Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have shared the last five Manager of the Season awards in the Premier League. Their utter dominance of the division has made this award somewhat of a formality over the past half a decade, however this year it's time for that to change.
Guardiola might be enjoying another title-winning season, but there have been far more impressive managerial performances this year. The two major contenders meet at St James’ Park tonight in what is set to be a blockbuster encounter that will have a seismic effect on the European places.
Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United are currently third, and the Magpies have embarked on a remarkable run that has taken them to the brink of the Champions League. Although he took them from relegation danger to mid-table last term, few could have predicted that Newcastle this season would blow the top six race wide open. They’ve been solid at the back and enthralling going forward, a devastating combination that has put them in the top four with three to play.
- Tony Mowbray sacking would be utter madness
- Luton reach Wembley
- Inter Milan reach Champions League final
This game in hand over sixth placed Liverpool could be crucial, but it comes against a side that have also surprised the top flight the season. Brighton and Hove Albion were expected to fall short this term when Graham Potter and Marc Cucurella departed for Chelsea. Potter took most of the backroom staff with him but, in what could have been a crisis, Brighton struck gold.
With their clever emphasis on recruitment, Roberto De Zerbi was identified as the man to take them forward and the Italian has taken the Seagulls to new heights. They ended Arsenal’s title hopes with a stunning 3-0 win at the Emirates on Sunday and that is just one of a collection of results that sees them in the top six, with a couple of games in hand on their rivals.
It’s unlikely that they make it into the Champions League places, they are eight points behind Manchester United and Newcastle and even four wins is unlikely to get them into the top four on 70 points. However, any sort of European football this term will be a remarkable achievement for a side that had been battling relegation up until last season.
Potter did an amazing job, but De Zerbi has exceeded him and given he only came in partway through the season, it has been an outstanding introduction to life in English football. Tonight may decide who wins the Manager of the Season award.
If De Zerbi gets another famous away win, his Brighton side will not only close the gap on the top four, but seriously damage Newcastle’s own top four hopes. If Howe’s team now don’t finish in the Champions League spots, rightly or wrongly, the season will end with disappointment. They’ve been so good for so long that Europa League football will feel like a consolation prize.
With Brighton, Leicester and Chelsea to come, Newcastle need two wins to guarantee a top four finish. Given they should beat a miserable Leicester side, beating Brighton will almost get them there. Having also reached the League Cup final, Howe will be delighted with how his first full season has played out. It just needs the fitting finale and European football will return to St James’ Park.
Both clubs are clearly upwardly mobile. It looks as though Howe will have a long-term future at Newcastle as long as the performances on the pitch are maintained at this level. He has won the hearts of the fans and will have even more money to spend this summer in order to keep the north-east side competitive. However, he could also be a victim of his own success this season. Should Newcastle fall short next term, he could well be replaced by a big name manager given the financial might the football club now has.
Meanwhile, De Zerbi’s Brighton brilliance is already catching the eye of top clubs. It seems as though for now the club is the perfect fit for him, especially if he can deliver European football this season. But fast forward one or two years, and he could have been tempted by a bigger project. A club with the facilities of Tottenham Hotspur would be smart to get him on board now, before his stock rises beyond their reach.
What comes in the future may not be so sweet for Newcastle or Brighton fans. But as they meet on Thursday night, they need to embrace the present. The two best managers in the league this season are meeting on the touchline. And refreshingly, neither of them are in charge of one of the traditional ‘big six’ clubs.