In December 2019, there were three Premier League managers who could be considered legendary ex-players at their respective clubs. Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea coach Frank Lampard seemed to herald a new era in the Premier League. Nearly two years later, Lampard is long gone, Solskjaer stands on the brink of losing his job, and Arteta’s side sit in 10th position in the table. There is a feeling that the era of nostalgic optimism that led three English giants to look backwards instead of forwards may be coming to an end.
Solskjaer, arguably the most negatively perceived of the trio, was the first to find himself in the managerial hot seat at his former club. Initially appointed on a caretaker basis after Jose Mourinho’s sacking, the Norwegian earned the permanent job with 14 wins from his first 19 games. Solskjaer’s appointment also appeared to attract glances from elsewhere in the Premier League. Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps the owners at other top clubs took notice of the galvanising effect Solskjaer’s Old Trafford return had on fans, but Chelsea and Arsenal would soon follow the United blueprint.
Lampard’s return to Chelsea came next. While his spell as Derby County manager had been solid, it is hard to envision any other coach making the move from the Championship straight into the Chelsea dugout. But with the west London club under a transfer embargo, the goodwill of appointing one of Chelsea’s greatest ever players could not be underestimated. Serving as a de facto new signing, a potentially difficult summer was eased by the positivity amongst fans at Lampard’s return. The fact he would be instilling the Chelsea philosophy in the youth players he was forced to rely on only helped this change of culture at Stamford Bridge.
The third appointment was that of Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard left his job as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City to succeed Unai Emery. Not as indelible an icon as Solskjaer and Lampard, he was still a popular figure at the Emirates during his time anchoring the Arsenal midfield. There was also a prevailing feeling that Arteta boasted coaching nous that previous sentimental picks Solskjaer and Lampard lacked, having spent years as Guardiola’s right hand. An FA Cup in his first season only strengthened the case, but the drop-off was severe. Back-to-back 8th placed finishes, Arsenal’s worst league placing since the 1994/95 season, have dulled the initial impact of Arteta’s appointment.
In truth, that decline has been a trend for this triple threat of legendary players-turned-coaches. Lampard steered Chelsea to fourth and before losing an FA Cup final to Arteta’s Arsenal. After a promising start, a series of big name summer signings looked set to give Lampard the tools to improve further. However, he would be sacked the following January after a run of just two wins in eight games.
Solskjaer’s regression has been a more recent concern. After securing back-to-back Champions League qualification for the first time since the Sir Alex Ferguson days, United seem to be going backwards. Similar to Lampard, Solskjaer seems to be crumbling under the weight of a high-profile summer of transfer business. Most observers thought the additions of Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho would propel last season’s second-placed side into a title challenge. Instead, their losing effort in last season’s Europa League final seems to have cast a shadow over Solskjaer’s fortunes. The nadir took place this past Sunday, when Liverpool swatted United aside 5-0 in an utter humiliation. It is yet to be seen if his reign will recover, but he is currently expected to remain in the dugout for Saturday’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
Despite two of the three managers remaining in their job, the tide is definitely shifting. United and Arsenal, the two dominant sides of the 90s and early 00s, remain at their lowest ebb. The ex-player trend appears to have died out too. Lampard was replaced by Thomas Tuchel, who led Chelsea to an improbable Champions League triumph. While at United, names like Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane have been talked about, with there understood to be little appetite for another ex-Red taking the job.
On reflection, this trend can be looked at as a shortcut. The affection fans have for certain players can cloud judgement, and make supporters more amenable to what follows. Former managers of Molde and Derby County would not be considered were it not for the on-pitch memories they evoke.
A shift to tactically-astute, experienced coaches is well underway, which makes a lot of sense considering the last two Premier League title winners. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s success is no coincidence, they are managers who have enjoyed success in other countries, and have clear philosophies that they refuse to compromise on. United, and perhaps eventually Arsenal, would do well to bear this in mind when making their next appointments.