Playing is not coaching: A talk on why so many great footballers struggle as coaches and the possibilities for them to become great coaches.
Increasingly, footballers are making two brave, nonconformist steps – one enforced, the other deliberate – as they head into the next stage of their careers. First, as they go into retirement, they step away from the spotlight. And second, as they enter into management, they step into the unknown.
The transition from player to coach is more than a change of role or duties; it implies a change of mindset, perspective, status. Footballers are used to having their routines laid out for them and being looked after by others. Managers, by contrast, have to look out for themselves and paint their own path on a blank canvas. From executing, to deciding. From being actors, to being directors.
There is no conventional route that those who once made a name for themselves on the pitch take to replicate their successes on the sidelines. There never is a guarantee of quality, even if the cases are growing in number.
What their initial footprints are greatly depend on the opportunities that present themselves. Some are fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to land their dream job from the very moment in which they decide to shift into coaching, an offer that is irresistible despite they have to later accept the consequences.
See Andrea Pirlo coaching Juventus. Others prefer to start at the very bottom and climb up the ladder. Víctor Valdés (Former Barcelona Goalkeeper), for instance, began his new journey in charge of the U19s of the very humble Madrid-based Escuela Deportiva Moratalaz.
Generally, renowned former players prefer to choose a medium-sized team out of the vast array of options that are offered to them. That can be a first-division team outside the main five leagues in Europe but that has high aspirations, a mid-table first-division team of a top league, a strong second-division team of a top league, a youth side in an important academy. For example look at Steven Gerrard at Rangers and look how far he has brought them to winning the Scottish League in just two seasons in charge. We can we say the same for Xavi Hernandez at Al Sadd.
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Should not great footballers aspiring to be great coaches test themselves at smaller clubs before moving to elite clubs?
The alternatives are multiple for them, and this is the line many opt to follow in order to test themselves before earning a bigger job through their own merits rather than their fame.
Most legends are perpetually linked to a European giant that they aim at coaching one day, having triumphed there during their playing years. Pirlo to Juventus (currently coaching there), Xavi Hernández and Valdés to Barcelona, Steven Gerrard to Liverpool, Frank Lampard to Chelsea (which already happened and he is been sacked already), Zidane to Real Madrid (currently coaching there), Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, or Real Sociedad, or. The list is becoming endless.
Their notoriety is such that some don’t even need to move a finger to attract the offers that other mortals could only dream of achieving. Going straight to their boyhood club or that which has an important place in their heart is a train many can’t let escape
How could Pirlo say no to Juventus? Or Lampard to Chelea? At the same time, the disappointment and after effects can be enormous if they get their dream appointment at the beginning but fail to succeed in it, which is normal due to their lack of experience.
There is no secret recipe for what works and doesn’t, but an intermediate step before landing into more glamorous venues appears like a sensible and realistic choice from the outside. Liverpool’s U18s and Rangers, Derby County, Real Sociedad B etc.
There’s also a difference between coaching a youth side and a leading first team in Scotland, for example. The former may demand less immediate results but more invisible work on the long-term benefits that will be reaped; in the latter, there is more local and national pressure to make an instant impact and have an eye on the day-to-day affairs.
The Xabi Alonso’s case of rejecting to become a Borussia Mönchengladbach coach now and his possibilities to be a great coach in future.
A combination between the academy outlook and the bigger challenges of a senior squad can provide a very enriching experience for these up-and-coming managers. And this is why Xabi Alonso’s path in management so far has seemed a shrewd and exemplary one.
Sanse or commonly called Real Sociedad’s reserves, have given him the platform to prove himself before deserving a move to a higher division. In his two years there, his team has only improved and La Real are a club with a marked culture of relying on youth – which makes Xabi’s tasks far from unimportant.
Borussia Mönchengladbach appeared the perfect switch for everyone involved. Real Sociedad have a project for many years to come with Imanol Alguacil, while Mönchengladbach are in need of a replacement to Marco Rose, who will be departing to Borussia Dortmund.
Trusting a big name, but which is smart, has put the graft in and also knows the league and the language, sounded like very astute business by Gladbach. This would establish them as a club who gives opportunities to young tacticians, and would be totally aligned with the current mantra and open-mindedness of the Bundesliga to progress through new and innovative prospects.
In the end, Xabi Alonso will not be moving to the Borussia Park, as he has instead chosen to extend his contract with Sanse until 2022. That is his personal decision, and in these cases, there is no one better to judge when the time is right than the coach himself.
Finer details may be imperceptible from an external point of view, but often, it is better to wait until being fully prepared than half prepared, even if it means rejecting some very enticing proposals.
How much experience do young managers need before taking over at Madrid, Barça, Liverpool or Chelsea?
Again, it depends. It is typical for former teammates of these to say “we all knew he would become a good coach. He was already coaching when he was playing” – which is what ex-Liverpool attacker Luis García expressed on Xabi.
And I am among those who consider that if someone, like Xavi, has the intelligence and the conviction on the style he wants to implement, success will end up coming for him at Barcelona regardless of the time.
Pep Guardiola needed a single year at Barça B before winning the treble with Barcelona. Since, he has admitted that he has evolved and has continued to hone his man-management skills, with his ever-perfectionist and restless mind. But no culé would dare to say he was any less prepared to succeed Frank Rijkaard and make the bold changes he considered necessary.
All managers, including Pep, will make many mistakes along the way. Some will be easy to fix, others will get them the sack; their capacity to learn from them will determine whether these errors hold them back, or help them fulfil their entire potential.
Here, credibility plays a major role. Credibility, or showing the sufficient clarity and knowledge to drive their club forward, is what will earn them trust and more margin for manoeuvre.
Coaches should look like masters, but they must always think of themselves as apprentices. For them, handlers of improvement, stepping stones never end.
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