Millionaire superstar players may have endless social media followers, may score the goals, drive the fancy cars and have their names appear on the backs of tonnes of replica shits, but they pale in comparison to the manager when it comes to their all-round contribution to a team.
Picking the team and talking in pre and post-match press conferences is part of the job but it’s when it comes to tactics that they really earn their corn. Here are five of the best.
We all know about Jurgen Klopp’s love of ‘gegenpressing’ whereby the team who has just lost the ball instantly hounds their opponents like a dog chasing a bone, rather than re-grouping and inviting pressure.
We also know that your chances of winning football games are greatly increased when you can count on a front-three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. And that having the best pound-for-pound defender in the world in Virgil van Dijk and one of the safest keepers in Alisson Felix also seriously helps matters when it comes to keeping the goals out.
But what may have escaped some people’s attentions is that despite almost winning the Premier League and being favourites to win the Champions League final, their midfield still lacks the quality of other elite teams. If Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, Fabinho, Adam Lallana and Giorgino Wijnaldum were all put on the transfer market tomorrow, there would be a fair few takers for Wijnaldum and to a lesser extent Fabinho (not so much the others) but it wouldn’t be the biggest clubs making the offers in any scenario. That’s because none of them are world class players.
So it’s testament to Klopp’s tactical skills that he’s realised all that and made his midfield hard-running, workmanlike and mostly defensive-minded.
Klopp’s great secret is the use of his full-backs to create numerical advantages in attack and constantly provide a wide option. The midfield three cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson while these two do what they do best: bomb forward and put in dangerous crosses whenever given the chance.
To stay at one club pretty much your whole career and win lots of trophies like Sir Alex Ferguson did is one thing. And to create an almost superhuman team like Zinedine Zidane did for a three-year period at Real Madrid (the first-time round), is another.
But to manage three teams in three different countries to the league title more than once is for the select few.
If Klopp is the revolutionary, then Pep Guardiola is the perfectionist. You can imagine him at home using the same recipe for chocolate cake 100 times until he gets it just right.
Obsessed with maintaining possession at all times, to the extent that Guardiola let then England Number 1 keeper Joe Hart leave the club because he always booted it long rather than playing the ball to a nearby defender, this Man City side is one of the best-oiled machines in football.
Everyone knows their role, everyone pulls in the same direction, everyone knows exactly where to be and when. Some of the team goals they’ve scored over the years take your breath away.
In full flow, City are irresistible. Still, Guardiola’s work at City isn’t done until he can deliver them the Champions League.
By the way, if you’re a big fan of Champions League football, it’s always covered in detail here.
Of course, not all managers can be Guardiola and deliver a brand of beautiful football made up of slick passing, quick movement and overlapping runs. And if you want to go the other way and adopt a cat-and-mouse style of football with huge emphasis on keeping clean sheets and setting up your team so that they’re incredibly hard to beat…you might just want Diego Simeone in the hotseat.
The cynical ones will remember that Simeone’s Atletico Madrid lost two Champions League finals to Real Madrid in three years and that they really should have won the first one. They conceded an equaliser in second-half stoppage time and ended up badly beaten in extra-time.
The members of the Simeone appreciation society will point out that it was a minor miracle that they even got to those two finals.
Whereas Barca had Messi, Iniesta and Neymar and Real had Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale, the only real superstar Simeone has had at his disposal is Antoine Griezmann (he won’t have him for much longer as he’s leaving this summer). So it’s testament to Simeone’s tactical nous that he played to his team’s strengths. Run harder, overcrowd in midfield, commit petty fouls when you need to, make the most of set pieces and know how to manage your lead when you have it.
Very often it’s not particularly pretty, much like Simeone’s antics on the touchline aren’t, either. But it’s a good example of the old expression that says there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
The least high-profile of our quintet but no less efficient when it comes to masterminding tactics to win football matches.
Preferring a 4-1-3-2 formation and taking a leaf out of Klopp’s book (before Klopp was even doing it) in using his full-backs to give him another option in attack, Jesus sets his team up to play attractive, attacking football with an emphasis on the playmaker having plenty of options to give the ball to in and around the box.
Not one to have sleepless nights about keeping clean sheets, any Jesus side always has plenty of goals in it, meaning that in addition to delivering titles, fans get to watch an exciting brand of football.
While at Benfica, he won 10 competitions, a record for any manager in Portuguese football. A somewhat ill-advised move to Sporting Lisbon saw him almost win the Portuguese league at the first time of asking, though many will say Benfica defended their title thanks to the hard work he’d already done there the year before to the extent that the side was almost in automatic pilot.
A move to Saudi Arabia in late 2018 didn’t really work out either mostly due to cultural differences and sadly we’re unlikely to see him in the Premier League anytime soon: he hasn’t shown much of a desire to learn English.
There seems to be this idea that all Juventus have to do to win the Serie A is turn up. But that’s only because Allegri has made them such a winning machine that taking the league title with ease is no more than we expect from them these days.
And yes, Juventus tend to have the best players of any in Serie A but they also let many of their best ones go. Paul Pogba, for example.
In addition to building a rock-solid defence and installing a sense of clam on his players, Allegri’s greatest talent is his ability to switch formations during matches. He’ll think nothing of starting with a 4-3-1-2, changing to a 4-3-3 and ending up in a 3-2-4-1. And these aren’t knee-jerk reactions to scoring or conceding a goal; they’re changes he feels are necessary to improve his team’s control of the game.
The interesting part of all this is that his players know how to change position and systems during the game, whereas the opposition players and manager are always playing catch-up.