With David Moyes finally getting the chop at Manchester United, the search for Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor goes back to square one. Since taking over from Ferguson last summer, Moyes has never looked entirely comfortable at the helm and his sacking almost feels like an act of mercy. He always seemed to be a temporary manager mistakenly given a permanent position.
So now the candidates begin to line-up for this prestigious post, with Louis van Gaal the current favorite according to the bookies. The decidedly zany Dutchman has certainly made no secret of the fact that he is interested in taking the job but there are plenty of red flags, from his history of dressing rooms bust-ups to a track record of refusing to listen to his superiors at his former clubs. One supposedly strong plus for van Gaal, however, appears to be his experience.
This idea of an experienced hand as manager is one that has a fair bit of traction in soccer, as it does in other industries. The received wisdom goes that to right a ship (and a ship laden with superstar egos at that), an experienced and perhaps older manager is needed. A youngster, like Ryan Giggs, surely won’t be able to handle the pressure and expectation of such a big job, nor command the respect of his superstar players.
But a closer look at Europe’s top clubs show that increasingly, the best teams in Europe are taking on younger managers, perhaps trying to emulate the success of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
Of clubs currently in position to qualify for the Champions League, the average age of the manager is 50.3. The oldest of these managers is Arsene Wenger at 64 and the youngest, other than 40-year-old interim manager Ryan Giggs, is Brendan Rodgers at 41. Interestingly, the median age of the managers is also 50, suggesting that the average is not necessarily skewed by a few youngsters or veterans at either end.
France’s top clubs have the oldest managers with an average age of 56.7 and Germany’s the youngest with an average age of just 43.5. The Premier League’s top 4 have relatively older managers with an average age of 54.
If we look at just the league leaders of Europe’s top clubs, the average age drops considerably. Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, Juventus’ Antonio Conte, Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola and PSG’s Laurent Blanc are all under 50 and have an average age of 43.8. At the very top then, younger managers have become very much de rigueur.
The reasons for this trend towards younger managers at the top clubs are difficult determine and not necessarily the same across the board. Liverpool had been nowhere near the top of the league over recent seasons and last season, Brendan Rodgers appeared to have been given the job in the knowledge that it would be a long term project. Little could they have known that Rodgers would lead Liverpool to (potentially) the top of the pile in just his second season in charge.
It is a similar case with Diego Simeone. Given Atletico Madrid’s disastrous financial situation and constant need to sell their top players, Atletico couldn’t have thought that Simeone would make such a big difference in such a short amount of time. Simeone, however, has somehow managed to create a super motivated and clinical team from a few misfits, clever free transfers, and astute loans.
By contrast, Pep Guardiola was a very different appointment. Guardiola had made his name at Barcelona leading a Blaugrana side that will go down in history as one of the best ever. Despite his youth in managerial terms, his remarkable success at the Nou Camp made him a relatively safe appointment for Bayern Munich, although there was some concern at the time as to whether he would be able to replicate his success with Barcelona at Munich.
Antonio Conte’s situation was different again. The former Juventus midfielder began his managerial career at lower-profile clubs before working his way up to the Juventus job in 2011-12. The previous season, Juventus had finished 7th, not a terrible result given the Calciopoli turmoil of previous years, but not ideal either. Within one season, Conte had returned them to the top of Serie A, quite an astonishing turnaround whatever mitigating factors there may have been.
Finally, Laurent Blanc’s situation has been quite different from all of the above and he is perhaps not quite at the same level as the other managers on this list. Blanc has done a decent job guiding PSG to the top of Ligue 1 but he was low down on the list of PSG’s possible managers when Carlo Ancelotti left in the summer of 2013 for Real Madrid. There is a general feeling that regardless of PSG’s league finish this season, Blanc may be let go in the summer. PSG’s nervy performance against Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals may have been the final nail in the coffin.
With the retirement of Jupp Heynckes and Alex Ferguson last season there is a sense that it may be the end of an era for the older manager. Of the managers over 60 on this list, only Rene Girard can be seen to have done a stellar job with Lille whilst the likes of Arsene Wenger, Manuel Pellegrini and Claudio Ranieri have seen their respective teams not quite live up to expectations.
Perhaps it is the youthful energy of the younger manager that is needed to inspire a team in an era when football seems to be played at a faster pace than ever before. Perhaps younger managers have fresher tactical ideas than older managers. Perhaps today’s players react better to managers closer to their own age. The reasons for this trend could be many and it is hard to determine exactly which reasons are important. Indeed, at the same time, it could just be an anomaly.
Of course there are plenty of younger managers in leagues across Europe and probably the world that don’t work out as well. David Moyes himself is not exactly old at 50. But the argument that top clubs should hire older, more experienced managers seems tenuous. Louis van Gaal may end up being the right choice for Manchester United, but vast experience and age should not be equated with some kind of guarantee of success. The younger generation of managers is making their voices heard and this season in particular, they seem to be having more success than their older counterparts. As they have often done with players, the time may have come for Manchester United to choose youth over experience.