45. Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Bilbao)
Football managers often try to portray themselves as erudite, intelligent and culturally aware types. Jose Mourinho, for instance, once stopped a Real Madrid press conference to get his assistant Rui Faria to call him and prove that his ringtone is Pavarotti singing Puccini’s Italia 90-adopted favourite Nessun Dorma.
Others prefer to keep their creative sensibilities to themselves. Take Ernesto Valverde, a fine amateur photographer of artistic black-and-white prints. Occasionally, he’s been known to use the odd football shot to inspire his teams – a snap of Olympiakos fans from the team bus in 2011 stands out – but mainly the Athletic Bilbao boss sticks to the skills that have got him this far: an acute understanding of his players and their needs.
He needs it, too. Athletic’s Basques-only selection policy, one of European football’s greatest traditions, limits Valverde’s options, yet the tireless effort he exhibits in squeezing the maximum from his players fully befits his nickname Txingurri (‘the Ant’).
Having taken Athletic into the Champions League in 2014, Valverde led them to fifth place last season while adding a Supercopa win over two legs against Barcelona. His perceptive eye for a player has developed Aymeric Laporte into one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders; he even converted Oscar de Marcos from a roaming playmaker into a raiding full-back.
“He's a technical coach and always instilled character in his team to dominate games. He's a similar coach to Del Bosque,” says centre-back Mikel San Jose.
Highly regarded at Barcelona, where he spent two seasons as a goal-hungry forward in the late ‘80s, Valverde will be near the top of any list when Luis Enrique finally decides all the Camp Nou aggro isn’t worth it. AM
44. Jocelyn Gourvennec (Bordeaux)
Gourvennec signed off as Guingamp manager in May after six low-key but successful years in charge. The 44-year-old former Rennes playmaker remains widely unknown outside his homeland but has a burgeoning reputation in France after doing so well in his first professional post.
After being appointed in 2010 he led Guingamp from third division to Ligue 1 and has kept the Brittany outfit there with ease. He’s even managed to add a piece of silverware – Guingamp were Coupe de France winners in 2014, and they made the knockout phase of the Europa League the following year.
Last season may have been more mundane compared to those recent highs but Guingamp’s 16th-place finish was considered a relative success given that the club – increasingly victims of their own success – lost star strikers Claudio Beauvue (to Lyon) and Christophe Mandanne (Al Fujairah) last summer.
Despite their lowly position, Guingamp were never in real danger of going down; the fans who bade him farewell at the end of last season realised just what a stabilising force the manager had become. Gourvennec has joined Bordeaux, where the expectations and budget will be bigger. The evidence suggests he will take the new challenge in his stride. JE
43. Leonid Slutsky (CSKA Moscow)
There’s one thing that everyone knows about Leonid Slutsky. He looks like a sleep-deprived Dexter Fletcher, who’s spent one too many Sundays lounging on the sofa face first in a plate of sausage meat.
Not that one? Because it’s libellous? Oh, yeah, you mean the cat one. The 45-year-old CSKA Moscow manager’s playing career ended aged 19 when he fell out of a true while rescuing a neighbour’s moggy and irreparably injured his knee.
“He always smiles when you talk about it,” Russia forward Artem Dzyuba, who played under Slutsky at Euro 2016, told FFT earlier this year. “We laughed about how the branches on the tree weren’t able to hold his weight! It’s fate, as Slutsky was able to concentrate on his coaching career.”
And concentrate he has. Though the last 12 months haven’t been the most trophy-laden of his seven-year CSKA spell, Slutsky’s third Russian title in four years is an impressive return, given the riches spent at Zenit St Petersburg. Leicester new boy Ahmed Musa’s 12 goals underpinned the title success from the wing, while keeper Igor Akinfeev is first choice for club and country.
Like his keeper, Slutsky has been working two jobs, and won all four Euros qualifiers after succeeding Fabio Capello on a temporary basis in August 2015. True, Russia rivalled England for hopelessness at the finals, but you can hardly blame a coach who was sorting out someone else’s mess.
Next season may prove difficult with Musa gone and an ageing backline that creaked in France, but it wouldn’t be the first time Slutsky’s overcome impossible odds.
“I ended up as a hero in my village because I saved the cat,” he once joked about the incident that has shaped his life. “Unfortunately, I also fell out of the tree and injured my knee.”
For CSKA Moscow, it’s probably just as well he did. AM
42. Manuel Pellegrini (unattached)
Pity poor Pellegrini. In his first two seasons at Manchester City, this charming Manuel had clocked up a 63% win rate, claiming the title and then finishing runners-up – but as soon as Pep Guardiola became available, he was evidently surplus to requirements.
With the whispers becoming deafening, the Chilean was forced to announce on February 1 that he would be leaving at the end of his third season; led by a dead man walking, City fell from second place, three points behind leaders Leicester, to finishing fourth, 15 points off the pace.
But this is nothing new to Pellegrini, who spent the 2009/10 season in the expectational nuthouse that is Real Madrid. Pellegrini’s side piled up 96 points, then a club record, but finished second to an unstoppable Barcelona – managed by Guardiola, obviously – and Pellegrini was always on the way out.
It might have been darkly amusing, then, for the gentlemanly Pellegrini to take City further than they had ever been in the Champions League with a run to the semis – if irksome that City surrendered so meekly to (of course) Real Madrid.
A popular man whose teams play exciting football, Pellegrini deserves a good run at a calm club – a decent job for a decent man. It will be intriguing to see where that will be; after impressing in Chile, Argentina, Spain and England, could this son of Italian immigrants set his sights on Serie A? GP
41. Tite (Brazil)
The revival of joga bonito has been the centre of debate in Brazil for years now. For most fans, the solution would be hiring a foreign coach. Anyone, really. Pep Guardiola has previously admitted his interest to the job, Jose Mourinho is a favourite among fans, while Jorge Sampaoli offered himself up for the post.
None of them ended up being hired after Dunga resigned following the summer’s disastrous Copa America Centenario campaign, though. The Brazilian confederation’s choice was Tite, the only man who wouldn’t be criticised by the country’s 200 million other 'coaches'.
It’s not so difficult to understand why – he’s known for his character, rigorous professional ethics and forthright relationship with his players. His biggest achievements came at Corinthians with the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup titles in 2012. He returned for a third spell with the team in 2015 and led them to another Brazilian league title.
Despite having lost most of his star players to China at the beginning of the season, he managed to rebuild the team and his old side are now once again fighting for the top positions in Brazil’s Serie A.
The 55-year-old usually has no shame grinding out 1-0 wins if they guide him to more trophies – so forget, for a while, the beautiful game. Brazilians can’t wait for it. MA
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