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Five Top Soccer Players Who Became Great Coaches

| September 17, 2020 6:42 am PDT
xBest Soccer Players that Became Top Coaches

Most soccer coaches played the game at some level before going into their present jobs. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a good coach has to have had played the game at the very highest level. Although a deep knowledge of the game is obviously essential, there are vastly different skillsets needed for both careers.

But some of the top coaches in the world today also enjoyed the limelight as players and have been able to use the skills and talent that they used on the pitch to good effect in the dugout.

Here are the five best soccer players who later became top coaches.

Zinedine Zidane

The way the France international’s playing career ended, there were not many who thought that the quiet midfield genius would be able to translate his talents into a coaching role. But Zinedine Zidane has become one of the most successful in recent times.

For those of you who may have forgotten, Zidane’s final act as a player was to head-butt Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final.

As a player, Zidane starred for Juventus and finished his career at Real Madrid. So it was no surprise that he remained connected to the Spanish club after hanging up his boots. His work as an advisor and in an ambassadorial role seemed obvious, but he also transitioned into coaching and took over the Real Madrid Castilla role in 2014. His two years as reserves coach laid the groundwork for the move up, and when Rafa Benitez was sacked at the beginning of 2016, Zidane took over.

He was immediately successful as a coach for Los Blancos. Although he couldn’t stop Barcelona winning the league that season, he did oversee the end of a 39-game unbeaten run from the bitter rivals and led Real Madrid to Champions League triumph over Atletico at the end of the season.

In his first full season in charge, Zidane repeated the Champions League success and also led Real Madrid to the La Liga title. Super Cups and World Club Cups also came his way before an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League victory against Liverpool in 2018.

But after all that success, Zidane stepped down as head coach at the end of the 2017/18 season, saying there was a need for change at the club. Just ten months later, he was back in the job, however. After a string of disappointing results and cup exits, Real Madrid looked to Zidane to bring stability back.

His pragmatic and unrushed approach to management immediately benefitted Real Madrid and they went on to win the title in 2019/20 season.

Pep Guardiola

Like Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola began his managerial career at the club that had been his home for a large part of his playing years, Barcelona. He also took over the B team at the Catalan organization as his first coaching job. But unlike Zidane, Guardiola always seemed destined to be one of the finest managers that the soccer world has ever known.

In his playing days, Guardiola tended to operate as a deep-lying midfielder that dictated the flow of the game. He learned from one of the other masters of the game, Johan Cruyff, and was eager to put his tactical ideas into practice once his career on the pitch ended. He brought immediate success to the B team, but after just one season, he was promoted to first-team manager at Barcelona.

His success was just as instant as Zidane at Real Madrid. That first season brought the treble to the club. The La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League titles went to the Catalans, and Guardiola became the youngest-ever manager to win the European competition. He had also been unafraid to let established players leave the club to bring in his own ideas on how the team should play.

Guardiola was unable to repeat the Champions League triumph the next season, but his tactics had started to make Barcelona the most skillful club on the planet. Retaining possession and pressing became a Blaugrana calling card, and midfielders such as Xavi and Iniesta were the best examples of Guardiola’s tactical genius.

After four seasons and 14 trophies, Guardiola left his beloved Barcelona and eventually ended up at Bayern Munich. His trophy haul didn’t end, with the Bavarian club winning the Bundesliga in each of the three seasons he was in Germany. But the most coveted prize, the Champions League, remained out of reach.

Since joining Manchester City in 2016, the trophies have continued to be won. Domestic league and cup titles have stacked up as his tactics have evolved even further.

Kenny Dalglish

As a player at Celtic and Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish won just about everything there was to win. Domestic league and cup titles poured in, and he was also instrumental in Liverpool’s rise to ascendency on the European stage during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He is remembered as one of the best ever players for Liverpool and now has a stand at the ground named in his honor. But his managerial career was just as impressive.

As with some of the other greats, the coaching stage of his life began at the club where he was most well known as a player, taking over as play-manager at Liverpool in 1985.

Like Zidane and Guardiola, he was instantly successful. A league and cup double was achieved in his first season. But the next campaign brought no new silverware, and Dalglish was forced to shake up the squad. His new arrivals would go on to be arguably one of the best Liverpool teams in history.

Bringing in players such as John Aldridge, John Barnes, and Peter Beardsley, Dalglish guided Liverpool to the league title, and only Wimbledon’s famous victory in the surprising 1988 FA Cup final ended the dreams of another double. After bringing legend Ian Rush back to the club in the summer, Liverpool won the cup the next year but lost the league title to Arsenal on the last day of the season. Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager in February 1991 with the club top of the league.

His next move was a bit of a surprise as he joined second-tier Blackburn Rovers, which was transforming into one of the top clubs thanks to a wealthy owner. He took the club up to the new EPL and, thanks to the influx of top players, won the league title in 1995. Dalglish became just the fourth manager in history to lead two different clubs to top-flight English championships.

His next move to Newcastle United became possibly the only period of failure in Dalglish’s career, although there were some memorable Champions League games under his tenure.

His managerial career ended as his playing career had begun, with a stint at Celtic before a return to Anfield. There was limited success at both clubs, with the job in Scotland lasting just one year and Liverpool going through a transitional phase with owners and playing staff.

Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti is the current manager at Everton in the English Premier League, but with all due respect to that club, he has coached at most of the biggest clubs in the world during his career. As a player, he starred for Roma and Milan after starting life with Parma and picked up a whole host of Italian honors, as well as winning the European Cup twice with the Rossoneri.

But even with such a glittering playing career, Ancelotti has really excelled as a coach. As is often the way in Italy, he started further down the pyramid at Reggiana, which he guided to promotion to the top flight in the season he was at the club.

That success was noted by his former club Parma, where he oversaw Champions League qualification and brought through stars of the future such as Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro.

Although he was criticized for being inflexible with his tactics in the early years of management, preferring to use a strict 4-4-2 formation that worked so well for Arrigo Sacchi when Ancelotti was a player at Milan, he became far more adaptable as his coaching career really took off. It was this ability to change that developed the careers of a number of top players and gave him success at Juventus and Milan before his move to England in 2009.

Chelsea had been enduring a period of instability, but Ancelotti was able to win the Premier League in his first season, with his team breaking all kinds of goal-scoring records along the way. The FA Cup was also won that year.

He then spent a season and a half at Paris Saint-Germain, bringing another Ligue 1 title to the club before joining Real Madrid at the beginning of the 2013/14 season.

Once again, Ancelotti adapted his tactics and formation to work with new players, and it paid off with Real Madrid’s tenth Champions League triumph at the end of the season. It had been the first time Los Blancos had lifted the famous old trophy since 2002.

There was no success in La Liga, however, and Ancelotti was let go at the end of the 2014/15 campaign. Before arriving at Everton, there were also spells in charge of Bayern Munich and Napoli in his home country.

Diego Simeone

The former Argentina midfielder played for a number of top clubs in his career but is most well-known for his combative displays for Atletico Madrid, Lazio, and Inter. His disciplined style of play and leadership qualities shone throughout his career on the pitch, and he has taken a similar approach into management.

After finishing his playing days back home in Argentina, Simeone managed a number of teams in the top division there, including Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate, and San Lorenzo. Even in his early coaching jobs, he was noted for the ability to instill complete loyalty in his players and ensure that they would do anything for him and the team.

There was a short-lived spell at Catania in Italy (where he helped the club avoid relegation) before another brief stint at Racing, and then the big move to Atletico Madrid in Spain’s La Liga. In a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, Simeone has turned the club into a viable third option for league and cup success.

Atletico has won the Europa League and made the final of the Champions League on two occasions. But it is possibly the La Liga title in 2014 that Simeone should be most proud of. It was the first time that the club had won the league since 1996, when Simeone was still playing in the famous red and white stripes.

Simeone has made Atletico Madrid known for its strong defensive units and has sometimes been criticized by other coaches — usually ones that have just been knocked out of competitions by his team — for focusing on that element of the game.

He has now managed over 450 games for the club and is as near to an Atletico Madrid legend as you could possibly get.

Final Words

Even with the bulging trophy cabinets these managers have provided the clubs they have been in charge of, they have all had their fair share of criticism over the years. Pep Guardiola, in particular, has been accused of only winning titles because of the players he has had at his disposal, the argument being that anyone could coach Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City to victory.

Although it would be fascinating to see whether any of these managers could take a soccer minnow to success, there is a very good reason why they have won as a player and a coach. The ability to lead other highly talented soccer players is not as easy it looks, and they all have worked on their adaptability to gain the best results wherever they have been.

Not all top soccer players turn out to be world-beating coaches. But these five have shown that is possible.

One my colleagues recently wrote about the increase in former players managing EPL clubs. Could some of the latest new coaches be the next to go on to great things?

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is an experienced freelance writer specialising in sports and sports betting. He is particularly knowledgeable about world soccer, but also writes about football, basketball and cricket.

As a fan of Nottingham Forest, New York Knicks, Minnesota Vikings and New York Mets, Dan has not had much to celebrate recently.

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