When Abel Hernandez kicked the ball back towards his orange-clad teammates, Hull City’s Uruguayan striker made the first pass of the 2016-17 Premier League season. Perhaps the most prominent feature of this new season is the many excellent managers who have taken their talents to the Premiership over the summer. Let’s run the rule over each of the new arrivals and evaluate who will be deemed successful once the season’s last ball is kicked in May.
Two weeks into the season, it seems like Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho is best positioned for instant success. Mourinho brings a pedigree of success, both in England with Chelsea FC and on the continent with Real Madrid, Porto and Inter Milan. He bought wisely over the summer, including superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. So far, his team has won each of their games by two goals. Hot on his heels is Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, the Italian formerly in charge of the Italian national team. With the Azzurri, he pulled off an upset of Spain with one of the worst Italian line-ups in years. At Chelsea, he is infusing youth into an aging team, which experienced a terrible, tenth-place season last time out.
Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola is widely considered the best coach in the world. However, his new club might struggle to perform as well as Mourinho’s United or Conte’s Chelsea. Yes, Guardiola is an amazing coach, but his unique style of play, where the goalkeepers and defenders are encouraged to play short passes instead of long clearances upfield, is very difficult to implement in England, where clearing the ball has been the norm for years. Guardiola already seems likely to jettison one of the world’s best goalies, Joe Hart, just because Hart does not fit this system. The Hart situation exemplifies the possible growing pains for Guardiola at City.
Southampton’s Claude Puel is another new manager likely to succeed. The Frenchman relocated to the south coast after a productive spell at the French club, Nice. Southampton is a demanding job, with the board pushing for inclusion of young players and progress in the league. While the Frenchman’s record at Nice suggests he has a shot at success, a tie and a loss so far suggests there may be an adjustment period. Claude Puel filled the position left open by Ronald Koeman, who departed for Everton. There, he will face many challenges. The Everton squad is talented but has been underperforming as a team; I give Koeman a fifty-fifty chance for a successful season.
Just three managers left now, as we get to the smaller clubs and the managers who are more likely to fail. Sunderland’s David Moyes, formerly of Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad, has a reputation as a steady hand. That’s exactly what Sunderland needs after several years of flirting with relegation, and Moyes’ sole goal is to avoid another relegation battle. Watford had a decent season last year, but decided to fire Quique Sanchez Flores, and the new man in charge is Walter Mazzarri. The Italian boss faces adversity from the ridiculously high expectations of the owners, the Pozzo family. Also, Premier League managers typically struggle to manage largely foreign squads that lack experience in England, like Watford’s.
The least likely to succeed is Hull’s Mike Phelan, who has taken over in an extremely difficult situation. Hull City, despite the club’s strengths like striker Hernandez, are tipped for relegation. Fans are discontent with the club’s ownership, who have put into place an unpopular membership scheme and tried to rename the club “Hull City Tigers.” The team also has only 13 fit senior players; five players are out injured for long periods and they have not signed a single player this summer, so their bench is mostly their youth team. The manager, Steve Bruce, left a month ago because of poor relations with the unpopular owners, and assistant manager Phelan was promoted. Phelan has impressed by pulling off two wins in two games, but this is a flash in the pan; Hull should return to relegation form soon, as all this adversity will take its toll on the Tigers.
Each fall, soccer leagues around the world begin their seasons amid a wave of storylines, new signings, and fan expectations. Here in The Beautiful Game, I focus on the English Premier League, but I also work in coverage of other major leagues in Europe. Come back every other Tuesday for another column of The Beautiful Game!