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What makes a good football manager?

by The Supercoach on Dec 19, 2011

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If I asked you to name the top five managers in the world, who would you list? Mine looks like this:

1. Alex Ferguson
2. Joachim Lowe
3. Jose Mourinho
4. Pep Guardiola
5. Arsene Wenger

No doubt there will be people who will disagree with my list, claiming that managers like Guus Hiddink, Fabio Capello, Jurgen Klopp and Rudi Garcia should be in the top five. All have valid claims, but my list is my list, and that’s how I’ve ranked them.

There is a common theme in great managers; very few of them were great players. While most managers are ex-players, most successful managers weren’t star players.

Of course there are exceptions, Capello and Guardiola were incredibly successful players, but Wenger, Mourinho, Garcia and Klopp never played for their country. Ferguson played for a Scotland XI while Lowe only played four times for West Germany. More tellingly, Andre Villas-Boas, widely regarded as the most promising young manager in the world, has never played professional football.

The theory is, what separates the great players from the rest of the professional playing stock is instinctive and nearly impossible to teach. Truly great players tend not to think too much on the football field, as it comes naturally.

Meanwhile, workmanlike players like Wenger (a dogged defensive midfielder) need have to have a deeper understanding of the game in order to compete with and against players of natural talent. Another example is someone like Gary Neville who, while not a truly exceptional player, has impressed with his analysis since retirement.

I would go so far as to suggest that the most authoritative speakers on not just football, but all sports, are not ex-players, but career journalists. I’m not suggesting that there is no place for the ex-player pundit, there is, as they can offer valuable insight from a playing perspective. What I am saying is that non-players have more highly developed analytical skills than ex-players, making them better analysts and potentially, managers.

This brings us of course to Andres Villas-Boas, the young Portuguese manager of Chelsea. Villas-Boas was discovered by Sir Bobby Robson following a letter he wrote as a boy, which Villas-Boas left in an elevator in the apartment complex shared by the two.

Villas-Boas has never played professional football, instead at age 21 he was managing the British Virgin Islands national team. Instead of holding him back, Villas-Boas was regarded as hot property as a manager following his success with Porto last year, leading them to an undefeated season and the Europa League championship. Chelsea reported paid FC Porto €15million to trigger the release clause in his contract.

That said, there seems to be a mentality that in order to be a manager or a leading analyst, you need to have been a player. Not just that, there seems to be a mentality, especially in England, that there is a direct correlation between the ability of a player and their potential ability as a manager or analyst.

I’m not convinced this is the case; I would even go so far as to say that logic is flawed.

When players are being taught to play the game, non-players spend their time analysing and scrutinising the game, from a much higher level. Players learn tactical nuances through their playing days, which are then increased when they obtain coaching badges. Simply put, they don’t spend as much time analysing the game from a game level as a journalist or coach would.

If we were to look at the National Football League in the United States, a game which is incredibly tactical, we find that most head coaches would have only played at the college level. However, Gridiron is a much more tactical sport than football and U.S college football is played at a very competitive level.

Nonethless, college football is not the top tier and most head coaches generally took up coaching positions in their early 20’s. This supports my theory that to become successful coach or analyst, you need to remove yourself from the game in order to develop analytical and critical observation skills.

Most players do not have these skills. This is no fault of their own; players spend the first 15-20 years of their career learning how to play the game or their position. They have an understanding of tactics and formations, but it is generally limited to how it applies to them as a player, rather than the entire team.

Granted, junior players, especially those in Dutch academies, are taught to play all, not just a single position and this does help in attaining a broader understanding of the game. First and foremost they are taught to play, not to think about, football.

That difference, individual versus team, is crucial in managerial success, but also in football analysis. Many leading voices and analysts on the game, Gabrielle Marcotti and Philippe Auclair as examples, two highly respected analysts who never played the game at the professional level.

Clubs and fans need to move past attributing a direct relationship between playing ability and coaching or analytical ability.

Will football reach a point where most managers are career coaches who didn’t play the game?

Maybe, but it would be hard to win over the respect of the players, especially for a young coach. They may also find it impossible to relate to players and vice versa.

Maybe clubs should look into bringing young coaches on board in assistant and scouting positions within the club, with a view of the best and brightest moving up through the ranks as they gain experience. There are obvious advantages to such an approach, such as understanding the club culture and fans.

Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future. Will we see more clubs with managers who aren’t ex-players or will Andre Villas-Boas remain the exception?