London – Friday was the 20th anniversary of Bruce Rioch’s dismissal as Arsenal manager, his tenure of 61 weeks amounting to the shortest reign in the club’s history and looking particularly inadequate next to the nine years of his predecessor, George Graham. English football was more than a little different back then. Fabrizio Ravanelli’s hat-trick for Middlesbrough when the season opened five days later can be viewed with hindsight as the floodgate moment for a new culture of foreign players on lucrative contracts, although overseas managers were still a rarity.
There were plenty of Scottish and Irish managers at English clubs, and Tottenham Hotspur had tried a popular but short-lived experiment with Ossie Ardíles in the 1993-94 season. However, when it became clear Arsenal were about to appoint a French manager, particularly one having to extricate himself from a contract in Japan, no one, with the possible exception of David Dein, knew quite what to expect.
The one thing absolutely no one envisaged was that Arsène Wenger would still be in place 20 years down the line, not only Arsenal’s most successful and long-serving manager but doyen of what he has just described as a “world championship” of leading foreign coaches, an event taking place annually in England that is otherwise known as the Premier League.
When Howard Wilkinson was still the Football Association’s technical director he said the influx of foreign coaches and ideas was overdue and to be welcomed but he felt it would erode the English habit of looking for longevity in their leaders. The English idea of a successful manager was a Shankly, a Clough or a Ferguson, he explained, people who put their imprint on clubs then stuck around for a decade or more. The continental model – he was speaking with particular regard to Italy at the time – involved greater rotation, with coaches staying for only three or four years with a particular club and moving on when their methods became ineffective or the players grew sick of their voices.
Wilkinson was wrong about Wenger, if he thought he would seek pastures new after a few seasons, though pretty much right about the overall pattern. Thirteen of the Premier League’s 20 clubs will kick off from Saturday under foreign management, including all of last season’s top five and nine of the top 10. Replacing Roy Hodgson as England manager became a greatly simplified process once the FA had decided to look for an Englishman, since the much-vaunted Premier League offered only three eligible candidates, all from the bottom half of the table.
Steve Bruce and Sean Dyche would have boosted the numbers this season but the former has already resigned. As Wilkinson predicted, most overseas coaches tend not to sign up for too long either. It was one of the reasons why Manchester United were initially reluctant to engage José Mourinho, with several influential figures at the club remaining convinced the ideal appointment would be a patriarch in the Busby-Ferguson mould, willing to put down roots and provide continuity over years running into decades. No one really expects Mourinho to do that.
United are just the latest club on his CV, not necessarily his life’s work or most ambitious project. Similarly, while Manchester City currently have the manager of their dreams in Pep Guardiola, it does not follow that they will have him indefinitely, even if everything works out well.
Yet just as Manchester United had to wake up with a jolt on the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and accept that the world had moved on since 1986, it would be a mistake for English football as a whole to keep harking back to the past when it finds itself at the epicentre of coaching excellence. In a managerial show-us-yer-medals contest, the Premier League has unmatchable strength in depth. As Wenger has just put it, pretty much every ambitious manager in the world either is here or wants to be here. There is a reason for that, of course, the amount of money on offer in the Premier League puts even Champions League rewards in the shade. “Let’s not be naive,” Wenger said. “The economic power of the Premier League attracts the best players and the best managers. If you want quality you have to pay.”
Wenger is at least half right. The Premier League no longer attracts the very best players, even if Paul Pogba represents a step back in that direction, because playing careers are comparatively short and the elite will always want a shot at Champions League glory that only the biggest teams in Spain and Germany have reliably offered of late.
Managers can afford to be that bit more flexible and although it might not be quite the case that everyone who is any good is over here, it is indisputable that almost everyone who is over here is pretty good. There are two treble winners in Manchester alone, for a start – not to mention two Champions League winners in the Championship, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benítez. Wenger guided his team to an unexpected second-place finish last season, Mauricio Pochettino cracked the top three with Tottenham Hotspur, while the biggest honour of all went to the supposed Italian has-been who has just been awarded a new four-year deal at Leicester City.
New for this season are Antonio Conte at Chelsea, who was an engaging presence with Italy at Euro 2016 and appears about as close as you can get to a Mourinho replica without using cloning techniques; Ronald Koeman at an Everton suddenly interested in spending money; Claude Puel hoping he can keep Southampton’s momentum going, despite further player losses; and Aitor Karanka aiming to keep Middlesbrough in the top flight.
Jürgen Klopp is not new at Liverpool, although he is preparing for his first full season in England, which was exactly the point at which Wenger silenced his doubters by winning the Double. Slaven Bilic has already proved popular at West Ham United, he just needs to make sure the move to a new stadium does not prove disruptive, while Francesco Guidolin is now a more settled and respected presence at Swansea City than the stopgap solution he first appeared.
What happened in south Wales last season was, in fact, fairly indicative of present trends in English football. Garry Monk started to struggle almost as soon as he began being touted as a future England manager and Swansea picked up only two wins in a potentially disastrous 17-game run to mid-January, at which point Guidolin arrived from Italy to calm the situation and manage a creditable 12th place, in spite of a personal health scare.
Ashley Williams admitted he had needed to Google his new manager, a search that would have yielded more than a dozen short stays at Italian clubs, in line with the Wilkinson theory. So impressive was Guidolin’s Swansea rescue he was being lined up for a new job at Watford until the Welsh club offered him an improved contract. Watford turned to Walter Mazzarri instead. The former Sampdoria and Napoli manager is currently at short odds to be first to lose his job this season, although this time 12 months ago so was Claudio Ranieri.
It would be an overstatement to claim English clubs can hardly fail at the moment with well-qualified foreign managers forming an orderly queue to try their luck in the Premier League – Aston Villa completely messed up last season and Newcastle United waited too long to bring in Benítez. Yet supply clearly exceeds demand – and English clubs can pay. It is not a particularly healthy or hopeful situation from the England point of view, with few opportunities open to home-grown coaches, but the Premier League stopped caring about minor details like the future 20 years ago because it knew it had a product the world wanted to watch.
Perhaps the greatest irony, given all that has changed in the past two decades, is that Wenger is no longer the guru regarded with suspicion but the moderate whose caution and financial prudence is routinely mocked. While coaching standards in this country have never been higher, it is coming to something when even the traditionalists in English football are being imported from elsewhere.