Greatest Managers

What Makes A Great Manager?

August 5, 2013
By Musa Okwonga

Dissecting the necessary talents for coaching excellence is no easy feat, though there is a short answer: To be one of the all-time best requires a bewildering range of skills.

In the words of Roots Manuva, a great manager should be "All Things To All Men." Among other concerns, he must be a warrior for his players in both the dugout and the press room; if approaching other players in the transfer market, he must be a charmer; at the same time, he should be a figurehead for his team and perhaps even its town, city or country.

Given this variety of different guises, perhaps we should see them not so much as managers but as character actors who play the most challenging of roles on a daily basis.

Playing a role

If, say, Spain's Vicente del Bosque were a star of the screen, he would probably be Peter Falk's Columbo: a shabby, shuffling uncle, tucking away his genius beneath a tired shrug and a cabbie's overcoat. Del Bosque, the only manager to have claimed the UEFA Champions League (twice, with Real Madrid), the European Championship and the World Cup, has done so with the calmest of demeanors.

This summer, as Spain made their way through a shootout in the Confederations Cup semifinal against Italy, del Bosque sat alone in the dugout whilst his players and coaching staff were all out on the pitch, resting there as casually as a man awaiting the afternoon bus. No matter how incendiary the egos of his players, del Bosque will always be their fire blanket.

By abrupt contrast, there's Sir Alex Ferguson, who with his carefully measured blend of charm and fury is something of a Glaswegian James Gandolfini. Though very different in their approaches, Del Bosque and Ferguson are both actors; their stages, the touchline and press room, and their performances, though seen by all, are directed most of all toward their own players.

Reading between the lines

Great managers must also be detectives, capable of looking at a footballer's array of skills and finding the clues as to the outstanding player that he may become. Much has been made of Pep Guardiola's tutelage of Leo Messi, but arguably just as impressive was his appointment of Sergio Busquets alongside Xavi as Barcelona's midfield axis. Busquets, whom Guardiola had first encountered when coaching the club's B team, filled so swiftly and subtly into the first XI that he had seemingly won a treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and UEFA Champions League almost before most people knew who he was.

Some might say that Messi and Busquets were always going to make it to the very top, but in the latter case that's possibly a complacent view. Rai Oliveira, who starred for Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil in the early 1990s, once pointed out to me that if it had not been for Sao Paulo's Tele Santana, Cafu might be just another right winger. "[Cafu] was in midfield," recalled Rai, "but he didn't have great vision; but he had great potential, physically and technically. Santana could see that Cafu could use his potential much better at right back, and it worked."

Carmelo Rubio Sanchez/RFEF/Getty ImagesVicente del Bosque's calm persona has been the perfect, winning foil for Spain's endeavors over the years.

Yet possibly the most dramatic piece of detective work in top-flight football was carried out by Brescia's Carlo Mazzone, who decided to redeploy a young No. 10 named Andrea Pirlo as a deep-lying playmaker. Apart from Cafu and his teammate Roberto Carlos, it is difficult to think of a tactical switch that has had an equal bearing on an entire footballing era. Pirlo, of course, went on to become the creative fulcrum for AC Milan, Juventus and Italy, winning four Scudetti, two UEFA Champions Leagues and a World Cup.

The creation of the deep-lying playmaker is generally credited to Gusztav Sebes, the former manager of the Hungarian national team, who deployed Nandor Hidegkuti in that position when his team faced England in 1953. Sebes had another one of the great manager's attributes: He was a hunter. A great manager knows that the key to dismantling an opponent's defence is to set traps for them, and then exploit the room that is left by their vulnerability.

Sebes knew that England, then managed by Walter Winterbottom, had a redoubtable yet rigid defence that sat deep, relying on forwards who would push up and jostle against their three centre halves. Therefore, he thought it was better for his attackers to explore other, apparently less dangerous areas of the field, making Hidegkuti drop further downfield to draw one of the defenders out of position. It was akin to cracking the base of a dam; Hidegkuti's marker, the hapless Harry Johnston, wandered out to meet him, whilst Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis flooded into the resulting space.

Getty ImagesCarlo Mazzone may not be a household name, but his ability to transform Andrea Pirlo into one of the game's best shows the vision required of great managers.

The match, which resulted in a 6-3 humiliation for proud England -- their first ever loss at their stadium -- was heralded as a tactical milestone. It was perhaps the first significant precursor to the more reactive, counterattacking football that we see in today's game, where defenders are coaxed out of their comfort zones, often almost to their halfway lines, and then ruthlessly overrun.

However, for all this talk of brutal efficiency, there exists a caveat. Just as the most innovative musicians rarely sell the most records, so the most innovative tacticians rarely make the most successful managers. Maybe this is because, like the first plane ever flown, great ideas are fragile in their inception, only taking flight for a short while.

Leaving a legacy

Marcelo Bielsa, widely heralded as a genius, has won only three Argentine national championships and one Olympic gold in a managerial career that began in 1990. This is partly because his teams play a game of such thrilling intensity that it can't be sustained over the course of an entire season. Perhaps that's one reason why his successes have come in relatively short contests, such as the Olympics, or the Argentina championship, each of whose rounds last just 19 games.

Instead, forward-thinking managers like Bielsa must frequently watch as their techniques are either adapted or adopted wholesale -- and very often, to much greater effect -- by those who come after them. Bittersweet as it may be, Bielsa can claim to have influenced a generation of his profession's brightest talents, several of whom (most famously, Pep Guardiola) openly acknowledge their debt to him. The great innovators who have enjoyed victories to match are those who also introduced a pragmatic edge to their football, such as Dynamo Kiev's Valery Lobanovskiy and AC Milan's Arrigo Sacchi. Their greater willingness to sacrifice aesthetics for wins probably bought them more patience with their paymasters than Bielsa -- who remains wedded to a romantic ideology -- ever did.

Yet, of course, silverware is not the only proof of a manager's greatness. Similarly, the mere contents of Rinus Michels' trophy cabinet do not, of themselves, provide compelling evidence that he revolutionized the game. Michels, who won a European Cup with Ajax, a La Liga title with Barcelona and a European Championship with Holland, is best remembered as the creator of Total Football, elements of which are still visible today in some of Europe's most successful teams. Accordingly, Michels has received accolades that, in their own way, are worth more than most trophies. In 1999, UEFA named him its Coach of the Century; upon his death in 2005, Johan Cruyff commented that "as a player and coach there is nobody who taught me as much as him."

Win at all costs

Getty ImagesHungary's improbable footballing rise in the 1950s can be credited to the insightful Gusztav Sebes.

Whilst not every great manager is a revolutionary, they do each have one element in common: the desire for the relentless accumulation of titles. Few ever have the financial means or the club infrastructure to express such a desire to its fullest extent, but when they do, the results are remarkable.

For years, Jose Mourinho has moved from league to league, delivering success with terrifying efficiency; he is part-manager, part-management consultant. In the 1980s it was Bob Paisley, assuming a daunting mantle from Bill Shankly, who duly hoarded more treasure than that dragon in "The Hobbit." Smaug himself would have been envious of Paisley's haul, which included six league championships, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and three European Cups in just nine years.

Paisley's unmatched record -- he remains the only manager to have won three European Cups -- seems to have rested chiefly upon his innate understanding of his players. He once likened them to racehorses in that they were both highly gifted and highly sensitive to changes in their atmosphere; in turn, Paisley was as attuned to their moods as is a doctor to the symptoms of his patients.

This was a quality he shared with Brian Clough, who once shared the secret of his success with the writer Duncan Hamilton:

"I can tell, from the moment I see someone in the dressing room, whether he's off colour, had a row with his missus, kicked the cat or just doesn't fancy it that particular day. I know who needs to have his arse kicked. I know who needs leaving alone to get on with it ... the trick -- if it is a trick -- is to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time."

This skill is not so simple as Clough stated it to be. This is why, beyond being an actor, doctor or detective, a great manager must be an illusionist, constantly maintaining a hold over his dressing room through judicious manipulation. This sorcery has a limited shelf life, and there will generally come a time when the players will work out all of a manager's ruses. In this context, Bela Guttmann, who led Benfica to European Cup victories in 1961 and 1962, famously remarked that "the third season is always fatal."

It is interesting to reflect on Guttmann's words in this of all summers, with so many managers who have won the UEFA Champions League on the move at once. Rafa Benitez, Jupp Heynckes, Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho, Ferguson; the game's great illusionists are taking their bag of tricks on the road, either to a new club or into retirement. Some will argue that Ferguson was the finest of them all since he kept his players guessing, with exceptional results, for more than a quarter of a century at Manchester United. This debate will doubtless continue for many years.

What's indisputable, though, is that it takes the rarest of people to conjure footballing glory year after year, and in so doing to bring joy to millions. And so, from time to time, we should give thanks for their magic.

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