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What does it take to be a football manager in the 21st century?

The evolution of football managers

Being a football manager has been described as one of the loneliest jobs in sport. From a very simple perspective, the manager picks the starting eleven and makes substitutes throughout the game. Easy right? Ask any manager in the world and they’ll tell you that’s far from the truth. Much like the sport itself, being a manager in football has evolved over the years and the responsibilities that come with the role are greater and more complex than ever. So how are things different now?

Over the years, football has obviously evolved, and we’ve seen many different playing styles adopted by different teams, some bringing more success than others. In the past, it could be argued that the role of a manager was to field the “strongest” eleven in order to win the game. This could often rely on giving the ball to the best players and seeing what magic they could conjure with possession of the ball. A similar tactic is sometimes adopted in basketball, especially in clutch situations towards the end of a game. Also in the NFL, where the quarterback is heavily responsible for the plays being called and a large portion of the team’s success is based on how good their quarterback is.

Of course, the players aren’t solely responsible for the outcome of games, and definitely not just one player in particular. This is a tactic adopted across many sports to this day, allowing your best players to influence the game in the best way that they can. However, there is drawbacks to this tactic. What if your star player isn’t performing? Or injured? In a team sport, such as football, you need to win games regardless of who is on the pitch, and managers began to develop defensive and attacking tactics and gameplans. Drilling players to defend as a team, reducing the oppositions chances of scoring, and attacking with fluidity, creating goalscoring chances at the other end of the pitch.

Over the years we’ve seen rapid growth in the variation of tactics used and managers now will often bring their own “identity” to a team, which seems to be a crucial part of any of any footballing project now, and also one of football’s favourite buzzwords in recent years. A manager is now required to have a detailed style of play, how they want to approach a game of football and which players best suit their style of play.

Pep Guardiola is highly regarded as one of the best coaches of all time, and his Catalonian influence and La Masia upbringing at Barcelona helped birth his managerial approach. Inverted fullbacks, high-pressing wingers and dominance in possession has proven to be very successful for the now Manchester City boss, after trophy-laden spells as manager of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Having the opportunity to learn from, play with and be coached by some of football’s greatest icons has helped Pep create a deadly winning formula that has seen him win multiple league titles at every club he’s managed.

Fellow Premier League manager, Antonio Conte, also has a unique identity that he brings to his sides, including his current club, Tottenham Hotspurs. The animated Italian always brings a passionate performance to the touchline, but he prefers his sides to take a more pragmatic approach. Conte almost always plays with three central defenders, and two wing-backs. He allows his teams to sit back and soak up pressure, before springing into counterattacks led by his three attackers. Some may consider his tactics a little defensive, but there’s no denying the success he’s had as a manager. After an impressive playing career that included five Serie A titles and a Champions League trophy, Conte’s managerial career has so far seen him add four more Serie A titles with Juventus and Inter, and also picking up a Premier League and FA Cup medal during his time at Chelsea.

The role of a manager has developed into much more than selecting the strongest team. The manager sets the tone for the entire club and demands high standards from all players and staff. The impact of a good manager cannot be underestimated, just look at the work Erik ten Hag has done so far at Manchester United this season. He has been able to transform an underperforming squad into an impressive and resolute team, whilst eradicating the lingering bad attitude that surrounded the club in the post-Ferguson era.

Breaking the mould? UEFA requires all professional managers to have the highest-recognised coaching certificate, but that hasn’t stopped one manager from making the headlines in recent weeks. Will Still, 30, was born to English parents in Belgium, and became interested in the popular video game, Football Manager. His passion for the game saw him pursue coaching roles in Belgium’s lower leagues and his success transpired to the real world. Working his way up, he was incredibly appointed first team manager of Ligue 1 side, Reims in October after a spell as assistant manager. The club are now unbeaten in their last 12 matches, a run that was extended thanks to a last-minute equaliser against French champions, PSG. However, as Still does not yet hold the required coaching certificates, Reims are fined £22,000 every time he manages them. A price they are happy to pay given the recent success he has brought to the team. Still could be a trailblazer for hopeful managers and coaches looking to break into the industry.

The job of a football manager has never been as easy one, but perhaps now the role is harder than ever, with so many factors and approaches to consider. The game is becoming more advanced and competitive all the time, meaning managers are afforded less time than ever to get it right. We see so much managerial turnover where, sadly, the managers are the first to go if the team are struggling. This makes the job of successful managers even more impressive when they have managed to get it right under extremely difficult circumstances. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a good manager and appreciate the work they have done. Whether they’re a title-winning disciple of Johan Cruyff or a Football Manager enthusiast, it’s never an easy job.

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