The most influential foreign managers in English football history
As 2018/19 draws to a close, the Premier League stands on the precipice of history.
Already we have seen Manchester City secure the domestic treble of League title, League Cup and FA Cup. That is an unprecedented level of dominance for a men’s side to have, and what makes it even more incredible is that the four sides City have ground under their heel (Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea) are the four sides contesting this season’s two European finals.
It’s the first time in history that all four European final spots belong to one nation, and none of them are even the best team in said nation. What has caused this sudden rise in quality? Well, when you look at those five clubs, what do they all have in common? Money? No, Manchester United have money and they’re terrible, and Spurs didn’t buy anyone last summer either.
What is it then?
Coaching. That’s the difference. The Premier League is now home to three of the top 10 coaches in the world, including the No.1, and their influence is lifting the league to greater heights than it has ever scaled. And what do those coaches have in common? None of them are British. Yet despite what some would tell you, far from “ruining” the domestic game, they are improving it enormously.
Which got us thinking. Who are the most influential Premier League managers who came from abroad? We looked and came up with a shortlist of those who have had the biggest influence over the domestic game.
Arsene Wenger (1996-2018)
“I see Arsene Wenger has had a swipe at Manchester United again, he’s certainly got plenty to say. Maybe he should concentrate on Ian Wright’s tackles rather than Manchester United. Arsene Wenger has been in Japan. He doesn’t know anything about English football and the demands of our game.” – Sir Alex Ferguson (1997)
Arsene Wenger wasn’t the first foreign manager in the English top flight. That was Dr. Jo Venglos, who managed Aston Villa for the 1990/91 season. The first Premier League foreign boss was Ossie Ardilles at Spurs. Wenger was just the fourth non-Brit, but he landed with such a hurricane of change that no one would ever forget him.
It’s easy to take modern football for granted, with all the diets and ice baths and players who don’t get blind-drunk the night before and after a game. But English football had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. The ban from European competition resulting from the Heysel Stadium disaster meant English clubs missed out on Arrigo Sacchi’s Dutch-inspired revolution in the late 80s. As a consequence, they just never adopted the more professional methodologies on the continent.
So when Wenger rolled into town back in 1996, there was still a drinking culture at Arsenal, one Wenger eradicated. He fought hard to convince club legends like Tony Adams to follow him, and when they did, he extended their careers and improved them as players. And through Arsenal’s success, others saw the light and slowly but surely, England woke up to modern football. Wenger changed the mentality of an entire nation of clubs. That’s power you can’t buy.
“Arsene Wenger brought innovations in terms of diet, physical preparations and training techniques as well as tactics. His was the first truly successful English side that had a dominating foreign element as well, blending cultures seamlessly. I’m not sure that without his success those who followed would have been able to achieve what they did.” – Gabriele Marcotti, ESPN Senior Writer
Wenger played 4-4-1-1 and made excellent use of blisteringly fast forwards to overwhelm opponents. He encouraged his players to pass the ball frequently and be on the move constantly. This created a clear style of play that was exhilarating to watch. At times it was like Arsenal were playing a different sport to the rest of the league.
Yet all his brilliance spawned no imitators. Perhaps it’s because he never retained the title, doing doubles in 1997/98 and 2001/02 before winning the Premier League without losing a single game in 2003/04. His success was immense but never sustained. And then, of course, Arsenal spiralled out of the title picture around a decade into his run as coach, just as they moved to a new stadium.
Arsenal became a parody of themselves, with Wenger too stuck in ways to change amid a league that had quite simply caught up to him. His modern thinking had become so ingrained that he no longer held an advantage. But even though his end was inglorious, his influence cannot be denied.
José Mourinho (2004-2007, 2013-2018)
José Mourinho hit the Premier League like a nuclear bomb. He announced himself as “The Special One” in his debut press conference, won the Premier League with a record points total in his first season then became just the second man to retain it in his second season. He turned Chelsea from lovable losers into the meanest group of brutes you could ever see.
Mourinho’s influence is literally everywhere. The proliferation of 4-3-3 in the league follows his example. His use of Claude Makélélé as a holding midfielder, a screener in front of the defence, was copied by basically everyone for an entire decade.
The way he treated the media as part of the games themselves, taking Sir Alex Ferguson’s “mind games” and ratcheting things up to 11… well alright that remained his exclusive brand, but his intensity changed the game. No longer could you start the season slowly and then start taking things seriously after New Year. No, now title races ran then full 38 games. Each one as intense and important as the last.
“The power of personality, able to impose himself on England but also take on those elements of England that strengthened him. Politically astute in that sense. Although he was so different when he arrived, he ended up feeling almost more ‘ours’ than foreign. His impact is gigantic, no doubt about it.” – Sid Lowe, Football Writer
The phrase “park the bus,” too, was something he coined (or at least brought into the British football lexicon), which is ironic given that’s mostly what his sides did in big games. And sure, in his second spell (with Chelsea and then Manchester United) he presented as a facade a hollowed-out copy of the tyrant he used to be, and his ability to dominate was vastly diminished. Yet there are people who still swear he was in the right, so successful and influential was he at embedding himself in the local football culture, bending it to his will.
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Roberto Martinez (2009-2016)
Roberto Martinez was part of the “Three Amigos” as a player for Wigan. As a coach he got his start revolutionising Swansea but joined the Premier League when Dave Whelan brought him back to Wigan. On the face of it, Martinez is a strange inclusion in this list because he’s won nothing and has had no influence at the top end of the table.
But he’s here. Why? Because he showed English football that it was possible to survive by means beyond a defensive grind. His Wigan were an expansive side who always looked to play football. Sure, they weren’t always successful and their approach often led to them getting obliterated by top-tier opponents where other, more conservative sides might have only lost by one or two, but there was a method in his madness. Wigan would always coalesce towards the end of the season and go on these great runs, beating everyone in their way to survive.
The exception to this was his final season in charge, 2012/13, when he didn’t focus on Premier League survival but instead sought to win Wigan their first-ever major silverware, which he did, beating Manchester City in the FA Cup final. A remarkable achievement and, even though Wigan were relegated that season, who could forget what they achieved that year?
“Roberto’s claim would be based on being among the first —this relates to him as a player as well as a manager— and the degree of integration. He helps to break barriers and open a path for others at a point at which it was a less obvious career choice and less likely to be looked upon positively by English fans. True, not at the very, very highest level but the impact is significant. And the way that he identifies with England (even more than Spain).” – Sid Lowe, Football Writer
In addition to his tactical approach, there was his willingness to sign players from markets traditionally untouched by the Premier League. Honduras, Austria, Chile and Oman saw fair representation in his sides. He trusted and made household names out of players like Hugo Rodallega and Jordi Gómez. He improved Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley while at Everton (even though his time with the Toffees can be regarded as less than successful), is currently managing Belgium to impressive levels of performance and has been linked with taking over the Barcelona job where he would be tasked with bringing joy back to the Camp Nou.
Mauricio Pochettino (2013-present)
“I’m absolutely stunned and I think it’s just another example of a deluded chairman and someone who doesn’t understand football enough.” – Jamie Redknapp on Pochettino replacing Nigel Adkins.
Where to start with Mauricio Pochettino? The man joined Southampton at the start of 2013/14 and instantly transformed the club’s fortunes. He led them to an 8th-place finish, their highest in over a decade, with a total of 56 points (another record). Then he joined Spurs and began the slow campaign to make them a legitimate force in English football.
Tactically Poch emphasised pressing, passing and skilful players. He wasn’t exactly Johan Cruyff, but he was certainly forward-thinking. But Poch’s influence doesn’t come from his tactics, but his coaching. There has been no manager since he joined English football who has improved as many players as Mauricio Pochettino. In a way, it’s fitting that he entered the league just as Sir Alex Ferguson, probably the all-time great at improving players, left it.
Poch picked up Fergie’s baton, and nearly everyone who played under him improved. Luke Shaw still hasn’t had a better season than the one he did under Poch at 18 years old. Harry Kane went from promising player to literally one of the best three strikers on the planet. Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier… the list is endless and it’s largely English too.
“The biggest change has been physical. Since Mauricio has been there the conditioning work they do has improved the team. It was the same at Southampton. I know Jesus, Mauricio’s assistant, is in charge of that area of their training, and we noticed a definite difference that allowed them to play the pressing game they want to play.” – Gareth Southgate, England manager
Not that Pochettino hasn’t improved non-English players, he has, but his greatest influence can definitely be seen in the massive Spurs contingent in the England national team, and the youthful optimism of said side that just had their best-ever World Cup tournament since 1966. Gareth Southgate’s job was made much easier because of Poch’s influence, bringing through all these young players and making them into genuine game-changers.
Perhaps the finest example of Pochettino’s coaching ability is that Spurs are about to play in their first-ever Champions League final despite having not signed a single player in the 2018 summer transfer window. That is a remarkable feat of coaching excellence and, should Spurs win the big cup, Poch’s influence will grow beyond even the enormous levels it currently has.
Pep Guardiola (2016-present)
“If [Guardiola] thinks he’s going to turn up and outplay everybody in the Premier League, and that teams like Watford, Leicester, Bournemouth, Southampton and Crystal Palace are going to let his Manchester City side have the ball for 90 per cent of the time and pass pretty patterns around them so they can get a result, then he is absolutely deluded.” – Stan Collymore (2016)
Pep Guardiola came into the Premier League with a colossal reputation. Here was the coach who bent the footballing world to his will at Barcelona, and led Bayern Munich to what were then untold levels of dominance. But England being England was far from convinced of Guardiola’s greatness; England was sure it would be the rocks that broke the Pep wave that had washed over the rest of the game.
As it turned out, that didn’t quite happen. After a tricky initial campaign where dealing with City’s asthmatic beast of a squad meant that every gain they made in attack was undone by a rickety defence, City spent big in summer 2017 to get Pep the players he needed. What has followed since is two league titles, the two highest points tallies in league history and Pep on the cusp of a domestic treble.
But more than the scale of his achievements is the manner in which they were achieved. City blew the Premier League to bits playing sensational football, making concepts like passing from the back, recovering the ball without tackling (City’s 1,724 attempted tackles is lowest among all top six sides since Pep took over), putting playmakers at the base of midfield and orthodox wingers that stayed wide fashionable again. Sure, Pep didn’t invent any of those concepts but he combined them into one fantastic and fluid system.
“Counter cultural. For all that the pathways had been open, there is still a certain resistance I think to some footballing immigrants, particularly those that pose an open challenge to the things that we take as identity. There’s a sense of Guardiola coming not just to win but to change mindsets, ideas. And while that still encounters resistance and naysayers, it’s very powerful. And it is definitely helping to create a shift in attitudes. There’s something challenging about him that is compelling.” – Sid Lowe, Football Writer
After just one season his influence was massive. Suddenly everyone is passing the ball out from the back and passing through midfield. In 2016/17, Premier League teams made a combined 335,042 passes and completed 264,297 of them. By 2018/19 those figures had jumped by a massive amount, totalling 348,654 and 277, 486.
Then you look at big chances created, which numbered 823 in 2016/17 but after Pep’s influence was a colossal 1,138 in 2018/19. Guardiola has literally improved the quality of chances being created by Premier League teams. That is influence.
Guardiola changed the footballing world a decade ago, but Britain is an old sceptic and refused to yield until he brought his brilliance to these shores and showed them to their faces exactly what he was all about. And now he’s done that, now he’s conquered the Premier League twice over (just the third man to do so) and has become the first manager in English football history to complete a domestic treble, he holds all of his opponents in the palm of his hand.
As mentioned before, the Premier League has stamped its authority on Europe as never before. League cup runners-up Chelsea will face-off against Arsenal in the Europa League final in Baku. Meanwhile, Premier League runners-up Liverpool will once again contest the Champions League final, this time against Spurs.
And whilst Pochettinho can already count himself as one of the most influential foreign coaches in the Premier League, the other three finalists still have some way to go before the same can be said of them. Jurgen Klopp is surely the closest, as his stature grows with each passing month.
Klopp’s Liverpool side presented Guardiola’s City with a phenomenal challenge this season and should he manage to capture the Champions League with Liverpool then you can be sure there will be a slew of imitators looking to mimic his gegenpressing as well as the way he selects workmanlike midfielders to unleash his full-backs as wholly actualised attacking weapons.
Beyond that, Sarrismo still could take off should Sarri ever get a squad that buys into the concept, Ralph Hasenhuttl is a true revolutionary, and Norwich’s Daniel Farke could continue the trend started by Nuno Espírito Santo, whose Wolves side is setting new standards in terms of the potential for promoted teams. We’re entering a brave new era of Premier League football where foreign coaches are using their genius to make the division into what it has always marketed itself as but never actually been: the best league in the world.