Is The Era Of The All-Star Soccer Manager Over?
As we write this article, Marco Silva has just been fired by English Premier League football club Everton. That news won’t surprise anybody. The Portuguese coach was hired 18 months ago to take the blue Merseyside club forward, and instead, he’s taken them backward. Everton currently sits in the bottom three of the division, and look likely to spend the rest of the season battling against relegation. For them, that’s a disaster. The Toffees only twice been relegated in their entire history, and not at all for more than 65 years. They won’t want to start the 2020s by changing that.
Silva’s departure was widely predicted, to the point that many in the media were openly wondering what was taking the Goodison Park club so long to do what so obviously needed to be done. Slowly, everyone reached the same conclusion. Silva wasn’t keeping his post because the Evertonian hierarchy had faith that their manager could turn the club around. He still had his job because there was no obvious candidate who could come in and turn the club around. Football in Europe’s top divisions has somehow found a new and unusual predicament – there don’t seem to be enough top-class managers to go around.
This is as true at the top of the divisions as it is at the bottom, although we’ll come to the top in a moment. When a club was in trouble at the bottom of the table – especially in England – there was always a ready list of managers who could reasonably be expected to come and save them. Chairmen could behave like gamblers playing their favorite online slots game. They could take a punt, and if they didn’t like what they saw, they could bet again, just like spinning the reels on online slots. Chop and change, spin, and spin again. If you do that enough with online slots, you’ll eventually win something. If you do it enough with football managers, someone will ultimately make a difference – or at least, that’s how things used to work.
Consider the names a club at the bottom of the table would turn to if they wanted to escape a relegation scrap three or four years ago. Sam Allardyce was generally the first person to get a phone call. If that didn’t work, perhaps Tony Pulis would be next. Alan Pardew was always happy to take on a difficult project. Harry Redknapp has never knowingly said no to a contract, and you can add Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, and Neil Warnock to that list, too. Now, very few of them remain. They’ve either grown old and retired, or their style has become outdated, and they’re no longer thought to have the qualities to get the job done.
If the teams at the bottom of the division are struggling to find the right man to put in charge, the teams at the top are having no more luck. Unai Emery arguably outstayed his welcome at Arsenal, but he, too, ultimately appears to have been fired with nobody waiting in the wings to come in and take over. Freddie Ljungberg – a man with next to no managerial experience – is expected to have a prolonged period as caretaker manager, and his first idea in the role has been to get on the phone to his old boss Arsene Wenger. At Everton, the equally-untested Duncan Ferguson has been temporarily handed the reigns until a better bet can be found, and there are even rumors that the ‘better bet’ might turn out to be ex-Everton boss David Moyes, who has spent all six years since his departure from the club failing at Manchester United, Real Sociedad, and Sunderland.
Even the names who used to be seen as bulletproof are showing signs that their luster is beginning to wear off. There wouldn’t be a football club in the world who wouldn’t welcome the appointment of Jose Mourinho five years ago, but after his acrimonious departures from Chelsea and Manchester United, a significant portion of Tottenham Hotspur fans have deep reservations about their new manager. Pep Guardiola, a man seen as bulletproof a mere twelve months ago, could easily pay with his job if Manchester City fails to win the league title this season – a prospect that appears all the more remote with every passing week. If he doesn’t go, it may again come down to the fact that there isn’t one single outstanding candidate who would appear to be a good prospect for replacing him.
Some managers will, of course, benefit from this scarcity of star names. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is one of them. The run of form that his Manchester United side has endured throughout the closing months of last season and the opening months of this one would have seen any other coach kicked out of the Old Trafford hot seat. Perhaps it’s the case that after hiring and firing David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho, the club no longer feel that chopping and changing their manager is the best solution – or perhaps it’s just that nobody out there could realistically be expected to perform better than Solskjaer.
It’s hard not to feel like football culture itself is to blame with it. The frantic hiring and firing of clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid (and, on a lesser platform, Watford) has seen all of the available managerial talent used up and spat out more than once, and in the process, it’s damaged the stock of the managers. Nobody is given time to grow or prove themselves. Managers either succeed immediately, or they’re tossed aside. They become disposable commodities, and eventually, they either walk away from the game or find themselves looking in from the outside because everyone thinks they’re damaged goods.
Given the lack of outstanding candidates to become the new permanent managers at Arsenal and Everton – two proud clubs with long Premier League traditions – perhaps this is the right moment for football to take stock of where it is, and how it approaches the role of a manager. There has to come a point where the players themselves have to take responsibility, as do the chairmen and owners who appoint the managers in the first place. Given that it appears there’s nobody else left to blame, perhaps that moment is now.