John Brewin: Who really is football’s greatest ever manager?

After France Football produced its list of the 50 greatest managers of all time, John Brewin strongly questions some of their big calls…

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Football media remains ever obsessed with lists. A Google search of any major football name will draw the reader to click-baiting polls set along spurious lines. Come to think of it, that’s a practice that stretches beyond the sporting world; entire media empires have been created off the back of list culture.

But when France Football released its list of the 50 greatest managers of all time, it was not to be ignored. France Football, a magazine of a depth and intellectual rigour that has never found a market on these isles, is the August publication that gave the world the Ballon D’Or (or European Footballer of the Year) as it used to be known in Anglophone terms, now a worldwide award after a brief merger with FIFA’s equivalent; France Football was a leading publication in FIFA’s fall and reform following the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

On the list’s publication, it announced the method: “What is a great coach? How to compare two major technicians to sometimes more than half a century of distance? And, in the end, what is the best of them, all times combined?

In order to make its choice and establish its Top 50, France Football has chosen three main criteria – the club winners, the trace and the legacy left on the game, the personality – to which is added, implicitly, a fourth: the duration and the impact of the career.”

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France is not a country best known for its great football managers. Aside from 22nd-placed Zinedine Zidane, three of the four Frenchmen nominated, Arsene Wenger in 15th place, Albert Batteaux in 28th or Jean-Claude Suaudeau in 50th, did not win a European Cup or Champions League.

Wenger’s Arsenal lost in the final of 2006, in Paris, while Batteaux’s Reims twice lost to Real Madrid in the early years of the European Cup while Suadeau’s Nantes got to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1995-96.  And that lends an air of neutrality to the FF poll.

Its number one selection, the Dutchman Rinus Michels, is a manager who delivered a European Cup to Ajax, took the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup and to winning Euro ’88. And on the way, he gave the world “Total Football”, the Dutch school which gave rise to the football Barcelona still play; Michels also managed Barcelona to the Liga title in 1973-74.

Michel’s legacy lives on in Barcelona, Manchester City and Tottenham to name just three clubs whose managers have followed “the General” and his diktats, and adapted them into the modern game.

In fourth place in the poll is Johan Cruyff, Michel’s finest player and his keenest student, and someone who ended up superseding his mentor by creating the modern Barcelona, which Pep Guardiola, in fifth place, honed to the perfection of his Lionel Messi-inspired team of 2008 to 2011.

Manchester United fans might baulk at his very name, but Louis van Gaal, in 18th, is another from the Michels/Ajax school. But it is in United’s two great former managers, neither of them ideologues like Van Gaal, Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby, who provide examples of how managerial greats do not have to bring philosophy and science to the table.

Neither’s understanding of football could be questioned, but it was as man managers and leaders that Ferguson, in second place, and Busby, in 11th, made themselves so durable and successful.

Ferguson was no tactical obsessive. In fact, it might be said that on the night of his greatest triumph, the Champions League final in 1999 against Bayern Munich, he got his tactics completely wrong before turning to belief systems and a will to win as paths to victory.

Meanwhile, Busby’s pre-match advice was rarely much more than “just go out and enjoy yourselves”, but both built empires at United, a club that has yet to find a place for the philosophical approach.

The reason Ferguson is in second is his longevity, from breaking the Old Firm with Aberdeen to clocking up his 13th and final Premier League title fully three decades later. That was achieved via pragmatism and adaptation to the changes in the game, a willingness to delegate while never surrendering control. And in the many turf wars Ferguson fought over those long years, it was only truly Barcelona under Guardiola that had his measure.

Just behind Busby in 12th and 13th are Giovanni Trapattoni and Jose Mourinho, two coaches for whom locking the back door was the main priority. In their latter years, the football could look one-dimensional – Mourinho with United, ‘Trap’ with Ireland – but in their pomp both organised teams capable of strangling opponents to distraction. And both, in their prime, were hugely charismatic men on whom journalists hung on their every word.

If the France Football poll has caused controversy, it is Bob Paisley’s placing at 26th that has caused ripples of disquiet. A manager whose Liverpool team won three European Cups in five seasons is just a spot behind Jurgen Klopp, yet to win a single trophy at Anfield.

Paisley is 16 places behind Bill Shankly, the warrior poet under whom he served as assistant, and whose spirit of civic pride and togetherness continues to define Liverpool. Shankly was the pioneer, the folk hero, but he never delivered so relentless a roll of honour as Paisley, whose approach was one of anti-charisma and looked like he would prefer to fall asleep in his armchair rather than face a press conference.

Paisley’s chief rival of his era, Brian Clough, is 11 places above Paisley, a winner of two European Cups to three, and two league titles to Paisley’s six. The argument might go that Clough, perhaps the most charismatic of all, took provincial clubs in Derby County and Nottingham Forest to heights that would be unreachable now while Liverpool had been established for Paisley to hone into greatness, but fans’ irritation at that low placing holds significant grounds.

That Carlo Ancelotti, who like Bob Paisley won three European titles, is 18 places higher, only adds to that sense of displacement. Ancelotti has had success wherever he has been, aside from a late-1990s disaster at Juventus, but he has been handed considerable resources at the likes of AC Milan, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Zidane, won three Champions League titles in succession, an achievement admittedly nobody else has matched, but was handed a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo et al, and is four places above Paisley. Real Madrid’s returning boss, despite those successes, remains someone whose qualities are indefinable, but who might point to the future of top-level management. Zidane found a way to cajole and encourage a series of superstars by dint of having been one himself.

Of the 50, only Zidane and Cruyff are all-time great players who made the highest grade in the management game, a reflection of the alchemy required to succeed.

It is in the huge differences between the names, their origins, their practices and their personalities where France Football’s list confirms there can never be a formula to construct a great football manager.

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