Xavi among six top young coaches to watch in Europe

Though most elite clubs usually set out to find an up-and-coming head coach or manager whenever there’s a vacancy, the majority end up going for someone well into their 40s or 50s.

There are pros and cons to either approach. Whereas young, promising coaches in their 30s often have fresher ideas, take greater tactical risks and connect better with millennial players, a more experienced leader will have found a formula that works through trial and error. The pressures of the media, criticism from fans and how to do deal with a demanding owner might also be better faced with some prior knowledge.

The tendency to go for experience is certainly prevalent in the European top leagues. Carlo Ancelotti (62) is in his second stint at Real Madrid, while Max Allegri (54, Juventus), Stefano Pioli (56, AC Milan), Maurizio Sarri (63, Lazio) and Jose Mourinho (59, Roma) all have plenty of nous, while 62-year-old Luciano Spalletti took over Napoli in the summer. Elsewhere, even names such as Mauricio Pochettino (50, PSG), Diego Simeone (51, Atletico Madrid) and Erik ten Hag (52, Ajax), who are still considered on the rise, are 50-plus.

ESPN takes a look at six head coaches 45 or younger in European football who have already been backed to lead a top club, and those who might be first in line for the next opportunity.

Candidates such as Julian Nagelsmann (34, Bayern Munich), Marco Rose (45, Borussia Dortmund), Roberto De Zerbi (42, Shakhtar Donetsk) and Ruben Amorim (37, Sporting CP) were featured in a similar piece in November 2020 and are for that reason not included.

Although he’s only 13 LaLiga games into his tenure as head coach of Barcelona, it’s fair to say the impact of the former midfielder has been immediate. Since he took over for Ronald Koeman four months ago, Barcelona have started the transformation from a nervous and self-conscious side, afraid of making mistakes and reluctant to take the initiative, into a free-flowing team bursting with confidence. Indeed, their 4-0 home win against Athletic Club this weekend marked their best performance of the campaign.

While it will take Xavi some time to find the right squad of players he wants to work with, he has stuck to Barca’s well-balanced 4-3-3 formation that features flexibility when playing out from the back and allows for the strengths of the attacking players when going forward (such as tucking in the right-back to allow winger Adama Traore space out wide to look for one-on-one situations). Perhaps surprisingly to some, Xavi has also showed a cynical edge, sometimes happy to drop deep and play on the break when needs must.

Given Barcelona’s traditions and Xavi’s legacy as a player (he made 767 appearances for the club and won 25 major trophies), there’s little doubt that he was brought back after six years playing and coaching at Al Sadd in Qatar to build a Barcelona side reminiscent of the one he was a part of creating from 1998 to 2015.

While Xavi will surely be given time to realise such an ambitious project, in his short stint in the Barcelona dugout he has already shown the pragmatism worthy of a top head coach. Aside from his tactical tweaks and fine in-game management, Xavi has also brought an air of calm — his media appearances are as assured as expected — to a frantic Camp Nou and has certainly restored team spirit and the joy of football to the squad.

Vincenzo Italiano, 44, Fiorentina

Italiano only ended up at Fiorentina thanks to the bizarre melee that saw Gennaro Gattuso appointed and discharged within 23 days. Italiano, who seemed a much better option from the offset, had taken Spezia to Serie A for the first time in the club’s modern history in 2019-20 and, perhaps even more impressively, kept them up the following year.

Now almost at the end of his first season at La Viola (P26, W13, D33, L10), there are clear signs that the German-born head coach is in the process of shaping Fiorentina to his principles. Though they have still had some ups and downs, the eighth-placed team is starting to look increasingly comfortable with Italiano’s signature high-pressing game (inevitably with an uncompromising high defensive line as a part of the bargain.) And, in spite of losing their top scorer, Dusan Vlahovic, to Juventus in a €70m January transfer, Fiorentina are still creating and converting chances at an impressive rate.

More than anything else, Italiano has also succeeded in creating a hard-working, disciplined unit out of a group of players that had previously looked disjointed, dejected and borderline rebellious. Importantly, Italiano also seems to master the art of managing upwards. Outspoken American owner Rocco Commisso has not always seemed too impressed with the head coaches he has chosen — this is his sixth appointment in the three years of his ownership — but he tends to be full of praise for Italiano.

Simone Inzaghi, 45, Inter Milan

Despite having earned his right to manage a top club, Inzaghi still hasn’t quite received the recognition he deserves outside of Italy. His first head coaching job, at Lazio, came about in a rather curious manner. Having first served on a caretaker basis at the end of the 2015-16 season, the former striker’s first real attempt at football management only happened after newly appointed Marcelo Bielsa resigned within a matter of days in the summer of 2016. Though that’s not to say other opportunities wouldn’t have emerged for Inzaghi, who slowly but surely has carved out a respectable coaching career, surviving five seasons under notoriously hard-to-please club owner Claudio Lotito, taking Lazio to the Champions League for the first time in over 10 years and winning a Coppa Italia along the way.

Though not quite as volcanic as Antonio Conte, Inzaghi does share some traits with his predecessor at Inter: he’s a perfectionist who demands everything from his players. Stylistically, there are also clear similarities: the shared love for a back three (though Inzaghi did toy with a back four early in his coaching career) and quick, relatively “vertical” football.

While beating last season’s title-winning 91 points is already mathematically impossible, Inter can still go top of Serie A if they win their game in hand. Currently the league’s top scorers with 55 goals, they have also created the most chances (10 per game) on the back of key performances from Hakan Calhanoglu and Nicolo Barella.

Bo Svensson, 42, Mainz

The Dane is the most recent rising star from the seemingly endless conveyor belt of coaches who’ve come to prominence at Mainz. Having played for the club under Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel — and spent two years in the Red Bull system coaching FC Liefering in Austria — Svensson’s pedigree and background give him every chance of success at the club. Even with just one year in charge as a head coach, there are clear signs that he may eventually be on course to take over even bigger clubs than Mainz.

Svensson’s first achievement at Mainz was definitely out of the ordinary. With just seven points halfway through last season, the club looked certain to be relegated along with Schalke 04. However, Mainz went on an incredible run, collecting another 32 points to end up in a respectable 12th place. The notion that their “Great Escape” was all about momentum or luck has been rebuffed, too; this campaign, Mainz sit comfortably in ninth place, 11 points clear of danger, having virtually secured their Bundesliga status for next year.

Those who work with Svensson tell of a calm, intelligent, quietly charismatic and empathetic coach. Honest and straightforward, the 42-year-old is generous with individual feedback and makes an effort to see the person rather than just the footballer. Though schooled in a back four as a player (he also used to stick to a 4-4-2 formation during his early days at Liefering), he’s tactically pragmatic, trying to adapt his tactics to best suit the players at his disposal. Indeed, this season, a 3-4-2-1 has been the preferred formation. As one would expect from a Klopp disciple, he favours energetic, high-pressing football with emphasis on the ball moving forward.

Though still in the infancy of what promises to be an impressive career, Iraola can already look back on some highs, while a few recent lows are all part of his learning curve. He took Cypriot side AEK Larnaca to the Europa League group stage in 2018-19 (they finished third in Group A behind Bayer Leverkusen and FC Zurich) and kept Spanish second-tier club Mirandes up when they looked set for relegation the following year. Though his current status at Rayo Vallecano is a bit precarious, having lost the past five LaLiga games, he did mastermind a famous win against Barcelona in October and is still odds on to seal the 12th-placed side’s top-tier status for a second year running.

A former defender who made over 400 appearances for Athletic Club during his playing days, he’s already heavily touted to take over the Basque club when the incumbent head coach, Marcelino, moves on to bigger things.

Iraola favours a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 formation with a focus on quick ball recoveries. With quick wingers, tireless midfield runners and a defensive midfielder who tends to drop deep when building from the back when the full-backs push forward, Iraola’s emphasis is on catching the opposition off guard.

In addition to securing the last few points needed to mathematically lead Rayo to safety, the most immediate priority for Iraola — who has been open about the inspiration he’s gathered from playing under managers such as Marcelo Bielsa (at Athletic Club) and Patrick Vieira (at New York City FC) — is the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg against Real Betis (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET in the U.S.) on Thursday.

Barak Bakhar, 42, Maccabi Haifa

Though Israel isn’t technically in Europe, its clubs have played in European competitions since 1991 and became full UEFA members in 1994, with four clubs entering this season’s UEFA Conference League at the second qualifying stage.

Considering his age, it’s remarkable that Bakhar hasn’t yet been offered a job in a top European league. Having led unfancied Hapoel Be’er Sheva to three successive league titles from 2016 to 2018 and to the group stages of the Europa League, he then joined Maccabi Haifa in July 2020. The country’s traditional No. 1 club had been somewhat starved for success in the years leading up to his arrival, but Bakhar’s impact was immediate, winning the league at his first attempt.

A keen student of psychology and an excellent man-manager of both players and backroom staff, Bakhar is a deep thinker who combines shrewd game management with tactical open-mindedness. Under his guidance, Maccabi Haifa look set to clinch another league title and are six points clear with 24 games played.

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