Examine the intellectualization of the Premier League in seven charts


The confirmation of Ralf Rangnick as Manchester United’s next manager – for now – signals a significant change of course at Old Trafford. For the Premier League, however, it is the advancement of a trend.

There was a time when philosophers wore togas. Sullen, bearded types, usually found sitting under the academy’s arbor, engaged in a dialogue about the intricacies of morality or governance. At the very least, they wore tweed. Sitting in front of Parisian cafes, gesticulating through plumes of Gallic smoke. In studies lit by lamps under piles of leather-bound books, or with a pipe on a park bench, thinking, Or whatever it is.

Those days are over. Now you will probably find them next to a soccer field. Some have glasses, others don’t. Some people have a weakness for the strange queer. Very few wear tweed, and even fewer togas, opting instead for the club-style blazer, the logoed tracksuit or the Argestes cultural hiking outfit under the 21st century manager’s waistcoat.

Because the Premier League has become philosophical, drunk on the cerebral exploits of MM. Bielsa and Guardiola, Klopp and Tuchel; and now the godfather of Gegenpress himself, Ralf Rangnick. So much so that having a philosophy is now non-negotiable, as evidenced by Gary Lineker’s line of questioning during Saturday’s game, if not exactly by Steven Gerrard’s response.

But when did this happen? Did this actually happen or is it just a product of journalistic discourse, and therefore all the bullshit? And how do you quantify something so notoriously unquantifiable as philosophy?

Well, with graphics. By mapping a selection of key markers in managerial demographics – or Mamographics â„¢ – we have tried to do just that. What follows is a look at how the Premier League manager’s roster has changed over time which may shed some light on the matter.

Note: Data starts in 2003/04. This is not because the philosophy of football did not exist before, but because it coincides with the defining moment in the career of the Professor himself, Arsene Wenger. There is data for 2007/08, the year famed Philistine Sir Alex Ferguson last won the Champions League, something some say he could never do now. 2012/13, because it was his last Premier League win, and 2017/18, because it was Pep’s first – a turning point if ever there was one. And, of course, 2021/22. All data is taken with 14 games played, or as close as possible.

Nationality
This is the only place to start. Not because all British managers are morons, but because on this side of the Sixties all the great tactical revolutions came from abroad; see Michels, Lobanovskyi, Cruyff et al. And let’s face it, the cast of all the British Isles of the pre-Wenger years wasn’t exactly a symposium.

The first point to note is obvious: the rise of mainland bosses, and the decline of those in the British Isles. From 04/03 (17) to 21/22 (7), this is a drop of almost 60%. However, the kind of work English managers do, in particular, is more telling. In 2003/04, five first-half clubs had one, including Charlton’s Alan Curbishley, our only rep in the dizzying top-five tops. Since then, the overwhelming majority of English people have been found in the lower courts. If you wanted to play football successfully and expanding as the 2010s moved into the age of great philosophers, you were more and more likely to favor an outsider; if you were in air combat and needed someone to instill some stability, you were still very likely to become a Bulldog. Think of today’s Big Sam, who is personally responsible for three of these lower half positions.

Special mention here too for the Scottish situation. In the not-so-distant past, Scotland was home to managerial talent. Now there is only one left: David Moyes, who, by the way, is the only man to make all the lists, and in 4th, he currently holds his highest position.

Retirement age
If the philosopher is what we are looking for, then study time is important, and the rise of the thinker has coincided with a new path to management. A movement that veers off the road trod by the boots – across leagues as the body slows down, and backs down through the hard knocks and Wednesday nights in Walsall – and into something else. A kind of vocation, coaching like the work of a lifetime. A main quarry, as opposed to a fallout, when the legs stop working.

Yet while by all measures the retirement age has fallen, the difference may not be as large as one imagined.

Yes, 43% more current managers retired before age 35 than in 2003/04, and the average age of suspension fell from 34.58 to 32.94, which is not harmless. But the Premier League of yore weren’t just gnarled old pros who got stuck in training. There was certainly a bit of it, with people like Souness, Strachan, and Hughes playing well in their cunning, but there have always been early retirements. Often more by injury than by design, real soccer guys like Steve Coppell, David Pleat and Dave Jones all stopped playing long before they were 30 years old.

That said, the fact that of the current crop, five in 18 (28%) retired in their twenties, seems instructive. Especially when you consider who they are. Brendan Rodgers and the very present Rafa Benitez may both be part of the football intelligentsia, but it’s Bielsa and Rangnick who really stand out. Both ceased to play on purpose, and in accordance with great philosophical tradition, they both inspired legions of distinguished disciples. Pep Guardiola’s famous visit to the Bielsa ranch in 2009 is considered a founding moment in his career, while Rangnick has influenced virtually every German school graduate, including the last of the pre-30 retirees, Thomas Tuchel.

In this, a real tutor-tutor, Socrates-Plato atmosphere. And as such, early retirement appears to be a key driver of the philosophical revolution.

Play Career
The logical extension of this idea is a change of level played. A smooth transition away from old fundamentals such as high level experience and big game know-how, to the new world of theory. And the data here is perhaps the most remarkable.

The number of those who have played top football has almost halved during the period. And, bearing in mind that one of the 21/22 is Graham Potter, who played eight games for Southampton in the mid-90s, it represents an undeniable paradigm shift. Just as modern gaming has finally accepted the idea that being a great player is not a prerequisite for being a great boss, the reverse is also an increasingly established truth. It does not matter how the modern philosopher acquired his knowledge; just that he has it.

Similar, if not equally categorical, is the downfall of those who have played internationally. Rankings that once consisted of Keane and Keegan, Lambert and Southgate, now have fewer international pillars. Only five, at the moment, although four of them – Gerrard, Vieira, Conte and Guardiola – were really very helpful. The other? Ralph Hasenhüttl. No, me neither.

However, the non-playing career coach, who looks like an intensely modern phenomenon, is actually older than Jude Bellingham. Bruno Lage and Thomas Frank follow a path that dates back to Gérard Houllier in 2003, passing by Paul Clément, André Villas-Boas and Avram Grant. While those thinkers who never did are indeed more prevalent in our age as philosophers, they have been in the game for a long time. And for those who have played professionally, the change in position is also striking.

While you may have been forgiven for assuming that modern play, with its technicality and tactical nuances, all the passing angles and all attack patterns, would be the preserve of the midfielder – a figure of guy Guardiola, a real-time artist of moving pictures – that’s actually not the case. In the five seasons under review, the midfielder’s dominance in the managerial ranks has given way dramatically to defenders, who are now almost twice as important.

And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Essentially, being a modern philosopher is like playing a variety of high-intensity pressing games, which basically equates to hyper-aggressive, attack-oriented defense. It’s all about systems and positioning, line and form and organization. And many of his main supporters – Klopp, Tuchel, Bielsa, all defenders – have spent their entire careers organizing this kind of unitary behavior, since the days when midfielders could run where they wanted. The artist and the philosopher are very different beasts, after all. Only one of them can operate without borders.

The near total absence of goalkeepers is of transient significance, which is odd considering that today’s most famous footballing philosopher, Albert Camus, himself was one. And the man who plowed this particular furrow? Nigel Adkins, before being unceremoniously sacked in favor of an Argentinian.

Continuing education
Finally, and obviously, the philosopher must learn.

And they have, with increasing frequency. While part of the five-fold increase in the number of graduate executives can be explained by societal trends, not everything is possible. Not to mention the honorary degrees – because Sir Alex Ferguson’s eight would have warped things a bit – there are ten currently hanging on the walls of managers’ offices. Among the owners, a few usual suspects emerge. Klopp has one, Tuchel too, and Rangnick and Conte, but the most skilled are Potter and Frank, with two each. The latter even taught at Ishoj College in his native Denmark.

So this is it. The average Premier League manager is now more skilled and more continental, more expert in structured thinking, who has never been good as a player and retired early. The archetype, to use Klopp’s description of himself, “a fourth division talent with a first division leader,” who had more time to study, and at greater distance than his ancestors.

All of this, it must be said, offers quite an interesting glimpse into the future. I go down to the cafe for a good old cogitate.

Ed Capstick – follow him on twitter



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