Every so often in football, a new manager comes along with a fresh approach and different opinions on how the game should be played, captivating players and fans alike. Rinus Michels led the way with his total football approach which changed the way the game was played. Out went the long ball in favour of a slick passing game that gave players the flexibility to show their talents. The strategy was to foster team coherence and individual imagination – with all players possessing the skills to play in any part of the pitch. Since then, others have followed suit. Alex Ferguson focused on building a youth team that would eventually lead his Manchester United team to trophy after trophy. Arsene Wenger’s approach to the transfer market – buying young, nurturing and selling for inflated prices bore success at Arsenal. Mourinho’s approach was to introduce charisma and bravado, unseen in management, by proclaiming he was ” The Special One” and Pep Guardiola fell heavily on analysis and player improvements to help win his haul of 14 cups in 4 years.
But now a new batch of talented managers has appeared, all of a similar mould. Responsible for four of the biggest clubs in Europe, these men come from the same school of thinking – to win, you have to outsmart your opponent and be better than them in everything that you do. Their tactical awareness, player insight and new coaching techniques are helping their players become the stars of tomorrow. Interestingly all four had limited playing careers and entered coaching at an early age. They are all young, hungry and with a point to prove.
Leading the new pretenders is German Jurgen Klopp, manager of reigning champions Borussia Dortmund. An average player in his day, starting first as a striker then reverting to a centre back, he spent his entire professional career at Mainz. It was here in 2001, that he got his break into club management, taking over from the former Canada manager, Eckhard Krautzun who had been sacked in January. Already considered a legend at the club, Klopp started to rebuild the fortunes of Mainz and during a seven-year spell as boss, he took the lowly german side back into the Bundesliga and into Europe for the first time in their history. His style of attacking football, supported by a strong back line gave his team the competitive edge that did not go unnoticed by Germany’s top clubs. After a unsucessful period under Thomas Doll, Borussia Dortmund came calling for Klopp’s services (now unemployed after resigning from Mainz).
In his first year at Dortmund, Klopp stabilised the club and lead them to victory in the DFL Supercup in his first season, beating champions Bayern Munich in the final. Over the next few years he would improve the squad with clever signings from across the world like Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, bought from Cerezo Osaka for €350,000, Paraguay striker Lucas Barrios, bought from Colo Colo for €4.2 million and Serbian defender Neven Subotić, bought from Klopp’s old club Mainz for a nominal fee. He blended them with a talented bunch of younger players coming through their youth squad (Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Sebastian Kehl and Nuri Şahin) to create a pulsating team that swept through the Bundesliga to back to back titles.
Leaning on his experiences at Mainz, Klopp’s success is down to three factors – Tactics, intelligence and hunger. Tactically he realised to compete in the league on a regular basis against the best teams, you need to build from the back and counter attack with pace and skill. In came a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the two defensive midfielders not only offering cover to the back four but the key holders to turning defense into counter attack. He spent hours looking at footage of other teams as well as his to identify areas of weakness and development, focusing on the latter in training sessions. Employing young and hungry players, looking to make a name in football, he found that they were willing to give everything to win and would fight for every ball and more importantly for their teammates.
Despite losing some talented players over the years (Sahin to Real Madrid, Kagawa to Manchester United) he has retained the nucleus of his team and continues to build the squad with the goal of achieving more success and hopefully a third Bundesliga title.
Claudio Ranieri’s time in charge at Inter was largely disappointing so when he was sacked in March of this year, the world of football anticipated that an established manager would be hired to turn the team around. However club owner Massimo Moratti had other ideas and instead turned to the club’s youth coach, 36-year-old Andrea Stramaccioni and handed him the top job. Hired initially as caretaker until the end of the season, Moratti saw enough to give Stramaccioni a permanent deal to become the youngest head coach in Serie A.
Stramaccoini had a limited playing career with Bologna that was cruelly cut short at the age of 19 due to a serious knee injury. After retiring from the game he loved, he looked towards coaching and worked with a variety of amateur and youth teams before being noticed by Roma who appointed him to their youth team coaching staff in 2005. At Roma, he learned from two of Italy’s greatest coaches, Arrigo Sacchi and current Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, watching their every move like an obsessed child, studying how they managed and worked with the players. It was during his time at Roma that Stramaccioni took his UEFA A licence which led to him meeting Roberto Samaden, Inter youth academy director who would hire him at Inter 2 years later, giving him the manager’s job at F.C. Internazionale Milano Primavera, Inter’s under 19’s team.
Inter’s youth team has produced a host of top stars over the years such as Giuseppe Bergomi, Walter Zenga, Goran Pandev and recently Mario Balotelli and is seen as the future of the club. Stramaccioni’s had some success with the team including leading them to victory in the 2011-2012 NextGen Series beating Ajax in the final (picture above). But now the young manager is working his form of magic on the first team, rebuilding after a torrid time under Raneiri, focusing on what he knows best – youth. The new look Inter Milan squad boasts a string of young players like 17-year-old Ibrahim Mbaye, 21-year-old Joel Obi and 18-year-old Luca Garritano. But it’s the revitalisation of key players like Wesley Sneijder and club captain, Javier Zanetti that has been the turning point for the club. A tireless worker, Stramaccioni can spend hours on getting his tactics right, especially when it comes to set pieces, be they defensive or offensive. He hates a fixed formation, focusing on one common thought – provide the players with the best tactics and formation for them to excel. Despite his age, Stramaccioni respects his players and wants them to succeed as much as he does:
“I used to admire them from the other side of the hedge at the youth team’s training pitch, and now they’re part of my team. Asking such players to ‘learn’ things would be a bad mistake. I simply have to provide them with the best possible conditions for them to exhibit their talents,”
After a unsucessful time at Chelsea, where Villas Boas was sacked by owner Roman Abramovich some say unfairly after only 8 months in the job, André Villas Boas has found a path back into the Premiership with Tottenham. The former Porto coach, who led his unfancied team to UEFA Cup success in his first season in charge, never played professionally but from a young age was obsessed with football. As a Porto fan aged only 16, André Villas-Boas sent a letter to then manager and England legend Bobby Robson criticising his team selection and asking for reasonings behind leaving on form Portuguese striker Domingos on the bench behind Russian striker Sergei Yuran. Robson invited Villas-Boas to the next training session and was so impressed with the youngsters knowledge that he hired him to work in the Porto observation department and helped him gain his UEFA ‘C’ coaching badge in Largs, Scotland, despite him technically being ineligible as he was aged 17. Villas Boas learnt a lot from Robson and formed a close relationship with his interpreter at Porto, Jose Mourinho. After leaving Porto in 1998 to go become the national boss of the British Virgin Islands at aged 21, it wasn’t long before he rejoined Porto as assistant manager under new boss Mourinho. The bond between the two grew and where Mourinho went, Villas Boas followed, first to Chelsea then on to Inter Milan.
His first step into club management came back home with Académica, who until his appointment had been the whipping boys in the Portuguese league. Lying bottom without a win when he took over, Villas Boas introduced a fresh attacking style which helped propel them up the league into 11th place and into the semi finals of the Portuguese cup, narrowly losing to a late Porto goal in the end. His achievements at the club caught the attentions of Sporting Lisbon but it was Porto that managed to hire him, which ultimately led them to the League title, Portuguese Cup and Europa League Cup in his first and only season in charge. Roman Abramovich watched in interest and that summer paid Porto €15 million to secure his services as the Chelsea boss.
The statistical and analytical work that Villas Boas carried out under Robson paved the way for the development of his coaching style. Not a fan of egotistical players, he relies heavily on the facts, selecting his team based on work rate in training, data from the previous matches and conditioning reports from his medical and fitness teams. Some players enjoyed working with him like former Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou:
“We enjoyed training. He was focused, meticulous and he was driven. He showed us videos of the opposition, outlining their strengths and weaknesses — most managers didn’t use that information. But we would sit in the dressing room, taking off our training kit and start whispering to each other,’ he recalled. How long before he’s sacked? ‘One game? “Maybe”.You think so? “He can’t lose”. No chance, The boss (Roman Abramovich) won’t let it happen”
Unfortunately this is what led to his dismissal at Chelsea who are controlled not by the manager but by egos like Terry, Anelka and Ashley Cole who resented the coaches methods and complained to the person who they saw as The Boss, owner Roman Abramovich that something had to be done. Chelsea’s loss is Tottenham’s gain as the snapped up the young coach in the summer.
Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova
To take over from the most successful Barcelona coach of all time, Pep Guardiola, in a year when winning La Liga back from arch rivals Real Madrid is of utmost importance, some people would be forgiven for thinking that Francescito Vilanova was crazy. But the former assistant, known as Tito who has now become the boss after his promotion in the summer, looks at things differently. He perceives it as continuing the work that he and Guardiola had done the previous four years. For the new coach, this is his first real test as manager. Growing up in Spain, he started as a player at Barcelona in the B team striking up a friendship with a powerful midfielder called Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola then after 2 years moved on seeking first team football. After a less than successful career around a host of Spanish clubs – Mallorca, Celta de Vigo and Lleida to name a few, he ended up back at Barcelona in a coaching capacity. Beginning work as Pep’s right hand man began in 2007 with the Barcelona B team who at the time were in the Spanish 4th division. His work with Guardiola helped to turn around the fortunes of the reserve squad and engineering promotion to the 3rd division with two years. After Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard’s dismissal from the managers role with the main team, Guardiola was the surprise choice to take over and took Tito along for the ride. What happened next saw Barcelona transformed into quite possibly the best team in the world, winning 14 titles in 4 glorious years for the club.
But the threads started to show at the end of last year and the strain finally took its toll on both men. Tito in particular had a difficult last season. In late 2011, Vilanova underwent an operation to remove a life-threatening tumour found on his parotid gland, the largest of the salivary glands keeping him out for some time. Guardiola was feeling the pressure too and announced that he would quit at the end of the season and go on a year-long sabbatical as he felt completely drained. Before he did so, he told the Barcelona chairman, Sandro Rosell to look no further than his assistant for his replacement. Citing Tito’s intelligence and tactical knowledge, he felt he was the ideal man to keep Barcelona on track for future success. For Tito, the work began in July when he officially took over the reigns but early signs are showing that he is up for the task and is improving them team left to him by his good friend Guardiola.
The relationship he has with his players goes back across not only the last four years but all the years he has spent at Barcelona. He gave a first start to a then 13 year old Lionel Messi in the Barca B team and was instrumental in persauding Guardiola to promote him from his role as a winger to an out and out striker.
“Tito was the first person to put me in the team. Until then I was a sub or didn’t play at all.” said Messi of his new boss.
He also blooded a host of other youngsters during his time in the B team that now play under him as manager now of the first team – Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fábregas, Pedro and Sergio Busquets all started out under Vilanova. Messi however is in no doubt that Tito is the right manto replace Guardiola
“They have different personalities,” Messi says, “but the work is the same. The training sessions have not changed.”
This should work in the short term but if Vilanova is to become his own boss and have the same level of sucess as his friend, he will need to come out from under Guardiola’s shadow and change the team, tactics and training and stamp his own trademark on them. With a squad as talented as the Barcelona team, whatever system he adopts, Tito will have some of the best players in the world to execute against it but if he is unable to get them to play to his way, then trophies may be lacking under Vilavona which will surely cost him his job.