The Greatest Managers in Football History

Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly the best manager of all time! Or is he? With most media outlets falling over themselves praising Pep’s treble win, I think the mania surrounding him is a bit exaggerated. He is no doubt a brilliant manager and tactician, but you cannot look past the prestige of the teams he managed and the immense budgets he had on offer to him.


So, let’s take a look at some other managers that have shaped football and their merits and you can form your own opinions on this debate. And before you all say that football was easier back in the day, modern managers have a multitude of ultramodern tools on their hands, whilst managers in the past had a chequebook for 5 pounds and a whistle.


The most obvious inclusion is Sir Alex Ferguson, and it is hard to present his achievements in any new way. What most people don’t realize is that this man has tasted success at every level of the game, everywhere he went. After his playing career, which he spent as a striker in Scotland, even being crowned top scorer whilst at Dunfermline in 1966, he moved into management with East Stirlingshire.


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From there he moved to St. Mirren, where he took the team from mid-table in the second tier to Scottish second-tier Champions in 1977. The team was filled with exciting youngsters and had an average age of 19, and he managed to win the second tier with a club that had crowds of around 1,000 spectators when he took over.


After being sacked due to financial irregularities Aberdeen did not shy away from picking up the prodigal manager and their faith was repaid with three league titles and two European trophies. Aside from breaking the dominance of Celtic and Rangers, which is a near-impossible task for any manager, Ferguson’s European triumphs warrant special mentions. In the final of the Cup Winners Cup, Aberdeen managed to defeat Real Madrid and in the subsequent European Super Cup Hamburg, who had won that year’s European Cup, could not stand against Fergie’s men.


It would be pretty useless to list all of Fergie’s achievements at Manchester United, however, what I would like to point out is his longevity and ability to reinvent himself and his squad. When he took over Liverpool were the premier team in England and United were a mid-table fallen giant. Under his tutelage, the team improved season on season until, with the advent of the Premier League he was ready to institute his dominance on English football.


Of course, some money was spent in that time, but that money had come from the previous successes of the club and it stands to reason that Ferguson and his team earned the money that he then spent. Over the years, Liverpool’s dominance was cast aside and challenges by Newcastle, Blackburn Rovers, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Manchester City’s new money were weathered.


And who stood firm at the end of all of those periods of upheaval? Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson of course. Some people might think that the modern age would be too fast for Fergie, but is it really fair to assume that a manager who resembles a phoenix would be stumped by Klopp and Guardiola?


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Several duos have influenced football, especially in England, and here are my three picks for them. If you wish to speak about managers that built a club the most obvious examples of this are Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. In 1959, Shankly arrived at a Liverpool team that today seemed out of the realms of possibility. The team was languishing in the second division, the training grounds were overgrown with weeds and the pitches looked like Ze Germans had returned for another stab at the Blitz.


With Paisley, then physio at the club and promoted to one of the assistants, Shankly set about rebuilding not only the team as a collection of players but the whole club as an institution. Everything from the Kop to the colors and the anthem came about during his reign. Under Shankly, the team won three league titles, two FA Cups, and a UEFA Cup.


It has been speculated that most of the tactical work was done by Paisley, whilst Shankly was more in charge of the human side of things and training. Whilst on the topic of training, on-the-ball training, something that seems obvious these days, was one of the main innovations Shankly introduced to Liverpool.


His main disciple, Bob Paisley, a former Liverpool player and First Division champion himself, continued the work of his boss and made Liverpool the dominant force, not only in England but in Europe. Six First Division titles and three European Cups were added to the Reds’ trophy cabinet before his retirement.


However, even after the retirement of the two legends, the work they had done still echoed through the first team, as another one of Shankly’s disciples, Joe Fagan, won the club’s fourth European Cup. The European dominance of the Merseyside outfit was curtailed by the Heysel disaster, which barred them from winning any more European trophies, at a time when Liverpool was arguably the best team in Europe.


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Whilst not as successful as the previous duo of Shankly and Paisley, Nigel Clough and Peter Taylor were the most prominent example of a management team there is. Their main talent was picking up teams who were down on their luck and taking them to new heights. Their first successful project was Derby County, a team without any illustrious history, rooted in the Second Division.


In five years, they took the squad to a surprise league title and a European Cup semifinal. After an argument between the two, Clough’s fateful 44-day tenure at Leeds and their reconciliation the duo was back in management together at Nottingham Forest. What they would achieve together would ensure their immortality in the eyes of Forest fans.


One league title and two European Cups might seem like little returns for an almost 20-year tenure, but what people forget is just how small of a club Forest were. Without wishing to insult Forest or Derby fans, the two teams that Clough and Taylor took to glory can be considered minnows in comparison to the usual giants of the English game.


The last duo to make an inclusion are Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. Despite never coaching together one cannot exist without the other. Michels had the idea that later turned into one of the most recognizable playing styles ever. Of course, he did not invent Total Football out of thin air, he adapted the tactics of the Hungarian National team of the late 40s and 50s, but then again, Guardiola didn’t invent his tactics without inspiration from Cruyff.


Under his system, Ajax won the first of their three consecutive European Cups, with the latter two featuring his tactics under Stefan Kovacs. After his time at Ajax, where he held a 72%-win rate, he helped deliver Barcelona’s first title in 14 years. At the end of that season, he also guided the Netherlands to the World Cup final and in 1988 he won his country’s first and only international trophy.


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Michels’ impact on football can be likened to fish coming out of the water for the first time and becoming amphibians and his disciple Johan Cruyff would evolve his ideas even further. Probably the greatest football person of all time, tied with Franz Beckenbauer, when one takes into consideration their playing and managing careers, Cruyff tasted immediate success upon his entry into management.


In his first years at Ajax, he won two league titles and one Cup Winners’ Cup with a core of players that would go on to win the 1995 European Cup. Like his mentor, he moved to Barcelona, where he established the Catalans as the dominant force in Spanish and European football during the early 90s, with his legacy only tainted by the lost 1994 European Cup final, which heralded a new, thoroughly Italian age in world football.


To understand Italian football in the 90s and 2000s we need to head back to the man who invented the Catenaccio system in the 1960s, Helenio Herrera. Wrongly remembered as a dull defensive system, the Catenaccio employed flying full-backs like Giacinto Facchetti to devastating effect. Whilst the system indeed relied on solid defense, the attacking prowess of his teams meant that he is considered one of the finest Italian coaches in history.


During his career, where he would correctly predict the outcome of his games almost on a daily basis, he guided both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to two La Liga titles and won two consecutive European Cups with Inter. His ideas were molded by Arrigo Sacchi into his 4-4-2, whose defensive quartet of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti is still regarded as the best of all time. Four titles in five years and two European Cups with Milan cemented his legacy, within Italy.


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Among the men who were inspired by The Prophet of Fusignano, Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti stand out. Trappatoni, a strict disciplinarian, who did not shy away from using every trick in the book to gain the upper hand and Lippi, who was more of a pragmatist and brilliant man manager, evolved Sacchi’s ideas along two similar but subtly different paths. Between the two Juventus became one of the best teams in Serie A and tasted European glory.


The last man on the list needs to be praised for his versatility and longevity, two attributes that remind us of Sir Alex Ferguson. In his 30-year managerial career, he managed to win all top 5 leagues and become the most decorated manager of all time. Whilst many people dismiss him as just a man who can raise his eyebrow at a bunch of superstars and whip them into shape, his tactical and indeed man management skills have evolved over the years and are still relevant today.


If you are looking for the ultimate rebuilder and reinventor you need to look no further than Sir Matt Busby. Despite spending his playing days at Liverpool and Manchester City, he accepted the Manchester United job in 1945. United had spent the interwar years as a yoyo club and their last piece of silverware had come in 1911. His first iteration of the United team spent four seasons coming second best before winning the FA Cup in 1948 and the league in 1952.


After the title win, he embarked on an extensive rebuild of the squad, scouting players as young as 16 and 17, which would become the affectionately known Busby Babes. Just as his side won two league titles and were looking to make inroads into the European Cup, the Munich Air disaster occurred. Busby was badly injured and even received his last rites in hospital multiple times. After his recovery, he was racked by guilt, but his wife persuaded him to continue managing in honour of the deceased players.


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The United squad was decimated and such a tragedy would have meant the end for most clubs. However, Busby could not let that happen to the club where he said he was managing in heaven and a new rebuild was underway. Among the signings and players introduced from the academy, George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton stand out and with them, United won their first European Cup in 1968 against Benfica. It stands to reason that had the tragedy not happened United would have challenged for the European title in the next seasons.


Before I get to the last inclusions, I would like to shoehorn some honourable mentions in, namely Ernst Happel (the first manager to win two European Cups with two different teams), Bela Guttmann, the man who broke Real Madrid’s dominance over the European cup, Jock Stein, who won the European Cup with a team of players born 10 miles away from the stadium and Bill Nicholson who won 8 trophies in 16 years with Tottenham.


And now on to the last two, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp. We start with Guardiola’s arch nemesis, the man fully deserving of his moniker of the Special One. No manager has been so viciously hated and deeply loved at the same time as him and recency bias has turned the narrative against him and made many forget his achievements. After an unsuccessful stint at Benfica, he managed União de Leiria, who were by all means a small club.


During his time, Leiria battled for the third and fourth positions and were above Porto in the league when they came calling. At Porto in his first full season and playing with a high-pressure philosophy that could be viewed as a form of gegenpressing, he managed to win the Portuguese Cup, the UEFA Cup and the league title with a record points tally that would last for more than 10 years.


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The next season, he managed to guide Porto to the Champions League trophy, marking it the last time a Portuguese team played in the final. He then moved to Chelsea and helped turn them into the beast they are today. We all know about the trophies and the glory, but what is truly interesting is that in his first season in English football, he posted a 95-point tally, meaning he was winning titles with more than 90 points way before it was cool.


His treble at Inter is viewed as one of the best individual seasons ever by a manager in terms of signings and trophies. After Inter came the time at Real Madrid, where he came face to face with Guardiola and sure, he did not beat him outright in terms of trophies, but he provided the world with a blueprint on how to cast tiki-taka into oblivion. Now, after spells at a post-apocalyptic Manchester United and a banter-era Spurs, he seems to have found a project where he can excel again, and I believe Roma will ultimately win the Serie A under his guidance.


A manager quite different to Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp is similar to Guardiola. This similarity can be found in their ultimate goals, namely to make the opponent have as little time on the ball as possible. Their approaches to this dilemma have branched out in opposing ways, whilst Guardiola wishes to hang on to the ball for dear life and fears losing it, Klopp attacks the opposition with his press and makes them lose possession.


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Just like Mourinho, Klopp started out from a lower level and showed his quality both at top-level teams and minnows. His Mainz team finished their first two seasons under him in fourth and third and, yes, he did eventually preside over their relegation, but this a club with one of the smallest budgets and stadiums in the league. His penchant for building teams showed in his later jobs as well.


He took over Borussia Dortmund, who were still reeling from their near bankruptcy a few years earlier and turned them into a team that beat the almighty Bayern twice for the Bundesliga and could trash Real Madrid 4-1 at the Westfalenstadion. Few remember just how bad Liverpool were when he took over. Legends say that if you say Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, and Rickie Lambert three times in front of your mirror, a crying Liverpool fan will appear in the corner of your bathroom.


From that dreadful team, Klopp took the Reds to a first-ever Premier League title and a Champions League win. The team that he built, did cost a fair bit of cash though, he has spent £680 million since taking the Liverpool job, but that pales in comparison to the cool 1.2 billion of dubious sponsorship money Guardiola has spent.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / PA Images