It’s not unusual for the best players to become managers, but it is unusual for them to become good ones.
Zinedine Zidane became the first manager to win back to back Champions League titles as a manager and Johan Cruyff revolutionised the game. Both men would likely be in most lists of the top ten footballers ever to play the game, but they are probably two of the very few who can claim to have been successful managers, too.
The reason Zidane feels like he breaks the mould, though, is because he never seemed to be much of a thinker or a tactician. Unlike Pep Guardiola or even Ronald Koeman, he wasn’t the kind of player who spent a career unlocking defences through strategic thought, he had the ability to do it with skill instead.
The idea that a good player doesn’t usually make for a good manager isn’t a new one either. The current trend towards managers like Brendan Rodgers and even Jose Mourinho who didn’t play at a high level is one thing, but Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger never played to much of a standard either. Arrigo Sacchi, who won back to back European Cups with AC Milan was a shoe salesman by trade.
Football’s history is one of tactical innovation, and it makes sense that the players who study that side of the game the most are going to become the best coaches. But there’s another side to coaching that sometimes gets lost: it’s not all about tactics and intelligence, it’s also about man-management, spirit, and emotional intelligence. And whereas the tactical side of the game might come naturally to anyone gifted enough, those less tangible traits are often honed from years spent within teams and inside dressing rooms.
Southampton’s new coach Mauricio Pellegrino epitomises the blend.
To hear a man like him say that he didn’t enjoy football is jarring, though. It is clearly his calling. This is a man who took his first coaching courses in 1999 before the age of 30. A man who went on to play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe in double Champions League runners-up Valencia, Liverpool and Barcelona, but a man who said he didn’t enjoy football.
But despite playing for such top clubs, and under managers like Marcelo Bielsa, Claudio Ranieri, Rafael Benitez and Louis van Gaal, Pellegrino wasn’t ever a top defender. It’s hard to enjoy playing football when you feel like you’re slower and less talented than the rest of the players on the pitch, but it was Pellegrino’s mental attributes that made up for his physical and technical deficiencies.
It meant he had to read the game better than any of his teammates, and it meant he had to learn what his coaches were thinking; after all, if you can’t rely on your skill, you have to at least get the tactics and positioning right.
And maybe that’s what drew Pellegrino into coaching, and persuaded him to take a course before even making much of a name for himself around the world of football. But he did settle at Valencia, spending six years playing for Hector Cuper and Rafael Benitez, before the latter brought him to Anfield, where Pellegrino got his first taste of English football, both as a player and as a coach.
Obvious comparisons will be made. Pellegrino is a 45-year-old coach who happens to have been an Argentinian centre-back who played under Marcelo Bielsa before moving to Spain and playing football in the city of Barcelona. His countryman, and half namesake, Mauricio Pochettino would fit that description, but they’ll face each other next season in charge of opposite teams: we’ll soon see them in the same room at the same time. Perhaps there’s more to it than just similar names.
Football changes from year to year, and with that tactics evolve. That, in turn, creates a bias towards recent events as onlookers try to predict the keys to success. And perhaps that’s why the Pochettino comparison seems so seductive. But the reality is, if there’s a link between the two, it doesn’t come from the obvious similarities: it comes from the fact that both players relied on a blend of heart, desire and intelligence to carve out a career in European football.
Sometimes, it only looks as if there’s a new trend. The trend towards managers like Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp only tells half the story. It’s not just about new ideas and a mix of intelligence and man-management. It’s not a new trend at all. It’s one which has probably existed as long as the game has. The best coaches are the ones who combine the right sets of skills, and when it comes to former players, it just so happens that quite a few of them tend to have had supporting – rather than starring – roles in some of the best teams in the world. It’s not always the case, but it’s right most of the time.
In Pellegrino, Southampton are getting a coach like that. They are a club who seem to understand the concept, and clearly have an eye for a manager. It might be unusual for the best players to become the best managers, but it’s not always hard to spot who can make the jump.