 words. Because those days are numbered.
It’s our entirely arbitrary ranking of all this season’s Premier League managers so far. Only one requirement for entry: taking charge of a Premier League game. Which is at least enough to bin off Julen Lopetegui for failing to even get under starter’s orders.
20) Erik Ten Hag (Manchester United)
Remember all the way back about, ooh, a few months, when we all agreed Manchester United finally had the manager in place to make them a football club again instead of a complete basket case?
Ah! Well. Nevertheless, etc. etc. Pretty much impossible to consider his first season trying to harness and tame the nonsense at Old Trafford anything other than a huge success. Had a big victory with the Ronaldo Problem, although he got an awful lot of help on that one from Ronaldo himself and an inadvertent assist from Piers Morgan, who continues to shit all over the board and strut around claiming victory in trademark playing-chess-with-pigeons style.
Ten Hag got the team to third in the league. It was a distant third, but it was still third. He won the Carabao. There was a clear direction of travel and it was all positive.
This year, with fewer compromises and new signings more conducive to his brand of football, was supposed to see another leap forward. Instead, it’s a shitshow. As with all managers at the wrong end of this list, it is not a shitshow entirely or even mainly of Ten Hag’s making, but his recent contributions to the dumpster fire that is Manchester United have been to add further fuel.
The Mason Greenwood situation was not his fault, but had Ten Hag offered decisive leadership he might have saved the club from itself a little bit. That he has appeared more perturbed by Jadon Sancho’s indiscipline than Greenwood’s transgressions is an ugly look and an inevitable, unflattering comparison. Ten Hag didn’t sign Harry Maguire, but he hasn’t resolved that situation either. It turns out not everyone is as stupid or arrogant as Ronaldo and his self-serving arsehole mates.
With the off-field stuff all going horribly wrong, the on-field offerings have been deeply inadequate. United have played three half-decent teams and lost to them all, while beating three likely relegation battlers in deeply unconvincing fashion. The jury is, at best, out on Ten Hag’s most significant summer move for Andre Onana, but it does already look like it’s at least possible that reuniting a duo that blew a three-goal Champions League lead to Lucas Moura might not be the stroke of genius everyone assumed, while the propaganda desk at the Manchester Evening News are currently working flat out to convince themselves first and then the rest of us that poor old Rasmus Hojlund was clearly worth 70 million pounds actually.
Normally the silver lining here would be that the only way is up but the vexing thing for United and Ten Hag is that it really feels like it could definitely get worse: the problem isn’t just that United sit ninth in the table, it’s that ninth flatters the shit out of them.
19) Mauricio Pochettino (Chelsea)
Agent Poch is doing a superb job, as long as we assume he remains fully COYS and is working behind enemy lines. Even more so than with Ten Hag at United, Pochettino is not the main cause or source of problems at Chelsea. But thus far he isn’t really looking like the answer or solution to any of them either.
How much say he’s had in the squad that’s been so haphazardly and incoherently and brain-meltingly expensively assembled at Stamford Bridge who knows, but it was an unwieldy and messy thing even before a huge early-season injury crisis bit and bit hard. Behind the scenes Chelsea apparently remain firm in the belief that the underlying numbers will eventually translate to meaningful on-field ones but the most meaningful underlying numbers still remain ‘one billion’ for pounds spent and ‘zero’ for the number of decent strikers secured with that sum.
The grim reality is that both Pochettino himself and Chelsea are on miserable Premier League runs that precede their union and reflect long-term decay. For Chelsea it is now a quite startling 30 points from their last 35 Premier League games and just two wins in 18 since Graham Potter was sacked, while for Pochettino it’s a scarcely better four wins in his last 21 in the competition.
Whatever those underlying numbers say – and it’s true that Chelsea are broadly competent in defence and unforgivably weedy in attack – Poch has got a couple of games against Fulham and Burnley before the international break to come up with some evidence that they will eventually translate to tangible goals and points because the fixture list after the international break is utterly brutal: Arsenal, Brentford, Tottenham, Manchester City, Newcastle, Brighton, Manchester United.
18) Paul Heckingbottom (Sheffield United)
The disappointment after the late mugging at Spurs was understandable, the insistence on donning the tinfoil hat and pinning it on sinister forces rather than a referee quite correctly watching a 90-minute exercise in increasingly absurdist time-wasting and adding it back on accordingly not so much. It was the first sign of pressure possibly getting to the Blades boss, and the response to a week of speculation linking Chris Wilder with a return to the Bramall Lane hotseat being to go out and get an 8-0 home paddling off a previously moribund Newcastle was enormously sub-optimal. He’s not doing the worst job in the Premier League but he is most definitely doing a bad one and will almost certainly be the first to pay for it.
17) Vincent Kompany (Burnley)
The fixture computer has been extremely rude to a team that toyed with the Championship last season but it’s still a worrying start. Teams that get out of the Sky Bet playing front-foot progressive football can always go two ways on contact with the top flight, but the fear will always be there that they simply don’t cope with suddenly having a lot less of the ball to play with and a lot more scrapping to be done. Those fears will always be amplified when the manager is a rookie, albeit one whose knowledge of Our League is beyond reproach. So it has proved.
Heavy defeats to very good Villa, City and Spurs sides need not be season-defining for Burnley, and dotted throughout the campaign they wouldn’t be. But there was a naivety in all three performances heightened by being the first three games, with the postponement of a scheduled week-two trip to an unready Kenilworth Road a further fixture unkindness for Kompany and co. A point at Forest was most welcome, and there were at least signs in a narrow defeat to United of lessons slowly being learned about how to go about things in the rarefied Barclays air.
A trip to a Newcastle side that has just hit Sheffield United for eight appears to be another bit of mischief from the ever-puckish fixture computer, but at least things do get a bit easier for Kompany after that with that rearranged game against Luton as well as fellow relegation fodder Chelsea to come before the international break. He’s very low for now, but we expect Kompany – and his team – to climb the ladder.
16) Rob Edwards (Luton)
They’re not good enough for the Premier League. They were never likely to be good enough for the Premier League. They are not going to become good enough for the Premier League. All Rob Edwards can do is try to ensure he avoids finding himself victim-of-his-own-successed out of a job, while also trying to make sure Derby’s 2007/08 season retains its status.
15) Gary O’Neil (Wolves)
In many ways the most blameless manager in the division. There was sound logic behind Bournemouth’s ice-cold decision to upgrade O’Neil in the summer but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t brutality as well given his role in steering the club to survival that did not look likely in the immediate wake of Scott Parker’s destroy-and-exit. We’re not saying Bournemouth were wrong because we don’t think they were, but we were pleased a Premier League job came along for him still. Feels like he earned that.
But is the Wolves job one that anyone really wants right now? Julen Lopetegui certainly didn’t by summer’s end and he is no fool. He saw the direction the winds were taking and decided to sod all that for a game of soldiers. It’s going to be a long season for Wolves and, we guess hopefully for O’Neil too. But their likely survival still seems likely to owe more to (at least) three teams being even worse than anything conspicuously impressive Wolves or their manager might do.
We also still struggle to come to terms with the fact O’Neil, a man we half-expect to discover is seeing out the final year of a three-year deal at Norwich, is now on his second Premier League managerial job. The passage of time is a cruel beast. Not O’Neil’s fault, but we do still sort of hold it against him a bit.
14) Thomas Frank (Brentford)
The Ivan Toney ban was a cruel blow for Frank and Brentford, but a couple of bad defeats have very quickly allowed a solid start to the season to become a slipshod one. Six points from four unbeaten games to start the season was fine, but Brentford had led all four of those games and managed to win only one. Narrow defeat at Newcastle was neither here nor there, but losing 3-1 at home to Everton suddenly sets off alarm bells that should perhaps have already been ringing when a late equaliser was required to preserve their proud home record – they lost only to Newcastle and Arsenal last season – against Bournemouth.
13) Sean Dyche (Everton)
Desperately needed that result against Brentford, even if Dyche will and has told us all at punishing gravel-voiced length that the performances have been there if not until now the desired outcomes.
Still think he’s slightly kidding himself on with that, because while Everton have perhaps been guilty of profligacy in front of goal, the lack of defensive coordination in a Dyche side has at times been deeply alarming and prompted existential questions. We all wanted to see if Dyche could do more with the greater resources at his disposal at Goodison Park, but if he couldn’t get his team to set up with at the very least a coherent and solid foundation then what was the point of any of it?
The Brentford result was a great one, but those nagging doubts remain. Beyond vital that momentum from Brentford is carried into home games against Luton and Bournemouth before the interlull, because the fixtures after that are not kind: Liverpool, West Ham, Brighton straight off the bat, with United and Newcastle lurking then Spurs and City either side of Christmas.
12) Andoni Iraola (Bournemouth)
Performances are currently outstripping results, and by a wide margin. Foolish to pretend this isn’t a problem, especially given the way Gary O’Neil was shoved aside to bring Iraola in, but there are definite signs of a clear philosophy and method starting to develop and their summer transfer work was eye-catching. It was always likely to take time for it all to mesh – we can’t all be Ange Postecoglou – and it’s also true that not one of their individual results is in any way alarming. As we’ve noted before, they may have only three points from six games but Bournemouth got zero points from the same six fixtures last season and that feels really important.
11) Marco Silva (Fulham)
We found ourselves quite incapable of remembering a single Fulham result this season other than the 2-2 draw at Arsenal, and that’s because it really is a largely unremarkable and unmemorable set of results. Of course we’re now delighted to discover they are 11th with two wins, two draws and two defeats. Feels exactly correct. Their wins have both been 1-0 against teams set for relegation fights in Everton and Luton, while their defeats have been admittedly hefty ones to Brentford and (less importantly) Manchester City. Of course their other draw was 0-0 against Crystal Palace, currently the Premier League’s other most forgettable team.
This is not necessarily a criticism. There are lots of teams and lots of managers who yearn for the quiet blissful peace of going almost entirely unnoticed.
10) Roy Hodgson (Crystal Palace)
Palace are somehow currently managing to be even more mid-table than both Silva’s Fulham and their own recent history. It’s a wildly on-brand start to the season and shows just how much Hodgson gets this football club. They’ve both tried other partners and it’s just not the same. Two wins, two draws, two defeats just like Fulham, but a 3-1 defeat to Villa is their only game settled by more than one goal. It’s absolutely textbook fare from a club currently in their 11th consecutive Premier League season having finished somewhere between tenth and 15th in every single one of the previous 10.
And they’ve got United, Forest and Newcastle in their next three league games which looks a set of fixtures absolutely custom-built for a symmetry-extending run of one win, one draw and one defeat. The three after that? Tottenham, Burnley, Everton. It will never end. Man City apart, there is no more reliable Barclays outfit than Palace and no more reliable Palace manager than Hodgson. It just works.
9) Eddie Howe (Newcastle)
Strap in, because we’re about to explain why winning 8-0 is a bad idea for Eddie Howe right now. Okay? Ready? Good.
Here’s the thing. Newcastle are richer than god and very clearly have ideas on world domination. If they get things right their effectively limitless wealth will make them almost unstoppable. Last season accelerated the plan by at least 12 months, which was good (for them, bad for everyone else) but we’ve never really been convinced Howe has ever been earmarked as more than the manager to get Operation Newcastle off the ground.
He’s a good manager and was a shrewd appointment but a stepping stone towards someone bigger and more established at elite level. The only way for Howe to remain in the job until its final destination is to take Newcastle where they want to go so seamlessly and efficiently that the opportunity to replace him never materialises.
But at the start of this season they have quite often been really quite shit, which isn’t going to work at all. But the times when they have not been shit are almost more damaging still, because when they’ve not been shit they’ve been absolutely staggeringly good. They obliterated a very good Aston Villa team and then stuck eight past a Sheffield United side who a week earlier came within five minutes of beating Tottenham. Those are objectively good results individually – yeah, we said it: winning 8-0 is a good result – but are they necessarily good for Howe? We really aren’t so sure.
Because they highlight both how good Newcastle can be while drawing attention to how inconsistent they are. And that inconsistency has to be eradicated for them to make their next leap from European contenders to title-botherers. They can do a passable impression of Man City in one-off games now, and not many others can manage even that. But City’s greatness lies in their consistency, in what they do between sticking six and seven past some poor sods on the days when everything really comes together.
Stop winning 8-0 unless you’re going to win all the other games as well, is what we’re saying here. You’re just drawing attention to yourself.
8) Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Is he going just a tiny little bit mad? We think it’s getting to him. And he’s getting to us. We pride ourselves on almost never agreeing with Richard Keys about anything ever, but we can literally feel the hairs on the back of our hands growing thicker and darker at the sight of Mikel Arteta charging out of his technical area to half-challenge an opposition midfielder or harass one of his own team into position.
Arsenal’s results this season have been fine, and they’ve avoided the most immediate potential pitfall they faced of making a slow start to the campaign and having last year instantly look like a one-off freak rather than the start of something deep and meaningful. That opportunity remains for Arteta and his players but they’ve not really been truly convincing when faced with a kindly fixture list until Sunday’s North London Derby (which retained its position as Our League’s most bankably reliable big-game-that-won’t-disappoint fixture).
No shaking the notion that Arteta is over-complicating things – most notably with his ‘Two No. 1s’ goalkeeper chicanery – rather than just sticking to the course that worked so well for the vast majority of last season. He has a better squad than last season’s, so logically doing the same things as last season should yield better results.
That clearly isn’t good enough for Mikel Arteta’s galaxy brain, but we’re currently working on a theory that the sheer mass and density of his hair hat is causing that brain to overheat.
7) Steve Cooper (Nottingham Forest)
Don’t hear him talked about much, do you? Lovely position for a Barclays manager to find himself in, is that. Doing a very decent job indeed at Forest, who do seem set for a relatively relaxing experience this season because there are at least four teams who appear conspicuously and significantly worse than they are. Hard to see how they get relegated, which is quite something really when you think about it.
We also have huge admiration for Cooper’s ability to integrate a whole new team of players after every single transfer window whether he wanted them or not.
6) David Moyes (West Ham)
Much better than expected/feared for a manager who started the season under a really quite alarming amount of pressure for someone who ended the previous season by winning his club’s first silverware in over 40 years.
The Europa Conference win was great, but it did mask an absolute shitshow of a domestic season in which a mid-table squad (at the very least) instead spent much of the campaign in a piss-poor and undignified relegation bundle. The fact Leicester’s arguably even better squad made an objectively even worse turd of things shouldn’t distract from the Hammers’ failings, but this year has been much better.
That 10 points from six games now even feels a bit disappointing from a start to the season that included Chelsea, Brighton, Liverpool and City says an awful lot about how much and how quickly the summer fog lifted over the London Stadium. Easy to forget now that Moyes started the season as a pretty warm sack race favourite after Lopetegui’s failure to even reach the starter’s gun. And that Erik Ten Hag was at that time considered broadly as safe as your Guardiolas and Artetas and the De Zerbis of this world.
5) Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
The brilliance has now been normalised to the extent that six wins out of six with 16 goals scored and three conceded is just about enough to scrape Guardiola into our top five. It’s a funny old season already, this one: we’ve never been more certain in September about who is going to win the league, we’re pretty confident about who the bottom four are going to be, but we’ve got absolutely not one single clue about what’s going to go off between about second and 10th. City, though, are inevitable.
And worst of all for everyone else the traditional acclimatisation year required by all new players under Guardiola appears to have now been completely eradicated. We’d assumed last year’s successful bypassing of the awkward first year by Erling Haaland was entirely due to his being a robofreak sent from the future to destroy us all. But now Josko Gvardiol, Matheus Nunes, Jeremy Doku and Mateo Kovacic are all making light of the transition to Pepball and they can’t all be military-grade killer robots crafted in a secret dystopian Oslo laboratory can they? And if they are, then we should be told because that is quite simply not on.
4) Unai Emery (Aston Villa)
Genuinely warms the heart to see Emery prove to the Barclays what was already obvious everywhere else: that he’s a really good manager who had the great misfortune to take on a big job at its least doable. It’s almost impossible to follow a manager who has come to define a club the way Arsene Wenger defined Arsenal for two decades and we’re not sure anybody could really have done it.
Now Emery is having a grand old time at Villa, who are right back mixing it with the great and good of English football after some deeply unpleasant doldrum years. A couple of heavy defeats in their only games so far against top-tier opposition (Chelsea do not currently qualify, much to our despair) is a minor concern – and they do just need to be slightly careful not to go full Spurs in the Conference after kicking off their group campaign with a slightly clumsy 3-2 defeat in Warsaw – but Emery and his increasingly impressive side have dealt with lesser opposition from Chelsea to Hibs to Everton in mighty impressive style and nothing about them so far suggests they’re going to be anything less than European contenders once more.
3) Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)
Liverpool sitting second in the league trying gamely to keep pace with Manchester City feels very correct for 2020s Barclays, but it wasn’t unanimously assumed it would be the case this season. Liverpool were, for large parts of last season, poo. Poo enough for serious questions to start bubbling up – bubbling up from within the poo – about whether the Age of Klopp was nearing its endgame.
No. He’s back. They’re back. They got through that tricky start to the season when they didn’t really have a proper midfield because Saudi Arabia had taken it. And now they’re the Mentality Monsters again, falling behind in games seemingly just so they can hit back and win them for the sheer craic of it. They’ve done it three times in the first six games of this season, already matching their total from season.
The transfer window was a touch fraught for a while there, but they’ve bought well and held off all advances for Mo Salah which was important because he’s gone full Harry Kane by simply creating and scoring goals quite literally all the time now. Good tactic, that, and Klopp is right to use it. We’re also confident he’ll avoid the pitfall Spurs and Conte fell into last season of just not bothering to do anything else apart from have that one player doing bits.
Currently look the likeliest second-place finisher in what really does look more than ever like a one-team league. But that’s significant progress from last season and not what was widely anticipated in the summer, so there are big ticks against Klopp’s name for the season so far. Can even be forgiven for not beating Chelsea, because that was on the opening day of the season before everyone had realised that yes, they simply were going to be just as shit as last season.
2) Ange Postecoglou (Tottenham)
Hello, mate. We keep getting told not to get over-excited, we keep getting told we’re going to get hurt. We won’t listen. We don’t care. We’re totally, irretrievably lost in the wonder of Angeball. It is a truly astonishing thing. The man is at the very least a genius, and quite possibly a wizard.
We keep coming back to Angeball’s closest current sporting parallel – the England cricket team’s Bazball approach. Ironically, Australians tend to deny the very existence of Bazball, but one of the absolute cornerstones of its success has been the sheer grim bleakness of what went before. The new coach and leadership group there were able to get full buy-in for their new high risk, high reward all-guns-blazing style because all the players and just as importantly the supporters were very comfortable with the fact it couldn’t possibly be worse than what went before. There will still be grumbles when it goes awry, but the knowledge that overall this is much better than what you used to have is self-sustaining.
We’re not about to compare Joe Root to Antonio Conte because that would be incredibly harsh, but just as the joyless last years of Root’s England captaincy were a necessary starting point for Bazball, we do feel that Postecoglou’s seemingly impossibly vast transformation of everything about Spurs is possible specifically because of that enormous chasm of difference with what went before.
Had Postecoglou followed Poch, it wouldn’t have worked. Spurs still wanted serial winners then. They’ve tried a couple of those and inexplicably Nuno Espirito Santo and discovered that actually just enjoying themselves a bit would be enough for now. And it turns out enjoying themselves makes it more likely they’ll succeed anyway, just as they did under Poch.
Another paradox there, with yet another being that the absolute freedom to make mistakes without internal judgement – Steady noted this in Winners and Losers, but we do think Guglielmo Vicario’s thumbs-up to Destiny Udogie on Sunday is a perfect encapsulation of the whole philosophy at Spurs right now – is leading to fewer mistakes being made than there were by terrified, cowed players having “DON’T MAKE ANY MISTAKES!!!” bellowed into their gaslit ears for three years by twats.
Above all, Postecoglou is a manager who is happy to be at Spurs and treats the club and fans with respect. None of us can really ask for more than that, but also we should never settle for less. For too long Spurs have allowed managers and leaders who saw the club as a stepping stone to something else, or who looked down their nose at the club and its squad and acted like they were doing everyone a favour by being here.
Postecoglou has changed that in an instant, and appointing Son Heung-min – a man whose deep, deep love for this irredeemably silly football club is inexplicably pure – as his captain has reinforced it all quite wonderfully.
1) Roberto De Zerbi (Brighton)
What a club Brighton are, honestly. Even when things go wrong, they go right. But really, De Zerbi’s seamless transition in taking over from Graham Potter and taking the club to even greater heights is all part of the same transition planning that allows them to so repeatedly pull Chelsea’s pants down for players. Brighton certainly weren’t about to bin Potter off in order to bring in De Zerbi, but they knew the day would come when a big club spirited their manager away, and they’d planned for it and identified the replacement. They’ve no doubt already got De Zerbi’s replacement lined up as well. That bugger, whoever he might be, will probably win them the league.
Just as Chelsea’s struggles are strangely reassuring in highlighting that the insulating effects of wealth still go only so far even in today’s Barclays, so too Brighton’s potent reminder that doing things sensibly and correctly can still tilt uneven scales in your favour is a marvellous thing. But for all the brilliance behind the scenes at the club and in the playing staff, let’s never overlook just what a manager they’ve got there now pulling it altogether. Everyone else should be more Brighton, and every other manager should be more De Zerbi.