With the 2017-18 club football season at an end, we asked Michael Cox to rank the top 10 managers after another gripping campaign. Which tacticians are thriving and succeeding around the biggest clubs and best leagues?
1. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
After the disappointment of not winning the European Cup with Bayern Munich and an underwhelming first campaign in English football, 2017-18 confirmed that Guardiola remains the most exciting, methodical and innovative coach of his generation, taking Manchester City to a record points haul and joining a select group of managers who won the title in three major European countries.
Guardiola has demonstrated that he boasts the perfect combination of an overall philosophy and the attention to detail to adapt his tactics to various countries, various situations and various opponents. A third European Cup will be on the agenda for next season.
2. Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico Madrid’s consistency under Simeone has almost been taken for granted. Only five years ago, La Liga appeared a complete duopoly, with little sign that anyone could possibly launch a major challenge to Barcelona and Real Madrid without a multimillion-pound takeover. But Simeone has proven everyone wrong, turning the top two into a top three despite regularly having to sell his best players every summer.
Atletico are Europe’s best-organised side in a defensive sense and are still lethal on the counter-attack, making them perfect for cup competitions. Two European Cup finals and this year’s Europa League triumph, combined with consistent performance in La Liga, are far more than anyone could have expected when Simeone took charge of an out-of-sorts, sleeping giant back in 2011.
3. Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)
Much like Simeone, Klopp’s achievements were somewhat underestimated once he established Borussia Dortmund as a serious European force: They finished 13th the season before his appointment, so two Bundesliga titles, a German Cup and a Champions League final was a truly fantastic return.
He took over Liverpool in a better state but still outside the Champions League places, gazing admiringly up the table. His gegenpressing philosophy has been embraced by both players and supporters, while his use of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino has created the most feared forward trio in Europe. Regardless of this weekend’s result in Kiev, Klopp has worked wonders.
4. Antonio Conte (Chelsea)
Chelsea’s second season under Conte was something of a disappointment, saved only by Saturday’s FA Cup victory over Manchester United. But that shouldn’t hide Conte’s extraordinary achievements at Juventus, taking them from two straight seventh-place finishes to three straight titles, or taking Chelsea from 10th the season before he arrived to 93 points, then the second-most in Premier League history, and the title.
Conte also impressed during a two-year stint with Italy, memorably outwitting Spain in a tactical sense at Euro 2016. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up next season, but that club will be gaining one of the most astute managers around.
5. Max Allegri (Juventus)
It’s now four titles in a row for Allegri at Juventus while taking the club to European finals. Having previously triumphed at Milan, he has demonstrated both an ability to keep things ticking over in a calm, reliable and Carlo Ancelotti-esque manner with the (increasing) tactical intelligence of a Marcello Lippi.
Watching Juventus over the past four years has been a genuine pleasure: the combination of seamless defensive organisation, tactical fluidity and sheer invention in the final third is a credit to Allegri.
6. Maurizio Sarri (Napoli)
Sarri’s Napoli have been the most remarkable side to watch the past couple of seasons, as they’ve almost invented a new genre of football with their high-tempo, short-range passing sucking in opponents and then playing past them in a manner not even Guardiola’s Barcelona could manage. What’s more, Sarri has achieved this with a group of talented but rather second-tier footballers.
The obvious barrier is that Sarri hasn’t won a league title, which would confirm him as one of the very best. This season’s points tally was an exceptional achievement, but overhauling Juventus remains beyond him.
7. Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)
Real Madrid are historically not a club defined by their managers. Whereas Barcelona have always embraced a top-down “philosophy,” Real have generally been dictated by the qualities of superstar players. This in part explains Zidane’s style and his success in reaching three straight European Cup finals: He lets the players express themselves.
Zidane doesn’t appear to be a great tactician, and Real sometimes look better in terms of results than in terms of performance: They’re never entirely convincing. Nevertheless, they’re favourites to win a third straight Champions League title after no side had previously defended it.
8. Jose Mourinho (Manchester United)
Manchester United went trophy-less in 2017-18, yet Mourinho has unquestionably improved United’s performance under him, winning the Europa League, the League Cup and qualifying for the Champions League in both of his two seasons so far.
Mourinho’s track record includes two Champions League victories and titles in four countries. His style of play isn’t the most exciting, but the idea that football has changed so much in the past five years that his methods are now unworkable is somewhat questionable considering Atletico Madrid’s consistency with a similarly counterattacking approach. His hostile attitude toward players, however, is more concerning.
9. Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham)
Pochettino’s performance at Spurs has been truly exceptional. Arriving with an obvious determination to implement a heavy pressing system, Pochettino has broadly introduced that while shifting to a more reactive, tactically flexible approach in bigger matches.
European progress is also a source of encouragement, but what Pochettino really needs is a trophy. His ambiguous comments about the FA Cup suggest that he isn’t entirely concerned by cup competitions, but it’s a curious caveat to an otherwise excellent recent record.
10. Unai Emery
An obsessive strategist whose attention to detail continually amazes his players, Emery performed impressively at Valencia, won three straight Europa Leagues with Sevilla and has now confirmed his ability to win a league title at Paris Saint-Germain, even if he was dismissed at the end of the season.
PSG was never the right fit for Emery, a club that wants to indulge superstars rather than a manager with clever strategies. A slightly smaller club with players eager to learn, however, would make a great next choice.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.