Power Rankings: Europe's top 20 football managers
In football, nothing settles arguments quite like results. When it comes to deciding the quality of managers, though, it can be more complex. Results can distort, not least for the fact coaches are working with different resources and from different starting points.
So, in order to try to work out the greatest manager in the game right now, ESPN FC opted to go back to the fundamentals. The key is in the job title: "managing" the resources available, and that was a fundamental factor as we looked at the past five years to determine this list.
These results, hopefully, are telling ...
1. Pep Guardiola
The real brilliance of Guardiola is that he didn't just change Barcelona. He changed football itself. You could sense something so different when his terrific team really began to find their stride, around September 2008. They blew so many opposition sides away, and thereby blew the game open.
His appointment marked one of those key junctures in football history, on exactly the same line as the rise of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels at Ajax in the late 1960s and Arrigo Sacchi's two European Cups with a magnificent AC Milan at the end of the 80s. Sacchi insisted as much himself. "Like my Milan," the Italian enthused at the very high point of Barcelona's spell of success between 2008 and 2012, "this team mark a 'before' and 'after' in world football."
It says even more than Sacchi that, from that point on, everyone had to adjust to Barca's approach. His possession-pressing game -- labelled "tiki-taka", a title Guardiola himself doesn't like -- rippled through the game more than anything since Sacchi's own abrasive approach. Either teams tried to replicate it or they had to adjust to it. It had an effect on everyone, but few could affect his Barca.
Unlike so many other innovators -- not least Sacchi himself -- Guardiola wasn't a manager who designed a tactic only to see someone else take it to new heights. He took it to its peaks, most notably the 2009 and 2011 Champions League final victories over Manchester United. Barca were as oppressively dominant in terms of silverware as they were on the pitch.
Yet, out of the nine major trophies he has won in five seasons, one question has persisted: how would he have done with a side that wasn't ready-made for success?
That is to almost miss the point. Guardiola hasn't just come into squads and facilitated victory. He's come in and taken teams to the most extreme levels possible, while displaying a defined influence. His one major career failure so far, in fact, was the consequence of those extremes. Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga ludicrously early last season, sapping the intensity and drive Guardiola so demands. It meant they were well off their best by the team Real Madrid levelled them 5-0 on aggregate in last season's Champions League semifinals.
That defeat illustrates how Guardiola is far from perfect. His purism often gets the better of him, as does his micromanagement. The true brilliance is that has brought him closer to perfection than anyone else.
2. Jose Mourinho
For all the controversy, all the theatrics and all the debate he creates, one thing about Jose Mourinho has always been clear: if he is in charge of a team, they will be genuinely challenging for trophies. It has been a constant of his career.
The Portuguese introduces a certain intensity, and that in turn ensures a baseline of ultra-competitiveness. Mourinho turns teams into proper contenders and, even after two years without a trophy right now, his Chelsea side are on the charge again. Like Guardiola, those who argue he has become little more than a chequebook manager almost miss the point. It is not that Mourinho needs money to win. It is that he has not yet had to drop down to the type of job at which money is an issue.
Since the supreme Champions League win with Porto in 2004, he has just kept going, through the 2010 treble with Internazionale to breaking Barcelona's dominance in Spain. Mourinho's high-end pragmatism makes him possibly the closest thing in the modern game to a guarantee since Sir Alex Ferguson. Those guarantees don't all involve controversy.
3. Diego Simeone
On the eve of the 2014 Champions League final, Atletico Madrid midfielder Tiago attempted to put Simeone's management into words. One stood out. "I think for us, for all the club," Tiago enthused, "he's like a god."
Simeone went extremely close to a modern football miracle, as Real Madrid equalised in the last minute of that final to go on and win 4-1 in extra time, but he still produced a feat of alchemy. The Argentine's Atletico side have defied the current economics of the sport, making a mockery of the resources available to Real and Barca with last season's title win. Simeone derives a remarkable devotion from his players, and that has produced astounding achievements. It has also produced teams who relentlessly reflect his tenacious personality. That is often said to be a hallmark of greats. Few display it better.
4. Jurgen Klopp
For all the great lines that Klopp has come out with, from those about liking "heavy metal" to how his side are "monsters of mentality," there's one that stands out. "The important thing is new ideas, not money," Klopp once said. "You always want to be the team that can beat the one with more money."
This is something that the German had made a habit of. He set the trend for the likes of Simeone and Brendan Rodgers in managing feats that were supposed to be way beyond their finances. Dortmund's successive titles between 2010 and 2012 were among the greatest achievements in the modern European game, as they levelled Bayern and so many other sides.
But that is not all that sets Klopp apart. The common quality among such coaches is a leader's charisma, but Klopp has always offered something truly distinctive: a style of rampaging football somewhere between the purism of Guardiola and pragmatism of Mourinho. That has lately led his Dortmund to become stretched with so many injuries, but few should bet against Klopp again stretching expectations.
5. Louis van Gaal
It's remarkable to think that when it was first announced that Van Gaal would become Manchester United manager, there were considerable doubts over whether he was still at the forefront of the game. The 63-year-old then launched a moderate Dutch side to the World Cup semifinals, relaunched his legacy and reminded everyone he was still the coach who brought Ajax to the 1995 Champions League trophy and Bayern Munich to the 2010 final. Van Gaal remains one of the most astute tactical minds in the game, and a force of personality. He has pushed his way back to the top.
6. Manuel Pellegrini
The Chilean may have just won the first trophies of his career in Europe with the 2014 Premier League and League Cup, but they are far from his first feats. Pellegrini defied finance to produce brilliant football with Villarreal and then an asset-stripped Malaga, before then using cash superbly to produce some of the most sensational football ever seen in England at Manchester City. He may not seem to have the hard edge of other managers, but he still facilitates fantastic play.
7. Brendan Rodgers
A man at the forefront of a new breed of manager, defined by their positivity and technical excellence. These have also been the hallmarks of Rodgers' teams. They can rise to near unplayable levels through sheer technique. Consider, then, Rodgers' own rise. He got Swansea promoted and took them to a midtable finish their finances should have mitigated against before taking Liverpool to a title challenge that should have also been beyond them. The next step will be a challenge, but Rodgers has already risen to a few.
8. Antonio Conte
He's the coach who returned Juventus to glory by commonly reshaping their tactics and setting records along the way. His standout achievement was probably the 2011-12 unbeaten season, but there were so many it's hard to pick the best.
9. Rudi Garcia
The football dazzles, but the achievements should be considered in the same light. Garcia took Lille to a supreme Ligue 1 win that was almost France's equivalent of Borussia Dortmund, and already threatened to do the same with Roma. That side certainly look threatening in attack, as they have offered blistering football.
10. Roberto Martinez
It sums up much of the debate about the Spaniard that in the same week he sensationally won the 2013 FA Cup with Wigan Athletic, his club were finally relegated. However, that is the wrong way to look at it. It wasn't that Martinez sent Wigan down. It was that he had produced heroics to keep up for so long one of the least resourced clubs in the Premier League. Maximising resources led to Everton's best-ever points return in the Premier League, and indicates a bright future.
11. Carlo Ancelotti
In 19 years of management, Ancelotti has won as many domestic titles as he has European titles. One of those stats is historic, the other is much more questionable. Overall, there is a clear contradiction to the Italian's career. He is better at navigating the nuances of fortune in knockout football rather than the deeper, more thorough nature of a league campaign. That means his career has peaks, but he himself has never quite been at the level of Guardiola or Mourinho.
12. Unai Emery
In winning the 2014 Europa League, Emery finally had the piece of silverware to prove his pedigree. The 42-year-old oversaw Valencia during one of the most difficult periods in the club's history, as they suffered from a raft of financial problems, but still competed against Spain's biggest sides with some technically excellent football. He is a manager to get excited about.
13. Joachim Low
As with Spain's Vicente del Bosque, Low illustrates one of the problems in judging coaches who are with teams so obviously better than the majority of their opposition: it's even more difficult to separate the squad's quality from managerial input. Low has made Germany so imposingly difficult to play against. In six years, there's barely been a slip or an error. Indeed, given that Spain were so clearly the best team in the world when defeating them in the 2010 World Cup semifinals, it could even be said that Low's only mistake in all that time was the Euro 2012 last-four defeat to Italy.
14. Marcelo Bielsa
One of the most influential coaches in the game, but it's not all theory with Bielsa, even if practice rarely makes perfect with him. The Argentine restored both Chile and Athletic Bilbao to prominence and showed that virtually any squad can play a vigorously attractive style. In guiding Marseille to the top of Ligue 1 this season, his legend has only grown.
15. Frank de Boer
The only surprise about De Boer's managerial career so far is that he hasn't yet followed so many of his former key players out of Ajax. It illustrates the promise of his management, however, that he still produces victories not just in the Eredivisie, but the Champions League too.
16. Vicente del Bosque
He was key to Spain becoming the first side to hold three major international trophies (2010 World Cup and European championships of 2008 and 2012), setting a certain tempo and regularly fine-tuning the team so they stayed at the top. He couldn't quite keep that up during the misery of the 2014 World Cup but there is an argument that the erosion of time made that inevitable. Del Bosque had been part of an achievement for the ages.
17. Cesare Prandelli
One of the keenest tactical minds in the game, he offered a keynote achievement in beating Germany with Italy to unexpectedly reach the final of Euro 2012. That tournament saw Prandelli repeatedly reshape his team, and it said much that it took a side as historically brilliant as Spain to stop their charge in the final..
18. Mauricio Pochettino
The Argentine hasn't yet lifted a trophy, but he has now lifted two separate teams -- Espanyol and Southampton -- to league positions and levels of football beyond their status. Having achieved with lower expectations, he must now guide Tottenham to the level they expect -- the Premier League top four -- based on the money that has been invested in the squad.
19. Arsene Wenger
In annually reaching the Champions League, the veteran continues to produce the minimum expected, which is something that so many others fail with and not to be scoffed at. The only issue is that he used to be about so much more. He used to strive to finish first. Arsenal now finish exactly where they are expected to. Financial gaps don't completely cover it. The great manager has entered an extended period of stagnation, but that has still meant standing strong.
20. Rafa Benitez
The Spaniard has almost been one of the greatest victims of Pep Guardiola's victories, given how the Catalan's tactical approach ensured Benitez became a little out of step with the game's most sophisticated football. That did not render him irrelevant, though; far from it. Few are better at setting up a solid team, as was emphasised by his 2012 Europa League win with Chelsea and the Italian Cup success last season at Napoli.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.