The 50 best managers in the world right now
“You are loved when you are born, you are loved when you die,” Arsene Wenger once claimed. “In between, you have to manage.”
In the digital age, respect for managers is about as short as a deep block. This is the era of doom-scrolling, rolling news and sporting soapboxes. Everyone has their opinion and the boss, ultimately, can never appease the entire auditorium. An average tenure of 18 months would explain a lot - it’s usually 18 days before most of you lot have made your mind up on a manager.
But there are those who have excelled over the past year or so - and we thought we’d rank them. Our list is determined by a few things: ability, of course, as well as how much the team has achieved in these past 12 months - regardless of resources. Just like your average Football Manager board, we’re taking recent achievements into account, while we’re not going to consider managers who haven’t been in a job for the past year - just to be fair to those that have. Everything considered… these are the most employable men of 2020/21.
So without further ado, here are the top half-century: the bosses who’ve bossed it this past year. Don’t agree? We’re not surprised. Holla @FourFourTwo and let’s have a tasty debate about it.
As a player, Hernan Crespo was powerful and tenacious, yet deft and with a velvet first touch and luscious locks to match. Part Messiah, part missile.
MANAGER PROFILE How Hernan's taking strides into management
As a manager, he’s showing similar shades of contrast. Crespo led Defensa y Justicia to a first-ever trophy, winning the Copa Sudamericana in January - that’s the Europa League equivalent - before hooking up with Sao Paulo the following month. Crespo is influenced by former national boss Marcelo Bielsa, encouraging a high-octane style of play.
Apparently, Thomas Frank doesn’t join in training sessions - his lack of a professional playing career leaves him feeling somewhat out of his depth. As a manager though, he’s stellar: a true people person whose man-management has got unseen levels out of many of his players, as Brentford continue their rise through the football pyramid. Yes, they threw away promotion last season - and they may well do again this - but Frank is still a top manager and he’s going in the right direction.
At the end of his first season with Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018, Adi Hutter was voted was voted by readers of German newspaper Bild as Coach of the Year, while the German union of professional football players did the same. He’s since had the gems of that side mined - Sebastian Haller to Ajax via West Ham United, Luka Jovic to Real Madrid and Ante Rebic to AC Milan - but Frankfurt are back on the up and competing for Europe once more.
A patient, press-loving boss, Hutter’s side are ferocious in attack and hard to beat at the back - though they do have a habit of throwing away games they should win.
The last 12 months at Barcelona have been traumatic, to say the least. Dutch national boss Ronald Koeman walked out on his country to take on the burning wreckage of the Camp Nou and though it’s been a bumpy road since, there have been signs of the former Everton and Southampton boss steadying the ship. A number of the younger players have benefited from Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, for a start.
Koeman may well be a boss who becomes far more appreciated in the long run. Has he done fantastically? No. He’s merely done enough - but in the current climate at Barca, believe us, that means a lot.
Nuno Espirito Santo
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ third season back in the big time has been the Be Here Now. Raul Jimenez has spent much of the season on the sidelines, Adama Traore has looked a shadow of his mercurial best - albeit a hunky silhouette - and a previously imperious midfield double-pivot has looked lacking of spark. What happened?
From the start though, Nuno Espirito Santo has kept his reputation intact. Through all of the fatigue, horrendous luck and xG equalling out, the Portuguese has looked to creative masterplans to keep the Midlanders away from the plughole of relegation another season, pulling off some huge wins across the season.
Ivan Juric is building a cathedral on quicksand at Hellas Verona. The self-styled disciple of Atalanta’s Gian Piero Gasperini has 13 players on loan on his books while others, it’s been claimed, are not “attached to the shirt”; this is a bus stop of a club, in size and ephemerality, who are playing a 3-6-1 shape and unlocking doors that they have no right to.
Last season saw the rise of Amir Rrahmani and Marash Kumbulla in particular, as the Mastiffs reached ninth in the league, after coming up via the play-offs. They’ve done admirably, limiting space between the lines, defending deep and taking chances that present themselves. Ivan Juric has done so well with this side and deserves every plaudit for it.
You can’t keep your eyes off Oliver Glasner’s Wolfsburg. They defend in two blocks of four, attack in a lopsided 4-3-3 and have been overachieving this season to keep pace with Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig in the race for the Champions League places. Glasner is a young but hugely intelligent coach, who looks for his players to build play in multiple ways and has managed to squeeze far more from them than Bundesliga fans would have thought possible this season - fair play to him.
The boss. Rafa is adored in every nook of the globe for his gentlemanly demeanour and for wildly different - but equally impressive - achievements across Europe. The veteran Spaniard left England with his stock packed at an all-time high, after a difficult tenure at Newcastle United in which he surpassed all expectations. He’s just left the Chinese Super League and he’s 61 in April - but still, over 25 years since his first first-team post, there’s a plethora of clubs in Europe who would willingly hand the keys to Rafa. That’s longevity.
The latest in a long line of madcap Red Bull coaches, Jesse Marsch is making waves as a high-pressing, front-foot tactician in the mould of Southampton’s Ralph Hassanhuttl. The American’s football is characterised by tactical flexibility, compactness and devastating transitions; Red Bull Salzburg have been Austria’s standout side this season and a lot of that is down to their manager. He's off to Leipzig in the summer to try his hand at the Bundesliga, and few would doubt his ability to cope with the increased pressure. He’s stabbing Ted Lasso in the back, for sure.
The improvement that the Villains have made under Smith this season is testament to a few things. The ascension of Jack Grealish to godlike genius helped, of course, along with some excellent recruitment - but Smith’s balanced approach has reaped huge benefits, too. The long-time Villa fan has constructed a tight defence capable of building play, his midfield is tough and well-organised and Villa are exciting to watch. For a boss who’s been to the brink and back, it’s fantastic to see.
Roberto De Zerbi
Robeto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo side attack with numbers, cut in to create chances and are resilient in their back four - but perhaps the most promising thing about the young coach is that he seems to be getting the best out of everyone that he works with. The goatee’d genius has elevated the likes of Jeremie Boga and Manuel Locatelli into the kinds of players that we’ve always expected them to be, while playing an entertaining brand of football.
There were stories that Scott Parker basically ran the West Ham team when he was a player. Apparently, he gave team talks to drag the Hammers back from 3-0 down against West Bromwich Albion. Reportedly, manager Avram Grant was only allowed on the team bus when Parker said so. You’d think that can’t possibly be true - but watching Fulham this season, almost anything is possible with Parker on the sidelines.
The Mike Skinner soundalike has shifted formation, accommodated a revolving cast of characters and has welded together a team that, for a long time, looked capable of Premier League survival despite its brittleness. Anyone who saw that opening day 3-0 loss to Arsenal will know how impressive that was. He’s been criticised for playing out from the back, he’s had to drop captain Tom Cairney and star striker Aleksandr Mitrovic and slowly but surely, things began to improve at Craven Cottage.
Ultimately, it was a job too far. But Parker is one of the few managers to be relegated from the Premier League in recent years with his reputation enhanced by the experience.
“Freiburg have one of the lowest budgets in the Bundesliga, yet manage to play an attractive and successful brand of football with a squad made up of outcasts and younger players,” said Ed McCambridge of FourFourTwo recently, when assessing which managers could be in the frame for the Germany job after Joachim Low. Streich is an outsider for the role - but his popularity in Germany is huge.
Streich is an outspoken progressive who’s kept Freiburg in the Bundesliga for almost a decade. He’s seen as a great motivator, a sensible pair of hands and despite his underdog status, he’s one of the steadiest coaches in Europe.
There’s something about Graham Potter. Some see it, others don’t get it. But his ability to attack teams with such ferocity, while not exposing his defence to an inevitable and obvious counter-attack, is not your average English-manager-at-an-ambitious-midtable-outfit vibe.
He had to recamp to Sweden, then Swansea and he seems eternally let down by woodwork, schadenfreude and karma biting Neal Maupay’s bottom every time he dares to get cocky. And it still feels like he’s destined for huge things. Despite Brighton & Hove Albion’s disappointing season, his team constantly record better xG than their opponents and everything - from the build-up to the attacking play - is superbly orchestrated.
He’s a new age Roy Hodgson. Guardiola in Sketchers. He has all the hallmarks of a top coach, even at his young age of 45.
Five years ago, Getafe were at risk of dropping into the third tier in Spain. Since then they’ve been promoted to La Liga, finished eighth and then finished fifth, two points off of the Champions League. Yet while Spain have the reputation of producing pretty players who pass around you until you fall asleep, Jose Bordalas is the Severus Snape of La Liga (obviously Diego Simeone is Voldemort).
Bordalas does not apologise for the dark arts, for sitting off teams and waiting for them to trip themselves up. He famously doesn’t believe in having possession if his team aren’t going to do anything with it; he favours a Simeone-like 4-4-2 with tough midfielders to get stuck in and high-pressing strikers. Bordalas revels in his perceived “negative” style: it clearly gets results.
It says a lot about Daniel Farke that at no point during Norwich City’s calamity campaign in the Premier League did the Norfolk-based side even flirt with the idea of ditching their manager. The German has knuckled down to reignite Norwich’s excellent 2018/19 form as if last season never happened: his team are superb in possession, dangerous in transition and defend well. They’ll no doubt be harder to play against, should the Canaries make it back up this season.
Is Sean Dyche still underappreciated? We reckon so. Having kept Burnley up, brought them into Europe, kept them up again and again and maintained Burnley’s level despite precious little investment, Dyche is still crunching the numbers with the inevitable big men up top and tight banks of four at the back. Dycheball would survive a nuclear war: even if he swapped his entire Burnley side for eleven random League Two players, he’d probably take them to 50 points and 14th in the Premier League.
The pandemic slapped Union Berlin in the face more than most. Many thought the East German outfit would be nothing without their fervent support - but they still managed to beat relegation.
This season, they’re targeting Europe. Urs Fischer has taken the underdogs up the table with an intelligent style of play that has utilised pressing the central areas of the pitch rather than the opposition defence, to win midfield battles and transition with speed. Fischer has become one of the most respected managers in Germany this season - and rightfully so for what he is achieving for what is essentially one of the smallest fish in the Bundesliga pond.
If rehiring David Moyes looked like a stroke of panic, the Scot is making critics eat their hats this season - perhaps he always did just need the right players.
West Ham’s double-pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek has been a revelation in the last 12 months. But Moyes deserves so much credit for so much more: he’s prepared to take teams on, he’s prepared to sit back and be patient. He’s adapted his ideals and he’s found a deadly front three and pace in abundance. Not that West Ham haven’t been excellent defensively and superb against the run of play this year, too - an all-round great job from a potential future Manchester United manager. We kid, of course!
Playing in a compact 4-2-3-1 and taking their chances on the break, Granada have shot up the table to play their first European campaign. Manager Diego Martinez is just 40 years old too, instilling an effective style of play despite having an extremely modest budget. They play scrappy football - but Martinez certainly gets the job done.
Marcelo Gallardo is the undoubted rising star of South American coaching. The River Plate boss uses a 4-4-2 with width from full-backs but is capable of switching completely to different formations whenever he wants to surprise his opponents. When River faced Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final in 2018, Gallardo switched to a back five with wingbacks to completely fluster their biggest foes.
River play in their opponents’ halves, looking to control possession and counter-press quickly; Gallardo has developed a number of young players and he’s a master of the in-game switch-up. It’s a case of when rather than if, for his big move to Europe.
Naturally, there are parallels between Conceicao and another demanding, charismatic born winner who also managed Porto. Yes, both him and Mourinho build from the defence forward and demand unwavering loyalty from their soldiers but these are two very different coaches. Conceicao rules with discipline but isn’t afraid to admit his mistakes. He favours a 4-2-4 shape in attack and wants to box teams in with a far more ruthless press than Mourinho likes.
Conceicao rules with discipline but constantly gets an extra 5% out of his men - something viewers of that Juventus epic would testify.
Lazio are a throwback of sorts under Simone Inzaghi. Inzaghi favours a back three with Lucas Leiva screening, doesn’t build up with the same patience as many modern sides and looks to long balls to get his strikers into games. It works though: Lazio are back to pushing for Champions League places, where they belong, thanks to a manager who has revitalised their play in recent times.
When the walls crumbled around Nico Kovac’s Bayern Munich, he must have wondered where the next opportunity would present itself. At Monaco, the Croatian tactician has helped rehabilitate a fallen giant from relegation battles to title skirmishes, taking the principality back to their rightful place in Ligue 1.
Only Paris Saint-Germain press more aggressively than Monaco in France. Kovac has retained the principles of his Red Bull Salzburg days while looking to build in a 3-2-5 set-up and look for midfielders in between the lines. Attackers Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland have taken advantage of Monaco’s desire to overload the wings and release the danger-men in the channels.
The Monegasques are still a work in progress - but Kovac has already transformed them into a strong side who look superb in possession.
Not everyone was a fan of Marcelino at Valencia. According to the man himself, he was sacked in 2019 for winning the Copa Del Rey. Still, the La Liga veteran has found a new home for his compact 4-4-2 at Athletic Bilbao this season, employing high pressure, numerical overloads and a sensible mid-block that stops the bigger sides from playing through Athletic Bilbao centrally.
Athletic’s players have bought into the philosophy completely. Marcelino has dropped points in a number of draws since January but the Basque side are steadying themselves. The improvement is clear, with Athletic looking to target the European spots next season.
“It can be said that this system is considered key when it comes to attacking,” said Paulo Fonseca, when asked about the 3-5-2 formation that he chose at Roma - a set-up more commonly associated with shutting teams out rather than playing on the front foot.
The Portuguese boss has brought more composure to the backline, encouraging them in possession while managing an ageing frontline of Pedro, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Edin Dzeko masterfully, exploiting their technical abilities while maintaining width with full-backs. Roma are intriguing to watch, balletic in the way they find space and use short passes to progress up the pitch; the Champions League looks a little out of reach but La Lupa are making excellent progress.
The man that Pep Guardiola claimed “knows everything” has had a hellish baptism in his first 18 months of management. Arsenal were horrifically imbalanced, out of confidence with players either on big wages or soon-to-be out of contract. Mikel Arteta’s upgrade from a head coach to manager has reflected the spread of fires he’s put out while in charge.
His Arsenal side are slowly taking shape, however. Though individual errors are still their biggest weakness, the Basque boss has fashioned a sturdier defence, improved the build-up and made Arsenal fitter, stronger and more compact. Arteta’s philosophy is rock solid, his principles strong and the Gunners are beginning to reap the benefits. Considering he’s learning on the job, he’s done astoundingly well to win the FA Cup and fashion a clear style from a technically-poor group of players with very little creativity.
Like Drake before him, former Portsmouth assistant manager Christophe Galtier started from the bottom. He’s turned Lille from relegation battlers into surprise frontrunners of Ligue 1 - and the Canadian rapper never lost the likes of centre-back Gabriel or Victor Osimhen along the way.
Galtier’s side sit in a 4-4-2 defensively but resemble a 3-1-6 when they push up. Lille are impressive in possession with Galtier managing to unlock the best out of the likes of Jonathan Bamba, Renato Sanches, 35-year-old Burak Yilmaz and Jonathan Ikone. Sven Botman has impressed this season enough to pique Liverpool’s interest, while Jose Fonte is 37 and prolonging his twilight.
With Ligue 1 in crisis and Lille’s off-field figureheads changing, however, the biggest storm clouds could well be ahead of Les Dogues. Galtier has navigated them superbly well through the tumult thus far and has taken them into a title race. It’s been a masterful job from the Frenchman.
Pirlo was the brain, Gattuso the brawn; a thinker and a doer. In management, however, Gattuso has proved himself capable of thwarting seemingly smarter bosses in the likes of Gian Piero Gasperini, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri.
Gattuso is a master of manipulation when it comes to his opponents’ positioning, looking to find space. It’s not as flashy a side as predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and Sarri played with - but Napoli are harder to break down these days. It’s an approach that heralded silverware too, with last year’s Coppa Italia: something not even Sarri’s 91-point side could manage.
The fact that Zinedine Zidane even returned to Real Madrid deserves credit. He didn’t have to. He left a hat-trick hero to go on sabbatical and chose to return to a life with Lucas Vazquez, like Matt Damon actively choosing to take on Jason Bourne sequels.
Inverting Casemiro to both defend as a no.6 and press high was almost revolutionary - but aside from that, Zizou’s job was never to reinvent the wheel in Spain’s capital. He is a figurehead, the ultimate Galactico and the modern-day holder of the mantra that balance is best. He lost Cristiano Ronaldo, didn’t replace him and squeezed his defence together to bring another league title. He’s repainted Karim Benzema, from sidecar to Harley Davidson. As a player, he was exquisite to watch; as a manager, he does the necessary basics and little else.
Zidane has showed a lot of capability in his second spell at Madrid that he never had to display the first time around. It’s been a very different experience for the Frenchman but he’s probably a better coach for it.
Erik ten Hag
It seems surprising, almost, that Erik ten Hag is still at Ajax. After the Champions League semi side of 2019, a chapter closed for the likes of Matthjis De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, with Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek following out the door later. It seemed like ten Hag couldn’t do much more with this group.
The former Bayern reserve manager remains, though. He may never take Ajax as far as he did with the two linchpins of De Ligt and De Jong but his football is still scintillating, his principles untouched. Ten Hag’s role in the development of players like Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui can’t be overlooked, while the way that his wingers cut in to assist in the attack with Dusan Tadic, is great to watch. Surely a big offer will come in for ten Hag at some point: he’s a smart, progressive coach, either way, who at 51, still could have his best years ahead of him.
With every passing year, Jose Mourinho morphs more into The Master from Doctor Who. He’s calculated, always with a plan up his sleeve of how to foil the protagonist, rather than how to unleash mayhem on his own terms. And some 15 years after he first swaggered onto the scene, he still has us hooked.
There was a period last autumn when Mourinho looked on course for a fourth Premier League title, Kane and Son looked reshaped in his chiseled image and Tottenham Hotspur were back, properly. Goodness knows how far ahead from the pack they’d be if he’d have signed Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias as he’d asked for. But though Spurs eventually capitulated, Jose has reconfigured his coordinates and not lost much face from this campaign.
He still reached a final. He still got levels out of this lot that could well look miraculous under the next boss, a la United’s early malaise under Ole. You can hide behind the sofa but Jose Mourinho is eternal - as a new job in the eternal city at Roma testifies. He’ll always command a place in this sort of list, no matter how far away he is from his Cary Grant-esque peak. You can never write him off.
Julen Lopetegui’s 2018 was enough to destroy most managers for good. First he was fired on the eve of the World Cup in Russia, for agreeing to join Real Madrid ahead of managing Spain at the tournament, before poor form at Los Blancos cost him his second job in a matter of months.
Sevilla has provided exactly the redemption arc he needed. Lopetegui’s Sevilla have been grounded in excellent defensive shape, a balanced midfield trio and unpredictability in attack, using the full width of the pitch and creating space for the likes of Ivan Rakitic to orchestrate. It’s a fine balance that he has at his fingertips, between the worn experience and untapped potential; the Sevilla side have totally bought into his ideals, many of whom share their manager’s point to prove.
A Europa League title last term confirmed that this is a group heading in the right direction. Lopetegui’s career, really, is just beginning.
Ralf Rangnick was lined up for the AC Milan post instead while Stefano Pioli held the fort. What Pioli has managed to achieve - in his unbeaten run that gave him the full-time job, followed by this season - is perhaps the best anyone has done at I Rossoneri since the club’s Champions League days.
Pioli’s ability to adapt to situations with fresh ideas is one of the key reasons why he hit the ground running at Milan. He likes to play out from the back but not if it’s risky; he likes his teams to press, but understands why 38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic struggles to keep up such intensity. With a midfield built on Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie, he’s kept his team simple, effective and surprisingly challenging for the Scudetto - Milan made the right decision to keep with a good thing.
The man whose name translates to “Ralph Rabbit Hutch” is, infamously, a less amiable Jurgen Klopp. A high-pressing Tim Sherwood. He’s been battleshipped by 9-0s. He’s gone through rockier patches than an ibex. And yet, he could be the globe’s next big super coach.
Big Hass’s 4-2-2-2 formation is, by now, iconic. He gets new ceilings from his Southampton stars, with James Ward-Prowse, Kyle Walker-Peters and Oriel Romeu having gone from fall-guys to fulcrums under his leadership. His football is truly impressive - as leaky as it can be at times - in the way that his team never stops running, attacking and defending as one unit.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him take on a Liverpool or Tottenham job after he’s left St. Mary’s. He’s a pillar of the high-pressing Bundesliga school of football and he’s taken Southampton up several gears in just a couple of years.
As a player, Steven Gerrard saw everything. When he moved back into the quarterback role for Brendan Rodgers, it felt not like the twilight of an attacking midfielder’s career but the beginning of a new chapter. At Rangers, he’s managed to find creative solutions to problems - such as the duel-no.10 shape that brought more creativity in the middle - and now he’s managed to win a trophy for his efforts.
By getting more creativity out of his full-backs and learning how to cut through low blocks in order to get results, Gerrard has been on a similar journey to the top that Jurgen Klopp has back at his beloved Liverpool. He’s capable of getting consistency out of his players and has adapted game by game; the truly exciting thing about Stevie G is seeing how he evolves further as a manager in time.
The blazer and polo shirt. The raised eyebrow. The piercing grey eyes. The swept fringe. The laissez-faire approach to shape and style, so long as your players are happy. James Rodriguez balling like it’s Brazil ‘14 every Saturday.
There are some things that the Premier League is poorer without and one of those things is the tortellini-loving, softly-spoken Carlo Ancelotti. Look back at the past year or so at Everton - the shift from 4-4-2 to a James-infused, Allan-anchored system that briefly challenged for a title, the bloom of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the re-imagining of Michael Keane. It’s hard to believe that the last two jobs nearly broke Don Carlo’s rep.
No, we’re back at peak Ancelotti, now. He feels like a perfect fit at Everton and he’s seemingly improved most players, along with the entire mood at the club. It’s great to see. It’s great to have him back on these shores.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
His own fans yearned for Mauricio Pochettino through all of the dark days and yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come out of the other side. The man never designed to take on the Manchester United job, now feels like the only man for the task.
It’s been a long journey. A hell of a bounce got him the job before good form receded to the norm. With Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire signed though, Solskjaer has benefited from fitting pillars into the architecture, while improving the likes of Fred, Scott McTominay, Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford as individuals. He’s even found a home for Paul Pogba.
This season’s turnaround from doom to top two has been everything the Norwegian is about: whisper it around his naysayers but considering everything, he’s done a spectacular job.
Your mum fancies him, your dad wants to be him. The outgoing Borussia Monchengladbach honcho is archetypal high-press, off-ball expert of the German game and with Borussia Dortmund on his radar, he could be primed for the top of the Bundesliga tree before long.
Rose’s hungry, dynamic football has leant on Florian Neuhaus in the engine room, while Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea have developed into two of the most exciting attackers in Europe under his command. The Leipzig-born coach has implemented a sturdy 4-2-3-1 shape capable of stretching teams, pressing opponents into touch and using full-backs as a big part of the build-up.
Dortmund is a natural next stepping stone for an ambitious young manager. As Ed McCambridge put it for FFT recently, “The Black and Yellows can be seen as a soft touch by scrappier Bundesliga clubs, but Rose can help them to correct that imbalance.”
Every season that Marcelo Bielsa stays in English football is an absolute gift. Some days, it feels as if football belongs to him and that he’s simply sharing it with the rest of us.
It’s easy to forget where Leeds United were when El Loco took the reigns of this club and charged towards the top. They have been nothing short of sublime to watch under the Argentinian, refusing to compromise his ideals, playing without abandon with many of the squad reinventing themselves individually. His crowning glory may be promotion, really, but speak to those who watch his football: that’s the real legacy of Bielsa in England.
He’s become more than just a big grin, hasn’t he?
Brendan Rodgers is now one of the elite, it’s more than fair to say. He outwits the best. He’s developed the likes of James Justin and Jamie Vardy - at opposite ends of their careers. He can coach his sides in three- and four-at-the-back shapes, bending his attack between one or two prongs. He can cope without big stars. He can refashion full-backs on either side. Every week, it seems, we see something from the Carnlough Clough that we’ve never seen him do before.
Rodgers always had the potential to become one of the shrewdest managers in England but his work in the last two years at Leicester City has almost been perfect. He’s taken them into Europe at the first time of asking - devastatingly close to the Champions League - and then went one better this season while masterminding a first FA Cup victory in Foxes' history. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is getting such devastating form out of Kelechi Iheanacho!
There are those that may never truly believe their eyes when it comes to Big Brendan’s talents. He looked a shell of himself when he left Liverpool - and now he’s fully back. He’s had an excellent season. He deserves the love that Leicester have for him.
Gian Piero Gasperini
When a club have to play at a neutral ground in Europe because their stadium isn’t up to standard, it’s usually a sure sign that the coach is working wonders. Gian Piero Gasperini of Atalanta, with his motivational quotes on the wall and passion for hard-working players, may well be the game’s biggest overachiever right now.
Atalanta are a complex beast; Chris Wilder's Sheffield United with a Master’s degree, you might lazily want to call them. They attack in clusters, with numerical superiority and shift play horizontally like a pinball buffer. Atalanta have ingrained positional interchange, with players moving into each other’s roles depending on the scenario. It’s almost impossible to defend against.
They press high, they drop into a 5-4-1 and Atalanta have punched above their weight for two years on the trot now, as teams across Italy struggle to work them out. Gasperini is a mad scientist, a concocter of a Frankensteinian beast of modern football. It has all the ingredients of what everyone else plays - the intensity, the verticality, the overloads in wide positions and automatisms that players fall on instinctively - yet it’s constructed uniquely. Gasperini could well be an era-defining figure of years to come.
Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-1 win over Barcelona in the Champions League in February confirmed more than a few things. That his managerial values were sinking into his players, of course, but also that he could handle the heat of a European cauldron - an accusation leveled against him while at Tottenham. Moise Kean, Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti and Leandro Parades all came out of the game sparkling too, a true vindication of Poch’s methods early on in Ligue 1.
We all watched the Argentine’s 4-2-3-1 - with high-pressing and midfielders dropping into help the defence in build-up - for years in the Premier League. There were obstacles: money, investment and injuries ravaging his squad. But it’s fair to say that Pochettino overachieved in north London, considering everything.
In his short time at PSG, it’s like he’s never been away. For a man who’s steered away from egos wherever he could in management, he’s getting steadily better performances from his side, with a few notable improvements in individuals he’s trusted that extra bit of faith. Pochettino is a top-tier manager - however it ended at Spurs.
Meticulous and demanding. High risk, high reward. Thomas Tuchel has a particular reputation about the friction he causes with his bosses - but on the pitch, his football is excellent.
The German has already established Chelsea as a team who concede few chances, build up with confidence and composure and are capable of attacking in five channels. At PSG, he would flick the switch between shapes, repurpose players in other areas if need be and his side could move the ball vertically to the envy of everyone else. While he’s been a big name in management since assuming Jurgen Klopp’s hot seat at Dortmund, he’s more than just a man of theory these days: he has a cabinet stacked with gold from Paris and a Champions League runners-up medal.
Tuchel is still improving, too. He has a penchant for developing younger players, he gets the best out of his attackers and he’s good at keeping teams compact. It’s not too bold a claim to have them as dark horses in all four competitions they enter next season.
Whether Bayern fully intended for Hansi Flick to take the wheel at the Allianz, his work there over the last 18 months has been nothing short of fantastic. He’s had the confidence to encourage verticality, a little more risk and a little more intensity - it’s resulted in Bayern becoming German, European and world champions.
Some of the individual stories within the bigger picture have been integral to Flick’s success, too. Alphonso Davies’s license to roam and create carnage on the left has been fantastic to watch, while David Alaba’s conversion into the covering centre-back has brought form that we didn’t even see under Pep Guardiola. Off the ball, Bayern have trapped opponents; on the ball, they’ve been ruthless in the final third.
Flick has added the much-needed ferocity that this team hasn’t had for years, while simplifying the individual roles of so many of his players. Is it easy to manage a team quite this dominant? Perhaps. It’s not quite so easy to sweep all before you on the continental and world stage.
Just before lockdown last year, the Allianz Arena hosted RB Leipzig as the latest contenders to try and end Bayern’s winning run. Bayern huffed and puffed though the game ended goalless. There was an underlying feeling throughout the match that perhaps Bayern were a little warier of Leipzig than they would have been against Dortmund.
Julian Nagelsmann has been key to the rise of the east German behemoth as the Bundesliga’s second-best product. The jazzy-jacketed 30-something is the face and charisma of the RB brand, really: it’s his fluid football, focused on individual execution that has seen Leipzig take that extra step.
He’s fluent in a plethora of formations of styles and he’s capable of matching anyone head-on. Look at how he’s transformed Marcel Sabitzer, Timo Werner or Angelino. The boards of Europe’s aristocracy have and they want him to do the same for their nine-figure footballers.
Nagelsmann is a household name at 33 but calling him the future of European football is somewhat misleading. He’s already taken Hoffenheim into Europe and Leipzig to the final four of the Champions League. He’s the present. He’s already a phenomenon - and now he's off to Bayern Munich this summer. Let's see how he handles a superclub.
Liverpool’s title defence has been shambolic. It’s an unrecognisable side from the one that conquered all before it pre-COVID. But make no mistake about it: Jurgen Klopp still has the credit in the bank to be considered one of the premier managers in the sport.
The perma-grinning German devised perhaps the most efficient system that the Premier League had ever seen, with a flat midfield, high full-backs and famed false nine. Only complacency and taking a foot off the pedal seemed to thwart Liverpool and yet they looked stronger at the start of this season before the rockstars of Klopp’s heavy metal game began dropping, one by one.
But this is still the man who changed everything. We all press from the front at Klopp’s speed. Pep Guardiola began the debates of what full-backs could become; Klopp produced the examples. He conquered England and Europe without a conventional playmaker or a conventional striker. He has the demeanour of your dad’s mate, the aura of a coach who simply relies on pumping good players up for big games. But as a tactician, Klopp has fully transformed the game.
He entered your consciousness when he trapped David Beckham in a web of his own making. He’s played the supervillain ever since. The only man capable of taking down Real Madrid and Barcelona yet without the resources of either.
Every season it feels like this might be the one that Diego Simeone runs out of petrol. In the past two years, he’s lost Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin, Rodri, Juanfran, Lucas Hernandez, Alvaro Morata and Thomas Partey - last-minute, without hope of getting a replacement - and yet Atletico Madrid have led La Liga since mid-November. They're just one win away from glory - a win away to Valladolid on Saturday will do it.
Simeone is indestructible, for sure. His 4-4-2 has morphed into a three-at-the-back iteration, as Marcos Llorente and Luis Suarez have been the leaders at the heart of Atleti’s latest software update. El Cholo crunches the numbers; he knows how many goals to keep out and how many to score to stay ahead of the game - and his team have been fantastic while others have faltered in the last year.
In an age of the passing trend, Diego Simeone and his all-black attire is staying in fashion, season by season. He’s in his tenth year in Madrid and he’s still as good as he ever has been.
If you ask most Chelsea fans, they’ll tell you that Antonio Conte should have been given longer. Perhaps it’s his infectious, Duracell bunny passion that Blues miss about him, or the high-octane transitions that lifted them from their seats. In a funny way though, his Stamford Bridge tenure being curtailed has perhaps fueled his reputation as the best short-term boss on the planet.
Inter Milan have moved from nearly-men to champions in just under two years, spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku’s ascension into the elite and laid out in Conte’s famed back three. The Leccerian boss seems to revel in using other club’s discarded tools, fashioning weapons from wing-backs in their 30s and creative talents that look burnt out. There’s a clear identity at play: everyone knows the rules.
But not just a manager who simplifies everything for his players, Conte is still capable of a tactical masterclass to outwit the brain in the opposite dugout. He still loves to specifically target someone else’s weaknesses and play around the opposition, rather than through them. This Inter side may well be the most Conte team we’ve ever seen, too: while other teams have brought him in to see what he can bring to their specific club DNA, the San Siro has instead become Conte’s colosseum. This is his club now.
He’s still number one. He’s still innovating. He’s still finding ways to twist other elite coaches into submission. He can still suffocate the best in the world with the ball, leaving them chasing cover shadows. He’s deadly with or without a striker, with or without Kevin De Bruyne, with or without natural full-backs. He can turn Ilkay Gundogan into peak Frank Lampard.
The past 12 months have cemented Pep Guardiola’s position as the greatest coach of his generation in a way that none of us truly saw coming. While Pep ended last year with a bog-standard 4-2-3-1 that squeezed teams to death, he’s cut them to pieces since Christmas with fluidity, Joao Cancelo playing three roles at once and Phil Foden mastering four roles across the pitch to provide him multiple options. Manchester City this season have been nothing short of staggering.
And this City team might even be Pep’s best yet. They won’t rack up 100 points but they’ve thrilled in ways that the Centurions never did. There’s no metronome in David Silva, there’s no focal point in Sergio Aguero. Guardiola has ripped up everything we knew about his ideas and re-written them.
When Mikel Arteta left for Arsenal, Juanma Lillo, a long-time mentor for Pep, was brought into the fold. While it would have been natural for the Catalan to fall into a more conservative shape after a season of defensive frailty, Lillo has been the devil on Guardiola’s shoulder. He seems to have encouraged him to go further in his ideals, deeper into the philosophies that have made him the coach he is today.
Everyone else is playing catch-up to Pep Guardiola. It’s nothing new. And it’s just how he likes it. Would delivering the Champions League against Chelsea on May 29th be the end of his time at Manchester City? Fans of every Premier League club should pray that isn't the case. The league is better for his presence in it.
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