Why former players like Gattuso, Guardiola and Zidane often make the best managers

Why former players like Gattuso, Guardiola and Zidane often make the best managers

“I HOPE THAT one day I will be given the chance to coach Milan. I have a long road ahead of me, but training Milan would be incredible.” When Benevento spectacularly equalised in the 95th  minute through their goalkeeper to gain their historical first point in top-flight Italian football, any man could be forgiven for regretting these words, any lesser man than the edificial Gennaro Gattuso that is.

Gattuso must have felt nothing more than a spectator in the stands as he watched his beloved Milan throw away two points at the Stadio Ciro Vigorito. He paced pitchside, the pain etched on his face as the dream of winning his first game in charge of the Rossoneri had just been snatched away from him in the most dramatic fashion. He summed up his sentiments post-match. “Maybe it would’ve been better to get stabbed than concede this goal.”

After a turbulent start to his tenure, the celebrated incontrista has since turned his team’s fortunes around, going undefeated in 10 Serie A games – winning eight – while beating teams such as Lazio and their most fervent rivals Inter to reach the Coppa Italia final. But Rino’s road to the Rossoneri has been one full of turns, tempers and tantrums, with few successes.

After leaving Milan as a player, Gattuso has taken charge of Sion, Palermo and OFI Crete while never surviving longer than a year due to poor on-pitch performances. His only managerial success during his early career was leading Pisa to Lega Pro promotion in the 2015/16 season before a series of fiascos led to him resigning weeks before their first game of the season, only to then re-sign a month later and eventually lead them back down to the third division despite having the best defensive record in the league. Former Pisa striker Arturo Lupoli, who played under Gattuso, said the relationship between the coach and club “didn’t work”, referring to Gattuso as a “Padre-Padrone”, a domineering and overbearing father with an attitude that “doesn’t fit in the world of football”.

It was easy to be sceptical when Gattuso was sworn in as Milan’s latest manager following the early season sacking of Vincenzo Montella. After all, he had only been in charge of Milan’s Primavera side for six months with moderate success. Fellow former Milan legends such as Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, and Cristian Brocchi had previously taken charge at the San Siro – with the latter two also being promoted from the Primavera – and had notoriously failed.

Articles were written condemning the appointment, citing Gattuso’s lack of experience, previous failures, and erratic temperament. However, four months on, it is this precise behaviour, his passion and persistence coupled with pragmatism, that has been the catalyst for Milan’s rejuvenation.

Above the oval Milan dressing room reads the words ‘Saremo una squadra di diavoli’ (We’re going to be a team of devils). If one sentence were to encapsulate Gattuso’s playing career, that would be it. Hard tackling, steadfast, and utterly ruthless, Gattuso was the epitome of AC Milan during his 13 years with the club and indicative of how the fans wanted their team to play.

Often referred to as Il Diavolo, Milan have prided themselves on their uncompromising grit and determination, which saw them win multiple Scudetto in the 1950s, and later success in the 1980s and 90s under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. For teams such as Milan, history and tradition are inescapable, as imposing as Madonnina atop the Duomo di Milano, and when one does not conform to this tradition, they can’t expect to last very long. After the sacking of Siniša Mihajlović in April 2016, former club president Silvio Berlusconi expressed that “Milan must return to a style of play and results worthy of our history.”

Read  |  Gennaro Gattuso: football’s great dog of war

“The problem is that the person representing the team has to respect its history and society,” Gattuso said of Milan before becoming manager. Rino even attributes Milan’s recent iconoclastic nature as his reason for leaving Milan for Sion, saying: “When I saw what was happening in Milan, together with many players we decided to leave.”

Since returning to the Rossoneri, Gattuso has focused on establishing a strong and consistent defensive line while allowing products of the academy in Gianluigi Donnarumma, Patrick Cutrone and Davide Calabria to flourish just as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi did many years ago. If you were to look at Milan’s starting line-ups under Gattuso – especially in the bigger games – you would find that he often creates a cadence between the old guard and the emerging Azzurri hopefuls, whether that means including a regular like Bonucci, or more sporadic players like Luca Antonelli and Ricardo Montolivo.

Gattuso allows the more experienced players to guide the new breed, something which he claims to have benefitted greatly from during his early career and something that he thought was lacking before his arrival. “The difference between my time and the present generation is tremendous. I had massive respect for older players. Many young people live in their own world, they lack basic guiding from older players.”

Gattuso’s adherence to tradition has not gone unnoticed. Former Rossoneri coach Carlo Ancelotti has claimed that “Gattuso is the soul of Milan” while former teammate Andriy Shevchenko has likened Milan under Gatusso to “the Milan of the old days”. Whether playing alongside the quiet and astute Andrea Pirlo, the graceful and volatile Kaká, or the assured and abrasive Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gattuso allowed those around him to shine, and the same can be said of Ringhio in management. He always gave as good as he got while fiercely striving for perfection. “I never want to lose,” Gattuso claims, “even playing football against my son.”

Gattuso has spent the last five years trying to prove himself, not only as a man worthy of leading the illustrious AC Milan, but as someone who is more than what they are perceived to be at surface level. “Everybody in Milan remembers Gattuso as a fighter. It’s good for him because nobody expected anything else,” said Italian journalist Alessandra Bocci in an interview with Bleacher Report.

Sitting comfortably atop the combative colosseum that is the English Premier League, Pep Guardiola’s career thus far, in stark contrast to Gattuso, has been nothing but a tale of astonishing triumphalism.

It would be easy to disregard Guardiola’s extortionate success as something that has almost been handed to him on a silver platter. A graduate of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, Guardiola in 2008 inherited a Barcelona side that boasted the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Thierry Henry and the blossoming Lionel Messi. Looking back, it may be plausible to suggest that arguably the greatest team in club football history won 14 trophies from 19 competitions in the four years under Guardiola in spite of him, not because of him.

However, let’s not forget that this particular Azulgrana side Pep had inherited was far from melodic. Previously finishing third in LaLiga while falling victim to a remarkable Paul Scholes goal in the semi-finals of the Champions League, the demanding Catalan giants were now without a trophy in two seasons. With their recent lack of success and the decision to sell superstar Ronaldinho, Guardiola had a clean palette to remould Barcelona in his image.

Read  |  Pep Guardiola and the unrelenting game of fools

Like Gattuso, Pep was promoted to Barcelona’s first team from their youth side, and while only having been in charge for 12 months, he could not have been more prepared for the monumental task ahead. A product of the academy himself, both as a player and a coach, Guardiola had an intimate bond with the club, cultivated over two decades. Upon the announcement of Pep as the new boss, former Barcelona president Joan Laporta said that it would “ensure the continuity of the renewed football ideology that has led us to success.”

If you were to ask anybody with at least a mild interest in football what Barcelona’s style of play was, they would most likely respond without hesitation: “Tiki-taka.” Barcelona under Guardiola perhaps implemented the most recognisable style of play in world football, although the Spaniard hates the term, arguing tiki-taka is nothing more than “passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention.”

As explained in Guillem Balague’s book Barça, during his first training session as boss, Guardiola gathered his players in the basement of the hotel they were staying at in St. Andrews and would deliver a speech that would clearly and deliberately lay out his philosophy. “The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it. When we have the ball, we can’t lose it. And when that happens, run and get it back. That is it, basically.” The players would soon come to know what was expected of them and this set a precedent for the coming years. Rightfully, Guardiola is accredited with mastering this style of play during his time in the Catalan capital, however he was not the original architect.

Whenever asked about who inspired him as both a player and a coach, for Guardiola, there is only one answer: Johan Cruyff. “He was unique, totally unique … without him I wouldn’t be here,” Guardiola said in an interview with The Guardian. Pep was an integral part of Cruyff’s Dream Team. Acting as an anchor alongside the likes of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman, it was here that Pep would come to learn how he wanted his teams to play.

In 1988, after becoming manager of Barcelona, Cruyff said: “This is what we are going to do: the ball will be the starting point, I want to dominate possession and I will always go out to win, which means it forces my players to conquer the ball, to have it and not lose possession of it.” Cruyff revitalised a stagnant Barcelona side, not just in how they played, but also with their results after winning a first LaLiga title in 14 years.

Reserved and modest, Guardiola would absorb everything his mentor would teach him. Total Football became synonymous with Cruyff’s Barcelona and planted the seeds for what was to become one of the most successful and aesthetically pleasing sides in history.

Pep decision to bring Pedro and Serio Busquets through La Masia and into the first team – while signing Gerard Piqué from Manchester United – alongside the already cemented Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol, would ensure there was a strong contingent of Barcelona B graduates in his side, which would later heavily influence the all-conquering Spanish national teams from 2008 to 2012. The Spanish squad that won the nation’s first  World Cup included no less than nine players who had been a part of La Masia.

After Florentino Pérez’s took over as president of Real Madrid in 2000, Los Blancos were catapulted into a brand new era, famously known as Los Galácticos. Luís Figo secured a shock move from Barcelona for a world record fee of €62m, which was broken a year later by the current manager of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane.

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Zidane would become emblematic of the club’s values during his five years with Real. Already considered one of the greatest players of the 20th century, winning the Ballon d’Or in 1998, Zidane would represent Madrid across the globe with his sublime elegance, which would define the club in the new millennium. Real Madrid’s policy would become known as ’Zidanes y Pavones’ – a nod to blending foreign stars with homegrown talents.

Fast forward a decade since that infamous World Cup final in 2006 and Zizou is announced as the new manager of Real Madrid having previously managed Castilla. Having been with the club for just over two years, Zidane has already become their fourth most successful manager of all-time, winning eight trophies including the Champions League for two consecutive years, the first time this has been done since AC Milan in 1990.

Zidane continues to honour the ’Zidanes y Pavones’ policy so affectionately named after he and academy graduate Francisco Pavón. Stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale can be seen playing alongside Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez, who graduated from La Fábrica.

Real Madrid’s league form this season would have seen any other man sacked from hot seat, just as Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benítez were before, but such is Zidane’s connection with the club and the fans, he has been given extra time in order to steady the rocking ship.

Zidane has always been part of the fabric at Madrid since his arrival in 2001. Even before he signed for them as a player, the marketing team at Real found that he was the most respected player by Madrid fans across all five geographic zones that the club surveyed. During interviews before becoming coach, the club seemed to acknowledge that Zidane was the perfect candidate. After playing for Los Blancos at the highest level, and coming through coaching their youth team, he knows all about the pressures and expectations placed on him to succeed.

One story Steven G. Mandis tells in his book The Real Madrid Way: How Values Created the Most Successful Sports Team on the Planet is how at the end of his playing career, Zidane knew that he was past his peak. Instead of staying for another season in order to collect the millions of euros he was entitled to, Zidane chose to retire, giving up the money and therefore leaving a squad place for a young player.

Today in management, Zidane continues his legacy at Madrid not just through his victories, but also through his demeanour, his quiet grandeur and emotionless moments of brilliance. As Mandis says: “There is no better example of a player living up to the mission and values of the community.”

Management is perhaps the hardest job in football. Not because of the tactics or pressure, but rather because it’s about establishing out how to make your mark as the figurehead of a club with a long history and modern, demanding fans. How can one man live up to the expectations of not only his superiors but millions of fans across the globe? Some are just more prepared than others, and smart ex-players like Gattuso, Guardiola and Zidane have the unique perspective of learning from the greats and being able to impart that knowledge to the rest. It’s why they’ve succeeded and other legends fail.

By David Verman  

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