What exactly is an “elite tactician” ?

René Silhouett3
7 min readMay 18, 2022

Football tactics are like a river and while most managers are happy going with the flow, the truly great managers push against the banks and break off to create their own paths to the ocean.

Zdeněk Zeman

We live in a footballing era unlike any other. Of course the previous generations had footballing greats like Eusebio, Pele and Maradona but we are spoilt beyond belief. I first fell in love with football when I watched Ronaldinho turn players inside out and not long after the aliens Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo held the footballing landscape prisoner for more than a decade.

In the summer of 2008, a couple of things happened. Firstly, a small streaming service called Spotify was launched(not important), the world was reeling from the devastating housing crisis that caused a 2 trillion dollar loss in the global economy(very important but not to this story) and Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was hired as manager of FC Barcelona(not as important as the last point but important to this article). For the very first time in my short years watching football, I felt the tactical impact of a manager on a team. While not exactly sure what I was watching, I knew I was witnessing greatness.

And thus the footballing landscape was changed. Of course there had been many distinct styles in the past such as the distinctly Italian Catennacio meaning door-bolt/chain that is meant to suppress opposition attacks popularized by great Italian managers like Nereo Rocco and Alfredo Foni and later reached it’s zenith with Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan.

It was felled by the next great tactical innovation known as totaalvoetbal (Total Football) popularised by the Dutch team of the 1970s as well as Ajax and their manager at the time Rinus Michels. A little known player known as Johan Cruyff became the physical embodiment of this style of play and when he retired and later became manager, he sought to perfect this style of play in Ajax and later Barcelona where he coached a young Pep Guardiola. But if we’re being completely honest, regular watchers of the sport just wanted their football to either be beautiful, fast or winning or a mixture of 2/3 of these elements.

These elements were embodied by what the players could offer. I’m not trying to undermine what the managers were doing, but in the offensive phase, managers often let the players do their thing while coaching a coherent defensive structure. Jose Mourinho came into the picture and stretched this out to it’s absolute limit. His Chelsea side conceded only 15 goals on their way to a dominant title win in the 2004/05 season. But when Pep arrived at the scene, something was clearly different. He quickly got rid of superstars such as Ronaldinho and Deco among others in search of players who could fit his style of play.

The focus has shifted from “what can the players can do?” to “what do the players do IN their manager’s system?” Scouting structures comprised of hundreds of individuals around the world have been set up to find players who suit the system played by the manager. It’s not as gung ho as before.

It’s become more methodological where players are scouted for months and maybe years to ascertain that they would fit into a specific manager’s plans. Of course there are players who’s talent is so unmistakable and apparent that even if they do not fit you can’t not have them but they are few and far between; of the young players there are right now, only Mbappe, Haaland and arguably Vinicius fall into that category.

So, if football has become so systematic and tactical, it only stands to reason that the best tactical minds would be at the very best clubs right? That isn’t necessarily true. While Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are still at some of the very biggest clubs, managers like Jose Mourinho, Marcelo Bielsa and a personal favorite Zdeněk Zeman have seen their stocks decline over recent years.

Mourinho, once the best manager in world football is managing an Italian giant Roma but that is a long way away from the titans of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Marcelo Bielsa, is another curious case. He’s never managed a truly top European club but ask around and he’s influenced almost every top manager in the game right now.

That brings me to Zdeněk Zeman. Zeman is a curious man, he once professed, ”A 0–0 is boring, it’s better to lose 5–4, at least it gives you some excitement.” In early 1990’s Italy this was not only extreme but also outrageously radical. This coming from the manager of your team right now would not only bring a torrent of abuse from the team’s own fans, it would bring ridicule from the supporters of opposing teams. But from the very start of his career to this day (as he currently manages Foggia for the fourth time) he has never wavered in his beliefs or compromised his ideals.

Playing a frenetic style of football that encouraged an abundance of goals often to the detriment of his own team, he has remained dogged in his ideals. Without going into too much of the nitty-gritty, Zeman’s sides look to overload in attack. While not being an alien concept in any measure, Zeman takes this to a frightening extent.

The basic formation is 4–3–3, with the full-backs expected to play a more attacking role than the conventional full-back (playing more like a wingback). The centre-backs are supposed to run forward and attack once they’ve played the ball. The midfielders do the same, with the wingers cutting inside and being in the box during attacks, becoming more like three forwards than two wingers and a striker. All this makes for a sick form of out and out attacking that requires untold levels of fitness, which is worked on in training and includes punishing training sessions that include marathons through forests and running up and down stadium steps.

This is how a Zeman team (red) usually kicks off. | Lazio vs Cagliari

As you can imagine, Zeman has never had any kind of success at the top level of football despite having managed Italian giants Roma(twice) and Lazio. But why would I focus on what many would call a “hipster manager?” I could have possibly used a better example but he embodies an “elite tactician” more than anyone else I can think of in the game. You’re rolling your eyes right now as you read this but just allow me to explain myself.

Apart from the title, that was the first mention of an elite tactician in this article, and with good reason. Elite tacticians innovate. They push the game into the future, they change the way we think about the game. They take what is conventional in the game, and they flip it. That is my definition of an elite tactician.

Elite tacticians are those who are not afraid to do what has not been done. It’s easy to do what has been done and proven to be successful, but those who are able to rewrite the concepts of the game. Those are truly elite tacticians. Some of these tacticians include Pep Guardiola and his famous “Juego de Posición”, Ralf Rangnick’s famed gegenpressing that inspired many coaches such as Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel and Rinus Michel’s “Total Football”. I may have forgotten about a few of the innovators and elite tacticians there have been in the history of football, but I can’t state their importance to the game.

Here is the point where I make an important distinction. Elite tacticians are not exactly elite managers. While there are some exceptions to the rule of course, most of these figures don’t really reach the top of the game with their styles of play/philosophies. Their ideas are taken by the next generations and the generations after that and improved upon until they become the norm and someone else chooses to flip that around.

As an example, 20 or so years ago, pressing was a foreign concept that was highly erratic and unstructured. That was until Ralf Rangnick tried to enforce a structured press in the German game that was fixated on the 3 at the back system with a sweeper in the mould of Franz Beckenbauer. It was seen as radical until Jurgen Klopp started winning the Bundesliga with this style of play. Nowadays, a pressing game is almost law in the Bundesliga.

When it comes to elite managers however, the only way to truly distinguish them is by how much they have won, not just how they have innovated and changed the game. Sir Alex Ferguson is probably one of the best elite managers ever seen, as his drive to win and his flexibility when it came to absorbing knowledge and tactics from others was otherworldly. There is Jose Mourinho, a man who was so focused on winning he could have gone to any lengths to: he famously poked Tito Villanova in the eye in a brutal El Clasico game. Who can forget Brian Clough and his achievements with Derby County and Nottingham Forest where he won back to back European Cups?

There is a lot more that goes into managing a side, as Julian Nagelsmann aptly put it, “Coaching is 30% tactics & 70% social competence”. So do not worry that your manager did not change the game, few do; worry about whether he can foster a winning culture, motivate his players and most importantly, convince his players that the style of play he enforces is going to bring the team success.

You might look at the footballing landscape and wonder however, where does it evolve from here? I similarly think the same: will the goalkeeper become more of an outfield player as we move on? 3rd man runs are barely exploited in football et cetera but the truly elite tacticians who change the game are not done yet I believe, there is a long way to go. Football is here to stay but who will rise up and become the next truly elite tactician? Time will tell.