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 confirmed 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!
19. Jose Mourinho
Notable teams: Rio Ave, Belenenses
Bottom of the pile is José Mourinho, who only really played at youth level before deciding to focus on becoming a coach. The Portuguese broke into football as Bobby Robson’s translator, and from there progressed to coaching before becoming one of the game’s most prominent figures. However, his lack of a playing career does somewhat inform the way he treats his players.
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. Marcelo Bielsa
Notable teams: Newell’s Old Boys
The Premier League’s newest 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.
16. 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.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. 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.
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. Chris Wilder
Notable teams: Sheffield United, Notts County, Charlton Athletic, Brighton & Hove Albion
Chris Wilder spent his playing career across the levels of English football, starting with Sheffield United – whom he played for in two separate spells before returning as a manager. The former right-back’s longest spell came with Rotherham United, spending four years with the club and playing over 100 games.
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. 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. 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. Slaven Bilic
West Bromwich Albion
Slaven Bilic enjoyed a successful playing career for both club and country, playing his name into the history books. At club level, with Hajduk Split, Bilic won the newly founded Croatian First Football League in its debut season in 1992, and was named the inaugural Player of the Year.
His performances earned a move to West Ham midway through the 1995/96 season, and he would spend 18 months at the club before moving to Everton. Injuries and suspensions meant Bilic’s time at Goodison Park wasn’t as successful as many would have hoped, and he eventually returned to Hadjuk in 1999.
At international level, Bilic played 44 times for Croatia and was part of the side that qualified for their first World Cup in 1998 – knocking out Romania and Germany en route to the semi-finals, losing to eventual winners France. It was the only time Croatia had made it out of the group stages at the World Cup until 2018 when they went one better than 1998 and finished as runners-up.
6. Mikel Arteta
Position: Central midfielder
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. 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.
4. 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.
3. 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.
2. Pep Guardiola
Position: Defensive midfielder
Notable teams: Barcelona
Poor Pep Guardiola. Not only has he been overtaken this season as the best manager in the Premier League, but he’s no longer the best player among the top-flight coaches. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t good. 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.
1. 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 the best player 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.