Being a manager or a head coach in football is one of the most difficult jobs. They are the first to be blamed for when a team lose a game and the last one to be credited when a team win.
But, despite the thanklessness of the job, many greats of the game have excelled in the role over the last century. They’ve won games, trophies, and earned the respect of their players, pundits and fans alike. However, it feels impossible, to list the 20 greatest football managers/head coaches of all time, doesn’t it? In this article, I’ve used the criteria of trophies won, personality, and how they influenced the sport—whether that be through nutrition, tactics, or football ideology—in order to rank these managers and head coaches.
So, without further ado, I present to you my top 20 greatest football managers/head coaches of all time.
#20 Jürgen Klopp
A notable proponent of Gegenpressing, Jürgen Klopp, over the last couple of decades, has cemented his place as one of the best coaches in world football right now.
Commenting on his sides’ “heavy metal” football, about their pressing and high attacking output, Klopp once said: “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation, where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
The charismatic German has proved his worth as a master tactician and motivator in the first half of last decade when he ended Bayern Munich’s dominance in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, announcing himself as one of the brightest managers in world football at the time, before going on to rebuild a club of Liverpool’s stature to their former glory by securing both the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League titles in spectacular fashion.
Also Watch – Can Klopp resurrect LFC?
#19 Ottmar Hitzfeld
A trained mathematician and a sports teacher, Ottmar Hitzfeld is regarded as one of the most successful coaches of German and world football. Winner of the “World Coach of the Year” twice, Hitzfeld is one of only five managers to win the European Cup/Champions League with two different clubs.
In 1997, Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund side beat Juventus to win their only such trophy, while in 1999, he watched in horror as Ole Gunnar Solskjær toe-poked Manchester United to a treble-winning campaign against his stunned Bayern Munich side.
However, Hitzfeld’s elite marshalling of his troops ultimately meant he obliterated all competition on a march towards the upper echelons of German and European football as he saw his 2001 Bayern side lift the Champions League title. He ended his managerial career with 18 major trophies to his name, including seven German Bundesliga titles.
#18 Marcelo Lippi
Think of Marcelo Lippi as a bridge between the old gioco all’italiana and the new — a blend of the traditional and the modern. His teams knew how to man mark as well as play zonally. Remember, Lippi worked before, during, and after the revolution brought upon football by Arrigo Sacchi. Hence, his teams not only invited opponents onto them and counterattacked with ferocity, they also had the technical brilliance to take the game to whomever they were playing against. Balance was everything.
Lippi punched above weight initially at Napoli but laid the groundwork through the 90s and the early 2000s with Juventus most notably, winning five Serie A titles and the 1995-96 Champions League, while also finishing runners-up thrice. However, Lippi, with cigar protruding from his lips, reaped the rewards of his groundwork when he took over as the Italian national team manager, ending Gil Azzurri’s 24-year wait to be crowned world champions in 2006.
#17 Miguel Muñoz
Miguel Muñoz is Real Madrid’s most successful manager. A former European cup winner with Los Blancos as a player, Muñoz navigated what should have been a perilous transitional period to transform the ageing Galácticos of Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano into the youthful bunch comprising the likes of Amancio and Pirri, while keeping them at the apex of Spanish and world football.
Muñoz remains Real Madrid’s longest-serving manager to date, having spent more than 14 years at the club, winning 14 major honours, including two European cups and nine LaLiga titles.
After brief spells with Granada, Las Palmas and Sevilla, Muñoz became the manager of the Spanish men’s national team in 1982 (he served as Spain manager in 1969 as well, while he was at Real Madrid). His underdogs went on to the final of the 1984 European Championship, before losing to a Michel Platini-inspired France team on home turf.
#16 Nereo Rocco
In all honesty, Italy is to football management what the US is to basketball. This gives a fair reflection as to why Nereo Rocco won’t be the first to cross your mind, but he should.
Drawing inspiration from Karl Rappan, the Austrian coach whose Swiss side popularised the verrou (bolt) system back in the 1930s with the introduction of a back-four, positional play, and the role of a libero or “sweeper”, Rocco was one of the great pioneers of catenaccio – the greatly-misunderstood tactical discipline. Alongside being an innovator, he was known for his charismatic personality, leadership and sense of humour.
Although his love for catenaccio is often maligned, his teams scored freely. A ferocious winner, Rocco shaped the attitudes of millions of his countrymen to follow and conquered some of the most celebrated teams in world football at the time. His AC Milan side won two Serie A titles, three Coppe Italie, two European Cups, two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups as well as the 1969 Intercontinental Cup.
#15 Brian Clough
Arrogant, outspoken, and often controversial, Brian Clough is often considered one of the greatest managers of the English game. His achievements with Derby County and Nottingham Forest, two clubs with little history of success before and after him, are rated among the greatest in football history. His teams played an attractive brand of football and were known for their sportsmanship.
Clough won the First Division with Derby County in 1972, though no silverware came his way when coaching Hartlepool United or Brighton & Hove Albion. It was even worse at Leeds United, where — without the aid of trusty assistant Peter Taylor — the Yorkshireman was sacked after just 44 days.
However, Clough redeemed himself when he got Nottingham Forest promoted to the First Division. On their return, he guided them to their maiden league title. He won four more League Cups, but his biggest achievement was making Forest back-to-back European Cup winners.
#14 José Mourinho
Love him or hate him, José Mourinho has proven himself to be one of the most successful managers of the 21st century. From entering the management spectrum as an interpreter for Sir Bobby Robson to winning titles for some of Europe’s most elite clubs over the last two decades, the Portuguese has cemented his place as one of Europe’s most decorated managers.
Referred to as “The Special One”, Mourinho took Europe by storm by winning the 2003/04 Champions League with Porto, along with his two league titles and three domestic cups in three seasons. The now-60-year-old continued to pick up silverware with the likes of Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United, winning six league titles and a boatload of cup competitions during a 12-year spell.
The charismatic, petulant, demanding, and ambitious Portuguese is capable of masterminding a strategy to subdue even the strongest of opponents, having won more than 20 major titles in his nearly 23-year-long journey as a football manager.
#13 Carlo Ancelotti
Carlo Ancelotti’s legacy, apart from winning a boatload of trophies, is his unparalleled man-management skills. From Milan to Madrid to Munich to Merseyside, it seems there’s no one to speak a bad word about the Italian.
A balancer on the tactical board, Ancelotti’s greatest trick is managing the highest of high-profile players of the last two decades and nearly always getting the very best out of them. He breathed life into AC Milan and turned a struggling club into continental kings within five years. He won Paris Saint-Germain their first league title in 19 years and delivered Real Madrid their long-awaited La Decima, while also winning league titles at Chelsea and Bayern Munich.
Don Carlo is one of only five managers to have won the Champions League with two different clubs, while he is the only manager to have lifted the trophy on four different occasions. Ancelotti is also the only manager to win league titles in all five top European leagues, making him one of the most decorated managers in world football.
#12 Giovanni Trapattoni
Regarded as the most famous disciple of Nereo Rocco, Giovanni Trapattoni is considered the most successful coach in Italian football. His seven Serie A titles with Juventus and Inter Milan is unparalleled, while he also delivered European success to both.
With Juve, Trapattoni also won two Coppe Italiane, one UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, two UEFA Cups and the Intercontinental Cup, winning everything in the most golden of eras for The Old Lady.
Other than being highly regarded for his man-management and motivational skills, Trapattoni was also known for his tactical acumen. He was the author and practitioner of Gioco all’Italiana — the evolution of the more traditional and defensive-minded catenaccio. His system, also known as the Zona Mista system, can be simplified as a fusion of Nereo Rocco’s catenaccio and Rinus Michels’ Total Football.
#11 Bill Shankly
Bill Shankly did more than just rebuild Liverpool: he built a dynasty. His vision for the Merseyside club can be made out from one of his most famous quotes: “My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. You know, Napoleon had that idea and he conquered the bloody world. And that’s what I want – for Liverpool to be untouchable. My idea was to build Liverpool up, and up, and up. Until eventually, everyone would have to submit, and give in.”
Liverpool would not have the domestic and European legacy they herald today without the remarkable rebuilding job Shankly undertook 15 years at Anfield. The Scot restored a dying, listing, decrepit second-tier outfit to the English topflight and won three league titles before stepping down and leaving his long-term assistant Bob Paisley to take Liverpool to the next stage of their progression.
“He made the people happy,” reads the base of the statue of Shankly at Anfield. That was all he ever wanted.
#10 Valeri Lobanovskyi
Valeri Lobanobskyi is the most decorated manager of the 20th century, second only to Sir Alex Ferguson, with 33 major trophies. Apart from his silverware collection, the Soviet-Ukrainian coach was also one of the first pioneers of sports science and brought the idea of the team being the star and not the individual. Lobanovskyi is most famous for his spells managing Dynamo Kyiv and the USSR national team.
Lobanobskyi won 13 league titles (eight Soviet and five Ukrainian) in his managerial career. His Dynamo Kyiv side also became the first team from Eastern Europe to win a European competition, after they won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup twice. On the international stage, he won bronze at the 1976 Olympic Games with the USSR national football team, and later, in 1988, they made it to the final of the 1988 European Championships before losing to the Netherlands.
#9 Bob Paisley
Although it was Bill Shankly who laid the foundation for Liverpool for decades to come, he had a trusted deputy in the form of Bob Paisley. When Shankly did retire from management in 1974, despite some initial reluctance, Paisley was appointed as his successor.
Paisley adopted his predecessor’s tactics for a new and modern era, and despite managing for just nine years, he won an astonishing 20 major honours, including six First Division titles and three European Cups, and averaging 2.2 trophies per season, making him the second most successful manager of all time. The Englishman had won six Manager of the Year titles by the time he retired, making him one of the greatest British managers of all time.
#8 Helenio Herrera
From Sir Alex Ferguson to José Mourinho to many others in the past or many currently would like to think they are the masters of the psychological warfare, which is so common in modern football these days. But they are all mere pretenders to Helenio Herrera’s throne. The Argentine-turned-Frenchman was the first to bring focus into the mindset of players. A brilliant man-manager, Herrera used his motivational words and scathing attacks to help his teams fulfil their potential.
Helenio’s ultra-defensive 5-3-2 sweeper system, which inspired Italian football’s decades-long mistrust of attractive football, will forever be synonymous with his Grande Inter Milan side, built from 1960 to 1968, who went on to win three Serie A titles as well as two back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965.
Herrera also bagged consecutive LaLiga titles with both Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, breaking scoring records in the process.
#7 Sir Matt Busby
Sir Matt Busby might not have won the same amount of silverware as some of the other managers on this list, but what he did as a manager still remains unparalleled to this day. Busby laid the foundation for the modern Manchester United that we know now, creating a legacy that paved the way for Sir Alex Ferguson’s success, and one that still serves the club to this day.
Busby took over a club in 1945 that had narrowly avoided bankruptcy twice in their recent history, focusing on developing young players at a time when it wasn’t the norm. He won two league titles with a bunch of youth players, whose legend is well known by now as the “Busby Babes”, with an average age of just 22.
His “Busby Babes” would have won a lot more had eight members of that squad not been killed on that fateful night in Munich. Dejected and heart-broken, Busby built everything up from scratch, winning two more league titles and an FA Cup before making Man United the first English club to win the European Cup ten years later.
#6 Ernst Happel
Ernst Happel was one of Rinus Michels’ biggest inspirations. The Austrian tactician questioned everything football had taken for granted, revolutionised the game, and inspired the era of Total Football in the 1970s. A number of Michels’ cornerstones — a fluid 4-3-3 system, teamwork, midfield overloads — were all pioneered by the Austrian during his time with Ajax’s arch-rivals Feyenoord.
Not just an innovator, Happel was a serial winner too. He won league titles with Feyenoord, Club Brugge, Hamburg and Swarovski Tirol, while winning two European cups, first with Feyenoord in 1970, followed by Hamburg’s triumph over Juventus in 1983. He also reached the final of the 1977/78 European Cup with Club Brugge before guiding the Netherlands to their second consecutive FIFA World Cup final in 1978, where they lost to Argentina.
#5 Arrigo Sacchi
For football fans like us, Arrigo Sacchi is possibly the most important figure in the history of football. Not because he created arguably the greatest football team with his 1987–91 AC Milan side, not because he won multiple trophies and influenced the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, but because he was just a shoe salesman obsessed with the game.
Leaning heavily on the principles used by Rinus Michels’ Ajax to dominate Europe in the 1970s, Sacchi’s teams pressed from the front, held a high defensive line, employed zonal marking, and played with a flat back-four, which seemed like an anomaly and appalled the Italian conservatives during the late 1980s to no end.
“Football is born in the brain, not in the body. Michelangelo said he painted with his mind, not with his hands. So, obviously, I need intelligent players. That was our philosophy at Milan. I didn’t want solo artists; I wanted an orchestra. The greatest compliment I received was when people said my football was like music.” The conductor, during his time in Milan, won one Scudetto and back-to-back European Cups, making Italian football beautiful in a way no one had ever done before or has done since, and that is Sacchi’s biggest legacy.
#4 Pep Guardiola
The Catalan is a true modern great. His work has changed the modern managerial landscape for good and his standard is, currently, the one to beat.
When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona opened the 2008/09 LaLiga season with a 1-0 defeat to lowly Numancia, that too following a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Wisła Kraków in the UEFA Champions League Qualifiers, few would have foreseen the Catalan giants ending the season with a historic treble by playing some of the finest football ever seen.
In his four seasons with Barça, Guardiola won nine major titles, including a second UCL title. His next assignment saw him take German giants Bayern Munich to new heights before turning his attention to the Premier League. Following a season of adaptation, Guardiola has left his imprint on the league, winning it in four out of the last five seasons as well as collecting domestic cup silverware every single campaign.
From learning from Johan Cruyff to playing a major role in the development of some of the true modern greats in Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Kevin De Bruyne among many others, Guardiola has time and again proved that it is possible to both realise a club’s lofty ambitions while simultaneously improving a core group of players.
#3 Johan Cruyff
Following the footsteps of his mentor Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff nurtured several of the Dutch legends of the 1980s while at Ajax before building the “Dream Team” at Barcelona that dominated both Spanish and European football. In those five years (1989–94), Barcelona won four LaLiga titles and made four European Cup finals, winning the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1992 European Cup.
Before the Dutchman arrived at Camp Nou as a coach in 1988, the Catalan club had won just 36 trophies in their 89-year history and were yet to lift the European Cup. In just 34 years since, the Blaugrana have hoisted silverware 52 times, including five European Cups/UEFA Champions League titles.
However, Cruyff was much more than that; he was a true visionary who saw the value of implementing a single way of playing at every level of a club. He promoted technique over physicality, overhauled La Masia, the famed Barça academy, and introduced a style of play that remains sacred to this day.
#2 Rinus Michels
The most influential football manager the world has ever seen, with arguably the greatest moniker for a sporting style that still persists today in Total Football. A style of football that was, and is, so lauded, that it is deemed to encompass everything great about the game. It is the game in its purest, most alluring form. There’s no greater legacy to leave behind than this.
Yet, Michels’ biggest legacy came from a team that absolutely won nothing at all. Yes, it’s the 1974 Dutch national team. The Netherlands lost the 1974 FIFA World Cup final to hosts West Germany but played the most magical football the world had ever seen, influencing football and coaching forever. Make no mistake, without Rinus Michels, there would be no Johan Cruyff, no Louis van Gaal, no Pep Guardiola.
By the way, Michels was no stranger to silverware. He won four Eredivisie titles and the European Cup with Ajax, while on the international stage, following 1974’s disappointment, his 1988 Netherlands side went on to become European champions, exhibiting a brand of football never witnessed at the international level since.
#1 Sir Alex Ferguson
Manchester United simply wouldn’t be Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. However, his early years in Scotland were equally important in shaping the manager he would go on to become. After getting sacked by the St Mirren board in 1978, few expected Ferguson to make a name for himself in the cut-throat industry of football management. However, along with his trusty assistant Jim McLean, he went on to break the Old Firm duopoly with Aberdeen, winning three league titles, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and four Scottish Cups.
Ferguson moved south of the border in 1986, joining a Manchester United side struggling to reignite their lost identity. It famously took Fergie some time to see his work come to life at Old Trafford, almost facing the sack once, but he was responsible for refocusing a club that had become lost, realigning them with the principles laid by Sir Matt Busby and making them once again the giants of English football.
Ferguson’s first seven years brought only an FA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, but then came an astonishing haul of 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League titles between 1993 and 2013. Besides anything else, Ferguson’s longevity makes him the greatest football manager of all time, with him having built team after team and continuing to win and win in a way no one had ever done before or has done since.