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 2021/22 Premier League clubs’ managers (not a full 20 as two jobs are currently vacant), 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!
18. 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.
17. 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.
16. 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.
15. 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.
14. Rafa Benitez
Notable teams: Real Madrid Castilla
The Spaniard’s playing career began in the hallowed halls of Real Madrid Castilla, but he never made the grade there and in the end joined Parla where he played four years and over 120 games. After an injury-hit season as player-coach with Linares, he retired and returned to Real Madrid to coach the u17 team. That was 1986, and he’s accomplished so much as a coach ever since.
13. 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.
12. 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.
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.
8. Claudio Ranieri
Notable teams: Roma, Palermo
Claudio Ranieri was a decent defender who, after failing to make the grade at boyhood club Roma, became a mainstay at lower league clubs including Palermo. He played on until he was 35, gaining various promotions along the way before retiring in 1986 and beginning a now legendary career in management that has spanned five decades and 21 clubs.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. 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.
4. 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.
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. His time in charge thus far is in certainly reflective of his playing career in terms of his teams tenacity and tendency for dramatic comwbacks, but Solskjaer the coach is a ways away from Solskjaer the player.
2. 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.
1. Patrick Vieira
Notable teams: Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan, Milan, Manchester City
When it comes to their playing career, no manager 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.