Football Features

International football’s teacher’s pets

By Muhammad Butt

international manager's favourite players

Published: 15:55, 27 January 2022

We’re entering a mini international break and as always there have been some surprising international call-ups.

Most surprising was Mario Balotelli’s recall to the Italy squad. The Italian striker last played for the Azzurri four years ago in 2018, appearances which ended another four-year absence from the national side since 2014.

The man responsible for both of those streak-busting Balotelli call-ups? Roberto Mancini, the manager who had a fractious relationship with the striker first at Manchester City a decade ago, then for Italy as well.

But Mancini has never been able to turn his back on Balotelli. Not fully. So that got us thinking about other players you could best describe as their manager’s “teacher’s pet” for one reason or another. We’ve looked at the manager’s of the biggest nations on the international scene and come up with each one’s teacher’s pet.

Disagree with any of our picks? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!

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Roberto Mancini and Mario Balotelli

  • Nation: Italy
  • Appearances: 3

Mancini signed Balotelli for Manchester City back in 2010 and faithfully stuck by him even during the striker’s many wayward phases. The Italians both left the club in summer 2013, and when Mancini was made Italy manager in 2018, Balotelli was in his first squad and team. In fact it was Balotelli who scored the first goal of the Mancini era.

Things appear to have soured between the pair when, just last year, Mancini said: “Clearly, it was disappointing for all of us who knew [Balotelli] as a person and a player that in the last five or six years he was unable to do what he was capable of doing.”

But in true teacher’s pet fashion, Mancio has been unable to quit on Balo, and has called him back up to his latest Italy squad. And with the World Cup play-offs coming up in March, could his beloved Super Mario save him at the last (much as he did in 2011 when, with his only assist as a City player, he set-up Sergio Aguero’s famous title-winning goal)?

Didier Deschamps and Olivier Giroud

  • Nation: France
  • Appearances: 101

One of the most distinctive things about Didier Deschamps’ time as France manager has been the near-constant inclusion of Olivier Giroud as the side’s leading striker. No matter how fierce the criticism of Giroud’s selection, or how he went through the entire 2018 World Cup win without ever registering a shot on target, Deschamps stood by his man all the way up to 2021.

Last year, with Giroud entering his second year riding the bench with Chelsea, Deschamps finally recalled the magnificent Karim Benzema to the squad and starting XI. But now, with Giroud playing again with Milan, don’t rule out some competition for Benzema. After all under Deschamps, Giroud has played over 100 times for his country and come within touching distance of being their all-time top scorer!

Luis Enrique and Gavi

  • Nation: Spain
  • Appearances: 22

Luis Enrique hasn’t been Spain manager for long and, sure, one could have included Ferran Torres in here. The fabulous Ferran was still just a bit-part player for Manchester City when Lucho built his Spain attack around him, and he has played more for Spain under Lucho than anyone else.

But the answer here is obviously the 17-year-old Gavi. Sure, he’s magnificent and it makes sense now that Luis Enrique has played him, but recall that Lucho simply chucked him into the starting XI in major games for Spain before Gavi had even completed a full 90 minutes for Barcelona. The trust in this kid who is literally school-age can mean there is no better choice for teacher’s pet.

Gareth Southgate and Conor Coady

  • Nation: England
  • Appearances: 8

This is kind of a cheat because while Gareth Southgate’s absurd overplaying of Harry Kane even when he’s injured, or his unshakeable trust in Jordan Pickford, may seem odd, they are rooted in good performances.

Conor Coady, however, has been a constant presence in Southgate’s international squads despite never being among the five best English centre-backs. Southgate has been so impressed by the Wolves man that he’s put him into the squad’s leadership group.

“Conor Coady has been a great addition into [the leadership group], for sure. His performance and the way him and Tyrone [Mings] organised the defence from the back really helped to keep us in that game,” Southgate said after Coady did well during a 0-0 draw with Denmark.

Hansi Flick and Thomas Muller

  • Nation: Germany
  • Appearances: 4

One of Hansi Flick’s first acts when becoming Bayern Munich manager was recalling Thomas Muller to the side and making him a central part of the side. And when Flick became Germany coach recently, he made sure that Muller’s recent recall remained firm and he was to be a key part of the squad. Back in 2021, Flick even said of Muller: “there will never be someone like him again.”

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Tite and Lucas Paqueta

  • Nation: Brazil
  • Appearances: 28

Tite has played a lot of players during his time as Brazil coach, but most of them have made sense as names. Lucas Paqueta, however, did not make sense when he was first called. Oh, he makes sense now alright, but back when Tite handed him his debut it was a somewhat surprising selection. But Tite has gone from simply just playing him to making him a fundamental part of his starting XI every time Brazil take the field. He even wore the no. 10 shirt in Neymar’s absence! Major teacher’s pet vibes.

Lionel Scaloni and Nicolas Otamendi

  • Nation: Argentina
  • Appearances: 29

Argentina has seen tremendous success under Lionel Scaloni and we will therefore be reticent to criticise any of his decisions but the coach’s constant selections of the inconsistent and erratic Nicolas Otamendi continues to defy belief. Otamendi just isn’t one of the two best centre-backs Argentina can select, he’s not even among the three best! Yet he keeps on playing!

Roberto Martinez and Michy Batshuayi

  • Nation: Belgium
  • Appearances: 32

There were two candidates for Roberto Martinez’s teacher’s pet, two guys who were always in the squad no matter what: Nacer Chadli and Michy Batshuayi. But the thing is, Martinez appears to have gotten over his infatuation with Chadli in 2021. Batshuayi, however, continues to be selected even though he doesn’t play for long stretches at a time.

Of course, Batshuayi does produce whenever called upon, mostly because he starts easier games to afford Romelu Lukaku some rest. But such is Belgium’s talent pool, you would think Martinez would call up a greater variety of young attackers to test them out, just in case one of them proves more promising in terms of being able to replace Lukaku. But nope. It’s always Batshuayi.

Fernando Santos and Danilo

  • Nation: Portugal
  • Appearances: 55

Fernando Santos is a very confusing man who seems to almost dislike the concept of attacking football so much that he consistently selects two rugged defensive midfielders. William Carvalho and Danilo were regular features of Santos’ sides and when poor results forced him to pick only one, Danilo was the man who won out. More adventurous or exciting players are always overlooked in favour of defensive powerhouses like Danilo, which is disappointing to anyone who wants Portugal to make the most of their incredible attacking talent.

Louis van Gaal and Daley Blind

  • Nation: Netherlands
  • Appearances: 25

Louis van Gaal is the ultimate manager-as-teacher so in essence every player that he picks regularly is his teacher’s pet. Van Gaal’s schoolmaster demeanour has him constantly imparting knowledge to players young and old, so in this instance it makes sense to pick the player he’s used the most, which is the incredibly handsome Daley Blind.



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