“How can you coach top players without having been one?” he was asked.
“I never knew that to become a jockey you must first have been a horse.” José Mourinho gave a similar response when he was sneered at for being simply The Translator for Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal.
The accepted wisdom is still that old pros make the best managers. Now, however, a team of researchers in Germany has turned that argument on its head, at least as far as the Bundesliga is concerned.
“Teams whose manager has been a former professional player perform worse on average compared to managers without a professional player career,” they say.
Based at the University of Hamburg, Gerd Muehlheusser and his colleagues have carried out an exhaustive statistical analysis of more than 6,400 matches over 21 seasons, studying the performance of 116 named managers, from household names like Jupp Heynckes and Otmar Hitzfeld to relative unknowns such as Kurt Jara and Christian Streich.
The aim was to assess “the contribution of managers to organisational success”, and the good news for managers (and owners come to that) is that managers do make a significant difference.
Good ones do anyway.
Liverpool fans will be pleased to note that Jurgen Klopp is at the top of the ranking and that his contribution may have been worth almost half a point per game to his team.
By contrast some managers with an excellent performance measured simply by points per match look much less competent when other factors are taken into account.
“For example, Giovanni Trapattoni is ranked second using this simple procedure, while our empirical analysis suggests that his quality is below average.” Those keen on statistics can find a detailed account of the data and the analysis in the online edition of the Journal of Sports Economics (December issue) but the most controversial finding is mentioned almost in passing.
Overall, the researchers say, “the results provide evidence of the overrating of prominent names in the hiring process of managers.” Another way of looking at this is that “managers who have not been former star players themselves need to be substantially better coaches in order to secure a job as a head coach in the top leagues.” They perform better because they have had to serve their time with smaller clubs.
“In contrast, former professionals often start their manager careers directly in the Bundesliga or second division without any significant prior manager experience.”
Two examples they mention are Matthias Sammer, though he did win the title with Borussia Dortmund, and Jurgen Klinsmann, who flopped badly at Bayern Munich after a strong performance with the national team in the World Cup.
What about the current leading managers, both in Germany and elsewhere?
Measured simply on points per game there are some mixed results.
The current top six managers in the Bundesliga include Carlo Ancelotti (“my star pupil” according to Arrigo Sacchi); Niko Kovac, the former captain of Croatia, at Eintracht Frankfurt; and Pal Dardai at Hertha Berlin. All ex-internationals with great experience. However there is also the 29-year-old phenomenon Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, who basically has no playing experience at all.
Spain has four former stars in the top six, led by Zinedine Zidane, but also two managers who hardly played – Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla and Fran Escriba at Villarreal.
In Italy, Maz Allegri and Luciano Spalletti had respectable playing careers – but Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri worked in a bank and coached local amateur sides.
And in the Premier League you have Mourinho and Arsene Wenger (who played but at a modest level) alongside Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, both key men in midfield in their playing days.
One is that top clubs are becoming more critical about appointments. The other, to quote that man Sacchi again: “There’s no rule. The most important thing is having the desire to keep improving.”