Best Soccer Coaches All Time

By Woodland Soccer Team •  Updated: 08/09/22 •  8 min read

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Soccer team without a coach (or manager) would be like a ship without a captain. During the second half of the 20th century soccer coaches became a very important part of every soccer team, sometimes even more important than players. Who are those who can carry an epithet “the best” next to their names?

Game Changers

During the first half of the 20th century, soccer was quite an offensive game. Teams used to play in 2-3-5 formation, which allowed teams to focus on attack and to score many goals. Refining the Laws of the Game and the offside rule has totally changed the approach and modernized formations in soccer. Achieving positive results was easier through a more defensive style and with more players back. This defensive response was firstly invented in Italy and two game changers were Nereo Rocco and Helenio Herrera.

Nereo Rocco

Nereo Rocco played as a professional for 14 years, before he started one of the most successful coaching careers in the history of soccer. In 1957, his first year as Triestina’s coach, he reached a surprising second place in the Serie A, which is still the biggest success ever for this team. He continued making sensations with less popular teams, being appointed at Serie B team Padova. He led them to the 3rd place in Serie A in season 1957/1958.

These achievements were enough for AC Milan to spot Rocco’s potential and to sign him, which brought them one of the most successful periods in their history. Rocco won 10 major trophies (2 Serie A, 3 Coppa Italia, 2 European Cup, 2 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and 1 Intercontinental Cup) and entered the Italian Football Hall of Fame. Probably the biggest victory of his career was the European Cup final in which Milan won 4-1 against mighty Ajax with Jonah Cruyff in the squad and Rinus Michels on the bench.

Rocco’s  biggest legacy was catenaccio (literally translates as ‘door-bolt’), a tactical system he invented. This tactical system was mainly focused on defence and on man-marking. He usually used this system during his coaching career in Padova, when he was aware that his team was weaker than the opponent. When opponents were saying “I hope the better team will win the game”, Rocco used to say “I hope it won’t”.

Helenio Herrera

Born in Buenos Aires, in a poor Spanish family, Helenio Herrera didn’t have many chances to succeed. Luckily, his family moved to Casablanca which was a French city back in the ‘30s, so he started playing soccer there. At the beginning of his coaching career, just after the II World War, Herrera signed for Stade Francais. After a few seasons, he moved to Spain where he paved the road to the stars, winning La Liga four times (2 with Atletico Madrid and 2 with Barcelona).

The best period in his career came between 1960 and 1968 when he managed Inter Milan. He won 3 Serie A titles and 2 European Cups so his team was nicknamed Il Grande Inter. He invented the 5-3-2 formation and popularized catenaccio with certain changes and faster transition through counter-attacks. Herrera was the first superstar among soccer coaches, more popular than any of his players, but also the highest paid coach when he signed for Roma in 1969.

However, there are two sides to every coin, as Herrero’s successes came with a price. He was known for enforcing a discipline terror on his players, forbidding them to drink and smoke (which used to be normal), making bed-checks at their homes and forcing them to play injured. It is also speculated that he was responsible for the death of Giulano Taccola, Roma’s forward who was forced to train by Herrera until he collapsed.

Total Football

It sounds like a TV channel or a betting company name, but Total Football, or originally totaalvoetbal in Dutch, is the most popular tactical system in soccer history. It was invented by an Englishman Jimmy Hogan, who shared his knowledge with coaches in Austria and Hungary back in the 1920’s and 1930’s so these two national teams were first to use it on the field.

However, the modern version of totaalvoetbal was first played by Ajax during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Two biggest names in this era were Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, together with the only coach from Eastern Europe on our list – Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

Rinus Michels

Officially claimed by France Football as the best coach in the history of soccer, Rinus Michels was one of the persons most responsible  for changing the philosophy of soccer. He became coach of Ajax Amsterdam in 1965 and modernized what he already learned as a player under Vic Buckingham and Jack Raynolds, who both managed Ajax during the ‘50s. The main change, invented by Michels, was that players stopped sticking to their positions (except goalkeeper of course).

Defenders were often in attack and attackers were helping their teammates in defensive tasks. All players on the pitch are obliged to constantly move and change their positions in order to join all phases of play. Another invention was off the ball play – a constant pressing on the opponent’s half of the pitch in order to restore ball possession as soon as possible.

Michels won 4 Eredivisie titles, 3 KNVB Cups and 1 European Cup with Ajax, before he moved to Barcelona, where he won La Liga in 1974. The Dutchman was successful on a national level as well, as he was the runner-up in the 1974 World Cup and the winner of the 1988 UEFA European Championship, both with the national team of Netherlands.

Johan Cruyff

The most important segment of Michels’ total football was Johan Cruyyf – Ballon d’Or three times winner, officially named as the best European player of the Century and the owner of the highest contract among soccer players during the ‘70. Playing at Ajax and Barcelona he was the first player who was instructed to a free-role position, greatly using his high intelligence and great athletic skills to change positions and confuse opponents.

After his retirement, Cruyff followed the steps of his soccer father Rinus Michels and managed Ajax and Barcelona, winning 10 national and 4 European titles. His legacy was much more than trophies as he was one of the pioneers playing with 3 central defenders in 3-4-3 formation. He also made a central defensive midfielder one of the most important positions in the team. Cruyff was one of the rare soccer professionals who had such an amazing career, both as a player and as a coach.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi

All relevant sources in the soccer world (France Football, World Soccer, ESPN, DPA and many more) found a place for Valeriy Lobanovskyi among the best coaches of all time. Having a strong opposition and deciding to retire his playing career early, make him not so famous as a player, but he proved himself as the legend of Dynamo Kyiv, winning 8 Soviet Top Leagues, 6 Soviet Cups, 5 Ukrainian National Leagues and 3 Ukrainian Cups. His biggest successes were two titles in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and 1986, together with the European Super Cup.

At the beginning of his coaching career he was criticized for his defensive approach, but despite the critics he had amazing results. Lobanovskyi was nicknamed “Colonel”, for his strict discipline regarding tactics. Just before the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lobanovskyi was the runner-up at the 1988 UEFA European Championship. The best individual product of Lobanovskyi’s legacy and the best Ukrainian soccer player in history – Andriy Shevchenko once said: ”Lobanovskyi’s influence on me was so profound that I still often see him in my dreams”.

The Most Efficient Coach Ever

Alex Ferguson

The summer of 2013 evoked many intensive feelings for every Manchester United fan. After 27 years, at the age of 71, Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement as Man Utd manager and shocked millions of people around the globe. In 39 years of his career, Ferguson celebrated 49 titles and earned a legend status much before his retirement. He won 7 national and 2 European titles with Aberdeen before he signed for one of the greatest clubs in history. In Manchester United he knew every single employee and it wasn’t below his honor to drink a morning tea with laundry or pitch maintenance personnel.

Fergie managed iconic players like David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, but none of these individuals couldn’t compete with his iron character. Different Man Utd Players have experienced being thrown “a hairdryer” by Sir Alex, which means an extremely unpleasant shouting and swearing in their face – some say you could literally see the steam coming out of his ears.

Final Thoughts

Some may argue that there are quite a few names missing from this list (like Bill Shankly, Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni, Ernst Happel, Ottmar Hitzfield and many others), but these are the names that changed the history of soccer in a meaningful way, and not just the ones who collected many trophies.

No doubt that some of the still active coaches like Joseph Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti have their place in “the best” category, but there is still plenty of time for them to reach their predecessors.

Woodland Soccer Team

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