The Brain Behind the Ball

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When a team plays poorly, with whom does the blame lie? Is it the players (who are actually controlling the team’s performance on the field)? No. Is it the chairman and board (who are actually in charge of all of the decisions and the foundations on which the club is built)? No. It’s the manager, the gaffer, the coach.

In this day and age who would want a job like this? But also…who wouldn’t? The role of the manager is practically unrecognisable from the Don Revie days where the manager was in charge of almost everything in the club: recruitment, training, and even giving the players a good old fashioned soapy rub down (the famous photo of Don Revie massaging Kevin Keegan comes to mind).

Nowadays, we often have a director of football for recruitment, managers often delegate coaching roles massively, and I’d be rather surprised if I saw Carlo Ancelotti in a soapy situation with the likes of Leighton Baines.

So, on the face of it, it seems like a rather cushy job: less work to do, and an exponentially greater paycheck? However, there is more scrutiny than ever. Even though their roles are more limited, their perceived responsibility for results has heightened.

There have been many successful managers in the modern era, and there hasn’t been a distinct management style that has won the battle overall. So, let’s have a look at how the battle has played out since the turn of the century, and who may have come out on top.

Sir Alex Ferguson:

He may have taken over as Manchester United manager way back in 1986, but with him leaving in 2013, he was active for more than half of the past 20 years and enjoyed unbelievable success in that time. Regarded by many as possibly the greatest manager ever, and by many more as the greatest manager in the Premier League era, it would be a travesty to not have Fergie on the list of managerial greats. With an old-fashioned hairdryer at the ready, Fergie was not the modern coach who mollycoddled players and stroked their egos (just ask David Beckham’s eyebrow for confirmation of that). With his belief in youth, and his desire to create a dynamic counter-attacking team that drove on to the tune of “Attack, attack, attack”, Fergie’s United managed to win seven Premier League titles, one Champions League, one FA Cup, and three League cups – all merely in his 13 years following the turn of the century.

Arsène Wenger:

Arsène strolled into England as an unknown manager from an unknown Japanese club. Most importantly, he changed the face of English football in a way that no one had ever done so before and has ever done so since. Wenger may have had a heated rivalry with Fergie and Josè Mourinho, but the mostly mild-mannered Frenchman waltzed his way into the hearts of football romanticists the world over. He created the Invincible (2002/03) Arsenal team, won six post-2000 FA Cups, and was a manager who focused on the beauty of the game, the beauty of the process – not merely the beauty of winning.

Josè Mourinho:

Try as you might you will not be able to find a manager as contrasting to Wenger as Mourinho. Josè dubbed Arsène a ‘specialist in failure’ and this is testament to Mourinho’s brash and arrogant persona, along with his pragmatic desire for results, for trophies, regardless of how he gets them. Josè can grind results out in the most unlikely of situations and gain success at any team, but in doing so he dismantles the identity of the club and leaves a team as a shattered and bitter wreck. In Josè’s eyes, he’s at the top of this list. No one else on this list could’ve won the Champions League with Porto, no one else on this list is as much of a winner as Jose is in as many situations, across as many countries and with as many teams. Josè has won eight league titles in five different countries (and this number could rise). So, if you’re judging managerial greatness merely by material success, the Josè is the special one.

Pep Guardiola:

A disciple of both Marcelo Bielsa and Johan Cryuff, Pep has managed and continues to manage to combine the beautiful football of Wenger, with the winning ways of Mourinho. With eight league titles across three countries, Pep’s teams have dominated and been seen as some of the best and most attractive teams in the world. Pep’s Barcelona tiki-taka masters remain the greatest team that I have ever seen, and the football that Pep’s Manchester City played in 2017/18 was up there with some of the most attractive and dominating displays that the Premier League has ever seen. In terms of a modern coach, Pep’s expansive and expressive style was ground-breaking at its conception and continues to be the way forward for success in the modern game. He is well and truly one of the greatest coaches since the turn of the century.

Before I rattle out my ranking for the four aforementioned coaches, there are a few that deserve honourable mentions. Jürgen Klopp bounded onto the scene winning two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund (following his promotion with Maiz). He has now performed a miracle transformation of Liverpool and his stock is only set to rise. Who knows, if Guardiola had not been Man City manager, maybe Klopp would already have been on the list. Mauricio Pochettino also deserves a mention. Even though he has yet to win a trophy, his transformation of Tottenham was remarkable and his coaching style, which was mirrored by Spurs’ style of play, has been a joy to watch. Let’s not forget Carlo Ancelloti as well. The now Everton manager has had success in all of Europe’s big five leagues and has shown himself to be a proven winner, yet he is not revered in the same way as the likes of Mourinho and Guardiola are.

Now, for the final ranking of the candidates for the greatest manager since the turn of the century:

  1. Sir Alex Ferguson
  2. Pep Guardiola
  3. Josè Mourinho
  4. Arsène Wenger

Football has evolved greatly in the last 20 years. Would Fergie be as successful in today’s game, who knows? All we know is that all of these managers had different personal styles (from the harshness of Fergie and José to the personable nature of Arsène and Pep) and they had different footballing styles (from the pacey counter-attacking style of Fergie, to the pragmatic gamesmanship of Jose, to the fluid passing focused games of Arsène and Pep). But all of these managers have achieved unbelievable success and contributed greatly to our enjoyment of the beautiful game. I for one am glad that we have such talented brains behind the ball.

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