The Top 10 Football Managers Of The Last 30 Years (Ferguson, Guardiola, Mourinho & More...)

Published on 18 June 2023 at 20:00

What does it take to be considered a true great when it comes to football management? A ludicrous trophy haul? Innovation and ingenuity? Unrivalled passion and character? 


Or, what about those with all of these great features? Join HL Division Sport as we take a look at the last 30 years of club and international football to determine who the top 10 football managers of the era are. 


10) Zinedine Zidane


It’s often the case that whilst you may succeed as a player, this success isn’t always translated towards management, just take a look at Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes for that.


In other cases, a floundering player can emerge as a truly brilliant manager, as we’ll no doubt delve upon later.


But then there’s Zinedine Zidane, who was not only the best player in the world in his prime, but arguably the best manager in the world at one point too.  


Following the dismissal of Rafa Benitez in January 2016, Zidane was tasked with salvaging Real Madrid’s season against both the mighty Barcelona (with their notorious MSN attacking lineup of Messi, Suarez and Neymar) and underrated Atletico Madrid, who had truly upended the hierarchy of Spanish football in the mid 2010s under Diego Simeone. 


Within months, Zizou took all 3 points at the Nou Camp in the league (ending a 39 game unbeaten run for Barcelona), and took Los Blancos to the final of the UEFA Champions. In that controversial rematch vs Atletico, Zidane further cemented his status as a club legend by scooping the trophy on penalties at the San Siro.


What followed for Zidane is an almost unprecedented stranglehold on the Champions League that we’ve not seen in decades: two more trophies followed for Real Madrid, convincingly beating a remarkable Juventus side in Cardiff in 2017, and an emerging Liverpool team in 2018. Handedly disposing of Man City, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico and more along the way, Zidane’s Real Madrid in continental football had to be seen to be believed.


9) Marcello Lippi


From a man who won the World Cup as a player to one who won it as a manager. Marcello Lippi was a driving force in Italy’s renaissance as a footballing superpower in the late 90s and early 2000s. 


Retiring after a solid if a tad unremarkable career in his native land, Lippi’s first forays as manager saw him soon impress Juventus, who he transformed into one of Europe’s most consistently brilliant footballing sides. 


But it was for the Italian national team where Lippi made his greatest: with Fabio Cannavaro (and controversially no Paolo Maldini) at the back, Italy conceded just a single goal en-route to the final in Berlin, where they faced fierce rivals France, who had drastically turned their tournament form around at the right time. 


Avenging the Azzurri’s defeats to France at both the ‘98 World Cup and Euro 2000, Lippi saw his Italy side through on penalties as they once again ascended world football’s highest mountain. 


Lippi’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself: 1 World Cup, 5 Scudettos, 4 Champions League finals, and 5 total Supercups: a truly deserved trophy haul for a standout figure in a golden generation of legendary Italian managers.


8) Vincente Del Bosque


Arguably the 1A to Lippi’s 1B, anything he could do, Del Bosque could seemingly do better.


Whilst perhaps not as consistent as his Italian counterpart, Del Bosque was a true winner when it mattered, whether that be for his beloved Real Madrid, or as manager of the Spanish National Team. 


Winning the 2000 and 2002 iterations of the Champions League with Real Madrid was impressive, but Del Bosque’s greatest managerial feat is no doubt his run as manager of La Furia Roja: completely dominating the international tournaments between 2008 and 2012 like we’ve never seen before.


By the time he retired, Del Bosque had won every single trophy available to him, and his Spain side is widely heralded as one of the greatest sporting sides ever conceived. Bringing a more conservative, tiki-taka style of play to the international stage


Eric Cantona once famously said that Spain didn’t win those competitions, but Real Madrid and Barcelona alone did: arguably a disservice to the main man in charge, Del Bosque’s legacy in football is forever cemented by his work with Spain. 


7) Jupp Heynckes 


A master tactician who constantly excelled at the highest level, Heynckes is revered as one of the finest managers in all of mainland Europe. 


Primarily known for his stints at Bayern Munich, where he cemented the Bavarian giants as the no.1 force in the Bundesliga like we’ve seen very few clubs match both in and out of that league.


Even when he looked to have shut the door on his Bayern Munich career for good in the 2010s, he was relied upon to steady the ship in the wake of Carlo Ancelotti’s departure in the 2017-18 season. What Heynckes produced in terms of results (22 wins in 26 BuLi matches, as well as a run to the Semi Finals of that season’s Champions League) is nothing short of incredible.


One of the rare few managers to win the European Cup at more than one club, as well as accumulating success with Schalke and Monchengladbach, Heynckes managed to successfully translate his immense form as a player, and frankly does not receive enough plaudits for his contributions to the game.  


6) Arsene Wenger


A revolutionary figure in the English game, Frenchman Wenger transformed the Premier League from a near-one team monopoly in the 1990s to the diverse, competitive division we saw in the 2000s and early 2010s. 


Introducing new attitudes towards scouting, player welfare and the global appeal of the game, Le Professeur excelled at Arsenal with a very limited budget compared to his rivals at Manchester United and later Chelsea and Manchester City. Nearly 30 years since Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal, the immediate impact he had and success he enjoyed is frankly miraculous given the circumstances.


And of course, there’s the ‘Invincibles’: 26 wins, 12 draws, and 0 losses for Wenger’s Arsenal in the 2003-04 campaign: many have tried to replicate it in the Premier League, a few have even come close, but so far no one has been able to match it: barring an immense amount of luck and fiscal power from one team, it’s very likely Mr Wenger’s record will ever be matched in the English Premier League. 


5) Louis Van Gaal


One of the most respected (and feared) managers in football history, Louis Van Gaal is the definition of a determined, serial winner, and the archetypical football manager who the game sorely needs in modern times. 


Entrusted with managing clubs like Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, Van Gaal quickly implemented a strict philosophy wherever he went. No one player would be bigger than the team, and that tactics and ingenuity from all would be the foundations for his success: the immense youth talent than Van Gaal brought through Ajax reads like a who’s who of football in the 1990s and 2000s: Kluivert, Bergkamp, Overmars, Seedorf and Davids being just some of the names who got their first chance at glory under the Dutch icon.


There was always a sense of inevitability with Van Gaal’s sides: that no game was every truly won until the final whistle: the Netherlands's recent World Cup classic with Argentina in Qatar showcasing just that.


Critics may have labelled him ‘arrogant’ and ‘divisive’, but for a man with over 20 major honours as a manager, success in football comes with results, and Van Gaal is one of the greatest of them all in that regard. 


4) Carlo Ancelotti


It’s a testament to any manager’s ability that they can consistently deliver results and trophies for over two decades: Carlo Ancelotti’s affinity for cup competitions is exactly that.


A ‘Mr European Cup’ if ever there was one, the Italian great’s success in the competition is unprecedented: multiple triumphs with AC Milan and Real Madrid since the early 2000s is unheard of in the entire history of the competition.


And that is just the tip of the eyebrow-raising iceberg: winning cups galore at Chelsea and Bayern Munich as well as the aforementioned AC Milan and Real Madrid ( as well as a few league titles along the way), the class and quality of Don Carlo’s sides cannot be understated.


Modern football’s equivalent of Napoleon, Ancelotti seemingly conquered wherever he went in Europe, and his reputation will last for decades to come in football. 


3) Sir Alex Ferguson


The most decorated manager in all of football history, what is there to be said about the greatness of Sir Alex Ferguson that hasn’t already been said before. 


Even before managing Manchester United, Ferguson was winning both acclaim and trophies with Aberdeen, before the Scotsman was called upon to transform the fortunes off the sleeping English giant.


What followed afterwards is simply footballing history that might never be repeated: 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, and until very recently, a historic continental treble won by an English side, Sir Alex Ferguson is akin to a God in the game we call football.


‘Fergie’ and his influence on football is still felt over a decade after his last foray in the dugout, and he remains the benchmark for every ‘great’ manager to step foot on English shores and whoever thinks they can dominate a division quite like he did in the 1990s. 


2) Pep Guardiola


Johan Cruyff is often cited as a revolutionary figure in football both on the pitch and within the dugout. One of his ex-players and students, Pep Guardiola, took the legendary Dutchman’s teachings, made them his own, and changed football history in the process.


Once part of Cruyff’s proverbial ‘Dream Team’, Guardiola’s possession-heavy football shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Instead, it made stars of the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets, as well as a certain Argentine who you might have heard of called Lionel Messi. 


A domestic competition specialist, only three managers have ever pipped Guardiola to a league title. Combined with multiple Champions League wins, domestic cup triumphs, and even the incredibly rare ‘Sextuple’ from his time in Catalonia, Guardiola is only 52 years old, and still has another decade at least to add more trophies to his almost unparalleled cabinet. 


Whilst critics are quick to point to Guardiola’s tendency to capitulate on the grander stages, as well as rely upon seemingly unlimited financial resources, no one can deny that it takes a great manager to combine it all together and generate near-perfect results.


Guardiola’s squads like his 2009-12 Barcelona and his Centurions Man City side are amongst the greatest collections of players ever assembled, but their success cannot be touted to raw talent alone, and it will be a long time before we ever see a more complete manager than Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola. 


1) Jose Mourinho 


Not only is Jose Mourinho the greatest football manager of all time, but he is arguably the greatest team sport manager of all time as well. 


The son of a Portuguese goalkeeper, Mourinho found himself as the protege of the late great Sir Bobby Robson, who he followed and studied religiously before finally getting his first responsibilities in the Portuguese League. 


It’s here where we began to first see signs of the ‘Special One’: an underdog triumph in the 2004 Champions League with Porto secured him a groundbreaking move to Chelsea: in his very first season in the toughest league in the world, he transformed a team of underachievers and young talents into the title winners: boasting the best defence the English top flight will ever see, and competing with both Ferguson and Wenger, Jose was merely a manager in his infancy and was already sending shockwaves wherever he went.


His magnum opus: the 2010 Champions League. As manager of Inter Milan, Mourinho worked his magic once more, narrowly edging out Guardiola’s Barcelona in one of the greatest knockout ties of all time, before scooping his second Champions League in the final. 


Subsequent successful spells at Real Madrid (where he achieved a then-La Liga points tally), Chelsea (where he won his 3rd Premier League trophy), and Roma (where he won the inaugural UEFA Conference League) seemingly wherever Mourinho went, success would almost certainly follow. 


But Mourinho is more than just a successful manager: oozing charisma, class, arrogance, and every emotion imaginable, you could not help but watch and admire what Mourinho was doing and wish your manager would be doing the same. 


A trailblazer in every sense of the word, we would be increasingly fortunate to see Jose Mourinho continue to dominate the sport of football both in and out of the dugout: a true legend of sport, and arguably the greatest football manager of the last 30 years. 


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