On Sunday, Andrea Pirlo leads Juventus for the first time at home against Sampdoria (2:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). Early last month, the 2006 World Cup winner, and one of the most iconic players of his generation with a glittering career at AC Milan and Juventus, was surprisingly named as Maurizio Sarri’s successor.
This being Italy, qualifications, experience and coaching badges matter more than anywhere else, though it’s hard to imagine that Pirlo’s exploits from his playing days were totally ignored when he was chosen for the job. In fact, he only received his coaching diploma (with flying colours), which enables him to officially take charge of a Serie A team, earlier this week. Yet sources close to the Turin giants are pointing to Pirlo’s tactical and perceptual understanding of football — in addition to the rather obvious idea that he’s suited to managing the club’s star-filled, high-maintenance dressing room — as the main reason for why he was appointed. His enthusiasm for analytics, sports science and a “360-degree approach to the head coach role” were also said to have made an impression on the Juventus hierarchy.
However, while Juventus are obviously a well-functioning club with a strong winning culture — for all their recent Champions League disappointment, they’ve won nine Serie A titles on the trot — it’s clear that the appointment of the former midfield maestro has generated an excitement around the club which extends far beyond Italy’s borders — something Sarri never managed to produce.
The idea of appointing a big-name ex-player whose name is not just recognised, but also tied to the club’s recent history and modern folklore, even though he had little – or frequently no – experience, has always been a tempting Plan A for clubs looking to kick on from a traumatising sacking. As well as the glamour, charisma and attention it brings, it can help to get the media onside and definitely creates a positive buzz among the fans. With a knowledge of the club’s traditions and culture, there’s also the hope that these club legends can instill the memories of yesteryear into the current team.
Yet, perhaps wise from the memories of failed “emotional” appointments of the distant past such as Alan Shearer’s stint as Newcastle manager, there’s been a waning appetite for the romantic temptation of placing a former legend in the hotseat. For instance, Manchester United resisted popular calls for Ryan Giggs to be named manager on a permanent basis following a brief period as caretaker in 2014.
Now, however, the trend seems to be returning – but these days the early signs are that there’s a big difference in the attitude of the ex-playing stars to the role. Fascinatingly, many of these big names — Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Mikel Arteta (Arsenal), Simone Inzaghi (Lazio) and Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid) immediately come to mind – are now becoming much more committed to the whole process of coaching, embracing the methods of the more dynamic, modern breed of head coach that has come to the fore.
Often young, usually with a curtailed footballing career or even, increasingly, no professional playing career at all, these coaches are associated with clear tactical concepts, a passion for technology and innovative thinking and the ability to improve a player through creative and stimulating methods. They also tend to be great man-managers and motivators, giving the lie to the idea that someone who’s won trophies as a player is the most capable of leading those who are fighting for them.
Take Jurgen Klopp’s ability to deal with Liverpool’s Champions League and Premier League title-winning squad, or the manner in which Thomas Tuchel has admirably kept in check what’s possibly the trickiest dressing room in European football at Paris Saint-Germain. Though they’re household names now, those are just two recent examples of head coaches who ended up managing a group of world beaters after reaching the top of the game the hard way, and without the benefit of an illustrious playing career to trade on. The RB Leipzig head coach, Julian Nagelsmann, is expected to follow the same path.
These days, it seems that the big-name players entering management at the top level are taking inspiration from these progressive new coaches. Where previously they may have jumped the queues on the merits of their active playing days they are now displaying the curiosity and open-mindedness that was traditionally associated with the “pure” coaches.
And that provides a double whammy for a chairman – not only is he appointing a modern coach with progressive ideas, but also by promoting a recognised name, with or without prior coaching experience at the very top level, it hands those responsible for making the appointment a free pass if it doesn’t work out. If a promising, yet comparatively lesser-known, head coach fails, fingers tend to be pointed at other people in the organisation, from sporting directors all the way up to board members, owners and presidents.
One influential club executive neatly summed it up to me: “If it doesn’t work out with a big-name manager or a big-name former player, nothing really changes — you get another chance. To put it bluntly: having someone with a familiar face that the fans and media can relate to in charge is like an insurance policy. If it’s successful then great, we’re all happy. If it’s a failure, then it’s his name that’s dented, not mine.”
Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting.
Hiring a club legend was often seen as a populist and short-term manoeuvre for all those reasons; one could argue that this also applies to the appointments of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United and Ronald Koeman at Barcelona, both on the surface catapulted into leading two of the biggest clubs in the world on the basis of past association with the club, rather than being the next great thing or necessarily representing a new generation of coaches. And while it’s true that the presence of a club legend in itself can help bring stability and unity to a club under pressure, albeit to a lesser degree than before, the new generation of ex-star players bring much more into the bargain as they are visibly changing their approach to the profession.
Nowadays the likes of Pirlo, Zidane, Arteta and Lampard are displaying a higher degree of competence, curiosity and humility towards the job. They’re happy to do more than simply obtaining their coaching licence, which these days are taken much more seriously. For the top diploma, the UEFA Pro Licence, it usually takes a minimum of a year’s work — on top of the two years required for the “A Licence,” which allows a person to go into professional coaching (though fast-tracking of high-profile name still goes on) — to complete and covers a broad spectrum of skills and tools, from tactics to psychology to new technology and analytics, which are being readily embraced by today’s more progressive and committed players-turned-coaches.
Recognising that the impact of their name can only take them so far, they’re prepared to delegate and head a team with other skilled coaches and support staff who complement one another. There’s also a real willingness to develop individuals and young players — something that “Gen Z” players and the stars of tomorrow are extremely conscious about — rather than just being good at putting pressure on the owner/board (often through the media) to spend money. They tend to have a more long-term and loyal approach to the head coach position and the club’s sporting structure than was previously the case.
Although there is obviously still no guarantee of success — Thierry Henry’s high-profile Monaco homecoming was cut short after just three months in January 2019 — the fresh approach and adoption of new methods by these forward-thinking new ex-star coaches clearly improves the chances of them getting things right and enjoying a long and fruitful spell with their club.