What Makes a Winning Football Manager?
The football manager franchise of video games has us all convinced that, with a basic knowledge of the sport, a decent transfer kitty and a keyboard, any one of us can take even the smallest club from the lower divisions to the European Cup.
It’s a fantastic notion, and buying into it can be a lot of fun.
But on training pitches all over the world—some of which might not even be that far from the cafes where grown men dress up in suit and tie to play football manager (they exist, trust me)—there are real people instilling in real players the values of hard work, teamwork and technical ability.
And in the boardrooms of world football’s biggest clubs, there are real managers trying to convince real chairmen to open the purse strings for this player or that, because he is surely the one to put the team over the top.
It’s a game that’s played at in real life, and some managers are better at it than others.
But what makes a good one?
What characteristics, what knowledge, what intangibles do the very best football managers possess? And if one were to build the perfect manager, which of those attributes would be thrown into the biological recipe?
Using five managers as examples, the following slides will attempt to answer those questions. And hopefully, the hypothetical manager that emerges from our managerial test tube will be able to win all the trophies, actual or otherwise.
Jock Stein: A Judge of People
In his autobiography, Managing my Life, Sir Alex Ferguson describes former Celtic and Scotland manager Jock Stein as follows:
For any young manager seeking to further his education in football, Jock Stein was a one-man university ... Stein had just about every attribute required of a great manager but none of his talents was more significant than his judgement of players, not only as performers but as people. Whether a man was playing for him or against him, Jock specialized in probing assessments of strengths and weaknesses.
What better place to start?
On the one hand, when populating a squad of players, a manager should have an idea of the sort of team he wants to build before acquiring the talent. Then, he’ll need the discretion to tell which players fit into his setup and which do not.
On the other hand, a successful manager will be able to spot both the abilities and weaknesses of an opponent quickly so as to make the necessary adjustments over the course of a match.
Pep Guardiola: Man-Management
It takes a special manager to get the best out of special players.
When Pep Guardiola succeeded Frank Rijkaard as Barcelona boss in 2008, he inherited a team that included the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi—three of the best players in world football during his four years at the club.
And all of them excelled.
Under Guardiola, Xavi cemented his status as the best passer of a ball in the game, and Iniesta became one of the most dangerous attacking players in Europe.
And Messi, who had scored 16 goals in 2007-08, increased his production in each year of Guardiola’s reign, culminating in an incredible 73-goal season in 2011-12. He also won the Ballon d’Or four times under Guardiola’s watch.
Where some superstars would have resisted the influence of a club manager—particularly one as young as Guardiola—Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and the rest of the Barcelona squad embraced him, took pride in playing for him and considered him as much a part of the group as any other teammate.
You simply can’t manufacture that type of loyalty. You either inspire it, or you don’t.
Arrigo Sacchi: Innovation
Arrigo Sacchi never played professional football. He was a shoe salesman and student of the game, but after some modest success coaching his small, local club, he began to climb the managerial ladder. His ascent would take him to the very pinnacle of European football.
After ousting AC Milan from the Coppa Italia while manager of Parma, he caught the attention of Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, and in 1987 he was given control of the Rossoneri.
It was at the San Siro that Sacchi was able to put his methods to work with top players, at the highest level.
Whereas Italian club football had become famous for the defensive catenaccio style, Sacchi emphasized high pressure, fluid zonal marking and a flexible formation that stressed ball control above all else.
And with the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard in his team, he had exactly the sort of side that could put his innovations to work.
A winning football manager will, like Sacchi, bring ideas to the table. Former Inter Milan manager Helenio Herrera and Ajax legend Rinus Michels are other examples of innovators in football.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Transfer-Window Specialist
Few club managers have used the transfer window to their benefit as often or as well as Sir Alex Ferguson.
Now, the Scot has always emphasized a robust youth structure at Manchester United, and the graduating class of Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and the Neville brothers is a prime example of this.
But academies won’t always produce everything a first team requires, and with that in mind, Ferguson has always been willing to enhance his squad via the transfer market.
In 1992, as he went in search of a first Premier League title at Old Trafford, Ferguson targeted Leeds forward Eric Cantona as the man who could put them over the top. A year later, the Scot signed Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest as he looked to sustain that success while attempting to conquer Europe.
And just last summer, with Manchester City having wrestled the title away from United on the final day of the season, Ferguson made a swoop for Arsenal’s Robin van Persie—a player who would end up scoring 24 Premier League goals as United won back their title.
Jose Mourinho: Swagger
All the judgement, man-management, innovation and transfer-window manipulation in the world will matter little if a manager doesn’t have the confidence to put it all to use.
Jose Mourinho is, in a man, the embodiment of that confidence. Wherever he has managed—be it Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Real Madrid—he has brought the sort of swagger that makes opponents quiver and compels his charges to adopt for themselves. He is an irresistible personality.
And the media, whether they admit it or not, adores him.
Upon his appointment at Stamford Bridge in 2004, he told reporters, “Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”
It takes a certain amount of conceit to make a statement like that, but his record speaks for itself.
Two Portuguese titles, two Premier League titles, two Serie A titles, a Spanish title, six domestic cups, the UEFA Cup and two Champions League crowns would seem to indicate Mourinho is, indeed, a special one.