Who is a Good Coach? What Makes a Coach Great?
I know we all watch football for the thrills the players give us; the goals, dribbles, skills, wins, etc, but behind all of that is one individual that puts it all together, that prepares the team for games and the output you see on TV or in the stadium; the coach.
The players are the artists and rightly so, but there is an important conductor, organizer, and think-tank and he is super important to how successful a football team will be on the pitch. So what makes a good coach? What qualities must he have to be good at what he does? What makes him better than another coach if a comparison is made? And if he is good at what he does, what must he then accomplish in other to be considered great?
I like to think of myself as an ardent student of the game, and over many years, I have studied lots of coaches on a deep level ( even coaches that were active before my time )..What systems they used, what qualities they had, what made them successful, etc. This write up is a summary of all I've learned, plus a reflection of how I see football coaching.
So what are the qualities of a good coach? First off, it is imperative the coach understands he is a leader ( same as the manager of a team in an organization, CEO of a company, etc ) and one of the most important things you have to do as a leader is to pick the right team. In any setting( football, company, business, etc ), how do you pick the right team for the goals you want to accomplish? There are 3 qualities I always look for;
1- Someone that believes in your dreams and goals 100%
2- Someone who is capable of getting things done ( either through ability, sheer will, or both )
3- Someone you can trust
Let's say you have the dream of building the tallest skyscraper in the world, and you want to assemble a support team, the reactions of people when you tell them is your first cut off point.
Person A: Tallest skyscraper? Are you mad mate? *laughs*. Don't waste your time, it's impossible.
Person B: How high do you want it? When are we starting?
Right off the bat you will have to stay as far away from A and get B on your team because he believes. B can now fall into if he also has the ability ( maybe architecture or civil engineering) or if he doesn't, can get on the phone with architects and make things happen ( sheer will ), or both. Either version of B is who you want on your team.
As a football coach, you need players that buy into your dreams/goals, your principles, your methods, your mentality, and your abilities, 100%. It makes everything easier. Football is not as cut and dry as the example I gave earlier, in that most times you will meet a group of players at a club; it then falls on you to sell your dreams/goals and get them to give you 100%.
You're like a bank manager managing different personalities, egos, etc and trying to get them all tied into your ideas. You have to make everyone feel important, have to make them feel like they are all contributing to a cause, have to make them support you and be willing to go the extra mile. You have to know how to motivate each one in their own different way, you have to understand each and every one of your players( those that need a soft hand, those that need a hard hand or need to be screamed at, those who are gentle, those who are more outgoing, etc ), and most importantly, you must always be the boss ( at all times).
My number 1 rule in terms of football systems is to pick a system or formation according to the characteristics of the players you have available. If you can't, then you have to buy players who will fit into your preferred system. Either ways, you need players who are capable and have the right quality, or at least a minimum amount of quality.
If your available tools aren't high quality, and you don't have funds, then you have to try and improve each individually to an extent in which the sum total of the group becomes more effective as a result of the system you have set up, and how you have brought out the best in the players. ( Sir Alex Ferguson was a master at this, and at leadership, and at motivation )
In terms of buying, ability and fit is the primary determinant, but attitude, mentality, etc of the player is very important. For example, most times before a player is bought for Juventus, the mentality is scrutinized; Is he a winner? Does he have the right attitude? How does he react to setbacks? There is a Juventus core quality that encompasses all of these and the player must be in tune ( ideally ) before being brought in. As a good coach, you have to buy players who are not only able to play, but also who are on the same page as you are mentality wise.
Goes without saying, you need players you can trust on so many levels; players that will back you in difficult times and still believe in you, players that will always give their all on the pitch and off it, etc. How can you get this from them? Goes back to your initial ability to motivate and the effect you had on them. That first time you got them to buy in your dreams, that initial inertia, how well you did it ( and how you maintained it ) determines how long and tough it will last.
On the football side, there are certain things a coach has to be able to do well;
Pre Game Management:
How do you prepare for a game? How do you set your team up to give them the best chance of winning. Are you going to be pro-active and impose your system? Are you going to be reactive? Or a mix? There is no hard and fast rule, but for me, a good coach can;
- Study his opponent, be aware of their individual and collective strengths, figure out ways to negate it, and exploit their weaknesses. (e.g Jose Mourinho, Max Allegri ). These types look at the quality of opponent and decide whether to be impose a system, or react to the opponent's system.
- 100% be pro active and always seek to impose his preferred style/system, regardless of strength/characteristics/quality of the opposition. He trust's in his system, and wants the opponent to worry about him, and not vice versa, every time. ( e.g Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff, LVG, Arrigo Sacchi ).
A good coach can be always pro-active, always reactive, or a mix depending on opponent, as long as the goal for that game is achieved ( a win or draw ). A good coach devises an effective system for his team. A very important ability of a good coach is improving players individually and getting them to function in a system that optimizes the characteristics/qualities of most of the players;this will then result in an optimal system for the whole team, and hopefully wins.
In Game Management:
What do you do when the game is not going according to plan? The other coach makes a change of player/system/formation? The opponent is getting the upper hand? The opponent surprised you with a different approach? You have a red card? The opponent has a red card? The opponent is targeting your weakness? etc. How do you recognize this during a game and adapt? Sub? Change of formation or approach? How do you manage the different momentum phases of a game? How do you manage at different scorelines? etc.
This is a very important way I can tell if a coach is good, and on the footballing side, it ranks very high on my list. It's the ability to analyze and adapt in real time, and it can make a big difference.
Other qualities a good coach should have are;
Knowing how to deal with the board well: How to get them to believe, invest in players for you, trust your judgment on things, back you when things are going bad, etc ).
How to deal with the media: Believe it or not this is important. The media shape narratives and this can put pressure on a club, players, owners, etc. Knowing how to use this to your advantage is important. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho were masters at this.
These and more are qualities a good coach should have. As fans, most times we are not in the background to see most of the things I mentioned, but there is one way to judge; results. The wins, style of play, an effective system, or how the players give their all, the team spirit, the mood of the club, etc. These are things to tell a good coach has put in good work in the background.
When I look at a coach, the first thing I look at is his league titles record ( for coaches on a certain level/scale ). How many? A league competition is the most arduous test of all the coach's abilities. Months of playing everyone home and away in a league format will test your temperament, mentality, media relationship, board relationship, player relationship, leadership skills, your football systems and the effectiveness, pre-game management, in game management, etc.
A league win is the crowning glory of your sum total ability as a coach. A league title tells you the coach has done all I have mentioned, and done it well. A good coach wins a league title, an even better coach will make it a habit ( there are good coaches who haven't won league titles, or who never win league titles, I judge those on their scale/level alongside all the qualities I mentioned).
In summary, these are the primary parameters you use to accurately rate a coach, and use to compare with another:
(a) Pre-Game Management: Setting up an effective system to win games. One that optimizes the qualities of most of the players, which in turn optimizes the team as a whole, and leads to wins
(b) In-Game management: Ability to see and analyze real time game variations, and adjust accordingly
Ability to lead/handle pressure, pick the right team, motivate each member of the team, bring in team members who are not only able, but on the same page mentally, manage different personalities.
Improving individual players/bringing out the best in them.
Overall Goal? To win games. This should translate to trophies ( most especially league ) for clubs expected to challenge for titles ( the big ones with a certain level of resource/prestige/quality) or lead to other things for smaller clubs ( maybe staying up and not relegated, making top 10, etc ).
So if you want to compare coaches, look at all these qualities, and look at the output in terms of expected goals/targets for the teams levels. League titles( who has won more ), European Cups ( who has won more ), what's his record with improving players and having them flourish?
What's his buying record like in terms of successful buys? How effective ( "effective" is key here, and has nothing to do with what your eyes recognize as beauty) have his football systems been? How good is he in In-Game management? I'll let you Pep vs Jose armies get into this, or Bielsa vs Sarri armies, or Lippi vs LVG armies.
There are a lot of clear cut situations of a coach being better than another, but also, a lot of times its so close that it boils down to preference. Always remember to do a balanced comparison and recognize if it's preference, or a clear cut case.
But who is a great coach?
I've outlined what makes a good coach and how you can sort of compare coaches, but what must a coach do to be considered great? To be seen to have made a lasting impact/legacy on football? There are a few ways, one or more of these can get you greatness;
1-By Innovation: Innovation in terms of the football side. What new ideas can you implement that will give you a competitive advantage? Can you sit down and come up with a new type of system that will be different and effective? Tiki-taka possession overload in zones ( Pep when he first went to Barca ), Total football, Catenaccio, etc.
These are examples of innovation in terms of football systems. A great coach develops a system that sweeps all during a certain time period and stamps its place in history by virtue of the impact and extreme success in that period ( League titles and European Cups). Hellenio Herrera, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Arrigo Sacchi, and a few others who are associated with such impactful innovations are greats.
2-By Adaptation and Rebuilding in One Team: Football is ever changing, what you know to be working during a period, may not work 5 years later, so you have to adapt to different things. A great coach can adapt through many time periods of changes to football ( tactics, systems, players, etc ). The ability to constantly stay relevant, from generation to generation ( keep on winning on a consistent basis ) is greatness. Sir Alex Ferguson was the coach of Manchester Utd for 27 years, can you imagine adapting through different times and generations plus an ever changing football landscape for so long? While still winning? This is greatness.
This adaptation is heavily linked with the ability to rebuild teams. What do I mean by this?
I see clubs in "cycles". I'll start with a Winning Cycle; When a team is mentally, physically, and tactically at its peak. The players are a perfect mix of experience and youth, know how to win, and win. League titles, and most times a European Cup ( s ) to crown it. These winning cycles last on average 2-5 yrs. In this time, multiple trophies will be won( e.g Man Utd 2007-2011, Barca 09-11, Bayern Munich 2010-present, Juventus 2011- present, Juventus 95-98, Milan 1988-1994, Inter 2007-2010, etc ). There can also be winning cycles not crowned by a European Cup ( e.g Chelsea 04-07).
There is also what I like to call a Pre-Winning Cycle; That lean period where the team is in an upward trajectory , but not quite there yet. Players are maturing, tactics are coming together, etc. You can see the team steadily improving ( e.g Man Utd 2004-2007).
Then there is a Post Winning Cycle; After the winning cycle, players have reached peak motivation, won everything, some have reached their peak performance levels, etc. The team is pretty much spent, mentally and physically, it's like the top of a parabola facing downhill ( e.g Inter post 2010 ).
This post winning cycle is the HARDEST to manage. One of the most difficult things in football is rebuilding a team after a winning cycle. You have to start like a year or 2 before the winning cycle is over, identify those players that need replacing, buy replacements, blood those replacements in, so that in that yr or 2, they themselves are in a pre-winning cycle phase/mentality. You also have to constantly motivate your team, not easy because everyone is spent and has achieved everything, and let's not forget the tactical side of things.
When a coach moves, he goes to a team either
(a) In a Pre-Winning Cycle
(b) In a Winning Cycle
(c) Post Winning cycle
(a) and (b) are easier to manage. The big problem is maintaining winning and rebuilding to start winning again when you have been a part of the winning cycle. Pep Guardiola said he was spent; mentally, physically, etc after his first Barca spell, he left after the winning cycle, a lot of coaches do too. The constant management of a post winning cycle and rebuilding great teams for such a long period of time, all the while consistently competing for, winning, and staying relevant is the major reason I always say Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest coach to ever walk the face of the earth. Food for thought.
3- By Winning a High Volume of Trophies: All you do is win, win, win no matter what. Coach in the EPL;win, coach in the Serie A;win, coach in Portugal, Spain, France, etc and still win. Or stay in one country and win. Greatness can be attained by sheer volume of wins ( league titles or European Cups). Some managerial greats in terms of League Titles;
Marcelo Lippi : 5 ( In Europe )
Bob Paisley: 6
Louis van Gaal: 7
Hellenio Herrera: 7
Fabio Capello: 7 (*9)
Pep Guardiola: 6 ( * about to be 7 )
Jose Mourinho: 8
Ottmar Hitzfield: 9
Giovanni Trappatoni: 10
Sir Alex Ferguson: 16. SIXTEEN. Plus 1 First Division Title
As you can see, these greats were winners, multiple times; each with at least 5 League titles.
European Cup wins is another way to be a great. All the coaches I listed above have at least 1 Champions League/European Cup, and by virtue of his 3 in this, Carlo Ancelotti gets in.
In summary, there are good coaches, and you can use certain parameters to compare, and identify a good coach. There are also great coaches, who through a combination of certain things, have made their marks on our beautiful game. Not every good coach is a great, but every great is good.