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 2020/21 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. 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.
19. Thomas Tuchel
Notable teams: Stuttgart Kickers, SSV Ulm
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.
18. Marcelo Bielsa
Notable teams: Newell’s Old Boys
A cult hero of a manager, Marcelo Bielsa did not have the longest of playing careers. The Argentinian spent his five years of professional football playing in Argentina, representing Newell’s Old Boys, Instituto and Argentino de Rosaria before retiring aged 25.
Immediately after retiring, Bielsa returned to Newell’s Old Boys to work as a youth coach before eventually taking over the main role, starting his long managerial career.
17. 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.
16. Roy Hodgson
Notable teams: Crystal Palace, Gravesend & Northfleet, Maidstone United, Berea Park
Roy Hodgson was not a good player. His direct, no-nonsense approach to management perhaps explains this. Hodgson was a workaday defender, nothing special at all. The only notable thing he did as a player was to break the sporting boycott of South Africa (because of the systemically racist system of Apartheid) to play for Berea Park, and that’s something I’m sure he’d rather people forget.
15. 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.
14. Nuno Espirito Santo
Notable teams: Vitória Guimarães, Deportivo La Coruña, FC Porto
Nuno Espírito Santo ended his playing career in 2010 at FC Porto where earlier he learned under Mourinho. A journeyman goalkeeper, he enjoyed spells in Spain and Russia as well as his native Portugal.
13. Paul Heckingbottom
Notable teams: Sunderland, Darlington, Norwich City, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Mansfield
Paul Heckingbottom started his career as a trainee at Manchester United, but failed to make the grade, joining Sunderland instead. During his career, Heckingbottom played career across the levels of English football, including Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley, helping both to promotion from League One in consecutive seasons. Heckingbottom wound down his career in non-league before turning to coaching.
12. Dean Smith
Notable teams: Walsall, Leyton Orient, Sheffield Wednesday, Port Vale
Dean Smith had a long career as a player, spanning 16 years in total across five different clubs. Despite never hitting the top level of English football, Smith was a decent servant for the likes of Walsall, Hereford United and Leyton Orient, hitting 100+ appearances for those clubs.
11. Sam Allardyce
West Bromwich Albion
Notable teams: Bolton, Sunderland, Millwall, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Coventry, Huddersfield, Preston, West Brom
Of course Big Sam was a defender. What else was he supposed to be?
The new West Brom manager represented a number of clubs throughout his playing career, but most of his game time came at first club Bolton. There, he helped the club earn promotion to the First Division in 1977/78 under Ian Greaves. Spending most of his time in northern England, Allardyce did also take a year in the United States with Tampa Bay Rowdies, before returning to England.
10. Sean Dyche
Notable teams: Nottingham Forest, Chesterfield, Millwall, Northampton
Unsurprisingly, Sean Dyche was a bruising defender who, he claims, was held back by a broken leg early in his career. But he was a legend for Chesterfield, captaining them to that faintly ridiculous FA Cup semi-final in 1997 (where he scored to help them draw with Middlesbrough – only to get hammered in the replay). After Chesterfield, he moved around a few more teams before moving into coaching.
9. Ryan Mason
Notable teams: Tottenham Hotspur, Hull City
Although Ryan Mason had to retire early due to a serious head injury, the former midfielder was a decent little player in the short time he did have on the pitch. Mason joined Tottenham at the age of eight and, after loan spells away, finally broke into the team for the 2014/15 season and became a big player for Mauricio Pochettino. But his second season wasn’t as good and Mason was sold to Hull City, a club-recording signing, though he was forced to retire shortly after.
8. 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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. 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.
4. Steve Bruce
Notable teams: Gillingham, Norwich City, Manchester United
In the early years of the Premier League, Manchester United dominated and their three league titles in four years between 1992 and 1996 is partly thanks to Steve Bruce’s presence at the back. The Englishman actually joined United in 1987 and was at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson’s revolution, also winning three FA Cups, a League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
3. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Notable teams: Manchester United
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the baby-faced assassin, spent 11 years with Manchester United, scoring 126 goals in 366 appearances, winning six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League in 1999, scoring the winning goal in injury time. But can he have the same success as a manager? He’s not doing the worst job so far.
2. Carlo Ancelotti
Notable teams: Parma, Roma, AC Milan
Carlo Ancelotti was just as cool, calm and collected as a player as he has been throughout his managerial career, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t forge one hell of a career for himself.
Lining up in his central midfield berth, “Carletto” won Serie A titles with Roma and AC Milan, while he also lifted two European Cups with the latter. At international level, Ancelotti picked up 26 caps for Italy and was part of the Azzurri side which came third at the 1990 World Cup.
1. Pep Guardiola
Position: Defensive midfielder
Notable teams: Barcelona
Pep Guardiola, soon to be crowned Premier League champion again and on top as the best player among the top-flight coaches. The Catalan 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 on current evidence, it seems that preparation has paid off.