The extremes catch our attention in a content-saturated world. Chris Wilder’s introduction into the footballing conscious came through short clips on Twitter documenting Sheffield United’s overlapping centerbacks while the club were in the Championship. Wilder isn’t the first manager whose viral clips on a social media timeline preceded his reputation. Plus, the nature of virality favors possession, and one wonders its influence on up-and-coming managers. But according to some, the biggest upset was in how Sheffield’s viral moment came from an English manager. And unlike recent peers making the leap from wunderkind manager in the Championship to the Premier League, Wilder’s tactics translate to the highest level with the club currently sandwiched between Tottenham and Arsenal at 9th place on the table.
“I have always said if I was ‘Allardicio’ I could have managed Manchester United,” said Sam Allardyce last week in defending Burnley manager Sam Dyche. The discussion centered around how recent Premier League openings at Tottenham and Arsenal overlooked English managers. The 52-year-old Wilder is regional, beginning his playing career at Sheffield in 1986. One article described him as “Yorkshire born and bred, the revolutionary”. His now signature centerback was first unveiled sometime around 2016 when Sheffield were still in League One. It did take a couple years for the world to catch up to his methods, though we can optimistically blame both a lack of video footage and a changing nature of video analysis for the lateness.
The overlapping centerbacks also aligned with our obsession with buildup play. Though the concept is not as reckless as it appears on the surface and plays on fundamental principles seen throughout sides across the world. The formation starts from a 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 shape, with the focus on creating numerical overloads in buildup between the three centerbacks and two midfielders. Overloads are created out wide by a right or left centerback overlapping their side’s wingback, hence the unorthodox innovation. The style blends two recent ideas of using wingbacks as midfielders and of centerbacks’ active role in possession. All from an English manager on a Championship budget.
Mobility and comfortability on the ball are key for Sheffield’s right and left centerbacks, two skillset that enabled Harry Maguire and Virgil van Dijk to break transfer records for the position. Signed for $314,000 and on a free transfer in 2016 and 2014 respectively, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham fill those essential roles. Perhaps the key in finding undervalued players for the position wasn’t in signing centerbacks, but in developing midfielders and fullbacks, with the inherent movement required of their position, into a three defender backline. Behind them is Jonathan Egan, who made his debut for Sunderland in 2011 and was signed to the club in 2018 for just over $5 million, anchoring the backline.
Wilder described club captain Billy Sharpe as “Mr. Sheffield United” after his equalizing goal against Bournemouth in the first game of this Premier League season. Sharpe, like Wilder, started his professional career with Sheffield. The inherent tension between the regional nature of the club and the globalized Premier League plays out in specific ways when contextualizing Wilder’s success. In describing Wilder as the “English Guardiola,” one writer compares the stereotypical English manager of demanding “110 per cent from his players” to Pep Guardiola’s pensive thinker and Jurgen Klopp’s hypnotic mania in how audiences can overlook styles from the region based on narratives. Wilder straddles both lines, admitting that “English managers are not as fashionable today” but adding that he “couldn’t care less” (though Wilder does play up the local flavor by name-checking the Arctic Monkeys).
There are folkloric stories of foreign manager modernizing a Premier League club and winning, starting with Arsene Wenger's focus on diet at Arsenal to Jose Mourinho’s training methods with Chelsea. Likewise, Gareth Southgate discussed the benefits of English players going abroad from a worldly perspective (Kieran Trippier also emphasized his tactical progress under Diego Simeone). Klopp and Guardiola’s record-setting pace in the last two seasons raised the ceiling of what could be accomplished domestically. But while Guardiola won the league with City last season, Wilder beat both Guardiola and Klopp in winning the Manager of the Year award from the League Manager Association.
Though if English managers are suffering from a problem of fashion, then Wilder could actually benefit from today’s age. Like Guardiola’s “tiki-taka” and Klopp’s “gegenpressing”, Wilder does have a brand with his “overlapping centerbacks.” But a surface-level lack of branding is surely not the only reason keeping Eddie Howe from a job with a Champions League chasing side. Frank Lampard’s success at Chelsea shows an English manager’s abilities at a global club, but one wonders whether the likes of Wilder, Dyce, or Howe could crack into a top side without any historical connection to a team.
Regardless, Wilder also represents a common ground that both English and foreign managers can agree upon. He got a stamp of approval from Marcelo Bielsa, who remarked that he “has seen very few people with these kinds of ideas” after a match last season. Allardyce said he wanted Wilder to take over for him at Crystal Palace. An appreciation for innovation transcends all.
“We hope Chris stays with us for many years to come, but this is football,” said Sheffield chairman Prince Musa’ad bin Khalid Al Saud about rumors of Wilder’s future with the team as bigger pocketed clubs circle the manager.
Sheffield United leading the promoted sides in the table this season, with the Championship taking on a new role in the European footballing landscape for players, managers, and audiences (it was the third-highest attended soccer league in Europe at one point this decade, with an average attendance higher than Serie A or La Liga). And as Allardyce hinted, bigger sides will only take more notice of Wilder’s achievements. He has been tipped to take over at Arsenal and potentially at West Ham. It must only be a sense of place keeping him from leaving.
A common refrain during Guardiola’s time in the Bundesliga was how much he influenced a generation of possession-minded German managers from Thomas Tuchel to Julian Nagelsmann. Similarly, Guardiola and Klopp must have influenced English managers at some level today. But are we doing a disservice to those individuals in framing their achievements under a Guardiola or Klopp rubric? As Jonathan Wilson points out, every time an English side puts together a string of double-digit passes leading to a goal, it’s automatically attributed to Guardiola’s influence. There must be some autonomy within innovation. But those same comparisons also add context and a language to frame future managers from all over the football world. Being compared as the next Klopp or Guardiola lacks nuance, but it gives us a reference point to express brilliance in the first place.