A summer without football leaves us with little to do but go tumbling down rabbit holes. Preferably just not the hole that leads into the surreal wonderland where perennially martyred manager of the century Steve Bruce is still dusting himself down, spouting his unique brand of self-pitying shite, and somehow receiving a salary for being a professional football manager.
No, I mean those altogether more enjoyable meanderings around the obscure labyrinths of football with which summer afternoons have to be filled in the enforced absence of the ritual completion of the sacred World Cup wallchart and without the endless days replete with meaningless back-to-back group games from mysterious foreign climes where the sun always shines and which always seem to appear impossibly bright on the magic tellybox – Spain 1982 will forever be the benchmark.
It was actually another managerial puzzle that prompted those meanderings this week – the one where we try to explain why on earth the Manager of the Season wasn’t awarded to Eddie Howe, but was instead bestowed on an increasingly graceless grump who failed to steer a billion pound squad to victory in its domestic league or a European trophy. Mind you, he did manage to pick up two meaningless tinpot trophies – yes, yes, I know – secured in two glorious (checks notes) 0-0 draws.
In the world of Brucean logic, of course, a penalty shoot-out defeat isn’t a defeat at all. I like to think that in the spirit of the last Japanese soldier on a remote Pacific island, Bruce is forever fated to play out the dourest second-round Carabao Cup tie in human history against Burnley, endlessly throwing on another five forwards to run round like decapitated poultry to no discernible effect. But we digress…
Because while trying to prove objectively that wor Eddie had been hideously overlooked as manager of the season, I found myself lost for longer than I care to admit in the marvellous world of CLUBELO. For the uninitiated, an ELO rating is a method used to measure the relative ranking of players of a particular game, originally and most famously applied to the ratings of chess players. Named after the Hungarian-American physics professor Arpad Elo, the ELO system has been extended and applied in a range of sports, most notably in the world rankings system used in tennis and in FIFA’s international rankings.
What CLUBELO does is apply the same principle to the whole of European club football(!) since the beginning of the Second World War(!). In the case of Newcastle, that means taking into account the outcomes of precisely 3209 matches played over the last 80 years to trace our fluctuating fortunes game by game, manager by manager, from Stan Seymour to the present: current rating 1754, ranked 31st in Europe; highest rating (1825) on 16th March 2003 under Bobby Robson; highest ranking 7th on 12 December 1973 (I can’t explain that – one for the buffs and connoisseurs, perhaps).
One intriguing by-product of being able to trace that historical rating for every club is the ability to compare the trajectory of individual managers at each club they’ve managed, all helpfully plotted on the website in bright wiggly timelines.
To return to our manager of the season conundrum, the ELO trajectories of the five nominated candidates for this season enable us to directly compare their achievements. As we can see below, all emerge as worthwhile nominees: all made a discernible positive impact on the performance of their clubs this season. But it’s also easy to see that Klopp and Howe had the most sustained positive impact on their club’s rating across 2021-22.
As always, though, context is everything.
For Guardiola, starting the season with the highest rated club in Europe (elo = 2009) hardly left much scope for improvement. By contrast, Klopp’s considerable upturn this season came from a lower base (elo = 1936); notably, it still meant that Liverpool finished the season more than 50 points below the peak that they reached in February 2020. In other words, that improvement this season was only made possible by the (relative) disaster of a season that he oversaw last time around.
Of course, both are elite managers who have set themselves the very highest of standards, but at that level and with that degree of financial backing, an award-winning season can only be measured in silverware of the highest order. Both failed that test this season.
As for Frank and Viera, both had very similar seasons: strong starts giving way to mid-season dips, which were then turned around with strong finishes. To do that at a newly promoted club without extensive financial resources and at a lower-table club that seemed to be facing real difficulties at the end of last season is noteworthy. Both were credible candidates for relegation at the beginning of the season. And yet, both fail the more subjective narrative “wow test”. Admirable performances both, but where’s the story, the tangible achievement that justifies the title of manager of the season?
Both Viera and Frank also had the luxury of a full season to embed their methods, including pre-season and a summer transfer window. In this sense, the other obvious comparators to Howe’s season are those managers who took over mid-season to turn around failing or faltering teams: Conte (+87), Gerrard (+27), Lampard (-4), Smith (-41), Hodgson (-46), Rangnick (-68). New manager bounce, it seems, is easier said than done, especially at the bottom of the table.
I’m biased, of course. But from 1 January until the end of the season, Howe’s net contribution was +96, far beyond anyone else’s. He inherited the rotting remnants of the Ashley-Bruce corpse, a demoralised and ageing squad that had barely been renewed since promotion four years earlier, a club shorn of structures, systems, and key personnel. A club adrift and in a position that had led to relegation on every other occasion in the history of the Premier League. And he defied it all.
Above all, though, that climbing upward squiggle of pixels on a data chart symbolises emotions beyond measure: hope, rebirth, joy. Manager of the Season? You better believe it.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731