Will manager quality matter most in Premier League top-four race?

The mini-league to claim fourth is more wide open than ever, even as third and above looks even more closed-off

Karl Matchett
Saturday 04 December 2021 08:48
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There are four Champions League-winning managers plying their trade in the Premier League. Three of them occupy the top three spots and, unsurprisingly, are now beginning to open up a significant gap between themselves and the rest. Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, all within two points; then it’s seven down to...well, West Ham for now but any of five by Monday night, and further changes will follow over Christmas.

The fourth boss who holds a European Cup title is Rafael Benitez, but his big night came almost 20 years ago and despite being close in a geographical sense to the club where he was victorious, he no longer commands the same level of team.

By common consent, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are two of the world’s finest head coaches. Thomas Tuchel is in the same group for many, or just below it for the rest. It stands to reason that they are in the title challenge and will continue to pull even further clear of the chasing pack - that’s what they’ve been hired for, after all.

But it leads us to ask an important question: Will manager quality translate into who takes fourth place and the final Champions League spot?

Quality is subjective, of course, and even the very finest managers must still work with the tools at hand. Antonio Conte, for example, is notionally the best of the rest - included in that elite group for many in fact - but he’s just realising the team he has taken over are nowhere near the levels he has been used to of late. He is one of three top-flight bosses in England who triumphed in Europe as a player - Steven Gerrard and (an uninvolved) Patrick Vieira the others - but the closest he has come to continental success from the sidelines was losing a Europa League final.

David Moyes is the most experienced of the group in terms of the English top flight. Ralf Rangnick comes with the reputation, expectation and star-laden squad, though a caveat must be applied here in that he hasn’t actually been a regular first-team head coach in over a decade. He left Hoffenheim midway through 2010/11; since then his managerial stints have been 23 games with Schalke in 2011, then a pair of one-season stays in the dugout with RB Leipzig, 15/16 and 18/19. It isn’t a whole lot of hands-on coaching; the rest of his time has been in more overarching roles and club development.

The other potential challengers are varying degrees of new to coaching and new to the top end of the Premier League: Mikel Arteta, Bruno Lage, Graham Potter. Brendan Rodgers is the elephant in the room here; not new, not inexperienced, has had a title challenge before and in both of the last two seasons has been within one match of finishing fourth - but Leicester’s drop-off this term, the injuries they have suffered and their awful defensive displays make them rank outsiders to take fourth right now.

Yet even so, it requires ‘only’ consistency to jump an awful lot of places in the top half. Five teams are separated by just three points, covering all the possible European spots. Fourth down to 10th spans only five points - it’s a mini-league all of its own this season and any of those teams could realistically take the Wenger-sponsored fourth-placed ‘trophy’.

There is an argument that cumulative time on the coaching pitches will have a bigger effect as the season goes on, boosting Arsenal who have no European action to interrupt league preparations - while he has also had longer than some of the others to build up the same squad across multiple seasons. The latter applies to Moyes and Rodgers but they are both still in Europe.

Similarly, the January transfer window could have a wildcard effect: will West Ham replace stricken centre-back Angelo Ogbonna? Is one perfect Rangnickesque addition all United are lacking to find defensive cohesion to go with their attacking talent? Has Conte joined on the promise of six mid-season signings? All are possible, some more probable than others. Not all winter transfers have a transformative effect, but some certainly can - Bruno Fernandes, Tomas Soucek, Jesse Lingard and Steven Bergwijn all joined mid-campaign and had positive, fast impacts for those clubs.

It isn’t as simple as suggesting the best teams or most expensive players will find a way, either, otherwise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Nuno Espirito Santo would not have been sacked for such poor runs of results. It certainly helps, though.

Man United will remain favourites for many, simply because they have the goalscorer, the attacking alternatives, the finances if required next month and, now, a boss who is held in high esteem with a particular focus on spatial organisation and having a thorough tactical plan. But it won’t happen overnight and Spurs have every single one of those factors themselves - as well as a game in hand which, if won, would put them fourth.

When all other potential advantages are equalled out, it is indeed manager quality that must prove decisive - and if the team who eventually takes the coveted spot comes from outside Old Trafford and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, that head coach might just have done the job of the year in the Premier League.

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