Top-5 early contenders for 2020/21 Premier League Manager of the Season

Jack Kitson by Jack Kitson / 15 January 2021, 14:29

It’s been the most unpredictable of seasons, during which managers have had to navigate the complexities of COVID, a constant flurry of energy-sapping fixtures, last-gasp postponements and the lingering threat of another complete halt in play.

While there may still be more than half of the campaign remaining, we’ve delved into the managerial world to pick out a handful of early contenders to go on and be crowned the 2020/21 Premier League Manager of the Season.

Our five man hit list contains a trio of bosses who appeared to be on the cusp of the sack last season, a former Premier League victor, and a gaffer with a new lease of life following a prolonged period of disappointment.

We also give a few shout-outs to three other managers who have performed to a high level in difficult circumstances so far this season.

Let’s go...

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Man Utd)

To many, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t quite fit the mould of the modern day Box Office manager. He’s not as machiavellian as Jose Mourinho, as charismatic as Jurgen Klopp, or as immensely successful as Pep Guardiola. Yet, at the time of writing he’s looking down upon all three of those managers from his perch at the peak of the Premier League table.

Solskjaer has been the cynosure of the media ever since he replaced Mourinho back in December 2018. While he doesn’t revel in being the centre of attention, the job he’s in coupled with the club he’s at, means he’s always going to be in the spotlight. Whatever the result.

As caretaker Solskjaer’s positive impact was lauded. After his appointment was made permanent he began to come in for heavy criticism.

It’s since been a topsy-turvy journey, during which he’s appeared to be on the brink of the sack on multiple occasions, yet he stubbornly refused to buckle, often saving his most memorable moments for these occasions. 

In fact, he’s even thrived of late.

Man Utd’s whirlwind season can loosely be separated into three sections. One: a nightmare start, which was hindered by a minuscule pre-season. Two: the concede early then mount a comeback period.

Three: the current stage in which a far more consistent, game intelligent outfit has been shaped into genuine title contenders.

As for Solskjaer, he’s resilient, more tactically astute than often given credit for, and as the weeks go by he continues to convert doubters into believers at Old Trafford. It’s been a strange season, perhaps reflected in United’s presence at the summit of the table, but while there’s still plenty of football to be played the club’s fans have reason to be optimistic.

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What a transformation it's been at Southampton

Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton)

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s pulsating passion is simply infectious. He’s a vocal, energetic and engaging ball of emotion on the touchline. Barking instructions at his players, celebrating every goal as if it had just won the title, and taking every - admittedly now increasingly rare - defeat to heart. 

In the aftermath of Ronald Koeman’s exit to Everton in 2016, Southampton supporters were forced to endure sleep-inducing football under the likes of Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, and Mark Hughes. 

It may have taken time to come to fruition, but the patience of Hasenhuttl’s philosophy has paid dividends, especially after a certain result last season. 

Saints play a fantastic, high-intensity, intricate brand of football, conducted on the sidelines by their widely adored Austrian. While they are great to watch, arguably Hasenhuttl’s greatest achievement to date is transforming a previously defensively vulnerable side into a resolute and solid all round unit; no top-flight club have accrued more clean sheets so far this season.

To be successful both individually and collectively in Hasenhuttl’s system you’ve got to work hard, extremely hard in fact. Every single player has a pivotal role to play. From star striker Danny Ings leading the press, to skipper James Ward-Prowse orchestrating the midfield, and a rejuvenated Jannik Vestergaard fending off attacks and launching sumptuous passes at the back.

At the time of writing Saints are fresh off the back of a superb win over Liverpool and within three points of a Champions League spot at what is approximately the half-way stage. The challenge now will not only be how they tackle the various challenges that they’ll face through to the summer, but keeping hold of their manager, who will be linked with a move away at some point in the near future.

Dean Smith (Aston Villa)

Dean Smith came under an avalanche of pressure last season following a double-figured winless streak, which left the club four points from safety with four games to play. 

While it may have been Aston Villa’s first season back in the big time, the club had splashed a gargantuan amount of cash upon their arrival, only for expectation and pressure to hit them hard.

Not only was Smith’s job on a knife’s edge, but his boyhood club looked in real danger of meekly succumbing to the clutches of relegation.

They stayed up by the skin of their teeth - one point - Smith kept his job, and they clung onto Jack Grealish during the off-season. The transition from then through to now has been simply stunning.

Smith has transformed Villa from naive to effective. Spearheaded by skipper Grealish, they have evolved into one of the most watchable teams in the top-flight. The word vulnerable can no longer be fired in the direction of a now compact and simultaneously energetic Villa, who are dangerous in attack and stubborn in defence.

Smith can take credit for this; with summer signings Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash, Emiliano Martinez all flying, as was Ross Barkley before his injury.

Smith’s side are currently 8th but they have two games more than all the clubs around them. Some of the results have been staggering. The 7-2 win over defending champions Liverpool remains ineffable, there was the 3-0 destruction of Arsenal at the Emirates, and the last-gasp wins at Leicester and Wolves.

It’s been the most unpredictable of seasons, but Villa have been consistently good. Smith will refuse to get ahead of himself but on current evidence a top-six standing - or whisper it quietly - maybe even a top-four place, could actually be within reach. Why not?

Carlo Ancelotti (Everton)

"This is a strong motivation for every one of us, to bring this club where it was when Howard Kendall was here,” said Carlo Ancelotti this week; a line which will no doubt give all Evertonians goosebumps, many of whom will still be pinching themselves that they have the Italian nestled in the Toffees dugout.

It’s been very much a re-build project at Goodison Park following a number of erratic seasons involving underperforming managers, but finally the fans have a team they can be proud of - and you feel there’s still so much more to come. 

Everton rocketed out the blocks at the start of the season, then had a dip in form, but to their credit have since carved out a number of impressive wins over the likes of Chelsea, Leicester, Arsenal, and Wolves; only goal difference prevents Ancelotti’s men from a place in the top-four.

Ancelotti has brought buckets of experience, tactical nous, and quiet charm to the table.

He’s created a positive environment for players to flourish, and utilised his profile as one of the leading managers in the game to lure over James Rodriquez and Allan. Fellow newbie Abdoulaye Doucoure has also impressed, then there’s Dominic Calvert Lewin who has elevated into one of the most in-form and goal-hungry strikers in the Premier League.

There’s a new found toughness and resilience, they aren’t afraid to fight and scrap when need be, while from a defensive perspective they’ve improved as the season has progressed. Crucially, they have ground out wins that would previously have eluded them. 

Ancelotti’s project re-build is by no means the finished article - and that’s what is so exciting.

David Moyes

David Moyes is unlikely to be a realistic contender for Premier League Manager of the Season come May, but he won’t mind that stance. He’s been written off many times before.

A surprise and widely panned appointment a year ago, Moyes has quietly restored a reputation that was torn to shreds after spells at Man Utd and Sunderland. He did an OK job at Real Sociedad, then in his first brief stint at West Ham he did a creditable job, only to have that cruelly taken away from him.

He’s often been rather harshly criticised in the media, but he’s proved to be a more than capable appointment at West Ham, who have enjoyed a very respectable season to date; he’s brought stability, flashes of excitement and organised the defence.

There’s plenty of work to be done, but in Jarrod Bowen, Fabian Balbuena, and Tomáš Souček - coupled with the experience of Michail Antonio -  the Scot is building an exciting team for the future.

Shout-Outs

While you’d expect to see Liverpool in the top echelons of the title race given their dominance last season, Jurgen Klopp still deserves huge credit considering the heart of his defence was ripped out; due to the long-term injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, while Joel Matip’s season has also been disrupted. Summer signing Jota was in immense form before he too headed for the treatment table, while fellow acquisition Thiago has only just returned from his own lay-off. Every manager has to juggle injuries but the Reds have been hit harder than most.

An unlucky admission from our top-five list, especially considering that Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester are once again challenging near the top of the table. He’s masterminded impressive wins in the big games, from a 5-2 spanking of Man City to a solid 2-0 win at Spurs. It’s the teams the Foxes expect to beat who have proved to be a thorn in the side, however on the whole it’s been another impressive start and one that fans will hope doesn’t tail off like last season.

You simply can’t ignore Leeds and their iconic manager Marcelo Bielsa. And why would you ignore them? They’ve been a breath of fresh air in their first season back in the top-flight; their intensity, workrate, blizzard like movement, and eye-catching displays make them one of the most watchable sides in the league. Win, lose or draw.

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Managers Departed

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Steve Ball
(Colchester United)
23rd February
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