FourFourTwo’s 50 Best Football Managers in the World 2016: 45-41
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's a very normal person: he was a player until not long ago and he knows our needs very well. He's understanding and he talks to us a lot
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