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News analysis

Football: Star-player pedigree a boon for those luminaries who continue as coaches

Pep Guardiola was Xavi Hernandez's hero. Andres Iniesta's, too. Zinedine Zidane was the man Karim Benzema had described as "like a big brother". Diego Simeone was an Atletico Madrid icon as a player, just as Antonio Conte was at Juventus. Carlo Ancelotti played in perhaps the finest club side ever.

The top player turned top manager is enjoying a renaissance. They are a growing breed, with Manchester City's Guardiola, Real Madrid's Zidane, Atletico's Simeone, Chelsea's Conte and Bayern Munich's Ancelotti joined by Barcelona's Luis Enrique, Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino and AC Milan's Vincenzo Montella.

They seem the antithesis of the career coaches, those whose playing days were either negligible or comparatively undistinguished. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Rafa Benitez and Massimiliano Allegri have risen because of their managerial prowess alone.

Yet men such as Mourinho, who devoted more years to studying every element of coaching, appeared the future once: Management and playing were such separate skills that specialising at an early age seemed to make sense.

Perhaps not any more. Only seven men have won the Champions League as player and manager. Three are Guardiola, Ancelotti and Zidane. For them, success becomes self-perpetuating. They have an aura and instant credibility when they walk into a dressing room. They have an initial advantage. Each was fast-tracked to prestigious posts.


The quality of players makes a huge difference, even for top coaches like Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane. He won just 45 per cent of games helming the reserve side Castilla but 75 per cent with the star-studded first team. PHOTO: REUTERS

Perhaps some find it easier at a rarefied level where they can relate to similarly gifted players.

Zidane won only 45 per cent of his games in charge of Real Madrid Castilla. He has won 75 per cent at the helm of the first-team squad. Enrique's win rate at Barcelona (77 per cent) is almost double his ratio with Roma (40 per cent).

Guardiola's mixed fortunes with City, some of whose footballers are inferior to those at Barcelona and Bayern, his previous clubs, prompt questions if his ambitious blueprint only suits the very best.

Each benefited from their stellar playing careers. It meant they were exposed to outstanding coaches. Pochettino was influenced by the visionary Marcelo Bielsa. Guardiola became a devotee of the ideologue Johan Cruyff. Ancelotti was in Arrigo Sacchi's brilliant Milan side. Zidane and Conte played for the great Marcello Lippi.

They were in privileged positions, placed in environments where they could then excel as managers. What they then require is results. This is where they differ in methodology.

Guardiola, like Cruyff, is a philosopher, a footballing theorist. Barcelona have a unique ethos. Those who understand it, like he and Enrique, are best equipped to manage them.

Guardiola, like Cruyff, is a philosopher, a footballing theorist. Barcelona have a unique ethos. Those who understand it, like he and Enrique, are best equipped to manage them.

Conte and Simeone ally tactical awareness with instilling a formidable work rate. In contrast, Ancelotti is essentially a man-manager, a relaxed figure who is comfortable in the company of superstars and can massage egos.

What the intense Conte and the laid-back Ancelotti share is the Italian culture, aided by their excellent coaching school at Coverciano, that helps more quality players become elite managers. There is also that tradition in the Netherlands and Barcelona, but not any more in England.

Germany produced the first World Cup-winning captain and manager, in Franz Beckenbauer, but is now home to more and more coveted career coaches.

Klopp seems a pioneer and it is why there will probably remain two contrasting ways to the dug-outs of the biggest clubs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Star-player pedigree a boon for those who continue as coaches'. Print Edition | Subscribe