Using former players as managers is certainly not a new trend.
Vicente del Bosque made 445 appearances for Real Madrid from 1968 to 1984. The Spaniard the returned with a managerial stint that yielded two league titles and two Champions Leagues.
Johan Cruyff established himself as one of the world’s greatest players on the pitch for FC Barcelona. Then, he delivered the Catalan side its first European Cup as a manager in 1992.
Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola occupy similar lineage for those two clubs, respectively. Moreover, we see clubs across the world employ the same strategy. In England, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all use or used former players as managers in the last couple years. Hansi Flick led Bayern Munich to a Champions League Title in 2020 as a former player. A handful of clubs in Italy and France also follow this trend.
For one, it should be known why a club is making a managerial change in the first place. Of course, more often than not, executive boards seek improved results.
That is the case with FC Barcelona. Xavi Hernández, who played under the leadership of Pep Guardiola, recently took the reigns of Barcelona. In fact, Xavi replaced another former player, Ronald Koeman.
Koeman’s results did not live up to the aspirations of the FC Barcelona board. Chelsea-legend Frank Lampard also disappointed the executives at Stamford Bridge leading to his sacking in early 2021.
Clearly, there is not an ever-apparent correlation between hiring former players as managers and proven, consistent results.
However, some managers did produce on the biggest stages as both players and managers. Other former players floundered as managers. Let’s see where some of the most notable names fall in that regard.
Former players as managers
Bringing in former players provides a sense of tradition. Particularly, looking at teams like Manchester United or Barcelona, these teams passed up their vaunted success after a handful of managers took away from their identity.
Even then, it should be noted that managers are not always to blame. Executive boards or club presidents make financial or team moves that may not put on-pitch success at the forefront of their aims. Or, on the other hand, a club could bring on players that do not fit in a manager’s system.
For example, take Barcelona. Everyone knows the club’s off-field financial issues do not help their on-field struggles this season. The departure of Lionel Messi due to a salary cap took away Ronald Koeman’s main source of attacking threats. Then, Koeman’s Barcelona failed to muster a shot on target in two Champions League games against Bayern Munich and Benfica.
So, let’s break down some of Europe’s most prominent clubs and how their former players fared at the helm.
The Good former players as managers
The aforementioned Zinedine Zidane is the most glowing example of success for a former player as a manager. As a player for Real Madrid, Zidane reached 117 goal contributions in 227 games. He won two Spanish Super Cups, one UEFA Supercup, a LaLiga title and the 2001/02 Champions League. His five-year tenure at the Santiago Bernabeu set him up to be one of the greatest talents in the history of the game.
Flash forward to January 2016, and Florentino Perez appoints Zidane to be manager of Los Blancos. In his two-and-a-half-year tenure, the Frenchman secured three-consecutive Champions League titles, two UEFA Supercups, two FIFA Club World Cups, the 2016/17 LaLiga title and one Supercopa de España.
Zidane stepped away from managing Real Madrid after the 2017/18 season. Eventually, he returned for just over two seasons, starting with the conclusion of the 2018/19 season. He picked up another LaLiga crown and a Supercopa.
Of course, Zidane did have one of the best rosters in recent memory at his disposal. Even then, he managed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and a wealth of other heads committed to one goal, winning. As we see currently with Manchester United or Paris Saint Germain, a super team on paper does not guarantee success in all facets of the game.
For Zidane, he figured out the code to allow all the talent on Real Madrid to succeed. It shows why other teams in search of a manager constantly link with his name.
On the other side of Madrid, Diego Simeone is one of the most emotional and fearless managers in the game. The Argentine spent four seasons at the Vicente Calderon donning the red and white strip of Atletico Madrid. In fact, he also had his most successful tenure at any club while playing as one of the Colchoneros.
Over two stints in Madrid, Simeone appeared in 104 games, scoring 23 goals from his box-to-box midfield role.
Described as a “combative” midfielder, Simeone gave those Atletico Madrid squads a tenacious identity. He played in almost every game in their title-winning season of 1996/96.
Simeone returned to the side towards the end of his playing career. However, modern fans know him for his managerial career.
His charisma on the sidelines resembles his playing style. Tenacious, fearless and energized would all describe the manager each game, regardless of opponent. His managing style gets the best out of his players as he asks for similar levels of intent. Desperate defending and lethal counterattacking set up Atletico Madrid to be one of Europe’s best sides.
Under Simeone, Los Indios reached their first Champions League Final in 2014, a feat they repeated in 2016. Despite Simeone’s tactics working against Barcelona, Milan, Chelsea and Bayern Munich in those two years, their crosstown rivals upended their runs.
Even then, few would dispute the relative success of Atletico Madrid competing in an era where Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to have endless funds.
Not that I’m trying to show a bias towards LaLiga. Yes, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona all have instances of former players succeeding as managers.
Pep Guardiola may not have had the glamorous career of Zinedine Zidane or the charisma of Diego Simeone. However, he takes his place in the argument for perhaps the best manager to coach the game.
A product of Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, Pep Guardiola played under Johan Cruyff during his 10 seasons at Camp Nou. He mastered the position as a pivot to help Barcelona to their first European Cup in 1992. In many ways, Pep Guardiola’s managerial style reflects the way he and the “Dream Team” of the 1990s for Barcelona played.
Cruyff, in his own right, deserves a spot in this section. He revolutionized Barcelona to make it a true European superpower.
Quick passing, heavy possession, fluid motion and stability throughout the pitch are consistent with both Cruyff and Guardiola.
“He had such vision. That’s why I called him many times to get his thoughts when I had the idea of moving into coaching,” Guardiola said about his mentor in Cruyff.
Then, just like Cruyff, Guardiola proceeded to win just about everything possible during his time leading the club. A pair of Champions League triumphs over Manchester United, three LaLiga titles, two Copa del Rey trophies and a number of other trophies. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona became the first team to win a sextuple of trophies in one season. The club’s dominance in Guardiola’s first season, 2008/09, laid out the future career for the Barcelona-native.
Of course, he later moved on to Bayern Munich then Manchester City. At both clubs, he dominated domestically, although the Champions League crowns elude him.
Personally, I felt like Frank Lampard took an unfortunate brunt of criticism during his brief time as manager of Chelsea. He is a club legend. He leads the club in goals with 211 from his midfield role, leads the club in assists with 150 (over 50 more than second-place Eden Hazard) and is the second-all-time appearance maker with 648. No more needs to be said about the success he brought the side from Stamford Bridge. After all, he wore the armband as Chelsea lifted their first Champions League trophy in 2012.
Lampard replaced Maurizio Sarri in the summer of 2019.
His first season was steady, not spectacular in any regard. Domestically, Chelsea finished fourth in the league and lost the FA Cup Final to Arsenal. In Europe, a second-place finish in their group paired the club with Bayern Munich in the round of 16. Unsurprisingly, the eventual-champions thumped Chelsea by an aggregate score of 7-1.
To rebound off of the less-than stellar season, Lampard brought in a handful of players. Notably, Edouard Mendy, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Timo Werner. These players took some time to adjust to the game, and in that time, Roman Abramovich saw enough. A tough run of form in December spelled the end of Lampard’s days as manager. Thomas Tuchel replaced the Englishman.
However, Lampard’s legacy existed after his departure. Lampard’s Chelsea finished top of their Champions League group. Then, the aforementioned players all started in the Champions League Final that the Blues won against Manchester City.
Lampard provided those opportunities. Similarly, Lampard turned Mason Mount into perhaps Chelsea’s most important player. The on-pitch performances may have been lacking; Lampard owned win percentage barely over 50%. But, Lampard’s development of the squad set Chelsea up for success.
After the successes of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, the role of manager of FC Barcelona seems to lead to disaster. After the relative failures of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman took the reigns in August, 2020.
Prior to the golden era of FC Barcelona, Ronald Koeman was a center-back that consistently added goals to his resume. His free kick from 25 yards out in the 112th minute was the only goal scored in the 1992 European Cup Final. Barcelona’s victory over Sampdoria at Wembley was their first European triumph in club history.
As a defender, Koeman cracks the top-20 list for all-time goals in Barcelona’s vaunted history. His 86 goals are more than Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Johan Cruyff, all undoubtedly club legends.
A Copa del Rey trophy saved the blemishes in the Champions League and LaLiga. In the UCL, Paris Saint Germain bested the Catalan side with an aggregate score of 5-2. Domestically, Lionel Messi’s 30 goals could not help Koeman to finish better than third. Largely, defeats against title-challenging rivals Real Madrid and eventual-title-winners Atletico Madrid set Barcelona well-behind the pace.
Barca took some heroics from a handful of players, including Antoine Griezmann’s late goal against Sevilla, to reach the Copa del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao.
To start the 2021/22 season, the Culers of Barcelona already wanted more out of Koeman. Then, no goals in their first-two Champions League games put Barca in desperation for a trip to the knockout stages. Also, remarkably, Barcelona sits in ninth in LaLiga play after 12 games.
Despite a showing of support, Barca relieved Koeman of his duties.
Joan Laporta continued the trend of former players as managers. This time, Xavi takes on the challenge of Barcelona.
Another example of a legend of the game struggling as a manager comes in Italy. Andrea Pirlo, like Xavi, dominated in the midfield for AC Milan, Juventus and even Inter Milan. A true field general, his ability to pick out passes and dictate the pace of the game made him a daunting opponent.
He had the makings of a great manager. He sees the game well, managed in the same league he played in and had a great stock of players to choose from.
For other clubs, a domestic double with a Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana would seem like a decent enough season. For Juventus, those are expectations, as is winning the league. After all, Juventus won the previous nine Scudettos.
After one Serie A season, Pirlo squeaked out a fourth-placed finish in the league as Inter dethroned the Old Lady. In the Champions League, Pirlo’s Juve finished top of the group with just one loss. In the round of 16, a shocking exit on away goals to Porto knocked Juventus out. From that point on, Pirlo’s task rose exponentially. And, perhaps, it was simply too much to overcome the defeat on aggregate.
Juventus dismissed the man who spent four seasons as a midfield maestro after just one season at the helm. Trophies came, but true success sought by Juve fans still escaped their grasps.
While some other clubs in this list have a revolving door in the manager position, Arsenal had the same manager for 22 years. Arsene Wenger set the record for most matches managed in Premier League history with 828 games.
His spell ended in 2018; Unai Emery replaced Wenger, but he only lasted just over one season. In step Mikel Arteta.
The Spaniard played for a handful of clubs throughout his playing career, spending his youth in La Masia before finishing his career at the Emirates. Attempting to build a similar reputation to Pep Guardiola, Arteta took an understudy role at Manchester City with Guardiola following his retirement in 2016. Arsenal proceeded to pull the trigger and bring in Arteta as permanent manager in December, 2019.
Arteta is the epitome of a mixed-bag of results. An unproven manager at just 39 years old, Arteta has the benefit of a lack of expectation on his side. Sure, Arsenal are still considered one of the biggest clubs in England and perhaps the world. However, the club’s intentions to rebuild are clear.
In his tenure in charge of the Gunners, Arteta has two trophies, an FA Cup and a Community Shield. He won both of those in his first time trying. However, in league play, Arsenal finished eighth in both seasons under Arteta.
Currently, the pressure is turning up on Arteta from Arsenal supporters. He does manage the youngest squad in the Premier League by some margin, but Arsenal fans feel devoid of success in recent years.
Still, the future looks bright. Entering the November international break, Arsenal sits fifth in the table despite three seasoning-opening losses. Now, they are eight-games unbeaten.
Arteta must keep this form up to prove himself as a successful former player as a manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær
No, he is not David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes or the Neville brothers. However, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is still a Manchester United legend. In fact, he owns what is perhaps the most famous moment in the illustrious and lengthy history of the club.
We all know the moment. And Solskjær has won it! Clive Tyldesley’s call of Solskjær’s goal in the third minute of stoppage time lives in the lore of the game. The Norwegian’s goal capped off what many considered the greatest finish and comeback in a Champions League or European Cup final. Of course, Liverpool would have something to say about that six years down the road.
Often used as a super substitute, like in the ’99 Final, Solskjær had a knack for goals coming off the bench. He amassed 209 goal contributions throughout his career’s 410 games for Clausenengen, Molde then Manchester United.
“I sat there and I studied football games but I didn’t exactly analyse their strikers. Thierry Henry could do whatever he wanted as far as I was concerned, that was Jaap Stam’s problem. Instead I would pay attention to what the defenders and full-backs were doing wrong,” Solskjær told the Josimar magazine.
Although his studies as a player made him a proficient threat in front of goal, he lost some of that fire as a manager. Unfortunately, it is never easy to take over a club as heavily scrutinized as Manchester United. Fans and board members want both results in the moment and development for future success.
Some would put Solskjær firmly in the bad section. However, he has shown that he can beat big teams using his lineup. It just comes down to maintaining form against all opponents.
Ole’s tenure at United has been tumultuous. One week the club picks up a crucial Champions League win with a dramatic comeback. The next week, Liverpool thrashes Manchester United at old Trafford.
Such is the nature of Solskjær’s time at United. A lack of consistency despite having world-class talents at his disposal puts him behind Jose Mourinho based on points earned per game. Yes, he is above David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. However, the owners brought Solskjær in to win trophies.
In his partial season as interim manager replacing Mourinho, Solskjær’s rapid success and dramatic victory against PSG in the Champions League may have set the bar too high.
Now, he sits uncomfortably on the hot seat with Manchester United struggling. Tabloids already look at Mauricio Pochettino, Erik Ten Hag or Zinedine Zidane to replace the manager in the dugout.
Now, we have a manager with no games managed for the club he spent the majority of his career at. Xavi retired as a player with Al-Sadd, the same club with which he began his managerial career.
Barcelona fans greeted Xavi to great aplomb. After all, this is the player who bossed the midfield in three Champions League finals. With Barcelona still in dire financial straits, Barcelona fans should be patient with their new manager.
The league is somehow already out of reach, sitting in ninth after 12 games. There is little hope in the Champions League, although Barca does sit in second in their group with two games to play. One trophy, perhaps the Supercopa de España or the Copa del Rey, would seem like decent achievements for a young manager using a young squad.
If Barcelona fans want optimism, there is the chance that he follows in the lineage of Cruyff and Guardiola. He had the opportunity to learn from both in his elongated stint at Barcelona as a player.
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