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Aug 6, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 11: Del Bosque

It's not a bad CV by any standards: one World Cup, one European championship, two Champions League crowns and two league titles as a coach. Despite the hangdog expression and the weathered face that could belong to a man several years older, Vicente del Bosque (63) has a few years left in him yet -- if he chooses to spend them in the dugout, of course. You get the impression that he might. He doesn't look the golf-course type.

Vicente del Bosque has won a World Cup, a European championship, two Champions League crowns and two league titles as a coach.
Vicente del Bosque has won a World Cup, a European championship, two Champions League crowns and two league titles as a coach.

The adjectives that tend to accompany profiles of del Bosque are usually of a similar ilk: humble, unassuming and quiet. Born in Salamanca in 1950 to a family of railway unionists, his upbringing taught him the importance and the power of the collective, at its most effective when everyone was rowing in the same direction. As a serious socialist, del Bosque's main method as a coach has been a simple one: establish a feel-good atmosphere where egos fear to tread, sacrifice the individual to the team and always stay calm and collected. Steve McManaman, who played under him at Real Madrid, described him as protective and avuncular. He also claimed that del Bosque's secret was to trust the players implicitly -- a trust they largely returned to him by making his side (from 1999 to 2003) the most successful Madrid team of the modern era. 

This was no mean achievement, coming in the wake of the notorious "Ferrari Boys" of the late 1990s. McManaman even claimed that del Bosque rarely gave tactical talks, seldom saw or spoke to them after the game, and generally shunned the limelight. And it worked, until Florentino Pérez decided to usher in the 'galáctico' era and sack del Bosque ostensibly for being over-conservative. Rumour had it that he was simply considered too "ugly" for the shiny new marketing future planned for the club by its chief architect in the shadows, José Angel Sánchez. Since his departure, Real Madrid have gone through ten managers in as many years. Carlo Ancelotti, the 11th, is a man who shares many of del Bosque's attributes. Pérez just might have got it right this time.

 

Madrid's loss has been Spain's gain, of course. Taking over from the more media-awkward Luis Aragonés in 2008, del Bosque has gone on to unprecedented success with the national side, so long famed for its tendency to choke on the big occasion. Cynics wonder whether he wasn't also a trifle fortunate to inherit the best squad of players to emerge from the ranks of Barcelona for some time -- backed up by the best of Real Madrid -- and then simply allow the Catalan model to prosper on the international stage. If del Bosque (made a marquis in 2011 by King Juan Carlos) was a less popular man, the theory might be more widespread, but it is a testament to his popularity in the country as a whole that people prefer to emphasise his man-management skills.

As a tactician there is nothing radical to his approach. Basing his possession game on the metronomic qualities of Xavi Hernandez, he has stuffed Spain's midfield with a trusty phalanx of creative and intelligent players, and then blurred the line that separates the "media punta" (the player in the hole) from the attacking midfielder, often dispensing with a conventional striker altogether. With nobody to mark, opposing centre backs have been overwhelmed by an onrushing tide of players able to "jugar entre lineas" (play between the lines) like Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. Backed up by solid characters such as Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué, del Bosque has conducted the orchestra with the minimum of fuss. Long may he prosper.

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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