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“The Best Coaches don’t play.” Does this ring true in the footballing world?

When you hear the phrase “coaches don’t play” being thrown around in casual conversation it is often the *witty* response of your single friend when asked how they came up with the gem of dating wisdom they just gave you, given that their own love life is non-existent. However, does this phrase have any truth when applied to the sporting context from where it originated? Although the player-turned-manager trope is present in all sports, such figures are nowhere more heavily scrutinised than in the world of football, and so one must wonder whether being a successful professional at the top-level damages your ability to reach the same heights as a manager.

To find examples of former high-level players who have turned their hands unsuccessfully to coaching, one needs to look no further than the Premier League. Amongst the victims of the record 12 sackings that have befallen managers in the top flight so far this season are two of England’s most successful former players, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Both had incredible playing careers at the very top of the game. Lampard appeared 894 times at professional club level, winning 13 major trophies, and he remains Chelsea’s all-time leading goal scorer despite not being a striker. His national team teammate Steven Gerrard, who too won over 100 caps for England, had a similarly impressive career, making 749 club appearances and winning 11 major trophies with Liverpool.  The most notable of these was the UCL in 2005, where he captained his team and scored the first goal in a comeback from 3-0 down which eventually saw Liverpool win on penalties.

Despite these hugely successful playing careers, however, neither have matched this performance as coaches. Lampard has had rather underwhelming spells in charge at Derby County, where he narrowly missed out on play-off promotion to the Premier League in 2019, Chelsea, who sacked him after just a year and a half in charge, and Everton. Although he saved Everton from the drop at the end of last season, Lampard was sacked in January of this year following a winless run of 10 games in all competitions, with Everton staring down the barrel of yet another relegation battle. Chelsea losing their first four games under his new stewardship as caretaker manager until the end of this season does not suggest any change to his disappointing coaching form. Gerrard did enjoy some success in his first role as a manager with Glaswegian club Rangers, leading them to a Premiership title in the 20/21 season and so ending their rivals Celtic’s 9-year reign as Scottish Champions. He moved on to Aston Villa in November 2021 where he lasted less than a year, sacked after Villa won just 2 of their first 11 games this season and a measly 32% of all games under his management. Both of these incredibly successful footballers have clearly struggled to make a triumphant transition to management and so join other high-profile English ex-players such as Wayne Rooney and the Neville brothers in failing to emulate the success of their playing careers.

Since evidently, successful players don’t always cut it as coaches, this begs the question why? Does the weight of expectation placed on a player-turned-coach add a level of pressure that is simply unfeasible, or is there some aspect of approaching the game with a purely managerial mindset that makes some coaches more successful? The latter can definitely be said in the case of Stade Reims’ Will Still. Only 30 years old, Still is the youngest manager in Europe’s top five leagues and was unbeaten in his first 17 league games in charge at Reims and has only tasted defeat twice in all competitions since. Still credits the video simulation game ‘Football Manager’ as influencing him to become a coach, and the relatability of this story has endeared him to football fans around the world. Shockingly, Still does not have a UEFA Pro licence, a coaching qualification which any manager in Europe’s major professional leagues is required to have. This means that his club Reims is fined €22,000 per game that Still manages, which they continue to happily pay given his side’s excellent form so far this season. Still’s unusual route into management must have given him a unique managerial perspective on the game, and moreover, the lack of expectation surrounding an unknown coach taking charge of an unassuming club like Reims has enabled him to thrive as a manager without being subject to intense media scrutiny.

The correlation between an unassuming playing career and a successful managerial one is further demonstrated by two coaches at the top of European football, Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) and José Mourinho (AS Roma). Neither had football careers at the top level. Klopp made nearly 350 appearances for Mainz 05 in Germany’s second division, and Mourinho made most of his 94 professional appearances in Portugal’s lower tiers. Both are now wildly successful managers. Klopp most notably restored Liverpool to the throne of English and European football, winning the UCL and Premier League in consecutive seasons in 2019 and 2020, and Mourinho has won 39 major trophies as a coach and is the only manager in football history to have won all 3 of UEFA’s European competitions.

Whilst one could attribute their managerial success to an approach to football uncorrupted by a high-level playing career, I think that it is more a question of pressure. Coaches such as Mourinho, Klopp and even Still have gained fame because of their success in management in the same way that Lampard and Gerrard did as players, and so were left completely unburdened by the expectation and pressure of the media when starting out. Even football’s other most successful managers Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola avoided this pressure when they became coaches, although both had far more successful playing careers than either Klopp or Mourinho. This is because, despite their success, they never reached the heights of players like Lampard and Gerrard in terms of both achievement and status, with these two being figureheads of England’s golden generation of footballing talent. Starting a coaching career out of the scrutinising spotlight of the media allows a new manager to slowly develop and gain invaluable experience as an assistant coach to other successful managers, something that all four of football’s highest-achieving managers have in common. Mourinho’s father, his head coach at Rio Ave, even used his son as a scout whilst he was still a player, exposing him at an early stage to the perspective of a successful manager. Lampard and Gerrard both bypassed the opportunity to develop this crucial backroom experience, pressured into accelerating their managerial careers by an over-expectant and impatient media and so have left themselves unequipped to deal with world-class opposition or a bad run of form.

Whilst no one is saying that “the best coaches never play”, it does seem to be the case that those ruling the current footballing landscape were not the most successful players and were very careful to transition gradually from the vastly different worlds of playing and coaching. The lack of pressure and expectation on these highly successful managers at the start of their careers makes a good parallel to your advice-giving friend. Their lack of experience in “the game” means that you don’t expect them to know what they’re talking about, and so they have the time to study and expand their wisdom out of the spotlight before finally blessing you with the sage relationship insights you could not do without.

Image credits: U.S. Embassy London//CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

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