The Jersey or the Jacket? – The Road to Becoming a Manager at a Big Club

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

Dennis Bergkamp is my favourite footballer (or organism) of all time. From watching the calm, measured way he played, to reading about his thought processes while on the field, he gives me the picture of a true footballing genius, causing me to leap to the conclusion that he must be an amazing coach. I’m sure every fan has a player like this; a club legend who they would kill to see take the mantle as manager. A face that takes no time to get behind. Fortunately for football clubs, that is exactly how they want their fans to feel.

Putting two and two together, clubs across Europe have produced a quasi-trend of bringing recently retired players back into a familiar fold for one of, if not their very first role as a head coach. Fans are sold the idea that these guys have a deep understanding of what the club should be, about its principles and what it stands for and we expect that to translate to a harmonious recapturing of former glory years. Are we wrong to think that? 

Three young coaches have taken the helm at huge clubs in Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea, and have suffered and excelled to various degrees. I would like to argue that both these successes and failures are largely unrelated to the coach’s legendary status at their respective clubs and that their hiring was a ploy by their clubs in hopes that the next time they are forced into a sacking rests many moons away. 

Mikel Arteta

Arteta’s time at Arsenal has been relatively short and positively indescribable. Arsenal fans have jumped between extreme optimism and considering relegation almost every other week this season, and this is because Arteta has produced both outstanding successes and embarrassing failures. 

Focusing on the former, Arteta almost immediately introduced a defensive system in order to keep Arsenal competitive when it came to games against the Premier League’s top 6, fixtures in which Arsenal have famously suffered heavy defeats. He sacrificed free-flowing attacking football, which one would usually associate with Arsenal, for a team who, at their best, could play through intense presses, switch seamlessly between formations on and off the ball, withstand attacks from the most talented of teams and score wonderfully constructed goals. The system seemed to be working, with Arsenal gaining huge wins against Man City and Chelsea in the FA Cup as well as league victories over Liverpool and Man United. 

Things started to unravel for Arteta once opposition teams began pulling on the loose thread of Arsenal’s dearth in creativity. At the start of the 20/21 season, Arsenal went 7 out of 8 games without a goal from open play and the outcasting of players like Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil only contributed to the frustration. Additionally, Arteta seemed wedded to starting perpetually underperforming players like Willian when youngsters like Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith-Rowe were doing more than enough to earn themselves a place in the Premier League XI. While there was no shortage of calls for Arteta’s sacking, there were still sections of the fanbase who had faith in the Spaniard, but this seemed to be founded in his earlier successes as Arsenal manager rather than lingering love from his playing days. 

The identity of Arteta’s current Arsenal has been born from problem identification more than anything else. Perhaps Arteta’s experience playing in matches where teams have pummeled Arsenal informed his decision to employ the 3-at-the-back system during Project Restart, but any manager who had done minimal research could understand that the team often left way too much space in behind. Arteta even started his managerial career playing that familiar 4-2-3-1, but conceded too many goals for his liking. Once the defence was sorted, Arsenal’s attack began to suffer as the team struggled to break down deep-sitting opponents. The introductions of players like Thomas Partey and Emile Smith-Rowe have gone a long way to start to solve this particular issue. Problem solving like this is what you would expect from any manager, regardless of their previous standing with the club.

Ole Gunnar Solkjær

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s time at Manchester United has been met with similar amounts of highs and lows but the Norweigan has found himself at the top of the Premier League table at the time of writing. Manchester United’s form has been erratic this season, with a 6-1 loss to Spurs and a 5-0 win over RB Leipzig coming in the same month. Their squad certainly thrives against teams who look to attack in numbers, but this feels like a style which Ole has stumbled upon rather than developed. 

Since his arrival, it has felt as if United have been scraping through some awful performances thanks to the individual brilliance of their incredible attacking talent. Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have turned lethargic losses into hefty wins despite the sometimes painfully clear discoherence in the team. However, Ole has never rested on their brilliance and has instead started to build a style which maximises their talents and thus exemplifies a crucial aspect of hiring a coach for one of their first jobs – their potential to grow. 

While fan patience with Ole wore particularly thin around November 2020, the management stuck with him and are now seeing the fruits of that decision. This is a luxury that hiring a club legend affords as there will still be sections of the fanbase who are invested in their success. 

Ole’s crowning achievement so far has been Man United’s 6-1 win over Leeds. This is one of the first games where Ole’s tactical growth became abundantly clear as he seemed to give each of his players defined and detailed roles to dismantle a Leeds side who were free-scoring at the time. The setup even made marginalised winger Daniel James look like the exciting talent he was hyped up to be. Despite this being a huge win for Ole, in no way was it contributed to by his legendary status at United, nor have any of the team’s purple and grey patches. Like Arteta, Ole’s journey has been one of inexperience and growth.

Frank Lampard

The only of these managers whose standing at their respective club made any influence at all on their job was also the first of the three to get sacked. Having only managed Derby County for a year, he was drafted in by Chelsea following their sacking of Sarri, transfer ban, and subsequent loss of appeal by any big names. Frank was never going to turn down the job and having arguably the greatest player in Chelsea’s history at the helm was an easy way to get fans on board. 

But the early stages of Lampard’s reign promised more than just a steady ship. His identity quickly surrounded his blooding of youth into the first team. This was partially out of necessity considering the transfer ban, but also out of Lampard’s major strength – his experience as a rising star at Chelsea. Players like Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham became essential to Chelsea’s success during Lampard’s tenure, the former being someone who could be a star of the Chelsea and England teams for years. Winning games with home-grown Chelsea boys managed by a Chelsea legend provided a wholesome atmosphere amongst fans, but Lampard was never able to expand his identity past his connection to youth. 

Despite making it into the top 4 at the end of the 19/20 season, it was clear to anyone with eyes that Chelsea had a huge problem in defence. Their squad was incredibly top-heavy when it came to talent and their summer transfer businesses only made the weight distribution more disturbing. Marquee signings like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech only placed more pressure on Lampard to squeeze more attacking talent into his squad. Not only were the club harming the development of their new, young signings by throwing money at players who do not fit Lampard’s system, but they also stifled the growth of their young manager. 

Inexperience can turn to growth given the right tools and the correct amount of space, as seen with Solskjær, but with so much placed at his feet, it was inexperience that won the war which saw the end for Frank. He was so early on in his managerial career that he had not had the time to develop his own style of play. Solskjær found himself in a similar situation but has now found a system that absorbs pressure and explodes on the break. Lampard was given too much too early and ended up drowning in the pool of players he just could not gel together.

Will They Ever Learn?

The names Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea come with expectations. They come with the sheen of success, even if the current state of the club is in the gutter. Despite rare exceptions like Pep’s Barcelona and Zidane’s Real Madrid, coaches need to make their mistakes in a less scrutinised plane before their reputation is harmed by a high profile disaster. As Rory Smith pointed out, Pep’s journey to management was facilitated by a quest to unlearn his instincts as a player, allowing for a new education as a manager. This reinvention is an obvious and arduous step to take and truly decides whether or not a player is cut out for coaching. Players need to see the game from a new perspective and need time to develop a new identity. 

How else will they ever learn? We are seeing a trend of people trying to microwave themselves to success; players making moves at 20 that they should be making at 24, coaches taking their first jobs at their former clubs, there will be highs and lows but these things will find a way to unravel. 

One could argue that clubs do not want to keep sacking managers, that they want prolonged success and therefore should be smarter than to rely on a gimmick to get them through tough years. Will they ever learn from Lampard’s story? No, because the gimmick is working. Arteta won an FA Cup and is making strong progress with the Arsenal squad, Manchester United have found themselves in a title race and Chelsea have created new saleable assets thanks to Lampard and have an elite squad ready for an experienced manager to have a go with. Whether employed as a gimmick or a fruitful tactic, the trend is here to stay. 

Ryan Gaur

Ryan is a Physics graduate from Birmingham, England. His interests, other than football, include music, marvel and movies. As a writer he focuses on social commentary and music analysis.