Who is the best manager in the Premier League? It’s a hot debate topic if you bring it up. But isn’t it strange how no one talks about which of the Premier League managers was the best player?
It’s a fairly accepted truism that you have to have been a player to be a manager, not necessarily a great player, but there are certain insights to be gleaned after having played the game. The thing is, some managers were top players; maybe even top, top players – and that can either be a boon to their success or an albatross around their necks.
Looking at the 2021/23 Premier League clubs’ managers, we’ve decided to rank them by how they were as players. Does it stack up to their skill as coaches? Was David Moyes better than Jurgen Klopp? Read on and find out!
20. Thomas Frank
Notable teams: n/a
Thomas Frank’s playing career didn’t even get to the professional stage as the Dane moved on to youth coaching in his mid 20’s. Aged 31 he became coach of the Danish u16 and u17 national sides, and the rest is history.
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19. Bruno Lage
Notable teams: n/a
Bruno Lage’s playing career wasn’t up to much and by the age of 21 he was already starting to focus more on coaching with the youth teams of Vitoria de Setubal. His most impressive spell was 8 years managing Benfica’s youth teams, and after years as an assistant manager at various clubs he got his shot managing senior players with Benfica B, then Benfica, now Wolves.
18. Brendan Rodgers
Notable teams: Reading
A successful manager, Rodgers made the early switch into coaching after his playing career was cut very short due to a genetic knee condition. He spent the few years of his playing career with Reading’s reserves but did also feature in non-league for a few years after his official retirement.
17. Thomas Tuchel
Notable teams: Stuttgart Kickers
One of the Premier League’s newest managers, Thomas Tuchel has made a name for himself as a top coach and he started from an early age after a brief playing career. The former defender spent a few years playing in the second and third tiers of German football before having to retire aged 25 due to a knee cartilage injury.
16. Steve Cooper
◉ 21st September 2021: Steve Cooper takes over at Nottingham Forest, who are bottom of the table on four points from eight games
◉ 29th May 2022: Steve Cooper leads Nottingham Forest back to the Premier League for the first time in 23 years
Absolutely incredible. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/lOJyW2ESDT
— Squawka (@Squawka) May 29, 2022
Notable teams: Bangor City
Steve Cooper spent most of his playing career in the Welsh football leagues but was turned to coaching pretty early, studying for his badges while still a player. It was definitely worth it, as Cooper moulded England’s youth before guiding Nottingham Forest back to the Premier League.
15. Marco Silva
Notable teams: Rio Ave, Estoril
Marco Silva is another former player that has definitely thrived more as a manager. The Fulham boss spent his entire playing career in Portugal, and represented nine different clubs without really settling. He enjoyed the best spell of his carer at Estoril, spending six years there before taking over as manager.
14. Erik ten Hag
OFFICIAL: Manchester United have appointed Erik ten Hag as Men’s First Team Manager from the end of the 2021/22 season until June 2025, with the option of a further year. pic.twitter.com/HZQIoPi80Z
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 21, 2022
Notable teams: FC Twente, De Graafschap
Erik ten Hag is a very good manager but he didn’t really hit the heights as a player, spending a lot of his career at FC Twente across three spells. He did, however, manage to win the KNVB Cup with FC Twente and also scooped an Eerste Divisie (Netherlands’ second division) title in the early stages of his career. Ten Hag retired at 32 and wouldn’t return to mainstream football for 10 years, taking charge of Go Ahead Eagles.
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13. Graham Potter
Brighton & Hove Albion
Notable teams: Birmingham City, Stoke City, Southampton, West Bromwich Albion
The current Brighton boss initially came to light as a manager in Sweden with Ostersund but he spent his playing career mostly around the Midlands, representing a total of 11 teams. Making his breakthrough at Birmingham City in 1992, Potter retired at Macclesfield Town in 2005 aged 30 and took his first step into coaching – where he has already had considerably more success.
12. Jesse Marsch
Notable teams: DC United, Chicago Fire, Chivas USA
As a player, Jesse Marsch spent his entire career playing in MLS for three different clubs, spending the longest time with Chicago Fire. But English fans might have seen him more when appearing for Chivas USA, as the became more accustomed to the American league following David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy. Yes, that is Marsch that Beckham is squaring up to in the above picture.
Marsch also received two caps for the United States national team but never really pulled up any trees as a player.
11. Eddie Howe
Notable teams: Bournemouth, Portsmouth
Eddie Howe actually had a decent playing career, even if injury prevented him from reaching his full potential. He played over 200 games for Bournemouth in what is now called League One before injuries began to take their toll after a move to Portsmouth. Fans crowdfunded the money to sign Howe back for Bournemouth and he rejoined for three final years, again plagued by injuries, before retiring aged 30 and, one year later, becoming Bournemouth boss.
10. David Moyes
Notable teams: Celtic, Bristol City, Dunfermline, Preston
Despite being part of Celtic’s 1982 title-winning side early in his playing career, Moyes’ never reached any particular individual heights as a player after that. Most of his professional appearances came at Dunfermline and Preston, and the latter eventually hired him as a coach, then manager.
9. Jurgen Klopp
Notable teams: Mainz
Liverpool’s bespectacled madman really wasn’t much of a player. He spent more than an entire decade playing for Mainz. Of those 11 years he even split them up by position; first he was a striker, then about half-way through his tenure he got moved into defence, where he used his great height to help him be of use to the team. Klopp retired as a player and became a manager in the same summer and, of course, it was Mainz who he first managed.
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8. Ralph Hasenhuttl
Position: Centre forward
Notable teams: Austria Vienna, FC Koln
By his own admission, Hasenhuttl was not the most talented footballer, but the Austrian made over 400 league appearances for eight clubs in his home country along with Belgium and Germany. His best spell came with 56 goals in 172 games for Austria Vienna between 1989 and 1994, winning three Austrian Bundesliga titles, enough to rank him highly above his fellow Premier League bosses.
7. Mikel Arteta
Position: Central midfielder
Notable teams: Barcelona, Rangers, Everton, Arsenal
Mikel Arteta the player will be remembered as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated midfielder in the league at his time – outside of the clubs he represented. The Spaniard was a massive player in his six-year spell at Everton, first joining on loan from Real Sociedad before making his move permanent. Five years with Arsenal towards the end of the career only furthered his praise, with the midfielder being one of the consistent performers in a time of relative struggle under Arsene Wenger.
6. Scott Parker
Notable teams: Charlton, Norwich, Chelsea, Newcastle, West Ham, Tottenham, Fulham
The Englishman came through the ranks at Charlton and was one of the most highly-rated young midfielders during his early years, having made his debut at 17. In his final season for Charlton, Parker made the first of 18 appearances for England.
In 2004 he joined a host of stars to join Chelsea and, while he did not settle at Stamford Bridge, he did leave a year later with a Premier League winner’s medal. Unfazed by his spell, Parker grew into one of the most reliable midfielders in the Premier League, particularly during his time at West Ham and Tottenham, winning the FWA Footballer of the Year at the former. Parker retired at Fulham before eventually taking charge of the Cottagers (and later Bournemouth).
5. Antonio Conte
Notable teams: Juventus
Before Antonio Conte was a ferocious manager with a luscious head of hair he was a ferocious midfielder with drastically thinning hair. After breaking through with Lecce, Conte joined Juventus in 1991 and went on to play 13 years for the Turin giants, winning all manner of trophies including the UEFA Cup, the Champions League and multiple Serie A titles. He retired in 2004 and worked his way up the managerial pyramid, starting as an assistant with Siena under Luigi Di Canio before taking over at Arezzo lower down the pyramid.
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4. Pep Guardiola
Position: Defensive midfielder
Notable teams: Barcelona, Roma
As a player, Pep Guardiola was a playmaker from the base of midfield, a proto-Busquets if you will, and ran the Barcelona midfield for Johan Cruyff’s dynamic Dream Team. Guardiola, known as an extension of Cruyff on the field, helped deliver the club’s first-ever European Cup as well as winning La Liga an incredible four years on the bounce.
Even after Cruyff, Pep continued to excel – playing through the rest of the 90s where he also learned from Louis van Gaal. Pep won a Copa del Rey as well as two more Liga titles and the Uefa Cup Winner’s Cup after Cruyff. A proud Catalan, he also played 47 times for Spain – that would have been more but he fell out with Javier Clemente and missed Euro 96, then he missed the 1998 World Cup through injury.
After he left Barcelona he embarked on a tour of teams where he seemed to pick the destination purely to work with great coaches: Carlo Mazzone at Brescia, Fabio Capello at Roma, Juanma Lillo at Dorados.
Pep used his incredible reputation as a player to help prepare for his coaching career, and given he is the greatest coach in the world and has quite literally changed the way the game is played all across the world, that preparation has paid off handsomely.
3. Patrick Vieira
Notable teams: Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan, Milan, Manchester City
When it comes to their playing career, there aren’t many managers in the country can touch Patrick Vieira. The Frenchman was a genuine world-class superstar, a magical force of nature midfielder whose size, skill and winning mentality was a combination that felt superhuman at times.
He is most closely associated with Arsenal, of course, where he had a glittering nine year career that saw the Gunners win three Premier League titles, the last of which they did without losing a single game. Vieira’s last game for the Gunners saw him score the winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup final, lofting the trophy for the third time but his first as club captain.
Vieira was also part of the French national side that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, but he could never taste continental glory with his club. And so, in search of an elusive European Cup, Vieira left Arsenal and joined Italian giants Juventus, then Inter. Even though age was clearly starting to slow him down, Vieira still managed to show his class and helped Inter win four straight Serie A titles.
Finally, even though he left for Manchester City in the middle of the 2009/10 season, two appearances off the bench against Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kyiv meant that, yes, Patrick Vieira finally got that Champions League winner’s medal the year after Thierry Henry, his friend, compatriot and former team-mate at Arsenal picked one up with Barcelona.
Vieira retired in 2011 and immediately began working with City’s youth sides. He joined New York City FC in January 2016, graduating to Nice in 2018. Now he’s back in the Premier League, turning Crystal Palace into a fluid, free-flowing side almost overnight. If his managerial career can rival what he did as a player then he will be one of the greats.
2. Frank Lampard
Position: Central midfielder
Notable teams: West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester City
The greatest goalscoring midfielder in Premier League history, Chelsea’s all-time top scorer and unquestionably one of the best players among current managers in England’s top flight. When Lampard joined Chelsea in 2001 from West Ham, questions were raised over his transfer fee of £11m. After all, he was only in the West Ham team ahead of the likes of Scott Canham because his dad was part of the coaching staff under uncle Harry Redknapp.
Lampard left Chelsea 13 years later a club legend, winning three Premier League titles, five FA Cups, two League Cups, the Europa League and the Champions League. His ability to time a run into the box on top of his accuracy from range saw Lampard score 211 goals for Chelsea alone, breaking Bobby Tambling’s record as the club’s all-time top scorer. In the Premier League, only Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Andrew Cole have scored more than Lampard’s 177 which is two more than Thierry Henry and at least 54 higher than any other midfielder.
1. Steven Gerrard
Position: Central midfielder
Notable teams: Liverpool, LA Galaxy
Who was the greatest Premier League midfielder of all time? Who was the greatest Premier League midfielder to then manage in the competition? You’ll get a variety of answers to this question, but some people who could certainly be described as experts would place Steven Gerrard above Patrick Vieira.
“If you were looking for the player you would replace [Roy] Keane with, it’s Gerrard, without question,” Sir Alex Ferguson previously said. “He has become the most influential player in England, bar none.
“Not that Vieira lacks anything, but I think that Gerrard does more for his team than Vieira does.”
Vieira himself said: “He was one of the best three players I faced in England.
“Keane and [Paul] Scholes were the others. Playing against Gerrard was . . . interesting. He was capable of doing anything in a game. He was always driving his team.
“What made him similar to me was the way he did that. He drove other people through the way he played, the way he made tackles, the running he did. He showed an example not by talking but by acting, and that’s what I admired.
“It’s simple. What Gerrard did more than me was score goals. You know I think he even got better and better with his finishing.”
Gerrard was the driving force for Liverpool as they returned to European greatness, securing their fifth Champions League crown in 2005, scoring the goal to start the comeback in Istanbul. And there were so many iconic moments throughout his career, even if he didn’t win the Premier League.