Rafael Benítez’s Newcastle United are currently 2 points adrift in the English Championship title race from current table toppers Brighton, with many still considering the Toon to be favourites to win the race come May. Doing so would see Rafa become the first foreign (non-British) manager to oversee this feat in 17 years since Jean Tigana’s Fulham side amassed 101 points in 2000.
The Spaniard seems well on course to buck this trend with England’s second tier becoming ever more culturalised by European influence. At the time of writing, of the 24 Championship clubs only 6 play host to foreign managers, however, 4 have their respected sides in the top 8 of the division. It’s the kind of hegemonic norm we’ve become accustomed to in the top flight, with 7 of the current Premier League’s leading 8 sides under foreign employment.
Many have tried to decipher the reasons for such with each drawing their own no doubt interdependent causes. Theories range from an absence of faith among the indigenous talent’s perceived managerial ability, to outright favouritism of their global counterparts. Burnley boss Sean Dyche, one of only 4 English managers in the Premier League, is very much an advocate of the latter view.
“Antonio Conte came in at Chelsea and he got commended for bringing hard, fast, new leadership which involved doing 800m runs, 400m runs and 200m runs. Come to my training and see Sean Dyche doing that and you’d say, ‘Dinosaur. A young, English dinosaur manager. Hasn’t got a clue’."
Now, I am only here to offer just one humble opinion but to me Mr. Dyche needs first to establish an understanding for the fundamentals behind such adopted concepts. You can feel the grievance that he has so exasperatedly expressed, yet one must appreciate the reasoning behind Conte and co’s training regimes before bitterly dismissing it as nothing more than pre-historic English methods. Parallels can be drawn between the Burnley manager and recently exiled England gaffer Sam Allardyce, who would often convey his dismay at never being afforded the opportunity to manage an ‘elite’ side based on the assumption it had something to do with his nationality.
In my eyes it is a lazy argument to suggest that ‘foreign managers are taking all the top jobs when we deserve them.’ I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that one can only prove oneself upon being given the chance, however, the pedigree of coach Allardyce and Dyche are comparing themselves to belong in another realm. They are the elite. All-encompassing strategic masterminds of the game who have travelled across Continental Europe in a quest to perfect and hone their skill set. I’d like to take this opportunity to note this is not a polemic against English management, merely an observation that a change of mind-set may serve them well.
In general terms, the phrase ‘well-travelled’ is associated with individuals of high intellect and the coining of such encapsulates the true gulf in class between our best native and foreign coaches. This is not to say some haven’t tried to broaden their respective coaching horizons. Recent years have seen the likes of McClaren, Coleman, Moyes and, for a brief stint, Neville all ply their managerial trade away from English shores with varying degrees of success. Many chastised their decision when, for whatever reason it didn’t work out, but it’s this toxic attitude which is poisoning the minds of so many young English coaches.
For years in this country we have been obsessed with the ‘English way’. Over-roaring arrogance has lead us to one tactical failure after the next on the international stage. Jonathan Wilson, author of ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ recalls a moment in his book after an international fixture where an English colleague of his exclaimed “Oh what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important.” Only for an Argentine woman to interject “The formation is the only thing that’s important. It’s not worth writing about anything else.” Of course this quote may be a bit simplistic, but it epitomises our nations culture towards complex tactics and in depth analysis.
They’re the same supporters that believe managers such as Josep Guardiola are ‘overrated’. Dismissing his footballing ideology as nothing more than a glamorised passing sequence, ending in the same result that could have been achieved through one long ball. “I don’t judge myself against Pep Guardiola, with what their squad is. It’s not a level playing field.” Those the words of the aforementioned Sean Dyche in keeping with his firm belief he could achieve similar levels of success if given the opportunity.
If Dyche was really serious about progressing his coaching methods and one day realising the dream of managing an elite side, then he has to look no further than himself. That inner self-belief and drive should be channelled into travelling. Learn a new language. Coach abroad. Immerse yourself in the very essence of another culture, adding different elements of what you find along the way to enhance and expand your own managerial portfolio. In a vastly globalised world, it is vital not to shut out other culture's perspectives, but to learn from and embrace them.
Martí Perarnau, author of ‘Pep Guardiola: The Evolution’ discusses what drives the Catalan manager and how he has evolved through his time in Munich and now Manchester. “Pep has always embraced change. For him life is about learning and growth.” This is something I feel is essential for young, up and coming managers to take on board in order to enhance their own repertoires. Travel the world, watch the beautiful game. Break habitual norms held in our society and never be satisfied with what you know. Always strive to educate yourself further.
“When it comes to being an architect of change, I don’t know of any more effective blueprint than education” - Linda Katehi
An element of the game we always seem to struggle with is strategy. It is a common misconception that strategy and tactics are the same entity. They are not. A prime example of this would be Joachim Löw’s use of the 4-2-3-1 formation for the German national side. A tactic in itself but one which carries a clear strategy behind it of how Germany should implement it effectively. On the back of the country's international success, many Premier League sides sought to adopt the formation with the media over-glorifying it as ‘the new way forward’.
In truth no formation holds precedent over another and the real question that needs to be asked is: ‘What formation allows me to best exemplify the qualities of the players I have at my disposal?’ A tactic in itself is meaningless when there has been little to no strategic thinking behind it. This has led to the bewilderment of elite managers such as Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp when coming to terms with the Premier League mentality of buying players to suit ‘your’ tactics and abandonment of others, branding them of inadequate quality. Antonio Conte and Victor Moses spring to mind.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” - Sun Tzu
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we don’t possess some great minds with a real thirst for knowledge. I hold young indigenous coaches like Eddie Howe and Gary Rowett in very high regard. It’s these sort of ambitious, dynamic and subsequently progressive coaches I would implore to travel outside of their comfort zones. Enhance their already deep knowledge and understanding of the modern game. It speaks volumes that a manager of Howe’s ilk expressed reluctancy in taking the England national team job recently, seeing it as something of a poisoned chalice.
A failure at international level at such a tender stage of his career could leave it in tatters. This coupled with his devoted love for current employers Bournemouth led him to quickly quash all circulating rumours of such. Should the time come for Howe to depart the South coast however, he could do much worse than taking a sabbatical, watching, learning, then moving to say the Eredivisie. A strategic hub of sporting innovation that focuses heavily on youth, thereby supplying Howe with a sharp learning curve for self-betterment.
With the gap between the elite and mid-table not so pronounced in the Netherlands, were he to be successful, Premier League clubs would be breaking down his agents door to offer him a contract at a top English outfit. Something Dyche and co so badly crave. It’s a risk. Of course it is, others chequered history of travel tells us that, but for England’s finest to reach the summit of managerial utopia as opposed to abiding by the usual plateau of mid-table mediocrity, risks must be taken. The ability to embed oneself in new cultural stimulants and implement them within your own ever expanding coaching methodology will form the bedrock of one’s innovation.
“If an idea isn’t absurd to begin with it’s not worth anything” - Albert Einstein