By now, the idea that you need to have enjoyed a glittering football career in order to be a successful manager is hopefully no longer a thing. The likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Arrigo Sacchi, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho taught us this a long time ago, but are we now going in the opposite direction?
The thought crossed my mind watching this video ranking the 20 Premier League managers based on their football career. It got me thinking how only Patrick Vieira, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte arguably enjoyed genuinely top-shelf careers filled with titles and silverware. If you want to include Mikel Arteta, with his two FA Cups won when Arsenal were on the slide, or Julen Lopetegui, in a career-backup sort of way, go ahead, but remember that they won just one international cap between them. Unless you were a relative or a bit of an iconoclast, you likely wouldn’t have had posters of any of the other managers on your wall as a kid.
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Those names I mentioned are the top five today. Twenty years ago, the Premier League’s top five was arguably comprised of Graeme Souness, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Peter Reid and Steve Bruce. Those are guys who won European Cups and Ballon d’Ors. After that, you get into guys like Gordon Strachan, Bobby Robson, Trevor Brooking, Mick McCarthy — guys who won stuff and enjoyed significant International careers. Indeed, the difference in that last metric — international caps — is pretty striking. Nine managers from 20 years ago were capped, compared to just four of the current group.
Not only are there more overseas managers today — six of 20 are British or Irish, compared to 17 of 20 in 2002-03 — but as a group, they did not have great footballing careers. Heck, two of them (Thomas Frank and Ruben Selles) didn’t even play competitive football at all. Another two, Brendan Rodgers and Steve Cooper, played at amateur levels before giving it up in their early twenties due to injury and, well, not being good, respectively.
The landscape isn’t entirely dissimilar across Europe. The Bundesliga, which has a long tradition of fast-tracking youth coaches and not considering playing careers, tilts most heavily away from ex-stars — Xabi Alonso, Niko Kovac and Bruno Labbadia were probably the biggest, which isn’t saying much — while Spain goes heaviest the other way (Xavi, Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone, Michel, Sergio, Manuel Pellegrini, Ruben Baraja), with Italy somewhere in the middle (Paulo Sousa, Simone Inzaghi, Thiago Motta).
Why the shift?
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For one, clubs evidently don’t rate reputation as a player anywhere near as highly as it once did. They’ve come to realize that the idea that you would “command respect” and “attract talent” because you were a legendary player doesn’t hold water. Anyone who has spent time around twenty-something footballers will know that often they’re as cynical, unruly and as loathe to listen as teenagers. You often need to win them over every single week and a former great player — particularly if he was a “lead by example” type — isn’t necessarily going to have any sort of edge after the first few training sessions.
Then there’s the obvious fact that the skill set is simply different. As Wenger once told me: “As a player, you are so focused on your own inputs. … How am I doing? What can I improve? How do I feel? But as a manager you’re collecting inputs from 25 different players and processing all of that, plus your own state of mind. It’s completely different.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that even those who had very good careers took a while to get to the top flight in a big league. Vieira retired in 2011 and it wasn’t until 2018, after time in youth development and Major League Soccer, that he got his first top-flight gig at Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, Conte had five seasons as an assistant and a Serie B coach before being appointed at Atalanta.
As for the others, the vast majority worked their way up from the bottom — some from the very bottom. Frank coached 7-year-olds as a 20-year-old, only getting his first full-time top-flight club gig 20 years later (at Brondby). Selles went to university and got his first gig as a fitness coach aged 25, before an itinerant career as an assistant took him to Greece, Spain, Russia, Azerbaijan, Denmark and Norway before the Premier League.
Others, like Cooper and Rodgers, spent a lifetime in youth football. Graham Potter coached his university team before seeking fortune abroad in the Swedish fourth tier and working his way up. He only got a job in the Football League 13 years after he retired.
Lopetegui worked as a pundit and youth coach at the Spanish FA before getting his shot with Porto; his first major club gig came 12 years after he retired. Erik ten Hag had a similar story: he spent a decade as an assistant coach and youth coach before his first gig in the Eredivisie, and then another two years as coach of Bayern’s second-team.
All of this points to the fact that experience matters, managing people is different than managing yourself and a diverse range of experiences is more likely to give you the tools you need to succeed.
It also matters how your playing career ends. Arteta was appointed Arsenal manager 3½ years after retiring, but he spent much of that time as an assistant coach at Manchester City; injuries also meant he hardly played in his final two seasons in North London and he used that time to prepare for life as a coach.
Even Pep Guardiola, the best example of a “fast-track manager” — he retired in 2006, was appointed to Barcelona B in 2007, then was promoted to Barcelona’s first team in 2008 and immediately won the treble — comes with an asterisk. His career at the top effectively ended in 2001, when he left Barcelona. He spent the next five years in Serie A (Brescia, Roma), Qatar (Al Ahly) and Mexico (Dorados) playing very little, but making new experiences and studying the game.
And this brings us to another reason why, relative to the past, there are so few former greats on the pitch doing great things off it.
All of the experiences that yield the tools to manage can be unglamorous and stressful. Then there’s the workload. Yes, being a player at a top club can be very taxing physically, though we’re still talking, at the absolute highest end, 60 to 70 games and maybe 150 training sessions a year. Mentally it’s strenuous, but you know that if you performed on the pitch, you did your job and controlled what you could control.
Coaches are there for all the games, training sessions and travel, plus endless meetings, film study and scouting trips. Perhaps most stressful is the fact that their fate is in the hands of others: the players.
Consider the fact that for the past decade, star players have been retiring with at least 10 figures in the bank and the reality of never needing to work again. Why put yourself — and your family — through it, especially when there are no guarantees and there’s no real money in it?
It takes not only a certain type of person to pursue a career in coaching at the highest level (workaholic, obsessive, hungry, man-manager), but often a certain set of circumstances too. Yes, four of the 20 current Premier League managers never played professionally, but the other 16 did. Most of them ended their careers in that sort of intermediate spot where they’d made enough that they could take chances, but had not made enough that they could simply say, “Screw this! I’m going to play golf and padel for the rest of my life, living off media appearances and endorsements.”
And crucially, though they might not have been stars, they had enough connections in the game that doors opened for them. Maybe in the lower divisions, maybe at youth level, maybe in some relative footballing backwater. But they knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who could get them an interview. In football as in life, networking matters.
Which leaves us with my ranking. Feel free to differ … it’s just a bit of fun, after all.
1. Patrick Vieira, Crystal Palace
2. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City
3. Antonio Conte, Tottenham Hotspur
4. Mikel Arteta, Arsenal
5. Julen Lopetegui, Wolverhampton Wanderers
6. Gary O’Neil, Bournemouth
7. Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton
8. Erik ten Hag, Manchester United
9. Javi Gracia, Leeds United
10. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool
11. Sean Dyche, Everton
12. Unai Emery, Aston Villa
13. Eddie Howe, Newcastle United
14. Marco Silva, Fulham
15. David Moyes, West Ham
16. Graham Potter, Chelsea
17. Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City
18. Steve Cooper, Nottingham Forest
19. Thomas Frank, Brentford
20. Ruben Selles, Southampton