We abbreviate history over time. As time passes, we sand down more edges and eliminate a few more details.
At some point we arrived at a pretty straightforward summary of the evolution to modern soccer: The Dutch did the Total Football thing, Johan Cruyff taught it to Pep Guardiola and Pep Guardiola won eleventy kajillion trophies by perfecting it. AC Milan‘s Arrigo Sacchi had his own version of that, Jose Mourinho mastered the dark arts, German coaches loved the gegenpressing, et finis.
Granted, that is indeed relatively accurate, but there are a lot of successful managers out there, and among them only Guardiola played for Cruyff. Guardiola himself has produced an ever-growing coaching tree — he coached Barcelona‘s Xavi and served as boss for Arsenal‘s Mikel Arteta and Manchester United‘s Erik ten Hag at different times — but plenty of other high-level coaches got their direct knowledge from others. And the distant past is still having a pretty direct impact on the present.
Carlo Ancelotti, four-time Champions League-winning manager, once played for Nils Liedholm, who scored against Pele’s Brazil in the 1958 World Cup final. Ancelotti had received his footballing Ph.D even before he connected with another of the game’s great managers, Sacchi, at Milan. In 1991, Luis Enrique earned his first cap with Spain under the watchful eye of manager Luis Suarez, one of the world’s bigger stars in the 1950s and subject of the world’s first £100,000 transfer.
We know the features of the so-called modern game — the heavy possession, the pressing, the counter-pressing and so on — but how did it come together? Where (and from whom) did today’s best coaches most directly receive their wisdom? Where (and when) did this modern game take shape?
To derive an answer that went beyond “Duh, Cruyff, Guardiola, weren’t you paying attention?” I looked at the résumés of 32 of today’s best coaches*. The list includes every manager who qualified for an automatic Champions League bid from Europe’s Big Five leagues (I included both Julian Nagelsmann and Thomas Tuchel from Bayern Munich), plus the coaches of the reigning champions from the Netherlands and Portugal. It includes the participants in every Champions League final from the past 10 years, plus the managers of last year’s World Cup winners (Argentina) and 2021’s Euros winners (Italy). It also includes Brighton & Hove Albion‘s Roberto De Zerbi, if only because of all the nice things Guardiola has said about him.
Who did these men play for? Under whom were they assistants? For modern soccer’s collective coaching tree, where did branches form — where did clusters of these managers learn about the game and ply their trade?
(* The full list: Imanol Alguacil, Real Sociedad; Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus; Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid; Mikel Arteta, Arsenal; Antonio Conte, unattached; Roberto De Zerbi, Brighton; Luis Enrique, unattached; Urs Fischer, Union Berlin; Hansi Flick, Germany; Pep Guardiola, Manchester City; Franck Haise, Lens; Eddie Howe, Newcastle United; Simone Inzaghi, Inter Milan; Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool; Roberto Mancini, Italy; Jose Luis Mendilibar, Sevilla; Jose Mourinho, AS Roma; Julian Nagelsmann, unattached; Stefano Pioli, AC Milan; Mauricio Pochettino, Chelsea; Marco Rose, RB Leipzig; Maurizio Sarri, Lazio; Lionel Scaloni, Argentina; Roger Schmidt, Benfica; Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid; Arne Slot, Feyenoord; Luciano Spalletti, unattached; Erik ten Hag, Manchester United; Edin Terzic, Borussia Dortmund; Thomas Tuchel, Bayern Munich; Xavi, Barcelona; Zinedine Zidane, unattached. Why 32? Because I was aiming for 30 and blew right past it.)
“Liedholm was looking for the game, always, with any team. He taught individual technique to his men until a very old age, he always wanted to improve them. He said that the basis of football is the good agreement between man and the ball. And to get along, they had to spend as much time together as possible. He was looking for quality, he loved differences. Intelligence. He ended up sowing the seed of doubt in our football as well. Liedholm didn’t change Italian football, but he made change possible. … When, a few years later, Sacchi arrived at Milan and gave a very strong blow to our habits, he recognized that without Liedholm, it would have been much more difficult. Maybe impossible.” – Mario Sconcerti, “Storia Delle Idee Del Calcio” (“History of Football Ideas”)
“I knew his battered legs weren’t ideal for getting up and down the touchline, but you play football with your brain, not your feet. Ancelotti’s brain would give us the right balance and timing. By staying tight and compact around him, the rest of the team would ensure he had minimal space to cover. – Arrigo Sacchi, “The Immortals: The Season My Milan Team Reinvented Football”
Italian soccer fell into a bit of a funk in the 1970s. Total Football took over the universe, with Cruyff’s Ajax winning three straight European Cups and the Netherlands making back-to-back World Cup finals. English clubs adapted well to the sport’s new tactical rules, too, winning six straight European Cups from 1977 to ’82. Italian soccer, meanwhile, was a little too loyal to the defensive, win-at-any-cost catenaccio ideals that had allowed Italian clubs to rule much of the 1960s.
Things began to shift in the 1980s. Italy won an unexpected World Cup title in 1982, and Serie A became the hub for a lot of major investment in the sport. The league brought in a number of foreign stars to pair with a burgeoning class of domestic standouts. Combine the lasting no-stone-unturned thinking of Italian managers of this era with major star power, and Italy ended up as the perfect school for future managers.
The list of 32 coaches above includes nine from Italy and doesn’t even touch on the influence and successes of current coaches such as Claudio Ranieri or former coaches such as Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi and Gianluca Vialli. But of the Italians on the list, many were plying their trade as players in the 1980s. Conte was learning the ropes from Carlo Mazzone and others at Lecce, Mancini from Luigi Radice at Bologna. Spalletti played midtier ball for clubs like Spezia and Empoli, where he became manager immediately after retiring. Pioli played for Trapattoni for a couple of seasons at Juventus. Journeymen like Allegri and Sarri bounced from club to club.
Ancelotti ended up the most decorated of the bunch. At Parma he played for Cesare Maldini, future Italy manager and father of Paolo. At Roma he played for not only Liedholm but also Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose positive leadership style and mastery of the 4-4-2 earned him jobs and influence throughout the world. And at Milan, of course, Ancelotti ended up connected with Sacchi, the former shoe salesman whose beautiful Parma side caught the eye of Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. In “The Immortals,” Sacchi gushed about how important Ancelotti was — even with bad knees and diminished physical capabilities — to bringing his vision of possession and counter-pressing to fruition.
“Years after that great confluence of minds in Barcelona, it is the style of football they practiced that remains the dominant style. In various forms those principles of pressing and possessing, adapted according to circumstance, underpin the modern game — more universally, thanks to the globalized nature of modern football, than any style has before. Even those who, like Mourinho, have rejected the Cruyffian principles or, like Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino or Jurgen Klopp, come from a different background, have been in some way molded by it. That’s where the reach and influence of Cruyff’s philosophy is really seen. It’s not just that those who found themselves working together at the Camp Nou have been enormously successful in their own right, it’s that every other club and coach at the elite level of the game has in some way had to find solutions to the questions they have asked.” – Jonathan Wilson, “The Barcelona Inheritance”
Among all the former mentors for the 32 coaches above, a few managed to touch quite a few names on the list. As manager of Spain’s national team from 1998 to 2002, Jose Antonio Camacho was snakebitten. At Euro 2000, Spain won Group C but drew eventual champions France in the quarterfinals, missed a penalty in the 90th minute and dropped a 2-1 heartbreaker. At the World Cup in 2002, Spain won Group B and advanced to the quarterfinals but had two goals controversially disallowed and lost to hosts South Korea on penalties.
Camacho’s Spain were a good team that had to wait a few more years for their ultimate success. They were also a team that featured both aging stars such as Guardiola and Luis Enrique and up-and-coming midfielder Xavi. Between that influence and the fact that he coached both Pochettino at Espanyol and Zidane at Real Madrid, Camacho had his hands on five of the 32 coaches above. That’s the most of anyone.
That Spanish influence percolated more deeply at one specific club. Louis van Gaal, an ideological successor (and occasional verbal adversary) to Cruyff, coached Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Xavi at Barcelona, and for three years he employed a holdover (and former translator) from predecessor Sir Bobby Robson’s staff, the spirited Mourinho. Van Gaal was a true believer in the positional ball that Guardiola mastered, and while his rigidity and stubbornness got him into trouble at times, he was still able to preach his version of the Total Football gospel at Ajax (where he won the 1995 Champions League), Barca, Bayern (where he reached the Champions League final), Manchester United and in three stints with the Dutch national team.
Other coaches helped to influence these same individuals in this period. Lorenzo Serra Ferrer coached Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Xavi at Barca in 2000-01, and Charly Rexach coached Guardiola on Barcelona’s B team, then led Luis Enrique and Xavi in 2001-02. Radomir Antic coached Luis Enrique at Real Madrid in 1991-92, then both Luis Enrique and Xavi during a brief but influential stint at Barca in 2003. Frank Rijkaard, former Sacchi acolyte, coached that pair, too.
That Cruyff was the initial visionary of what would become Barcelona’s style of play — and that Barca then created many of the managers who would define and dominate the modern game in the decades that followed — shows exactly what kind of influence he had. (That’s doubly true when you read about the impact Total Football had on Sacchi’s vision of the sport.) As Guardiola famously said, “Cruyff built the cathedral; our job is to maintain it.” Still, each of Cruyff’s apostles had their own vision and interpretation, and coaches such as Van Gaal ended up having particular influence on those that followed.
The influence of Cruyff and Barcelona also inspired an alternate vision. Spurned of a managerial job at Barcelona, Mourinho instead crafted his own vision of an updated Italian style of defense, counterattacking and wins over beauty. He won the Champions League with FC Porto and Inter Milan, created one of the best defensive teams in the history of the Premier League at Chelsea and served as a persistent pain in Guardiola’s backside with both Inter and Real Madrid. He hasn’t seen quite as much success in the past decade, but he remains influential, and through both choice and necessity, the counterattacking game has remained vital to success for smaller-market clubs (such as Fischer’s Union Berlin) throughout the world.
“I am cheering for Atletico Madrid and Simeone. His football intrigues me. … He said he picked up a few things from me and I am proud of that. Simeone was tough as a player and he still is as a coach. His training sessions are like matches, and then that work pays off on the field. His team presses so well. He is an example to follow.” – Sven-Goran Eriksson to Gazzetta dello Sport in 2016
“I always admire his ability to be unfazed by almost anything, and he taught me a lot about how to approach games.” – Simeone on Eriksson in UAE’s The National
“Mancini was a genius. He saw things on the pitch quicker than anybody else and his vision was incredible. Tactically, he was a coach even when he was a player. His life was football. I’m not surprised he became a great coach. And a winner. For him to lose, that was not a good option.” – Eriksson to The Athletic in 2020
For the 32 coaches above, four were either players or assistants for Barcelona at some point. One other club impacted four: Lazio.
In 1999, the Italian capital outfit acquired both the 23-year-old Inzaghi (from Piacenza) and the 29-year-old Simeone (from Inter). They joined a squad who already featured future coaches such as fiery forward Mancini, defender Sinisa Mihajlovic and, eventually, forward Hernan Crespo.
Simeone would leave in 2003, but Inzaghi stayed long-term and was joined by a 29-year-old Scaloni in 2007. Eriksson’s Biancocelesti would win Serie A in 1999-2000 — the club’s last Scudetto to date — and when he left to become England‘s manager, the club employed successful veterans such as Dino Zoff, Alberto Zaccheroni and Delio Rossi, not to mention an up-and-coming Mancini from 2002-04.
Mancini played for Eriksson for nine seasons at both Sampdoria and Lazio. He has long subscribed to plenty of modern tactics — slowly building from the back to tilt the field, pressing, counter-pressing — and for decades Eriksson was regarded for both his man-management abilities and his emphasis on defensive pressure.
If nothing else, the Lazio of this period attempted to force the issue when it comes to what you might call modern squad building. Owner Sergio Cragnotti set a number of Serie A records in the department of transfer fees, and despite a sustained financial crisis in the 2000s, they were able to mix evolving, modern tactics with just the right veteran presence to remain consistently competitive, both in Serie A and, occasionally, UEFA competitions. They in no way provided the long-term impact seen in Barcelona and elsewhere, but this was a pretty good test tube for modern management. The three combined Champions League finals appearances for Simeone and Inzaghi, not to mention Mancini’s four league titles (and his Euro 2020 win) certainly attest to that.
“Billionaire Dietmar Hopp, one of the founders of the SAP software company, took over and had led [TSG Hoffenheim] to the third division by 2006. That’s when [Ralf] Rangnick was brought in to make the final push into the elite. … Rangnick also advised on the construction of a youth academy modeled on Arsenal’s, a training center and a new stadium to make the club’s growth sustainable. … Their high-tempo football was a revelation. At the end of September, they beat Klopp’s Dortmund 4-1 and climbed into second place in the table. ‘That’s the kind of football we want to play one day,’ the BVB coach gushed in Dortmund’s official stadium programme for the next match. … Their football was all about collective movement, with a flat hierarchy where responsibility for organization and creativity was shared.” – Raphael Honigstein, “Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World”
As with Italy in the 1970s, Germany and German clubs found success with a very specific style — think of Franz Beckenbauer-like sweepers and general conservatism — and rode it for too long. After reaching three straight World Cup finals (1982, 1986, 1990) and winning one, the Germans reached only the quarterfinals in 1994 and 1998, and while a 1996 Euros win threw some off the scent, a dire showing in the 2000 Euros convinced higher-ups of the need for evolution. In came new requirements for better youth academies and player development; that merged perfectly with the style that Rangnick was developing.
Inspired by not only Sacchi but also Soviet coaching legend Valeriy Lobanovskyi — Rangnick’s FC Viktoria Backnang played a friendly against Lobanoskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv in the 1980s, and Rangnick was transfixed by a style that made it seem like Dynamo had 13 or 14 players on the pitch — Rangnick preached of a different vision for German football. While he was originally treated as a heretic, he eventually became known as a visionary.
Rangnick’s fingerprints are all over what we might call the modern German style of play. Tuchel was a youth coach at VfB Stuttgart in 2000-01, when Rangnick was the manager. Rose played for him at Hannover 96 in 2001-02. Nagelsmann coached Hoffenheim youth teams while Rangnick was running the show there. Klopp and former Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl became good acquaintances.
While Rangnick has coached at seven different clubs in the past 25 years (he’s currently the head coach of Austria), it was at Hoffenheim where his vision was most directly realized. Hoffenheim not only acquired young players but relied on them, gave them as much responsibility as they could handle, and pressed and sprinted with abandon. This became a template much of the Bundesliga still follows.
With Germany’s recent lack of international success, however — and with some of the coach recycling we’ve seen within the German top division — you could make the case that Germany’s reboot might need a reboot. But that’s neither here nor there.
Plenty of other figures have impacted today’s ball and today’s successful managers. Marcelo Bielsa coached Pochettino at both Newell’s Old Boys and Espanyol and led Pochettino, Simeone and Scaloni as Argentina’s national team coach. Basque product Javier Clemente coached Mendilibar at Athletic Club before serving as Camacho’s predecessor in leading the Spanish national team. Trapattoni impacted everyone from Pioli to Hansi Flick. Vicente del Bosque coached Zidane and Luis Enrique at Real Madrid before winning the 2010 World Cup with Xavi and Spain. Luis Fernandez coached both Pochettino and Arteta at Paris Saint-Germain in 2001-02, and Mendilibar was his assistant at Athletic Club in the 1990s. Luigi De Canio coached Allegri at Pescara and employed Conte at Siena. Mazzone coached Conte at Lecce and Guardiola at Brescia. And plenty of today’s successful coaches had lesser-known mentors or, really, none at all.
Still, you can tell a good portion of the story of soccer’s evolution by focusing on a few specific moments (and places) in time. Cruyff’s fingerprints are everywhere, as are Sacchi’s and Guardiola’s, but we don’t get from Point A to Point B without the impact of Eriksson, Rangnick and others, too.