Never is English football’s ignorance of the wider game more evident than in the Sky Sports Studio on Saturday afternoon, when Paul Merson wrestles with exotic linguistics to mispronounce foreign names for comedic effect.
But Merson’s superficiality goes further than simply confusing a Chelsea winger with a judge on The Voice and Leicester City’s Islam Slimani with a type of Italian sausage; there’s an almost intentional laziness to his punditry and particularly when asked to analyse anyone or anything outside the parameters of the Premier League.
If he’s heard of them before, they’re top-class – if he hasn’t, they must be rubbish. That’s how Merson’s brain works, and in truth, probably how a lot of ours do too. When we’re presented with little evidence, we find it easier to jump to one extreme or the other rather than admitting we don’t know enough – although, in the case of a professional pundit, that kind of dilemma shouldn’t really arise.
When a relatively unknown Marco Silva arrived in the Premier League with Hull City in January, Merson unleashed one of his most bitter rants, bringing up the age-old debate of why under-performing English managers don’t get jobs in the top flight by querying how a title and cup-winning boss in Greece and Portugal respectively was being hired over Gary Rowett, who had just been sacked by Birmingham City despite leading them to seventh place.
“I could win the league with Olympiakos. I’m not even joking. They’ve won it 107 times and it’s only been going 106 years. Why does it always have to be a foreign manager? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against foreign managers – Klopp, Pep Guardiola, these are top-drawer managers.
“This geezer ain’t any different to Gary Rowlett. These ex-footballers, they’re doing four-year, five-year courses, costing a fortune to do their badges, and none of them get a chance. None of them get a chance to manage at the top level. The ones who are – like Sean Dyche, who is doing a great job at Burnley – are fighting relegation every year.
“Will he get a good job? This is a good job. Hull are a good team, great stadium, some very good players. But what does he know about the Premier League?”
At the time, Merson’s xenophobic stance on Premier League management was embraced by many watching from their sofas, and probably a number of Hull City fans too, but history has rewritten it as spectacularly misinformed. Although Rowett’s impressive start at Derby County suggests he could’ve made an impact at the KCOM Stadium, the chances of him matching Silva’s turnaround at a club he took over in bottom place seem marginal at best.
The Portuguese’s arrival had an immediate effect as Hull ran Manchester United close over two legs in the EFL Cup in a pair of impressive tactical displays and Silva’s organisational nous quickly instigated a revival of Premier League form too, the Tigers picking up seven points form his first four league fixtures in charge – including a scoreless draw at Old Trafford and a shock 2-0 win over then-title-chasing Liverpool at home.
Bringing Hull back to the right side of the drop line proved too big a challenge for the former Olympiacos boss in the end, defeats to Sunderland and relegation rivals Crystal Palace being the downfall that cemented the club’s relegation. Nonetheless, Hull’s improvements under Silva verged upon remarkable, almost doubling their points per game to 1.2 – a return that, if stretched over the whole season, would see the Yorkshire outfit finish up with 46 points, a better current haul than Southampton in eighth.
For a manager who was essentially given just £10million excess to spend in January and had to rebuild a team practically overnight whilst instantaneously improving results, that’s some transformation. Consequentially, Silva is now the media’s most commonly mooted management target for any club tipped to change up this summer, with The Telegraph claiming earlier this month he’s already on the radars of West Ham, Southampton and Watford. Appealingly, his short-term Hull contract expires this summer.
Merson has been made to eat his words for now, yet the Portuguese’s next move could well prove him right. Although Silva has been a successful appointment for Hull, at least in terms of the improvements he inspired, there’s still a feeling that the British media have fallen for the hype with just the evidence of 17 games and an exotic name to go on. Although Silva has proved the wrong person for Merson to centre his rant around, it’s certainly true that we fall in love with foreign managers, declaring them geniuses and revolutionaries, for using tactics that wouldn’t look out of place at Sean Dyche’s Burnley.
We know more about Silva than we did when he first turned up in Yorkshire, but do we know enough, and has he really done enough, to justify links with three clubs who will want to finish in the top half at a bare minimum next season? As is often the case with limited knowledge, English football’s leading voices have veered from one extreme to the other. And he may have almost pulled off the unimaginable at Hull City, but Silva still has his flaws.
No doubt, the Portuguese has shown some impressive strengths that must be mentioned too. He made Hull competitive against the Premier League’s top sides – even their 2-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge produced a convincing performance – and has changed matches when he’s needed to, either by tactics, substitutions or half-time team talks, winning eight points from losing positions.
That’s the kind of game management you’d expect from a top-level boss at a big club and once again, the way in which Silva rebuilt his team in personnel and identity in such a short space of time was phenomenal, something which, when combined with his variety of formations used, hints at an ability to simplify instructions and communicate them and effectively.
Yet, Silva failed at the final hurdle and that must be analysed deeper. Gaining points on the road proved his ultimate and eventually unconquerable challenge, picking up just two from a possible 27. Admittedly, six of their nine opponents are currently in the top half, but Silva must have known survival would depend on at least a few wins away from the KCOM.
Rather tellingly, the defeats that condemned Hull to the Championship against Sunderland and Crystal Palace were both on the road; more worryingly, his side completely choked in the showdown at Selhurst Park, losing 4-0. You have to wonder why Silva couldn’t reproduce the kind of tactical masterclasses he’d shown earlier in the season against the Premier League’s bottom and fourth-bottom sides – although a miraculous performance from Jordan Pickford and the most debasing of errors from Andrea Ranocchia certainly had something to do with it.
There are other concerns too; for all the improvement Hull have shown in shape and organisation, they’ve created the fewest chances of any Premier League side since Silva took the reigns. They’ve also produced the third-most errors leading to goals, conceded the second-most goals, picked up the second-most yellows and the most red cards. Whilst that’s perhaps acceptable for a Hull City side fighting for their lives, it doesn’t suggest an improvement in attacking style or defensively compared to the current set-ups at West Ham, Watford and Southampton.
Of course, there would be a higher quality of player at his disposal at any of those three clubs, but we’re yet to know if that will make a real difference to Silva’s results, who lasted just one season at Sporting Lisbon – the most talented side he’s managed thus far – finishing one place lower than their seasons prior and after.
Whilst Silva has enjoyed an impressive first six months in the Premier League, there’s certainly a case to argue that our limited knowledge of the 39-year-old’s efforts previously have skewed our perspective of his performance at Hull City, billing him as a bona fide genius because he’s foreign, rather than simply a who combined defensive tactics with a feel-good factor to improve a side that, in truth, probably couldn’t have gotten much worse. Paul Clement, who actually kept Swansea up, isn’t getting the same kind of praise right now.
So, West Ham and Southampton fans, would you have Silva at your club, or is he overrated? Let us know by voting below…