Knowledge is passed down through generations and in football, this couldn’t be more evident when it comes to coaching.
Today’s successful managers were guided by those of yesteryear and their mentors were also shaped by the game’s forefathers. A perfect illustration is Sir Alex Ferguson, who turned Manchester United into a world power. Even he believed that without learning under compatriot Jock Stein, none of his future success would have been possible.
“One of the people I’d say (as an inspiration) is the manager I worked for up in Scotland — who died at a game — Jock Stein. He was fantastic in terms of intelligence, the small things that you picked up on,” Ferguson once said.
Ferguson would subsequently influence others into coaching, establishing a ‘family tree’ that includes Steve Bruce, Alex McLeish, Laurent Blanc, Gordon Strachan and Mark Hughes.
What follows are five active managers whose influences are far and wide in the modern game.
Marcelo Bielsa (Uruguay)
Only in the last decade have we really started to celebrate Marcelo Bielsa’s impact on the sport. The man dubbed ‘El Loco’ has been coaching for the best part of three decades. During this period he’s managed on two continents while guiding a handful of national teams. So it’s understandable given the length of time Bielsa has sat on the dugout he would inspire the next generation into following in his footsteps. The first impressionable group came at Newell’s Old Boys with Mauricio Pochettino, Gerardo Martino and Eduardo Berizzo among those bewitched.
Pochettino is most familiar to Premier League viewers, the former Southampton and Tottenham coach recently having been appointed by Chelsea following the disappointing 2022/23 campaign. He was unable to win silverware at his previous English clubs but did contest a Champions League final while Spurs boss. Pochettino finally tasted success while briefly guiding Paris Saint-Germain: winning Ligue 1 as well as two domestic cups.
“[Bielsa] put the seed in my brain,” Pochettino said. “To try to find my way in what I love to do. To play football and then to be a coach. I think that was the most important thing. I am not a follower of him, I am not doing what he’s doing because it’s impossible. He’s unique but he can inspire me.”
Martino, whose last job was leading Mexico’s national side, took Cerro Porteño, Newell’s Old Boys and Atlanta United to league glory. He couldn’t do the same at Barcelona, infamously only winning the 2013 Supercopa de España. Berizzo, now managing Chile, has one league title (Primera División de Chile: Apertura 2013 with O’Higgins) under his belt.
Bielsa, now managing Uruguay, previously led Chile with Berizzo as his second-in-command, and Athletic Bilbao where Andoni Iraola was one of his on-field leaders. Iraola will soon experience Premier League football after Bournemouth appointed him as their new manager succeeding Gary O’Neil.
“I use a lot of exercises from Marcelo that I learned from him,” Iraola said. I use a lot of things, especially with the ball. Offensively, his teams are very dynamic. He is willing to make all the runs to the space, he is ready to accept this kind of disorder, offensively.”
His time coaching Argentina allowed him to shape Diego Simeone, arguably the greatest manager in Atletico Madrid’s history. “I have the influence of several coaches: Bielsa, Eriksson, Basile, they have all left a mark,” Simeone commented. “Bielsa taught me the most.”
“El Cholo” is a two-time La Liga winner. He’s also lifted two Europa League crowns. Marcelo Gallardo is another who Bielsa coached at international level. Gallardo has since brought two more Copa Libertadores titles back to boyhood club River Plate, who recently unveiled a statue of him outside their Monumental stadium.
Pep Guardiola (Man City)
Pep Guardiola has never been shy about Bielsa’s influence. Though he never played under the Argentine both are cut from the same cloth. Guardiola, who travelled 5,000 miles to seek an audience with Bielsa in Argentina before starting his managerial career, once said “Bielsa is probably the person I admire the most in world football as a manager and as a person.”
Guardiola’s own influence is well-documented and possibly unparalleled in modern football, but only now are we are bearing witness to his offshoot ‘disciples’. In the season just gone, two of his former captains were top of their respective leagues; an ex-assistant nearly dethroned him while an old colleague threatened his Treble bid in the FA Cup final.
Erik ten Hag served as Bayern Munich’s reserve team coach during Guardiola’s managerial reign in the Bavarian heartland. He’d soon move to Ajax subsequently hoovering up championships which led to Manchester United calling. Now rivals, there should at least be a few more Manchester derbies contested between the pair.
Barça head coach Xavi has yet to meet his former boss in a competitive outing but he’s certainly part of a dynastic lineage which Guardiola, Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels pass through. “It was like doing a Masters degree in coaching,” Xavi, who played 208 times under Guardiola, said. “I learned so much: the way he is, the ambition, the desire and the passion that he puts into everything — he is obsessed about football and tactics.”
The one-time pass master lifted a first La Liga title as manager just as Vincent Kompany led Burnley back to Premier League football. Kompany was Guardiola’s first general at Manchester City and there’s every chance old teammates Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Kevin De Bruyne could follow in his lead. “Working with him is like doing ten years of studying, I compare it with going to university, that’s the level,” Kompany said.
Gundogan and De Bruyne not long ago had Mikel Arteta on the sideline watching them. As soon as the Arsenal job became vacant Arteta, who previously skippered the Gunners, stepped up and has since looked well-suited to the role. Arsenal came agonisingly close to ending a near two-decade championship drought and, unlike his one-time PSG teammate Pochettino, the Spaniard has enjoyed domestic success in England, previously winning the FA Cup.
Arteta grew up alongside Xabi Alonso another who studied Guardiola up close. Alonso performed the key defensive midfield role in Guardiola’s system at Bayern and once ending retiring he returned to his boyhood club Real Sociedad, leading their second team, before earning the big job with Bayer Leverkusen, and in the 2022/23 season just gone by they finished a respectable sixth in the Bundesliga table.
Alonso is one of a few to have played under Guardiola and Jose Mourinho with the latter predicting back in 2010 that Alonso would succeed in the dugout “He has the quality that a ‘metronome’ must have,” Mourinho said in an interview on the FIFA website. “I’m sure that when he hangs up his boots he’ll be a great coach if he wants to be. He reminds me of Pep Guardiola when I had him as a player. He was already a coach on the pitch.”
Jose Mourinho (Roma)
“I’m proud of the coaches I’ve had but I won’t say whether Mourinho’s better than Guardiola,” Alonso was once quoted as saying. He’s certainly learned from both and the same can be said for Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick both of whom sat alongside the decorated Portuguese coach during an ill-fated stint as Manchester United’s boss.
McKenna is currently enjoying an eye-catching spell as Ipswich’s manager. He’s so far overseen 79 matches in all competitions, winning 44 of those while suffering just 12 losses. Carrick, meanwhile, came agonisingly close to playing for a place in the Premier League at Wembley last season. He currently boasts a 54.5% win rate as Middlesbrough’s head coach.
Mourinho’s own playing career was modest at best. He really made his name coaching from the bottom up much like his protege André Villas-Boas, whose initial success at Porto — including a Europa League title — earned a Chelsea move. They failed to repeat the magic and soon took up the Spurs job, which again ended in disappointment.
Nuno Espírito Santo is another who played under Mourinho and coached Tottenham long after his old boss left there. Espírito Santo’s ex-Porto teammate Sérgio Conceição, who has played down Mourinho comparisons, could one day end up in the Premier League but for now he’s looking to win more trophies as Porto’s manager.
Not everyone who has played under Mourinho shares his footballing vision. Thiago Motta, who once said the future of football is a 2-7-2 formation. Granted, Motta’s comment was intended to describe the formation vertically (picture two wide players – a full-back and winger – on either flank, between which is grouping of seven central players broadly arranged in a figure of eight, at the base of which is the goalkeeper. A fluid 4-3-3, in other words). But he did also say, “My idea is to play offensively.” The former Paris Saint-Germain U19 coach is now at Bologna and there’s every chance of a Parisian return with PSG’s senior team.
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Carlo Ancelotti (Real Madrid)
Given players and managers are constantly moving clubs, it’s logical that someone like Motta ends up learning under both Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, the latter of whom enjoyed a successful playing career, unlike Arrigo Sacchi his mentor at Milan, before turning into a managerial phenomenon. Zinedine Zidane, Igor Tudor, Filippo Inzaghi, Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps all learned under him, while Ancelotti coached Juventus. In fact, the presence of Zidane played a significant role in his own learning.
“With Zidane, I tried to change my idea about the system,” Ancelotti told Sky Sports. “Zidane is the first player who gave me the possibility to change the system and play in a different way. So when I had Zidane, in the first year at Juventus, I played with a system of 3-4-1-2, having [Alessandro] Del Piero and [Filippo] Inzaghi up front and Zidane a little bit behind.
“The second year, I played with a back four but keeping two strikers in front and one No 10 like Zidane. Zidane changed my idea about football, I was so focused before Juventus on 4-4-2 and after with Zidane, I changed, I wanted to put him in the best position for him to let him be more comfortable on the pitch.”
Zidane would soon reunite with Ancelotti serving as his right-hand man at Real Madrid before taking over the reins. While coaching Los Blancos he’d win three European Cups on the bounce. Deschamps, meanwhile, is a World Cup-winning manager while Conte has won league titles aplenty.
Alonso also gets his third mention of this article, having played under Ancelotti at both Bayern Munich and Madrid.
Ralf Rangnick* (Austria)
*Coaches aren’t the only footballing figures capable of mentoring players and future managers in the modern game.
“[Rangnick] helped me a lot because he was my coach and then one of the main figures to convince me to try coaching,” said Thomas Tuchel of Ralf Rangnick, the so-called ‘father of gegenpressing’. “He was a huge influence on all of us at this time because he showed us it’s not important to follow people to the toilet in games. People felt defenders followed the strikers in games.”
Tuchel isn’t alone, with Jurgen Klopp echoing similar sentiments. Rangnick’s influence perhaps is the most profound. The likes of David Wagner, Julian Nagelsmann, Oliver Glasner, Roger Schmidt, Ralph Hasenhuttl and Marco Rose count him as a mentor. Nagelsmann, Schmidt and Marco Rose are championship-winning managers; Glasner hoisted the Europa League as Eintracht Frankfurt’s boss.
Rangnick is another self-made coach. “My coaching career started at the age of 19, senior football then at 25,” he told ESPN. “In Germany at that time, it was almost impossible to have any role models in the first or second division who inspired me.
“I wanted to play in a different way. Around this time, I met Helmut Gross, who was an early mentor for me and for many other German coaches. He introduced me to the ball-orientated zone-marking technique, which was being implemented at AC Milan. We studied AC Milan hours and nights on end, and it became clear that this was the style of football I wanted to play with my teams.”
This was the genesis of gegenpressing. Gross was a hugely influential figure in removing the libero from German football but worked more as an adviser rather than a head coach. His legacy continues through Rangnick and his disciples.