What makes a great manager? Do they have to win pieces of silverware? Do they have to simply keep the balance sheets ticking over? Do they have to play ‘The *Insert Team Name* Way’? Do they need to just gaze cinematically down camera lenses while sporting a suave short back and sides and an even more ravishing coat?
Whatever the criteria for a top number one, we’ve ranked the ten best currently plying their trade in the lion’s den of the Premier League.
The ranking order is based on a mixture of achievements both past and present, so please bear that in mind before revving up the keyboard to bemoan how your team’s manager either isn’t here or isn’t high enough.
Who are the best Premier League managers?
10. Dean Smith (Aston Villa)
Perhaps still a controversial choice despite Aston Villa’s start to the season, but four wins from as many games is some feat for a team who only avoided relegation by one point last term.
Dean Smith not only took his beloved boyhood club up from the Championship after being stuck in the second tier for three seasons, but stabilised them in the top-flight and is quietly moulding an extremely exciting squad.
Not only has Smith improved the likes of Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish, but summer signings such as Emiliano Martinez, Ross Barkley and Ollie Watkins already look shrewd purchases. He may be flavour of the month, but is certainly among the most underrated Premier League managers.
9. Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton)
Another who has gone somewhat under the radar, Ralph Hasenhuttl seems to garner far less credit than some of his Premier League counterparts, but don’t underestimate the job he’s done at Southampton.
The Saints were only going one way when he replaced Mark Hughes in December 2018, but Hasenhuttl kept them up in his first term with some to spare, and again turned the tide after that chastening 9-0 home defeat to Leicester last October.
Thanks in no small part to Danny Ings’ 22 league goals, Southampton finished a commendable 11th, losing just one of their nine post-lockdown games and ending 2019-20 on a seven-game unbeaten run.
Let’s not forget his earlier achievements as a manager, either. Hasenhuttl became the first manager to take Ingolstadt 04 to the Bundesliga in 2015, and then finished 11th with them the following year, before leading RB Leipzig to runners-up and into the Champions League. It’s no surprise that Southampton finally seem to be heading back in the right direction with the Austrian at the helm.
8. Chris Wilder (Sheffield Utd)
If Dean Smith is in vogue right now, Chris Wilder certainly is not. A meagre return of one point and two goals from their first five league games has left many concluding that Sheffield United are the latest club to suffer second-season syndrome.
But what a first season it was. Wilder had already taken a side who finished 11th in League One in the year prior to his arrival up as champions at the first attempt, then achieved a second promotion two years later with his boyhood club. Few fancied the Blades to make a first of it in the top tier.
Yet they defied the odds with their swashbuckling, uncompromising football, built around the cornerstone of three overlapping central defenders, to finish an exceptional ninth. Even if they can’t replicate that this term, Wilder has already proved himself a worthy entrant on this list.
7. Nuno Espirito Santo (Wolves)
Another manager who loves a back three, Wolves’ Nuno has revolutionised a club ailing in Championship mid-table before his arrival in the summer of 2017.
It certainly helps when you have the financial muscle of Chinese conglomerate Fosun behind you, but the way in which Nuno has knitted together one of the smallest squads in the league – Wolves used the fewest players (21) in the Premier League, despite a mammoth Europa League campaign, too – deserves immense credit on his part.
Raul Jimenez is one of the most predatory strikers in the league, dead-ball specialist Ruben Neves and cool customer Joao Moutinho make up one of the most effective central midfield partnerships, and Conor Coady has gone from decent Championship player to defensive warrior, and now an England player.
Nuno had short-lived spells at Valencia and Porto prior to Wolves, but it’s Molineux where he’s really made his own. Two consecutive seventh-placed finishes, regardless of his financial backing, with any newly-promoted side is a remarkable feat.
7. Brendan Rodgers (Leicester)
Look past the bucketload of Brent-isms and there is actually a superb manager in Brendan Rodgers who, by and large, has recovered well from the mental scars at Liverpool.
It all rather fell away for Rodgers at Anfield once Luis Suarez left, but it should not go overlooked just how irrepressible Rodgers’ Liverpool were for much of 2013-14, only missing out on the title by two points. The Scottish league may not quite have the same competitive edge, but seven trophies in almost three full seasons at Celtic is still worth celebrating.
And so to Leicester, which has been a tale of occasional troughs but mostly head-spinning peaks. That 9-0 win at Southampton was the apex, but it’s easy to forget, so grimly they fell away last term, that for some time, Rodgers’ Foxes were Liverpool’s closest challengers in 2019-20. In that respect, it says something that a side whose previous three league finishes were 12th, ninth and ninth were bitterly disappointed to end up fifth.
Rodgers is another manager who has largely improved what he inherited. Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, in particular, became better players under him at Anfield, as did Moussa Dembele and Kieran Tierney at Celtic, as have Caglar Soyuncu, Ricardo Pereira, Harvey Barnes and – once again – the ageless Jamie Vardy at Leicester. Above all else, he’s a first-class coach.
5. Marcelo Bielsa (Leeds)
Tactical visionary, inspiration to Pep Guardiola, bucket-sitter and spy-deployer, how could Marcelo Bielsa rank so highly despite being so early into his Premier League career?
Plenty had tried to awaken the sleeping giant of Leeds United since relegation from the top-flight in 2004. 14, in fact. All had failed. Then along came ‘El Loco’ who, again largely by improving the crop of players he was first saddled with, imprinted his own trademark brand of football which saw Leeds promoted at the second time of asking after a near miss in the play-offs the year earlier.
It will be interesting to see if ‘Bielsa Burnout’ rears its ugly head again in the Premier League – the Argentinian made a habit of running his teams, namely Marseille and Athletic Bilbao, into the ground before season’s end. Either way, Bielsa is one of the game’s most revered coaches with good reason, and English football is richer for his presence.
4. Jose Mourinho (Tottenham)
Even if his star may be waning, it’s impossible to ignore the impact on top-flight management that Jose Mourinho has had in the last 15 years. His pragmatism can be a turn-off for many, but three Premier Leagues, five domestic English cups, two Champions Leagues and two Europa Leagues only scratch the surface – Mourinho is undoubtedly a serial winner.
His time at Tottenham thus far has fluctuated from one stand-out victory to the next thudding defeat – judging by the recent Amazon documentary, it clearly isn’t for lack of enthusiasm (or swear words) on the Portuguese’s part, though. But the dovetailing between Harry Kane and Son-Heung Min offers great promise, as does the garlanded return of Gareth Bale.
They say those who stand still are left behind. Tottenham feels like the defining chapter at this stage of Mourinho’s career, in terms of whether he can still stay relevant and shed this growing tag of an analog man in a digital world.
3. Carlo Ancelotti (Everton)
Another old-timer with a glistening trophy cabinet, Carlo Ancelotti has won almost as many pieces of silverware in his managerial career as Everton have as a club in their 142-year history.
With three Champions Leagues and league titles in four different major European countries, the Italian’s CV speaks for itself. Yet some doubted whether someone who had dined at the top table for so long would have the tools to thrive lower down the food chain with Everton – how he’s proved them wrong so far.
Ancelotti took on a bloated mishmash of players from numerous failed regimes, tweaked to a more effective 4-4-2 to solidify Everton, then bought shrewdly to revitalise a limp midfield with Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré and James Rodriguez.
Thanks to them, and the players he has rejuvenated like Michael Keane, Lucas Digne and the free-scoring Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton are the early Premier League pace-setters. But none of this, you feel, would have been possible without the touch of a manager as supreme as Ancelotti. Little by little, he is transcending the Toffees.
2. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
There’s little else that can be said that hasn’t been already about Pep Guardiola – what could there be about a man who changed the face of modern-day football, and whose glut of trophies includes two Champions Leagues, three La Ligas and two Premier Leagues?
The Premier League has only offered further proof of his genius. At Manchester City, he has nurtured Kevin de Bruyne into the world’s best midfielder, improved Raheem Sterling’s goal return immeasurably, and created a team perfectly in his image: where everyone, including goalkeeper Ederson, is adept with the ball at their feet.
The Spaniard is not without his flaws: his dedication to not addressing City’s glass jaw – their lightweight defence – is concerning despite their unrivalled largesse, as can be the way he overthinks games when actually a more simple approach would suffice. But this is nit-picking in the extreme; for only the greatest of managers can fundamentally change the way we think about football, and Guardiola belongs in that pantheon.
1. Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)
Currently, though, it would be hard to argue that Guardiola isn’t outshone by his old foe from across the north-west, Jurgen Klopp.
After missing out to Guardiola’s City on the Premier League crown by one point in 2018-19 (despite amassing 97 of their own), Liverpool responded emphatically by sauntering to their first league title in 30 years.
From the overlapping red arrows of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, the impregnability in defence build around Alisson in goal and Virgil van Dijk, the leadership of Jordan Henderson and the sheer class of their Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino up front, Liverpool were easily the best team in England last season, and the way Klopp has not transformed them but reinvigorated them year after year.
It is a continuation of the respect he earned as a boss in his native Germany, having led Mainz to the Bundesliga, a league he then won twice with Borussia Dortmund in successive seasons. His football may not be as ‘pure’ as Guardiola’s, but his impact on the game has been just as gargantuan.