Martin O’Neill may not be the only one of the Premier League’s supposed ‘safe hands’ to leave his club this season.
The Northern Irishman took Sunderland too close to the drop zone and subsequently had to go to ensure that the club did not drop into the Championship.
They may still end up in the second tier next season but the option to twist rather than stick was becoming increasingly compelling with each listless performance.
The question many have asked is why O’Neill has struggled this season? He is a manager considered, if nothing else, to be a wonderful motivator, so why is the team so listless? So lacking in any guile or fight? O’Neill is one of those managers who was moulded in an age when the Premier League was blood and thunder, and football considerably more agricultural.
O’Neill learned his trade under Brian Clough, who himself appreciated passing attacking football, but nothing like the type of play we see today. Swansea and Southampton are the new standard bearers. We live in an age where Premier League managers are more likely to have revered Marcelo Bielsa or Johan Cruyff than Alf Ramsey.
Yet O’Neill seems to have fallen behind somewhere. His teams have always been rather limited in their attacking intent. Sure, they do like to attack, you cannot accuse the Northern Irishman of being fundamentally defensive. But his sides only ever really seem to know how to get the ball out wide to the fast winger and then put the ball into the box for a big striker. At Leicester, at Celtic and then at Aston Villa, that is the way O’Neill’s teams worked. And it worked too, until English football evolved from this more basic, primitive mode of football. Today, English football is more intelligent, more technical, based on passing triangles and pressing high up the pitch. O’Neill seems lost in a world like this.
It is not just him either. Tony Pulis is increasingly struggling at Stoke City. He has hit a ceiling where the kind of long ball, physical football he so loves to play cannot achieve any more than it already has. It is a limited style of football, which does not use the kind of clever passing that defines the very best. As such, its end results are always going to be rather limited.
That is ultimately the problem facing Stoke City now. Having spent huge sums to get in and stay in the Premier League, what do they do with Pulis now? Many fans are tired of his limited, defensive football. To their credit, they have higher ambitions than seeing their beloved team impersonate a rugby side every week. O’Neill’s Sunderland were never that bad, but they did not seem to know how to attack other than through the limited wide man crosses to big man technique.
Both managers also like to rely on tried and tested average Premier League players. There is only so far the likes of Steven Fletcher, Peter Crouch or Steven N’Zonzi can take you. These limited but capable players, without the intelligence and technical talents of those Swansea and Southampton hire, limit a team’s attacking potential fundamentally.
This symbolises the drift away from the more agricultural, limited styles that these managers so love. This is an age where the likes of O’Neill and Pulis are becoming increasingly outdated. Sam Allardyce is another seemingly set to leave West Ham this summer despite delivering them safety this season. Having achieved the goal the club wanted him to, recognising his abilities as a capable manager who gets the best out of a set of players, they have ambitions to go further and higher. For that, Allardyce is not the man. Is this the end of the era then, of the route one long ball managers of old? One can only hope so for the good of the English game. And the signs are promising at present.