Analysis

The 5 most underrated Premier League managers of all time

Bruce Rioch Dennis Bergkamp

Michael Cox, author of The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, on the bosses who weren’t given full credit for their achievements – from Arsenal’s quiet revolutionary to Liverpool’s big mouth

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Bruce Rioch (Arsenal)

Bruce Rioch

Rioch's name generally only crops up as the answer to a quiz question (‘Who was Arsenal’s manager before Arsene Wenger?’), and those who recall his presence in the Arsenal dugout remember little more than his disagreements with Ian Wright and reputation as a hard taskmaster.

However, behind the old-school approach there was a thoughtful manager who started Arsenal’s rapid evolution over the 1990s, helping to embrace a more cultured, attack-minded game than Gunners fans were accustomed to under George Graham.

Bruce could quite easily have been where Arsene Wenger is today

- Tony Adams

Rioch’s tactical approach was based around two major concepts. First, he wanted Arsenal to pass the ball out from the back more, whereas previously they’d depended upon long balls. The likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown embraced this style, while Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn enjoyed extra licence to overlap.

Second, he wanted Arsenal to become less reliant upon Wright for goals, encouraging the forwards to contribute to passing moves and the midfielders to get themselves into goalscoring positions more. Signing Dennis Bergkamp, meanwhile, was arguably a more significant moment in terms of Arsenal’s footballing identity than the appointment of Wenger.

“Bruce could quite easily have been where Arsene Wenger is today,” said Tony Adams a few years ago. It was Rioch’s only Premier League job, and he has remained out of the limelight in retirement, sporadically emerging to enthusiastically praise Wenger and Arsenal’s style of play that he, in a subtle way, helped to create.

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Alan Ball (Southampton, Manchester City)

Alan Ball

Ball is remembered more favorably as a player than a manager: the general perception is that he was England’s outstanding player in the 1966 World Cup Final but did little in coaching other than taking Manchester City to relegation.

But managerial legacies are about more than mere results, and Ball should be commended for being one of the few managers in the mid-1990s to embrace flair players. At a time of 4-4-2, long balls and muddy pitches, Ball invested huge faith in two misunderstood No.10s.

On his first day in charge, Ball put Le Tissier in the center of his side and literally told Southampton’s players to get the ball to him whenever possible

The first was Matt Le Tissier, perhaps the most universally popular Premier League player of this era, but one who had been suffering badly under the management of Ball’s predecessor. Ian Branfoot had liked long balls and often left out Le Tissier, but Ball was having none of it. On his first day in charge, he put Le Tissier in the center of his side and literally told Southampton’s players to get the ball to him whenever possible. He responded with 45 goals in 64 games, essentially from a midfield role, which helped to haul Southampton away from relegation.

Ball controversially decamped to Manchester City, where his first signing was Georgi Kinkladze – arguably the single most technically gifted footballer in the Premier League at that stage. Again, he built his side around the Georgian and the City fans fell in love with his mazy dribbles and mesmeric, if inconsistent, performances.

Ultimately, it backfired spectacularly - and City went down. But Kinkladze’s general popularity meant Ball had helped to promote the type of technical talents that had often been overlooked in English football, and for that he deserves his share of credit.

Brendan Rodgers (Swansea, Liverpool)

Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers is routinely dismissed as some kind of novelty figure, despite the fact he’s performed an excellent job at three consecutive clubs: guiding Swansea to promotion, taking Liverpool to within a whisker of the Premier League, then steering Celtic to a historic unbeaten season.

Judge him on results rather than post-match interviews and it’s clear that he’s a very talented coach. Rodgers’ Swansea side were significant as the Premier League’s most committed possession-based side, at a time when ball retention was coveted more than ever before.

What’s often forgotten is that Liverpool started that campaign as fifth favorites for the title. Coming close to glory meant Rodgers was hugely exceeding expectations

Only two sides in the division, Manchester City and Arsenal, averaged more possession in Swansea’s debut season - and they outpassed, and beat, both those sides at the Liberty Stadium. For a newly promoted side with such modest resources that they didn’t even have a training ground, it was a huge achievement.

His Liverpool stint is remembered as a failure because of the narrow miss in 2013/14, but what’s often forgotten is that Liverpool started that campaign as fifth favorites for the title. Coming close to glory meant Rodgers was hugely exceeding expectations.

Scrapping his previous emphasis upon possession for a fast-paced counter-attacking style, Rodgers juggled the demands of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez by deploying them intelligently in different positions. He also got the best from Jordan Henderson, realized Raheem Sterling’s precocious talents and created brilliant gameplans which worked wonders in big games – the 5-1 win over then-league leaders Arsenal remains particularly memorable.

There are few Premier League managers who have created two tactically significant Premier League sides. Rodgers did – and Steven Gerrard’s slip shouldn’t mask his contribution.