Guardiola the archetypal 'coach on the pitch'

In his FC Barcelona days, Josep Guardiola was his coach's tactical enforcer on the field; Champions Matchday celebrates the players who went on to take a leading role.

Josep Guardiola pictured in 2000
Josep Guardiola pictured in 2000 ©Getty Images

Tommy Boyle was half right: "It is by tactics that the games of the future will be won ... and lucky will be the team that has a genius for a captain [to] shoulder the cares." A genius for a captain?

Boyle was one such in the early 1900s, modifying the strategy on-pitch for the Burnley FC side that won the 1914 FA Cup. Since then, captains have evolved into armband-flaunting Mr Motivators, as coaches' game plans become ever more meticulously detailed. Yet the tag 'coach on the pitch' has still become something of a cliché around Europe.

The likely cause is the revival of the scheming, passing midfielder. When Santi Cazorla called Arsenal FC team-mate Mathieu Flamini "a coach on the pitch" in a Guardian interview last season, it was for his "balance, positioning and intelligence", not because the Frenchman was tinkering with Arsène Wenger's 4-2-3-1. Former Spain coach Vicente del Bosque – himself once a midfielder matching the above description – has defined this string-pulling position as "an extension of the coach on the pitch".

So did tactical tinkering by players die out with knickerbockers, 2-3-5 formations and King Edward VII? Not really, although it was more common in the 1960s and 1970s. Sandro Mazzola, FC Internazionale Milano idol and son of Torino FC great Valentino, recalls an instance from the last 16 in the 1963/64 European Champion Clubs' Cup.

"Against Monaco, we were down to nine [captain Armando Picchi and another injured player remained on the pitch as substitutions were not yet allowed]," he said. "Picchi changed my position and yelled: 'Now, play like your father!' I became a lion – I even started tackling. Then [Helenio] Herrera took credit for the move with the press. As ever." Picchi was "monstrously intelligent" when anticipating play, says Mazzola. "Herrera said it was him, but Picchi was the real commander."

Danny Blanchflower
Danny Blanchflower©Getty Images

More than an armband
Danny Blanchflower, captain of Tottenham Hotspur FC in their 1960s European forays, vowed to be "more than a captain in name only". He might switch Spurs' wingers or move the centre-half into attack. He said: "On the field I am the manager's agent on the spot. I am there to make whatever decision I think best for the club. If it is something we have not foreseen, I act on my own judgement."

How did all this sit with coaches? It has been suggested that Herrera orchestrated Picchi's move to AS Varese because he blamed him for Inter's defeat by Celtic FC in the 1967 European Cup final. Yet then Inter president Angelo Moratti denied this, saying: "Picchi argued without arrogance. He instigated a sane, intelligent rebellion, which produced good changes. The transfer wasn't a vendetta."

Blanchflower's first manager at Tottenham, Arthur Rowe, welcomed his assumption of responsibility. The second, Jimmy Anderson, accepted it until it went wrong, then took the armband off him. Bill Nicholson endorsed his reinstated captain, but not unconditionally: "He thought a lot of himself. And I thought a lot of him. He had imagination. He perceived what was happening and provided answers."

Ego also drove Jef Jurion, leader of RSC Anderlecht's golden generation. Paul Van Himst remembers that new signings had to prove themselves before Jurion would pass to them. When high-scoring midfielder Fritz Vandenboer dared to display leadership qualities himself, Jurion said: "I let him know that there was only one representative of the coach on the pitch: me."

Van Himst reminisced: "Rather than the extension of the coach on the pitch, [Jurion] quite simply was the coach on the pitch during matches." Jurion would switch team-mates from zonal to man-marking or, as in Anderlecht's victory over Real Madrid CF in this competition in 1962, ignore coach Pierre Sinibaldi's attacking game plan to play cautiously. Jurion got the only goal of the match in the 85th minute.

Lothar Matthäus
Lothar Matthäus©Getty Images

Lothar Matthäus took the opposite approach under Giovanni Trapattoni at Inter in the 1980s and 90s. "He was capable of changing the game by himself," said Matthäus's team-mate Aldo Serena. "He always wanted to attack, and there was some friction between him and 'Il Trap'."

Trapattoni exercised similar discretion as an AC Milan defender under Nereo Rocco in the 1960s. Alongside other senior players – notably Gianni Rivera and Cesare Maldini – he belonged to a small group that advised Rocco and discussed tactics with him. The coach told them he wanted them to put his plans into place, but reminded them it was their job to "respond to situations".

Trapattoni took him at his word in the 1969 European Cup final. The Rossoneri struggled early on as AFC Ajax star Johan Cruyff kept losing his marker Angelo Anquilletti. Sensing the danger, Trapattoni – who was marking Sjaak Swart – swapped roles with Anquilletti. Cruyff enjoyed a lot less freedom after the switch and Rocco's side eventually won 4-1.

A mover and a thinker
Though it is harder to find examples of such autonomy in the modern game, some coaches are prepared to delegate once their charges cross the white line. In the 1990s, Celtic boss Wim Jansen gave up on making his voice heard at raucous Celtic Park, so he would brief Paul Lambert, "a very intelligent footballer", on positional adjustments.

Empowering a lieutenant can free up the rank and file to play their best. Carles Rexach, who assisted Cruyff at FC Barcelona, said: "We would think of a strategy and explain it. When the players left, we would call Pep [Guardiola] and say to him: 'In the 20th minute, I'll signal to you, and you change to this other strategy.' He was the only one who had the information, because there are players who with too much information will go mad."

Carlo Ancelotti chose Xabi Alonso as his most tactically astute messenger at Madrid, passing instructions from the bench. He may have found it easier to do this because Arrigo Sacchi had placed a similar trust in him at Milan.

Arrigo Sacchi
Arrigo Sacchi©Getty Images

"Ancelotti seemed slow," says Sacchi of the brain of his imperious Milan side of the 1990s. "I showed him how to move around, and it turned out he thought more quickly than anyone. He was a perfect coach on the pitch."

Wenger similarly trained up Claude Puel at AS Monaco FC. When Wenger arrived, he saw Puel as an agricultural water carrier and benched him. Later, Wenger simplified his game – "he explained to me that when it came to dribbling there were players better suited than I was" – and Puel became his envoy on the pitch.

Others have found the role uncomfortable. Claude Makelele said he swapped boots for tracksuit at Paris Saint-Germain because "I was trying to reposition everyone. I'd tell one player to calm down and another one to defend to hold onto a result. As a result I was no longer fulfilling my role as a player who gave everything."

Franz Benckenbauer
Franz Benckenbauer©Getty Images

A complex art
Conversely, the game's greatest technicians were on-pitch coaches par excellence. Franz Beckenbauer shaped a tactical era for Germany and a trophy-hoarding one for FC Bayern München when he evolved his commanding libero role. Great sweepers needed that kind of authority, freedom and perception just to do their job. Although the 'Total Football' with which Ajax enthralled Europe in the 1970s owed a lot to Rinus Michels's chalkboard masterplan, it was actioned by gifted players well versed in each other's games.

In Brilliant Orange, David Winner likened the team to a workers' cooperative, in which Cruyff was more equal than others. "We discussed space the whole time," Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff told Winner. "Cruyff always talked about where people should run, where they should stand, where they should not be moving. It was all about making space and coming into space. It is a kind of architecture on the field. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole."

Of the 29 bosses in this season's UEFA Champions League who played professionally, 17 were midfielders. Leading from the ranks, Tommy Boyle-style, was never a doddle. "A captain cannot wave a magic wand and make a bad team into a good one," said Blanchflower. "But a good captain can help by making good decisions. Captaincy is a complex business, an art, an eternal improvisation."

Champions Matchday is the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League and is available in print or free to download in digital format. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.

Top