Monday, July 18, 2011

Alignment Chart of Football Managers

How to Read This Chart

In most alignment charts, the left-right axis is lawful-chaotic, and the up-down axis is good-evil.  In this chart, these axes are instead assigned descriptors of coaching styles.  A coach to the left (lawful) emphasizes collective play and formations, while a coach to the right (chaotic) focuses on individual contributions and players.  A coach in the top row (good) believes in idealistic football; the beautiful game is for expression as much as competition.  At the bottom of the chart (evil), we have the pragmatic coaches, whose only concern is to win.  Below the chart is a more detailed analysis of each coaching style.

Finally, I'd like to note that I decided to restrict myself to well-known coaches that are active, or have been active recently.

Lawful Good - Arsène Wenger - The Conductor
"I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art."

The principles of good football govern Arsène Wenger's every decision.  During his fifteen-year tenure at the helm of Arsenal, he has infused the squad with a youthful, attacking mentality.  Also, Wenger strongly emphasizes the collective: none of his players are treated as irreplaceable.  Any player (except perhaps Cesc Fabregas) unhappy with his part to play is sold, usually at a profit, and replaced with an up-and-comer from the Arsenal F.C. Academy.  Critics argue that Wenger is losing good players and the team is in a constant state of transition.  It has been a while since the club has won a trophy, but through this drought the team has remained a dangerous side of unselfish young talent.

By earning the trust of Arsenal supporters over a long career, Wenger has maneuvered himself into a position that allows him to orchestrate football with freedom of expression.  Most coaches, with pressure to bring immediate success to their club, are denied this opportunity to experiment with the beauty of football.  Rinus Michels' incredible Ajax Amsterdam and Netherlands National teams from the early '70s relied upon fluid interchangeability of his ten outfield players to produce unprecedented combination play.   Also famous for employing the offside trap, Michels redefined how football could be played, while creating a spectacle of truly awe-inspiring interplay. 

A third quite unexpected example of this approach in the modern game can be seen in the current Nadeshiko, the Japanese Women's World Cup squad.  Managed by Norio Sasaki, the team uses a technical, quick-passing approach to the game to make up for deficiencies in strength and size.  In an interview, Sasaki explained that their style is the result of three years of development, and that they emphasized a delegation of tactical problem-solving to the players on the field.  Their hard work has paid off, as the Nadeshiko just edged the USA in penalties after a 2-2 draw in the final of the World Cup this past Sunday.

Neutral Good - Pep Guardiola - The Philosopher
“We have to be bold, I want us to go out and do things, not sit and wait for them to happen.  We have to show what we can do and that we deserve to win the title.  We need to be brave and to go out and look to play because that is one of the reasons why we have been so successful.  It is that factor that I want this team to be known for while I am coach.”

Pep Guardiola has repeatedly stated in interviews and press conferences that he only knows one way to play football: to possess the ball and attack with it.  Well, lucky for him, he happens to be exceedingly good at that approach.  Also, Barcelona is well equipped with players tuned into the same ideals.  Over the past three summers, Guardiola replaced the superstars Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, and Zlatan Ibrahimović because they did not fit into the system Guardiola was developing.  At the same time, the coach heavily relies on the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández to break down resilient defenses.

While Pep has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success (so far) with this method, others have found mixed results.  Michael Laudrup managed a dynamic, free-flowing Getafe during his one year stint in the 07-08 season.  But last season, he piloted RCD Mallorca, a bankrupt team that placed 5th in La Liga the year before under Gregorio Manzano, to 17th place, just one point from relegation. 

Chaotic Good - Diego Maradona - The Lion Tamer
"I have 23 wildcats prepared to leave their skins on the pitch."

In 2008, Maradona was appointed manager of the Argentina national football team.  Over nineteen months of qualifying and friendlies leading up to the 2010 World Cup, he considered an astounding 107 different players for the national squad, arranged in countless vague formations.  After barely qualifying, he selected a side full of impressive attacking talent but with little organization.  They labored to wins, relying heavily on individual excellence from Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, and Gonzalo Higuaín.  Finally, a well-structured Germany side exposed their lack of formation as they were demolished 4-0 in the quarterfinals. 

It is difficult to know the reasoning behind Maradona's decisions over this campaign.  During qualification, he commented that the squad would be "[Javier] Mascherano, Messi, Jonás [Gutiérrez] and eight others," which suggests that he was counting on the success of these players to carry the squad, independent of how the other positions would be filled.  It seems that he chose his "wildcats" based on individual creativity, passion, and ability.  The widely varying selections during qualifying were a series of try-out sessions, scouting for talent at the expense of team chemistry.  In defense of his choices, each player in the 23-man roster could've been a part of a World Cup winning side (though probably not the same one).  Maradona simply never had the time or know-how to impart the necessary cohesion.

There are very few coaches in top level European football that attempt to produce idealistic football without focusing on collaborative play.  Soccer is designed to encourage teamwork, and it takes a world class player (say... Maradona) to single-handedly break down a well-structured defense of only average players.  The original 'galacticos' of the early 2000s (featuring the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane), led by the unassuming Vicente del Bosque, is one example.  Another is the Frank Rijkaard-led Barcelona, complete with the genius of Ronaldinho, that took the Champions League in 2006.

Lawful Neutral - Rafa Benítez - The Chessmaster
"Here they talk about the name of the player and the performance of the individual over the collective performance. This is part of the football culture here and I accept it."

Rafael Benítez is the perfect poster child for the coach that holds careful planning and tactics above all else.  He designed the 4-2-3-1 formation that brought Valencia such impressive success (two La Liga titles, in 01-02 and 03-04, and a UEFA Cup in 03-04).  The next season he stormed to the Champions League summit, considered the tactical pinnacle of football, in his first year at Liverpool, with one of the weakest teams to win that coveted title in recent years.  In 06-07 Liverpool returned to the Champions League final, though they lost to AC Milan.  This confirmed his mastery of the European stage, but the Premiership title, regarded as less tactical and more athletic, eluded him for his entire six seasons at Liverpool.

Benítez's tactical acumen has won him not only trophies, but also critics.  Whenever a set-piece goal was scored against his infamous zonal marking system, pundits would blame the manager for his unorthodox methods.  Never mind that his defensive record was actually quite good, and that other managers were using similar defensive systems, just not talking about them in interviews.  Also, he would insist on squad rotation and relying on his bench, which led to scrutiny of his starting lineups and substitution choices.  Both of these strategic choices follow the philosophy that each player is equally important to the team, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It's not surprising that Benítez uses his players like interchangeable chess pieces: he is also an avid chess player!

Benítez cites Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan as a strong source of inspiration for his tactical approach.  Sacchi serves as perhaps the best historical example of a pure strategist in football management.  Another conqueror of the European stage, his Milan side won consecutive European Cups in '89 and '90.  The Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard were able to adapt to whatever formation Sacchi predicted would be most effective on the day.  And the tactics came naturally to Sacchi.  As he described it, "Football has a script.  The actors, if they're great actors, can interpret the script and lines according to their creativity, but they still have to follow the script."

True Neutral - Sir Alex Ferguson - The Veteran
"It's alien for us to say, man-mark players.  We try to play our normal way as best we can."

Any classification of modern football coaches would be incomplete without considering Sir Alex Ferguson.  Probably the most scrutinized manager in the world, Ferguson has proven time and again his ability to adapt to the challenges of the Manchester United hot seat.  However, over the course of his impressive tenure, there hasn't been a clear set of underlying principles that have guided him through the minefields of managerial decisions.  Instead, Sir Alex resists being classified, as he treads the lines between his more single-minded peers. 

He has orchestrated victories of pure footballing brilliance (like the 7-1 defeat against Roma in 2007).   At the same time, Ferguson does not trade attacking efficiency for any amount of style points; if driving down the wings and crossing into the mixer gets the ball in the back of the net, that is what he will do (and has done).  Also, Sir Alex weighs both tactics and man management when planning for matches.  His players are able to play in a variety of formations, but he also has designed seasons around individual players that aren't tied down to these formations, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.  In effect, he's a manager that has "seen it all," and thus he appreciates all approaches to coaching football.  His position in the middle of the alignment chart may be the simple result of his extensive experience on the job.

There are few managers that fit this profile.  Most successful coaches recognize their strengths and choose an approach that takes advantage of them.  In fact, even Sir Alex probably doesn't land square in the middle of this chart, but rather leaning towards a side or corner.  But which way? 

Chaotic Neutral - Harry Redknapp - The Mechanic
“You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever, but to me football is fundamentally about the players. Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game in my opinion."

Harry Redknapp is a coach that sees his team as a collection of players.  His work at Tottenham, starting in October of 2008, speaks volumes of his effectiveness.  The team had zero wins, two draws, and six losses when he took over, but even with such a huge head start given to his opponents, Redknapp managed to finish the season at eighth in the table.  His explanation of this impressive turnaround tells his method: "I just wanted to communicate with the players, get to know them and try to get into them – give them a bit of belief."  Instead of trying to plan the optimal formation with his current players, he wanted his players happy and working hard.  To improve his team, Redknapp simply makes sure each part of the team is fit and ready to play.  As Rafael van der Vaart described, "There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid."  He went on: "Last weekend Gareth Bale scored a header against Blackburn from my corner.  But we didn't train one minute on it, it was pure luck. Good kicking, good heading, nothing more."

In addition to being a motivator, Redknapp focuses more attention on the transfer market than most other managers.  He values certain players, such as Luka Modrić, as essential for his squad, and simply will not trade them.  The transfer window is an opportunity to pick up talented players that have been underrated by their current manager.  The better your players are, the better your team will be.

There are other ways to manage teams with this player-first approach.  For example, Christian Gross, who managed FC Basel for years between brief stints at Tottenham and VfB Stuttgart, was famous for his focus on physical fitness.  His hardworking Stuttgart side dominated (and should've won) a 1-1 draw against Barcelona in the Champions League in February 2010.

Lawful Evil - José Mourinho - The General
"I don’t think we are so ugly that we should be seen as the devil and I don’t think Arsene Wenger and David Dein are so beautiful that they should be viewed as angels.”

In terms of recent coaching success stories, it's difficult to match the phenomenon that is José Mourinho.  Many of the other managers discussed here spent most of their time coaching at one club, or at least in one league.  Mourinho, on the other hand, has glided across Europe over the last decade, managing FC Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid.  Even though he spent only two or three years at each club, he has won the Champions League twice in this time: with Porto in 2003, and with Inter Milan in 2010.  He has also brought all of these teams to the top of their league table, and won the title with all of them except Real Madrid (which placed second behind high-flying Barcelona in his only season in charge so far).

So the million-dollar question: How does Mourinho achieve such resounding, and seemingly repeatable, success?  Well, there are similarities between the teams that he constructs, even though they perform in separate leagues.  First, Mourinho prioritizes his team's defense above all else.  His defensive line almost always consists of four experienced players that are extremely well-disciplined and play well together.  They are also clinical at strategically fouling to prevent dangerous plays from coming to fruition.  The midfield and attack vary depending on the opponent, but usually his preferred lineup is the natural counterstrategy to the prevailing formation of the league.  Most notably, his choice of the 4-3-3 while at Chelsea completely befuddled opposition managers that were focusing on perfecting the 4-4-2 of the time.

There are other factors in favor of Mourinho.  Most importantly, Mourinho has managed the richest clubs in Europe, that are able to buy up the necessary talent for his squads.  Also, José Mourinho is renowned for his motivational skills: his players are willing to go to war for him.  However, José's focus on tactical advantages and airtight defending is the trump card that he simply does better than anyone else.  He forces his critics to resort to lambasting his style of play, calling it dirty, unsophisticated, and boring.  His response, while at Chelsea: "Look, we’re not entertaining? I don’t care; we win."

Among club managers, this is probably the most populated category in the alignment chart.  Most coaches of midtable clubs are looking to get the three points every weekend, not to play pretty football.  Also, most coaches see their job as determining tactics and formations; that's what they are paid to do.  Mourinho just happens to be the best at it in the modern game.

Neutral Evil - Guus Hiddink - The Consultant
"It is normal that we were knocked out when you look at the potential of the two sides." [On PSV losing to Lyon]

José Mourinho is the man you call if you are a rich club in desperate search of a title.  Well, what about the bottom feeders, the clubs and national sides with restricted funds and/or rosters, who should they turn to?  Happily enough, they have their own miracle worker: Guus Hiddink.  The Dutch manager has worked with the national teams of the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, and Russia.  Each of these teams exceeded expectations at the first tournament he coached them through.  The Netherlands (in '98) and South Korea (in '02) were each shock semifinalists of the World Cup during his tenure.  In the 2006 World Cup, Australia only lost to eventual champions Italy in the round of 16 after a dubious penalty was called for Italy in the final minute of stoppage time.  Finally, Russia lost to eventual champions Spain in the semifinals after a very impressive showing at the 2008 Eurocup.

Hiddink's main strength is his ability to engineer creative solutions when given restricted raw materials.  Each team he has coached has played in a different manner, and he has been known to invent formations for his teams, such as the 3-3-3-1 that Australia used.  Most importantly, Hiddink weighs all options only in terms of practicality.  Against the mighty and majestic Barcelona of 2009, Guus Hiddink fielded a extremely defensive, destructive team in both semifinal legs.  If not for late heroics from Andrés Iniesta and perhaps a bit of dubious refereeing from the (in)famous Tom Øvrebø, Chelsea would've made their second Champions League final running.  The noteworthy point concerning this game is not the quality of the opposition or the closeness of the match, but just the willingness of Hiddink to field such a "negative" team.  The aesthetics of the squad simply did not concern the Dutchman in the slightest; he knew what type of football he had to play to maximize his winning chances, and he did just that.

Otto Rehhagel, the coach of the Greek national football team for the past decade, is another manager that only focuses on getting the win.  He won the 2004 Eurocup, beating and drawing top sides throughout the entire tournament (including the hosts Portugal twice), and achieved perhaps the greatest upset in football history.  His defensive tactics were brilliantly effective, but also the butt of heavy criticism as negative, destructive football.  Rehhagel's philosophy simply ignored the nay-sayers.  Soon after his appointment as the manager of Greece, Rehhagel explain this ideology as follows.  "There are no right or wrong, or fair, unfair results.  There's just the final score."

Chaotic Evil - Luiz Felipe Scolari - The Gladiator
"We're in this situation because we didn't have quality.  If we had had more quality, we would already be qualified. But we didn't, so we're still fighting for our place." [On Portugal qualifying for the 2006 World Cup]

This final category of football managers contains those that are player-oriented and going for the win in any way possible.  Luiz Felipe Scolari is a good representative for this group, but I would say that most national team managers fall into this classification.  This is a result of two very restrictive factors on managing national teams, especially for the most successful countries.  First, good footballing nations have all of their selection playing in the highest levels of club football, which means they have very little time and energy to devote to the national team.  So coaches of these national teams have very little time to develop chemistry between the players, which makes them instead focus on choosing the best players available.  Second, the pressure for these teams is unmatched across football.  At a major tournament, a single lost match can define a four-year-era under a manager as a failure, and also cause the manager to lose his job.  Thus, the extremely cautious, pragmatic, largely "ugly" football of the 2010 World Cup.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's tenure at Portugal from 2003 to 2008 followed these two principles well.  His skillful team managed to succeed, without any outright tournament wins, over this period to give Scolari the chance to have a relatively long appointment.  Fabio Capello's work for England follows a similar pattern, at maybe the most pressurized management position in the world.  But Capello has a history of managing defensive football, which he did at the club sides AC Milan, Roma, and Juventus.  During his first appointment at Real Madrid, he instead opted for the offensive 4-3-3 shape.  This uncharacteristic choice of formation was influenced by the players he had at his disposal: Davor Šuker, Predrag Mijatović, and Raul.

It will be interesting to see if international football continues to be saturated by these winning-at-all-costs coaches.  If national sides are taking note, however, the last few years have featured a notable shift in the outright winners of major tournaments.  In 2004, the hardworking, destructive Greeks took the Eurocup, and two years later the defensive-minded Italians squeaked out a World Cup trophy.  However, since then, the creative, possession-oriented Spanish have taken both titles away.  Is this simply a result of the brilliant players that the Spanish currently have available (Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Casillas, et al.), or a tantalizing suggestion of the future of football?  After all, the two teams to dominate the Champions League in recent years, Barcelona and Manchester United, are both attacking teams that play good football.  There is no doubt that club football plays ahead of the curve compared to national teams, but perhaps Spain is an example of a positive style to come.


1. Categorize the following managers according to the alignment chart above.

Johan Cruyff, Joachim Löw, Jürgen Klinsmann, Gregorio Manzano, César Luis Menotti, Valeriy Lobanovski, Juande Ramos, Manuel Preciado, Roy Hodgson, Marcelo Bielsa, Roberto Mancini

2. What is another spectrum that football managers can be measured by?  Determine examples of managers that are representative of the far reaches of the spectrum.

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