The army of assistants and coaches elevating the top managers to glory

The army of assistants and coaches elevating the top managers to glory

PREENING, POINTING, POSTURING AND PARADING; the managerial theatre played out in top-flight football’s technical areas is more often than not fascinating. Dugouts used to be quite literal – a sunken structure almost out of sight and affording uncomfortable inhabitants views of muddy knees. Thanks in no small part to football’s relentless, hypnotised and monetised push to globalisation, things today are quite different.

Like a peacock lauding a decadence of feathers, modern football’s head coach is now afforded space and opportunity, and is encouraged to flaunt. The dugout is no more. Decorated in designer suits, official club leisurewear, or winter’s often startling variation of coats, the head coach plays the protagonist, antagonist and sometimes even the pantomime villain on his very own stage.

In the haze of insultingly colourful sponsors’ logos, tracksuits, racing car seats, cameras, and all those mysterious people milling around the players’ tunnel, it can be easy to lose sight of the manager’s supporting cast. Blurred into the background, and only very rarely in the foreground, are the assistant coaches; football’s own slightly mysterious trailing spouses.

As the English Premier League 2017/18 season kicked off, it could be fair to say that the crème-de-la-crème of world football’s head coaches and managers were all in attendance. Like a festival line-up of global headliners squeezed into one lingering evening, the names rendered a tingling image. The mouth watered at the prospect of things to come.

Antonio Conte: stereotypical Italian style, title defence, and tricky second season syndrome? Pep Guardiola: obsessive, good dresser, but is he really a tactical genius? Jürgen Klopp: that jawline, heavy metal football etc, but what about defence? José Mourinho; the bark, the bite, the snarl, the snigger, Jekyll or Hyde? Captivating stuff. You get the picture.

Sat quietly behind these headline acts and ready-made column inches are characters of equal appeal and curiosity. When most clubs entrust their footballing direction to a new managerial appointment, it’s very rare that one mere mortal is appointed. Increasingly, a couple of assistant coaches, specialised fitness coaches, performance analysts, dietary staff, medical staff, scouts, translators and personal assistants come as part of the package.

Never mind trailing spouse, it can work out to be a trailing orgy, all eager and excited, and decked out in initialled club tracksuits. It is rare, though, that such a band of brothers, and pleasingly more sisters than before, will stick together for long periods of time. Sometimes, and not quite as often as you may think, at the top of that tree, a special bond is struck. The relationship between manager and assistant can once in a while become kindred and last the length of a career.

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Trailing spouses is a term usually reserved to explain someone who follows their partner to another city or country for professional reasons. Think expatriated business people, academics or professionals on fleeting contracts, or international school teachers. Increasingly, it becomes an apt descriptor of the assistant manager or coach who comes attached to football’s megastar coaches.

As he so often does in any given realm of football management, José Mourinho provides an interesting example. His right-hand man, assistant coach and trailing spouse is the somewhat volatile Rui Faria.

Mourinho and Faria have been together since meeting at a coaching seminar at the Camp Nou in the late 1990s. At the time, Mourinho was himself an assistant to Barcelona’s manager, Louis van Gaal, and Faria a Physical Education teacher. Driven by their often prickly self-assuredness, and never having played football to a high standard, the two recognised each other as kindred spirits almost immediately. When Mourinho took his first managerial job at União de Leiria in 2001, Faria was appointed as an assistant and fitness coach.

Quickly dropping the fitness coach responsibilities to be promoted to sole assistant, Faria has been Mourinho’s right-hand man ever since. Ryan Giggs’ 29-year association with Manchester United fell victim to Faria’s most recent appointment. As an unsurprising thread between managers and their right-hand men, loyalty is an obvious mainstay of Mourinho and Faria’s relationship, yet the extent of that loyalty is significant.

When Mourinho took seven months out of the game after leaving Chelsea in 2007, so too did Faria. Perhaps more pertinently, and unlike other disciples of Mourinho’s fluctuating coaching entourage such as André Villas-Boas, Aitor Karanka, Baltemar Brito and José Morais, Faria has never looked to strike out on his own managerial path, despite his boss’s lauded claims he could do so with ease.

“If one day I have to speak about disciples, the real one is the one that is with me since 2000,” Mourinho said of Faria shortly after the pair arrived at Manchester United. “Faria is the one that has more potential than any other one, the one that if he wants to become a manager tomorrow he is more than ready to do it at the highest level, but is the one that simply is enjoying so much to be where he is that [he] doesn’t have that feeling.”

So if loyalty and being kindred spirits in a coaching sense are obvious relationship foundations, what else does Faria offer Mourinho? With flickers of flames in his eyes and more than a slight resemblance to the appearance and temper of one Joey Barton, Faria is essentially Mourinho’s attack dog, entrusted with not only coaching and conditioning, but with tactical haranguing of fourth officials too.

Read  |  André Villas-Boas and the long con

It is both rather cynical and a quietly accepted truth that, in the background and away from the spotlight, assistants can indulge in the darker arts of haranguing fourth officials, verbally harass opposing numbers, and engage in technical area mind games with less scrutiny than managers. Schooled by Mourinho over the course of 16 years in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy, Faria has these dark arts down to, well, a dark art. Quite what the more reserved characters within the Old Trafford hierarchy make of this remains a public mystery.

In balancing his own brand of technical area theatrics with a more serene relationship amongst his assistants, Jürgen Klopp has gone plural. Željko Buvač, whom Klopp refers to as “the brain”, and Peter Krawietz, known as “the eyes”, are integral to Klopp’s grand plans and vision. Klopp somewhat modestly refers to himself as “the mouthpiece”.

A Bosnian-Serb who excelled as a tactically aware attacking midfielder throughout a playing career spent mostly in Germany, Buvač first lined up with Klopp at Mainz. As you may imagine, the pair struck up a friendship and mutual admiration for each other’s contrasting footballing qualities. As Buvač moved on to end his playing days, and then to take over as manager at SC Neukirchen in 1998, Klopp intervened when his own playing career wound down. The one condition of Klopp being appointed as Mainz manager in 2001 was that Buvač would come on board as assistant.

Unlike Buvač and Klopp, Krawietz holds no professional footballing background and joined Mainz alongside Klopp after graduating from the local university with a sports degree. Initially appointed as a video analyst while Klopp was still playing, the pair developed a frosty early relationship as Krawietz was quick to highlight Klopp’s many flaws at right-back.

However, Klopp saw the whole process as an opportunity, and became highly interested in video analysis. Upon his appointment as Mainz manager, Klopp promoted Krawietz to the club’s scouting set-up. Later at Borussia Dortmund, Krawietz was entrusted to hover between providing a deep analysis of their own team’s performance and of forthcoming opposition.

Candid quotes offered in several interviews render Buvač as the man with the bigger picture view, and it is he, not Klopp, who many credit with the foundations and success of Dortmund’s all-action gegenpressing. “Zeljko is football expertise incarnate,” Klopp has said of Buvač, unafraid to add substance to these claims. “I learn every day from him.”

As a trio, the men themselves have spared many writers a job by depicting themselves as a band. “We are like a music band, with their own instruments,” Krawietz has stated. “Jürgen is the band leader, and others are behind him playing the bass guitar or drum. I’m not sure which instrument is mine!”

Read  |  Pep Guardiola and the unrelenting game of fools

Like Klopp, Pep Guardiola insists upon more than one trailing spouse. In fact, at 16 in number, Guardiola’s merry gang of coaches and assistants must be something of a record. Perhaps more orchestral than headline act, it undoubtedly fits with the deep-thinking, cultured and obsessive demeanour which seems to surround Guardiola.

With the benefit of Manchester City’s budget, balance is achieved across the domains of coaching, conditioning, medicine, sports science and kit management. There is, additionally, the fresh-faced inexperience of Mikel Arteta the coach, and the wealth of institutional knowledge wrapped up in the friendly frame of Brian Kidd. Two key men, however, are undoubtedly identified as Pep’s assistants. Both lay claim to a very different interpretation of the definition and role of assistant.

Officially, Domènec Torrent is Guardiola’s assistant coach, but Manuel Estiarte, a gold medal Olympian and voted the world’s best water polo player on no fewer than six occasions, also holds a significant role. Both men have worked alongside Guardiola since his first managerial appointment at Barcelona B in 2007. Yet whilst Torrent appears to be Guardiola’s footballing assistant, Estiarte holds a role which is rather more difficult to pin down, somewhere between sporting assistant, sporting advisor and personal cultural sporting assistant.

What isn’t in doubt is Estiarte’s importance to Guardiola. As part of the foreword in Estiarte’s autobiography, the former Barcelona boss wrote: “I don’t know if angels exist and, if they do, if they help us. Much less if guardian angels exist. But, if they do exist, I believe you are one of them.” Trailing spouse, indeed.

In providing a contrast of sorts on several levels, Mark Hughes and Mark Bowen have come as a coaching package since working with the Welsh national team together in 2002. With the exception of a brief sojourn when Bowen assisted Steve Bruce at Birmingham for 18 months, he has worked with Hughes at Blackburn, Manchester City, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and, currently, Stoke.

Though their coexistence is less noteworthy across the Premier League’s global fan base, to each other and the steady evolution of Stoke, their relationship is seemingly critical. It’s hard to imagine either a Bowen autobiography, or an emotive outpouring of appreciation as a foreword by Hughes, but it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe these two grown men perhaps lean more on each other than their own families.

With the rapidly growing stature of Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, it can be easy to forget he only took his first managerial position in 2009. At Espanyol, and on the back of a short spell assisting the club’s ladies team, Pochettino quickly impressed. His solid start gathered momentum when he appointed fitness coach and analyst, and now assistant coach and trailing spouse, Jesús Pérez, a couple of short months later.

Read  |  The making of Antonio Conte: a journey from Lecce to Chelsea

Famed for his own Roy Keane-esque death stare and an especially evasive demeanour, Pérez has followed Pochettino from Espanyol to Southampton and Tottenham. If Pochettino is often one to take on the role of good cop, an arm around the shoulder type of manager, then Pérez would appear well-suited to the role of bad cop.

Antonio Conte is another managerial headliner who comes with a trailing spouse, sometimes two, in tow. In Conte’s case, it’s partly a matter kept in the family. Younger brother Gianluca has worked with Antonio as an analyst since 2007 at Bari, Siena, Juventus and with the Italian national team. His appointment as assistant coach, therefore, represents something of a promotion. Joining team Conte slightly later, Angelo Alessio has been a part of Conte’s backroom staff since 2010. Alessio coached various youth teams with Napoli before forging a bond with Conte at Siena.

Despite recently departing Everton, a noteworthy inclusion and slight anomaly is Ronald Koeman. Erwin Koeman, Ronald’s older brother, called time on his own nomadic managerial career in 2014, and has since held the title of assistant coach at both Southampton and Everton. The brothers were, of course, recently relieved of their responsibilities at Goodison Park, and it remains to be seen if their trailing sibling arrangement continues.

Two men who could be making a Premier League switch in the future, Diego Simeone and Germán Burgos, were teammates for Atlético Madrid and Argentina, and have coached together since Simeone’s appointment at Catania in 2011. Burgos, an imposing goalkeeper throughout his playing days, had to be persuaded off a different career path to join Simeone. As rock band The Garb lost their frontman, Simeone gained a long-time friend as his right-hand man.

Considering Simeone’s own brand of volatile intensity, and seeing that mirrored in Burgos – a man who’s beaten cancer, led a rock band and threatened to rip Mourinho’s head off during a particularly heated 2012 Madrid derby – breaking LaLiga’s Barça/Real duopoly seems child’s play. The duo would almost certainly be victorious in the unlikely event of all the aforementioned coaching teams assembling at a deserted industrial estate for an Anchorman-style fracas, but I digress.

Between the nuances of each relationship and the jostling for trophies, it can be easy to forget the serious day-to-day responsibilities resting upon a trailing spouse’s shoulders. Depending upon the exact make-up of a club’s coaching structure and the country of employment, it can be the case that the assistant coach, or coaches, take the majority of training sessions. It can often be that these number twos spend the most practical hours with the players. They’re entrusted as the messengers to communicate the intricate tactical details of the forthcoming games. 

On top of that comes the responsibilities of assuming control in a manager’s absence, carrying out media duties once in a while, and perhaps most influentially, constructing positive and professional relationships with existing members of a club’s coaching set-up. It’s a pertinent point. For every Domènec Torrent sweeping in, there exists a Brian Kidd purposefully kept on.

Read  |  Why Germán Burgos is more than just Diego Simeone’s henchman

Retained as a gesture, or as a valid and vital link to the clubs recent history? Change is a delicate beast, and the heady mix of alpha-male egos adds its own pathos. For any manager or coach, the balancing of existing institutional knowledge with new ideas and theories can be a tough task.

Other than the obvious marker of winning football matches and playing attractive football, what does success look like within the framework of these largely unknown relationships? Does longevity alone equal success? Are friction and heated discussion between the two parties a positive or negative event? Is the ultimate goal to give the assistant a skill set and motivate them in order to strike out alone?

Rafa Benítez has, at various points in time, had Pako Ayestarán and Mauricio Pellegrino as his second in command. It could be debated whether it’s another feather in his managerial cap for tooling up his assistants for management, or that he’s difficult to work with.

Success stories of long-term assistants embarking upon solo careers in the hot seat, incidentally, are few and far between. Historically, Anfield and its Boot Room did a noteworthy job of promoting the likes of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Roy Evans from within. Across Europe, clubs such as Ajax and Barcelona, who value their own ideological and romantic existence, can list numerous examples of moulding assistants into high-profile managers. However, these cases often highlight individuals whose association comes with the club, rather than an individual manager they worked for.

Former Swansea City manager, Paul Clement, is perhaps the best example of a long-term trailing spouse striking it out alone. Having spent the best part of six years following Carlo Ancelotti from Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, his own managerial career appears to be playing itself out in fits and starts of hope and despair.

Like much of the human psyche and the relationships it fosters and indulges, exploring the theme of football’s trailing spouses unravels more questions than answers. Has Arsène Wenger only experienced yes men in working with Pat Rice and Steve Bould? For how long can Guardiola’s coaching orchestra sustain their current crescendo?

Given the constant scrutiny of being a football manager, one might wonder why any assistant would harbour a desire to strike out for a top job. Like all the best questions, these border on the impossible to answer, but are fun to contemplate. If there’s one conclusion to draw, though, it seems that in order to succeed as a headline foreign manager in the Premier League, it does little harm to have a loyal, trailing spouse by your side.

By Glenn Billingham  

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