Soccer's unsung managers: Bielsa, Rangnick and the revolutionaries without the trophies they deserved

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Why Lillo is the most influential coach people haven't heard of (2:22)

ESPN FC's Alexis Nunes and Alex Kirkland discuss Juanma Lillo's arrival at Man City as Pep Guardiola's No. 2. (2:22)

No matter what sport you follow, there are basically two lists of innovative coaches: the ones who pushed the game forward and won big because of it, and the ones who helped to modernize the sport but left the big wins to others. The Bill Walshes and Don Coryells in the NFL, the Phil Jacksons and Don Nelsons in the NBA, the Urban Meyers and Hal Mummes in college football.

The modern game of soccer is one of both speed and pragmatism. The richest clubs almost universally use the possession-heavy approach that has defined the day, but the extreme fitness and athleticism involved have opened up the possibilities for both pressing and mach-speed transitions.

While many of the coaches responsible for this slow evolution are recognized as both innovators and big winners -- Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Arrigo Sacchi and, of the more recent vintage, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp -- I'm more interested in the other list. Let's take a look at some of soccer's Hal Mummes, the guys whose fingerprints are all over today's game but, due to either personal flaws, bad luck or worse timing, didn't win enough, or for long enough, to earn the greatest of all time credentials that really make a legacy.

Jump to: Bielsa | Zeman | Allardyce | Lillo | Bilardo | Rangnick | Lobanovskyi


Marcelo Bielsa: The micromanager who makes teams better

Coaching career: 1990-present
Teams managed: Newell's Old Boys, Atlas, América, Vélez Sarsfield, Espanyol, Argentina national team, Chile national team, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio (for two days), Lille, Leeds United

Innovative idea: obsessive information gathering and micro-management

Playing for Bielsa is like getting your PhD. He's demanding, persnickety and obsessive; he will both wear you out and make you a much better, smarter player. He claims there are 29 distinct soccer formations and thinks you should learn them all. He believes in systematic, attacking soccer played out of any number of formations -- 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 3-3-3-1, etc. -- and he believes that every opponent is a puzzle to solve.

Bielsa has seemingly influenced nearly every modern, successful manager, from Guardiola (who has on multiple occasions called him the best manager in the world), to Champions League runners-up Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, to former Barcelona (Tata Martino) and Real Madrid (Santiago Solari) managers to national team managers like Eduardo Berizzo (Paraguay) and Jorge Sampaoli (until recently, Argentina). He is a tactical encyclopedia, and his reputation for obsessive scouting is such that, when he got caught sending a spy to watch part of a Derby County practice with Leeds in early 2019, he gave a lengthy and detailed PowerPoint presentation on basically why he's an information addict, and he was more or less forgiven. He served his punishment, and a year later, his reputation was 100% intact.

Bielsa's exhaustive approach has borne fruit -- at times. He won the gold medal with Argentina at the 2004 Olympics, he won a few Argentinian league titles with Newell's Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield, and in 2012, his Athletic Bilbao made both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals. And when play was stopped in March, he had Leeds United positioned to earn promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.

What held him back: obsession is exhausting. (Or maybe it has just been bad timing?)

His 2011-12 Bilbao squad was in fifth place in March and indeed reached two tournament finals; they finished 10th, then lost the finals by a combined 6-0 for good measure. His 2014-15 Marseille was in first place in Ligue 1 at the season's midway point and was only two points out of the lead late in March; they lost four matches in a row and finished fourth. His 2018-19 Leeds team was three points up for automatic promotion with four matches left; they generated one point from those four matches, fell into the promotion playoff and lost to Derby County, the team from Spygate.

Small sample size? Absolutely. Sheer randomness? Always a possibility. A pattern of late-season fades? Also possible. Bielsa's style is mentally and physically exhausting, so it would make sense if his teams ran out of gas short of the finish line.

Oh, and that's if he gets to the finish line at all.

Bielsa plays the role of the finicky perfectionist/temperamental artiste extremely well. He resigned as Chile's national coach after an unwanted result in a president-of-the-board election. He quit one match into his second season at Marseille because of disagreements with management. He quit Lazio after two days because he didn't like what he saw. He allegedly talked about leaving early in his Lille tenure, then got suspended and fired a couple of months into his first season.

Bielsa's coaching tree is lush and bountiful; he has left the long tenures and big wins to his mentees.


Zdeněk Zeman: Mr. All-Out-Attack

Coaching career: 1974-2018
Teams managed: Licata, Foggia (three times), Parma, Messina, Lazio, Roma (twice), Fenerbahce, Napoli, Salernitana, Avellino, Lecce (twice), Brescia, Red Star Belgrade, Pescara (twice), Cagliari (twice), Lugano

Innovative idea: weaponizing the 4-3-3 for maximum attacking potential

A journeyman's journeyman (and probably the closest thing to a true Mumme on this list), Zeman was on the move constantly through his four decades of coaching, and he only won three lower-level league titles, all in Italy: a third-division crown with Licata in 1985 and second-division wins with Foggia in 1991 and Pescara in 2012.

Zeman's coaching philosophy revolved around fitness, effort and angles. His name is commonly associated with the 4-3-3 formation -- four defenders, three midfielders, three attackers -- that would become rampant across the sport. He would deploy his fullbacks far up the pitch to provide width for what often amounted to three central forwards; at its best, his system produced goal totals unheard of in Italy, a country still known at the time for a defense-friendly Catenaccio style.

To prove the point, Zeman coached 11 seasons in Serie A -- his teams finished in the top three in goals scored eight times ... and in the bottom five in goals allowed six times.

What held him back: a lack of compromise

"A 0-0 is boring -- it's better to lose 5-4." That quote is attributed to a 2015 Zeman interview in Corriere dello Sport. Zeman was married to his vision of free-flowing, offensive football. That's fine, but it got him into trouble at times. Where the best teams know how to play for points at key times -- especially in Italy -- Zeman played for art, and his general, chain-smoking crankiness had him often blaming the players when the system failed.

As his career progressed, that refusal to deviate from his scheme became more and more of an issue. In another stint with Foggia in 2010-11, he failed to earn promotion with a team that scored and allowed the most goals in Serie B. Back with Roma in 2012-13, his Giallorossi scored the third-most goals and allowed the fourth-most, finishing a disappointing sixth overall. And in the Swiss Super League in 2015-16, his Lugano squad allowed the most goals by far and finished ninth of 10 overall.

There is romance in sticking to your guns and striving for goals and entertainment at all costs, but it's only part of a viable system. Zeman left the "winning with this system" part to others.


Sam Allardyce: The edge-seeker

Coaching career: 1991-2018
Teams managed: Limerick, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Sunderland, England national team, Crystal Palace, Everton

Innovative idea: cranky, brash old former players can adopt new sources of information, too

As a 6-foot-3, old-school, British journeyman defender -- over a 20-year playing career, his longest stints were at mid-level Bolton, Millwall and Preston North End -- Big Sam could be a pretty easy guy to typecast. But as manager at Bolton in particular, his willingness to adopt new techniques and sources of information, combined with the man-management techniques you'd expect, produced uncommon results. Simply put, Allardyce looked for advantages anywhere he could find them.

Unlike countless players-turned-coaches, he wasn't afraid of evolving. Allardyce adopted cryotherapy and tested the limits of loans, as well as the Bosman ruling that essentially introduced free agency to the sport. When a rule was changed, he looked at it as an opportunity, and at Bolton, he helmed one of the first clubs to fully adopt the use of analytics in its analysis.

After earning promotion to the Premier League in 2001, the Wanderers finished eighth, sixth, eighth and seventh from 2004-07, an accomplishment that might not have been fully appreciated until he left. He departed for Newcastle in 2007, Bolton fell to the second division in 2012 and, amid massive financial difficulties, fell to the third in 2019. They were destined to drop down to the fourth tier of English soccer when play was stopped in March.

What held him back: "Cranky and brash" aren't always good

Allardyce was a brilliant antagonizer and boat rocker, but he never quite found another home as fruitful as Bolton. He helped West Ham earn promotion in 2012, and briefly earned the job of England's manager before resigning after what we'll call a corruption/brashness scandal. But over time, as others adopted some of the techniques that he helped to pioneer, the advantages of hiring Big Sam shrank while the disadvantages remained.

In life, the traits that create your biggest strengths also create your biggest weaknesses. Big Sam exemplifies that, as do others on this list.


Juan Manuel Lillo: The man who made Pep Guardiola

Coaching career: 1981-present
Teams managed: Amaroz KE, Tolosa, Mirandés (twice), Cultural Leonesa, Salamanca, Oviedo, Tenerife, Zaragoza, Ciudad Murcia, Terrassa, Dorados Sinaloa, Real Sociedad, Almeria, Millonarios, Atlético Nacional, Vissel Kobe, Qingdao Huanghai. If you've got a small Spanish club, he has probably coached it.

Innovative idea: Unlocking the possibilities of both the 4-2-3-1 and Pep Guardiola

Known at one point as "El enfant terrible," Lillo has been a manager for nearly 40 years ... and is still only 54 years old. He took over a local club at 16 and was coaching in the Spanish fourth division by age 20. After earning promotion with Salamanca, he became the youngest ever La Liga manager at age 29.

Lillo met Guardiola in 1998, when the former was coaching Real Oviedo and the latter was still playing for Barcelona. Lillo was religious about player positioning, his teams playing the ball out from the back and the idea that attack and defense were linked. He passed those beliefs to Guardiola, both as a friend/mentor and, for a brief time, as his boss at Dorados Sinaloa in Mexico. Obviously he wasn't Guardiola's only influence -- some guy named Johan Cruyff had quite a bit of input, too, among others -- but attending the Lillo Finishing School seemed to complete Pep's vision.

Lillo's most lasting contribution, though, probably wasn't his mentoring of Guardiola -- it was his creation of the 4-2-3-1 formation, as much as a single person can create a formation, in the early 1990s, as a way to press high up the pitch while maintaining balance between offense and defense. By the next decade, the structure had proliferated just about everywhere and its inherent, almost indefatigable balance has allowed it to remain maybe the most widespread formation in the game.

What held him back: more of a visionary than a winner

Lillo enjoyed process over outcome. As he once told ESPN contributor Sid Lowe in The Blizzard, "What enriches you is the game, not the result. The result is a piece of data. The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that's enriching. Fulfilment comes from the process." A beautiful, PG-13 sentiment. Also, one that gets you fired a lot.

Basically, clubs from throughout Spain would hire him to share his ideas and install his vision, then hire someone else to try to actually win with it. (It rarely actually worked out that way.) He hasn't spent two full years at the same club since Salamanca. He did just help Qingdao Huanghai F.C. earn promotion to the Chinese Super League, however, and he's still young enough to continue contributing for a while longer.

It looks like he'll get a chance to do that, too: he'll soon be unveiled as Guardiola's new assistant at Manchester City according to ESPN sources.


Carlos Bilardo: Three at the back

Coaching career: 1971-2004
Teams managed: Estudiantes (four times), Deportivo Cali, San Lorenzo, Colombia national team, Argentina national team, Sevilla FC, Boca Juniors, Guatemala national team, Libya national team

Innovative idea: three-man defense

Bilardo is regarded as one of the fathers of the "three-in-the-back" approach that has enjoyed many moments in the sun over the past 40 years. Desperate for an edge as his struggling Argentina squad headed toward the 1986 World Cup, he deployed what amounted to a 3-5-2 as a way of pushing his wingers further up, offering wide attacking support and creating a spot for an extra playmaker. It also had the added benefit of heading off opposing wide midfielders operating out of a 4-4-2.

Before Bilardo's three-man success, it was almost an assumption that, however you deployed your other outfield players, you had to field four defenders.

With a vast amount of midfield talent and a playmaker by the name of Diego Maradona, this structure worked awfully well -- La Albiceleste beat Uruguay, England (famously), Belgium and West Germany to win their second World Cup in eight years. Four years later, they eked out a spot in the knockout rounds but upset Brazil and beat Yugoslavia and Italy in penalties to reach another final before losing to West Germany.

What held him back: it was only half an idea (and he didn't always have Maradona)

How does a World Cup winner and two-time finalist make a list of managers that supposedly didn't win as much as they could have? By barely winning anything else. The 1982 Argentinian Primera Division crown (with Estudiantes) and the World Cup were his only titles on record.

Thanks to the increasing pace of the average winger, the wide midfielders in a 3-5-2 end up stuck defending a good percentage of the time, which means you end up stuck in a 5-3-2 that makes creative attacking more difficult. Granted, Antonio Conte won the 2017 Premier League title at Chelsea with a three-man backline, but he had the perfect personnel for it: N'Golo Kante as a holding midfielder, Eden Hazard as a creative force. The average team can't find such perfect personnel.

Bilardo's 3-5-2 also exposed something not always acknowledged when talking about formations: no team really plays with a single formation at all times, at least not at the highest level. They are one thing in attack and another in defense. Using three men at the back while attacking is common with the likes of Guardiola and others, but most of those teams will figure out ways to transition back to a four-man back in defense. Again, you probably need particularly expensive and talented personnel to pull that off.


Ralf Rangnick: The godfather of modern German soccer

Coaching career: 1983-present
Teams managed: Viktoria Backnang, VfB Stuttgart II, TSV Lippoldsweiler, SC Korb, Reutlingen 05, Ulm 1846, VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96, Schalke 044 (twice), 1899 Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig (twice)

Innovative idea: the modern German style of soccer, more or less

In 2020, German soccer is commonly regarded as a youth-friendly brand associated with pressing, counter-attacking and generally optimistic play. It's an incredible thought considering that, 30 years ago, as the rest of the world was tinkering with the 3-5-2, the 4-3-3 or, soon, the 4-2-3-1, German football was still frequently played with a sweeper (one deep defender between the goalkeeper and everyone else). Germany is a country that is conservative by nature and progresses in sudden lurches. The man at the heart of this lurch spent a good portion of his career being considered an oddity.

In Mensch: Beyond the Cones, author and ESPN contributor Jonathan Harding calls Rangnick "one of the great innovators -- the Steve Jobs of German football." As much as anyone, Rangnick helped to create everything that is both entertaining and pervasive about German football. He was proselytizing about the press and counter-press as a small-club manager in the 1980s. Drawing clear influence from coaches like Zeman, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Ernst Happel (European Cup winner at Feyenoord and Hamburg) and über-influencer Arrigo Sacchi, he built an entire youth structure around his and mentor/right-hand man Helmut Gross' ideas as a VfB Stuttgart assistant in the early-1990s. And by the late-1990s, bigger opportunities finally began to present themselves.

Rangnick earned promotion for Hannover 96 in 2002 and double promotion for Hoffenheim in 2007 and 2008. His Schalke were Bundesliga runners up in 2005, and he helped the club to its first Champions League semifinal upon his 2011 return. He has proven adept in both a managerial role -- though he has, at times, worn out his players, his welcome and himself -- and, with RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, the broader role of sporting director. He has deeply influenced many of today's most intriguing managers: PSG's Thomas Tuchel, Southampton's Ralph Hasenhüttl, PSV Eindhoven's Roger Schmidt, Eintracht Frankfurt's Adi Hütter, and more. He and Klopp have long envisioned the game in the same way, too, as evidenced by the fact that Klopp's Liverpool have acquired so many Rangnick/Red Bull players.

Rangnick's vision of soccer is Germany's vision. He moved mountains to achieve that.

What has held him back (so far): timing and the right job

I once asked a college football coach why he took a certain head coaching job at a historically unsuccessful school. His response, paraphrased: "I don't know how many chances I'm going to get, and this job was available." I've long kept that in mind. Timing and opportunity make an immense difference in your career trajectory.

If you Google Rangnick's name and the name of most of Europe's preeminent clubs, you find him linked to them at one point or another. Most recently, he was linked to the Arsenal job in 2018 and Bayern's in 2019; he was also considered for a technical director-type position at Manchester United. But none of those quite came to pass. He has certainly made some enemies over the years, but his timing has just been a little bit off.

Maybe that changes soon. If internet rumors are true -- and as we've all learned, they're always true, yep -- Rangnick might soon join AC Milan and take on the task of modernizing and breathing life back into an aging institution, just as he did for German soccer across the board.


Valeriy Lobanovskyi: The engineer

Coaching career: 1969-2001
Teams managed: Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Dynamo Kyiv (three times), Soviet Union national team (three times), UAE national team, Kuwait national team, Ukranian national team (twice)

Innovative idea: full optimization

Rinus Michels won the 1971 European Cup with Ajax and the 1988 European Championship with the Netherlands. Ajax would win two more cups with his system after he had left for Barcelona. His "Total Football" concept, with versatile players capable of playing multiple positions and switching fluidly throughout a game, with steady pressing and domination of space, was one of the sport's most lasting concepts.

You could easily make the case that Lobanovskyi was equally influential. His vision was universality, one of a perfectly efficient machine. Engineering degree in hand, he looked at soccer as a science project. He wanted to optimize space for attack, minimize it for his opponent and use extreme pressure -- and the fitness levels it required -- to dominate the pitch. When he played Lobanovskyi's Kyiv in a friendly, Ralf Rangnick said he thought Kyiv had 13 or 14 players on the pitch.

Lobanovskyi used this approach because it was the optimal way to play, but his optimisation continued everywhere. He was obsessed with the science behind fitness, diet and psychology. His Kyiv teams were among the first to use computers and data analysis, too. Wherever there was a way to improve, he sought it, and this adaptability paid off in league play.

His résumé is almost too good to be on this list: He won the Soviet Top League with Dnipro in his second year and won the Soviet/Ukranian titles at Dynamo 13 times in four different decades. He took the European Cup Winners' Cup twice and the European Super Cup once. Two of his Dynamo players won the Ballon D'Or (Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov), and a third (Andriy Shevchenko) won after leaving Dynamo. You could make a pretty easy case that Dynamo were the first modern football team.

What held him back: robotics (and once again, bad timing)

Optimizing processes can sometimes lead to robotic and predictable actions. Valuing the collective over the individual can create beautiful things -- dig up the highlights of Dynamo's 1986 Cup Winners' Cup victory over Atletico Madrid on YouTube, for example. You'll witness some gorgeous soccer, and against a version of Atletico that might have been even more recklessly physical than today's version. But over time, optimal processes can become predictable. If an opponent has drawn a bead on you and has comparable talent, individual creativity could be the only thing that bails you out.

Lobanovskyi was good enough to overcome this at times, but with an inability to sign foreign players for much of his time at Kyiv, he couldn't always overcome the talent issue. Even then, he was close to so much more success. A Soviet club team never won the European Cup, and the international team never won a major tournament -- Lobanovskyi nearly did both. Late in his career, he returned to Kyiv and picked up where he left off. Dynamo walloped Barcelona twice en route to the 1998 Champions League quarterfinals, then beat Real Madrid to advance to the semis in 1999 before falling to Bayern because of a couple of late goals allowed at home.

The what-ifs were just as strong with the USSR. His Soviets coasted to the semifinals in the 1976 Olympics but gave up two goals in eight minutes to East Germany and settled for bronze. And they were the best team in Euro 1988, beating the Netherlands, England and Italy, with the best Expected Goal (XG) differential in the tournament, before losing 2-0 in a finals rematch to Michels' Netherlands. (XG in the match: USSR 2.0, Netherlands 1.1.)

Lobanovskyi is certainly well-regarded -- ESPN named him the No. 8 manager of all-time a few years ago, after all. But Michels was No. 2 on that list. Just a couple more big wins might have put Lobanovskyi there instead.