During the 2006 World Cup, everyone was talking about Argentina’s stylish football and how they were favourites to win the tournament. They had topped their group, thrashing Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 along the way, in a game that included a sublime goal after a 26-pass move. After a 2-1 extra-time victory over Mexico in the second round, they faced hosts Germany in the quarter-finals. Argentina scored first and were controlling the game, but, between the 70th and 80th minute, José Pékerman, their manager, substituted Juan Román Riquelme, Argentina’s playmaker, and Hernán Crespo, their main striker, with Esteban Cambiasso and Julio Cruz. Lionel Messi, then a 19-year-old prodigy, was left on the bench. Germany scored in the 80th minute, and, without their best attacking players on the pitch, Argentina could not score again. They ended up losing on penalties.
In the game of football, tactics and decisions matter. As Pékerman learnt, you can have the best team and play the most pleasing football, but one wrong move can end your tournament. Great managers are as much a part of the legacy of the World Cup as great players. They choose the right eleven, set up the formation, make the right calls and motivate their teams.
At the 2014 World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Vicente del Bosque both have an excellent chance of becoming the first manager to win two World Cups since Vittorio Pozzo did it with Italy in 1934 and 1938. Scolari’s Brazil and del Bosque’s Spain are hot favourites to win this year. But, there are several other managers who will be determined to stand in their way.
Personality: Alejandro Sabella’s nickname, Pachorra, meaning sloth, is misleading. He is hardworking, organised, pays attention to detail and studies his players and opposing players meticulously. He is also malleable, willing to change tactics when the need arises. Sabella is a polite man, stern but likeable, which is somewhat of a change from the man who helmed Argentina in their last World Cup campaign, the colourful Diego Maradona.
Experience and achievements: After his playing career was over, Sabella worked as a field assistant for Daniel Passarella, then manager of Argentine club River Plate. He worked under Passarella for many years, on the coaching staff of the Argentine and Uruguayan national teams, Italian club Parma and Brazilian club Corinthians. In 2009, Sabella became manager of Argentine club Estudiantes de La Plata. He led them to victory in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club competition, in 2009.
Tactical approach: Argentina’s football hasn’t changed much since 2010. They pose a great attacking threat, while defensive frailties remain. Sabella, though, has made the defence a bit more organised and has got Argentina playing a faster game. The focus is still attack. He doesn’t have much option there with players such as Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Angel Di María in his team.
Preferred formation: Sabella prefers a 4-3-3 formation and uses it in quite an unorthodox, creative and fluid manner. One of Argentina’s biggest problems over the past few years has been finding the right place for Messi to be at his most lethal. Sabella’s formation gives Messi ample opportunity to drift inside the box despite the presence of other forwards. Don’t be surprised if Sabella uses a 4-4-1-1, allowing Messi to play a false nine, the position he has become master of at Barcelona.
Key decisions: Saying no to one of Argentina’s favourite sons Carlos Tevez. The mercurial Tevez was Italian club Juventus’s top goal-scorer this season, but Sabella decided his sometimes volatile behaviour may disrupt the squad’s preparations. Another notable exclusion is Javier Pastore, the experienced Paris Saint-Germain midfielder.
Louis van Gaal,
Personality: The Dutch have a running joke. What’s the difference between Louis van Gaal and God? God knows he is not van Gaal. The spotlight will shine especially bright on van Gaal this World Cup since he has been announced as the new manager of Manchester United. Van Gaal will join United immediately after the World Cup.
Forthright, combative and opinionated, van Gaal can be a handful to deal with. Just ask Barcelona and Bayern Munich, two major European clubs he ended up falling out with. However, he is also known to help intelligent players develop. Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta are just a few examples of players he has mentored.
Experience and achievements: Van Gaal’s arrogance comes with substantial backing in the form of achievements. He has won league titles in the Netherlands (with Ajax and AZ Alkmaar), Spain (with Barcelona) and Germany (with Bayern Munich). He also won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax back in 1994-95.
Tactical approach: Van Gaal is a proponent of total football, an attacking and expressive method of playing invented by the Dutch in the late 1960s. His team were aggressive during qualifying, scoring 34 goals, the second highest in Europe, after Germany.
Preferred formation: His preferred formation has been 4-3-3, but he has also used a 4-2-3-1, and even a 3-3-3-1, with Bayern Munich. However, pitted in a tough group, with Spain, Chile and Australia, van Gaal is likely to experiment with a 5-3-2, a system built to improve defensive solidity while allowing the full-backs to attack when needed.
Key decisions: Throughout his career, van Gaal has believed in trusting youth, and the 2014 Netherlands 30-man squad has a number of talented young players. Patrick van Aanholt from Chelsea, Terence Kongolo, Tonny Vilhena, Jordy Clasie and Jean-Paul Boetius, all from Feyenoord, and Memphis Depay and Karim Rekik, both from PSV Eindhoven, are all below the age of 23.
Personality: At the time of his appointment as Belgium manager, Marc Wilmots, a former star of the Belgian national team, was seen as a safe choice. He was the assistant manager, and some Belgian fans were hoping for a more glamorous choice to head Belgium’s qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup. However, victories over Serbia and Croatia ensured Belgium reached the World Cup, and Wilmots has garnered tremendous support from players and fans. How did he do this? For starters, he united a team that has both French and Flemish speakers. Next, he used his charm to give Belgian’s array of young stars confidence and make them excited to play for him.
Experience and achievements: Wilmots served under Dick Advocaat and Georges Leekens as assistant manager of the Belgium national team, before getting the top job after the latter’s unexpected departure in May 2012. His only other managerial jobs were a brief stint at German club Schalke, in 2004, and a season at Belgian side Sint-Truidense.
Tactical approach: Belgium have some of the finest young attacking talents in Europe in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Adnan Januzaj and Romelu Lukaku. However, to counter the inexperience in his side, Wilmots is most likely to ask his team to defend hard and counter attack quickly.
Preferred formation: Belgium use a 4-1-4-1 formation that allows the team to be more fluid and lets wide players cut inside, thus enabling them to make the pitch narrower or wider whenever needed. However, from time to time, Wilmots may change the formation to 4-5-1.
Key decisions: Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj’s inclusion in the squad, just weeks after he pledged his allegiance to Belgium (he was eligible to play for several countries), has not gone down well with some players. Midfielder Kevin Mirallas has publically questioned whether Janujaz has done enough to merit a place, but Wilmots quickly asked Mirallas to keep his opinions to himself.
James Kwesi Appiah,
Personality: James Kwesi Appiah describes himself as an underdog. And, why shouldn’t he? Before he was chosen as manager of Ghana, he lacked experience and technical qualifications, and, worst of all, he is Ghanaian. The Ghanian Football Association had only chosen eight local managers as compared to 23 foreigners before Appiah. It was unforeseeable that they would choose a local manager to take their team to the World Cup. But, Appiah, a former captain of Ghana, is a fighter. He spent five years as Ghana’s assistant coach, and, when given the chance to manage the national team, ensured a convincing performance in the World Cup qualifiers. Ghana won five out of their six matches in the group stages, scoring 18 goals, and then thumped Egypt 7-3 on aggregate in the play-off to reach the World Cup.
Experience and achievements: Before getting the top job, Appiah had been the Black Stars assistant coach since 2008, under various foreign managers. His only success came when he led Ghana’s under-23 side to victory at the 2011 All African Games.
Tactical approach: Pragmatism is the key to Appiah’s tactics. He realises Ghana is in the group of death, with Germany, Portugal and the USA. Expect his side to play good counterattacking football, with his wingers playing a crucial role.
Preferred formation: Appiah uses the traditional 4-4-2 formation that covers space efficiently and relies on strong midfielders. The formation has come under criticism, with opponents calling it rigid and out of date. However, Appiah proves his detractors wrong with his team’s performances.
Key decisions: Appiah took the brave decision to leave 31-year-old former Ghana captain John Mensah out of his squad for Brazil.
Personality: It’s not often the Italian Football Federation, or any football body for that matter, gives a coach a two-year contract extension before the World Cup. Cesare Prandelli has earned the federation’s faith with his impressive run of performances with Italy in the past four years. At press conferences, Prandelli is all smiles. However, don’t be fooled by the jovial facade. He is a tough disciplinarian and is not afraid of making hard decisions, as has been seen with the punishments handed out to star players Mario Balotelli, Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo for ethics violations. In fact, if a player gets a red card while playing for his club, he can expect an exclusion from the national team.
Experience and achievements: Prandelli’s only managerial honour is the 1999 Italian Serie B title with Verona. He started his coaching career with Italian club Atalanta’s youth team and would later be a caretaker manager for the first team. Since then, he has managed Leece, Parma and Fiorentina in Italy. Prandelli was named manager of Italy after the 2010 World Cup and took them to the final of Euro 2012.
Tactical approach: Prandelli has deviated from the defensive tactics Italian sides are famous for and built a side that looks to score goals. The Azzurri scored 19 goals in 10 games as they dominated their group in qualification. Prandelli has also eschewed the Italian penchant for picking experienced players and has five players younger than 23, including talented forward Lorenzo Insigne, in his 30-man provisional squad.
Preferred formation: Italian coaches are usually master tacticians, and Prandelli is no different. His sides are hard to guess for opponents, making it hard for them to plan against him. He usually plays with a 4-3-3 formation, but can very easily switch to a 3-5-2 or 4-3-1-2 system.
Key decisions: Alberto Gilardino had a productive season at Genoa, but misses out. Meanwhile, Giuseppe Rossi, who has played just 78 minutes for Fiorentina since his injury in January, is going to Brazil.
THE GREATEST WORLD CUP MANAGER EVER
César Luis Menotti’s career was never laden with silverware, but his role in Argentina’s victory in 1978 and the style of football he endorsed make him the most memorable manager at a World Cup. The chain-smoking El Flaco, or the Thin One, as he was known, developed a team that focussed on playing stylish, creative and entertaining football rather than on results. In his own words, “To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.” In 1978, Argentina was under military dictatorship, and Menotti’s uninhibited style of playing, which allowed players to be free and creative, reminded many Argentineans of life before the military junta controlled the country. His style still continues today, not only in Argentina but around the world.