We now move on to the penultimate edition of our Premier League Manager Previews.
In this grouping we have: a rejuvenated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the divisive yet perfectly affable Steve Bruce, last season’s shining star Chris Wilder, as well as Ralph Hasenhuttl who enjoyed a remarkable transformation mid-way through the campaign.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Man Utd)
Man Utd always want to be towards the summit of the table challenging for the title, something that’s eluded the club since Fergie left.
While it’s difficult to envision the Red Devils breaking up the Liverpool/Man City duopoly just yet, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has moulded together a young, exciting, goal-hungry team who will look to bridge the gap between their two fierce rivals, and lift a domestic trophy of some sort.
A wobbly start to his first season in permanent charge saw the knives come out for Solskjaer, who became the favourite for the sack.
Yet the Norwegian - aided by a certain January signing - showed his growing resilience to criticism and impressively turned around both the mood and form to record a respectable third-place finish.
Solskjaer may often be criticised from a tactical perspective but it’s worth remembering that he did outwit Pep Guardiola three times in all competitions last season, a very impressive accomplishment. He also did the managerial double over Frank Lampard and Brendan Rodgers, and came within minutes of beating Jurgen Klopp in October.
Man Utd are now identifiable by their attacking intent, youth and energy. Solskjaer’s signings have all impressed, the way he’s brought Mason Greenwood through has been very effective, while Anthony Martial is reborn.
They are not the polished article just yet but there’s plenty of positives to take from a new-look side which accumulated 21 post-lockdown points - joint-best with Man City.
Solskjaer is still progressing in the job and on the evidence of 2020 so far he deserves time to continue what, of late, has looked like an invigorating project.
Areas of Improvement
For all the scalps Man Utd conjured up over their main rivals last season, they let themselves down with a series of disappointing defeats. From an early shock at home to Crystal Palace and later Burnley, to loses to nil at West Ham, Watford, Newcastle and Bournemouth. That failure to break down ‘inferior teams’ really hurt them over the course of the season.
Donny van de Beek bolsters United’s midfield options, but should they fail to strengthen in attack then an injury to one of their front-three could expose their lack of depth in this area.
Top-four will be the minimum requirement for Solskjaer, whose side are unbeaten in the league since January.
Given that it’s taken there or thereabouts 100 points to win the last four titles, few fans will realistically think that it will be Man Utd lifting the trophy come May, but they’d still like to see some sort of attempt at a title push.
A top-2 finish is priced at 4/1, while they can be backed at 13/8 in the betting without Liverpool and Man City.
W/O Man City & Liverpool: 13/8
Can Old Gunnar Solskjaer break up the duopoly?
Steve Bruce (Newcastle)
From an outsiders view, it’s difficult not to feel a shred of sympathy for the much-maligned Steve Bruce.
He was a surprise replacement for the incredibly popular Rafa Benitez but has yet to win over the majority of fans, many of whom would have hoped that someone of Mauricio Pochettino’s ilk would have come in the summer, however the Saudi takeover inevitably collapsed.
Some exciting signings and a more attractive brand of football could win over a few of them this term though.
Bruce won only two of his opening 10 league games, yet they were at Tottenham and at home to Man Utd. He would later get the better of Frank Lampard, hold Pep Guardiola to a 2-2 draw, and did the double over Chris Wilder and Ralph Hasenhuttl, but a dearth of goals and unwillingness to take risks at times cost the Toon against the teams around them.
A painful 2020 saw them win only four league games, as they finished 13th.
When taken in isolation Bruce oversaw a handful of impressive wins last season - see above - as Newcastle showcased a surprising ability to pull off results when you least expected them to.
There were times when defensively they proved to be stubborn, compact and resilient, thanks to Bruce’s organisation and the goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. The club’s Player of the Season made 137 saves - more than any over top-flight keeper - meaning his injury is a huge loss.
Thick-skinned Bruce has had to take some stick but he achieved the same standing as Benitez in 2018/19 (13th) and was only a point off the Spaniard’s total (45).
While he’s not the most popular figure amongst the fans, Bruce has the respect of one player in particular. "I love a coach like Steve Bruce because he believes in me, he believes a lot in me,” revealed fan favourite Allan Saint-Maximin, who has dazzled under Bruce’s leadership.
Areas of Improvement
Ask most, if not all, Toon fans and they will quickly reveal their exhaustion at the brand of football they saw on display for the majority of last season. Watching Newcastle was sleep-inducing at times; they scored on average a goal a game, and suffered uninspiring defeats to the likes of Norwich, Aston Villa and Watford.
The demand for more excitement could well bear fruit, as Bruce has just snapped up Callum Wilson in a bid to solve Newcastle’s goal problem, while fellow newbie Ryan Fraser adds some much-needed creativity. The duo, who were teammates at Bournemouth, will now look to link up with the breathtaking Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron to form an exciting quadrant going forward.
Securing a top-10 finish complete with a rebranded imaginative style of football could do wonders for Bruce’s image on Tyneside. To some supporters he’ll never be able to do anything right, but a reinvention of sorts could change perceptions.
Chris Wilder (Sheffield United)
Chris Wilder wasn’t crowned our Manager of the Decade (2010-2019) for nothing. The Englishman’s personality, man-management skills and innovative methods enthralled a mainstream audience last season, and he’ll now be bidding to build on a superb maiden Premier League campaign.
Many rubbished Sheffield United’s prospects ahead of their return to the Premier League, yet the Blades made a mockery of most en-route to securing a 9th-place finish - they were the favourites to be relegated.
The Blades were 5th at Christmas, conceded just 15 home goals all season, had the fourth best defence, and were unbeaten against Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Wolves, and reached the last-eight of the FA Cup.
Wilder’s surge from non-league to the Premier League is a sensational story and one that any manager at any level should be inspired by.
The man of the people may not look like your archetypal modern manager but deception is key as the tracksuit gaffer scraps the sharp suits in favour of shark instincts.
The best bosses make a contribution to the game. Wilder - alongside assistant Alan Knill - received rave reviews for his tactical innovation as their unique system of overlapping centre backs stumped both opposition players, managers and pundits alike. EFL audiences were of course very familiar with this slice of genius.
Wilder is a strong and passionate communicator whose charisma and interpersonal skills have enabled him to communicate his footballing vision effectively. Sheffield United are extremely well coached, highly motivated, and thrive as a collective.
Areas of Improvement
Beware the second syndrome season.
Sheffield United caught many a team off-guard last time out but while the element of surprise is gone, they will be determined to prove that the 2019/20 campaign was no one off.
Only the top-three conceded fewer goals than Wilder’s men (39), however their goal count at the other end of the pitch was also 39, meaning there’s scope for improvement from an attacking perspective. An out-and-out goalscorer is missing from their ranks, meaning either the current crop of forwards need to elevate their game or a new face could enter the scene.
Dean Henderson is a big loss, so it’s hoped that new boy Aaron Ramsdale, formerly of Bournemouth, is a seamless transition between the sticks.
Sheffield United found themselves battling it out for a European spot last season and while a repeat will be difficult, you simply can’t rule out Wilder who is sure to have something up his sleeve.
W/O ‘Big-6’: 28/1
Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton)
From being the favourite for the sack to overseeing the turnaround-of-the-season and penning a new contract, 2019/20 was quite the campaign for Ralph Hasenhuttl, who will now be looking to gatecrash the top-10.
What a whirlwind season for Southampton, who proved that keeping faith in a manager can work wonders.
In autumn the Austrian’s job was in severe jeopardy following a shocking run of results which included THAT defeat, but while other clubs pulled the trigger the Saints kept the faith and in the end Hasenhuttl’s managerial and coaching ability shone through as he surged his side clear of danger to a very credible 11th place. Only the two Manchester clubs accumulated more points post-lockdown, with the Saints taking four points off the duo.
A relentless press, rapid counterattacks, fitness and hard work make up the key ingredients of Hasenhuttl’s Southampton philosophy.
At their peak, his Saints side are an absolute nuisance to play against, with their whirlwind high press - led by star man Danny Ings - spreading panic across the opposition backline. It can be exhausting to watch, yet devastating when utilised effectively.
Hasenhuttl’s decision to revert to a 4-4-2 - or 4-2-2 - was a pivotal point in Southampton’s season, especially come the run-in when the players’ growing familiarity within the system was evident.
Furthermore, Hasenhuttl’s style of play has transformed the Saints into one of the division’s best most devastating away sides as they collected 31 points and carved out nine wins on the road - the third best in the league.
Areas of Improvement
Lockdown enabled Hasenhuttl to make amendments, as Southampton returned to the field full of confidence, which they will hope to take into next season.
But while they picked up a superb win at home to Man City in July, on the whole their form at St Mary’s was shocking, and has been for a few seasons now.
In 2019/20 it was particularly bad as they lost 10 of their 19 clashes, and conceded 35 goals. They registered only 21 points on their own stomping ground, so if they’d turned a few of those defeats into wins they may have been fighting it out for a top-four spot!
A decent start to the season would go down well too.
Southampton are on an upward curve and fans will hope this continues into 2020/21. If so, there’s no reason why they can’t mount a top-eight push, although a return to the top-half will be the goal.
W/O ‘Big-6’: 10/1