The Premier League has a nostalgia problem
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur on 28 December 2019. Subscribe to OTBC here.
The Premier League has a nostalgia problem. And though it pains me to say it, because I’ve got a soft spot for the man, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started it. His appointment as caretaker Manchester United manager last December, and then as permanent boss the following March, was an obvious attempt to brainwash disgruntled United fans into focusing on the good old days, instead of their current malaise.
And it worked, for a bit, as that weaponised babyface tricked his team into thinking that they’d somehow travelled back in time; for a few magical matches, Manchester United were world beaters again.
Then, in the summer, Frank Lampard came home to Stamford Bridge, to take on the impossible task of securing a top-four finish with an Eden Hazard-less side made up of homegrown babies and assorted dross worth a mere £300(ish) million.
Also in the summer, Freddie Ljungberg was promoted to Arsenal’s first-team coaching staff — only to find himself replacing his boss, Unai Emery, just a few months later. Because the tactic of appointing a fan favourite paid off spectacularly — Ljungberg steered Arsenal to 1 (one) victory in 4 (four) games — the powers that be looked to repeat the trick by bringing back another ex-Gunner, Mikel Arteta, to really push on.
A week after Ljungberg ascended to the Arsenal throne, Everton sacked Marco Silva — enter interim manager Duncan “Pashun Personified” Ferguson, who spent ten years with the Toffees as a striker, and who, despite being the exact opposite of Solskjaer in every possible way, inspired a similar uptick in form. Cue pundits fawning over his touchline displays, in which he demonstrated his own unique take on “arm round the shoulder” man management by being more concerned about the morale of the Goodison Park ball boys than that of his own 19-year-old centre-forward.
Despite their differences, Ole and Dunc, and Frank, and Freddie, and Mikel, are all symbols of the same thing: modern football’s obsession with turning to the recent past in search of an identity. Arsenal’s recruitment efforts were said to focus on “Arsenal DNA” — aka someone who just gets it, man. Solskjaer, meanwhile, seems to think that if he invokes “the Manchester United way” enough times he’ll conjure up a functional football club, but saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true; if anything, it renders it meaningless.
And that’s the problem. It’s not that ex-players are becoming managers — that’s always been the way of things, and makes complete sense. And it’s not that clubs are willing to give their ex-players a go in the top job; new managers have to cut their teeth somewhere, and are most likely to find a sympathetic ear at clubs they served well on the pitch.
The issue is the back-to-front mindset that this all illustrates: the assumption that the way to restore a labouring team to its glory days is to bring back someone associated with those glory days. It’s a kind of “build it and they will come” approach, if “build it” means “make a rash decision based almost exclusively on sentiment” and “they” means silverware and widespread fan approval. But it’s all optics and no substance, a distraction from a lack of planning and vision. Fuzzy feelings and reflected glory can only go so far.
To continue to make an example of Arsenal, their current struggles haven’t come about because their manager hasn’t been “Arsenal-y” enough — if that were the priority, they’d have kept hold of Arsène Wenger. The issues are extensive, systemic, from the top down — so why are they trying to solve them from the bottom up?
“Rediscovering the [insert team here] way” is invariably just shorthand for “winning”. And that’s how you bring back the good times — by succeeding on the pitch. But that takes, as Norwich demonstrated last season, a broad and cohesive effort, in which the manager is just one cog in a much bigger footballing machine. However sizeable their reputation, and however good they once looked in Calvin Klein underpants, a coach can’t do it alone.
This pervading, soft-focus emphasis on the past is unhelpful. Football is cyclical, with rises and falls. No team can achieve infinite success; winning is a habit, not a right. We are seeing proof of that now, as we witness something once deemed unthinkable: the crumbling of the Premier League’s old order, which is painful for fans of those clubs, but — let’s be honest — hugely satisfying for the rest of us.
There’s nothing wrong with indulging in moments of contained nostalgia. But these clubs are working on a false assumption: the idea that hope comes from past achievements, not future promise. Hope is by definition something that requires anticipation, imagination — it’s no coincidence that the league’s best sides are led by two of the game’s most forward-thinking managers. If stuttering clubs can learn to adapt, to renew themselves, they might just thrive; those who insist on looking back will founder.