"He was light years ahead. He used to train our brains before our legs. When he came to Italy, nobody really knew the names of the coaches – they didn't really appear in the press, they only worked in the dressing room and on the pitch. He turned things around."
Sandro Mazzola, the legendary Inter midfielder had this to say about Helenio Herrera, the brilliant Argentine manager who took the world by storm with his ruthless managerial prowess – the focus of our managerial list today.
We live in a time in which we’re used to looking at teams as a unit of their marvellous managers. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla side are some examples of prestigious footballing clubs often referred to in the shadow of their brilliant managers.
Such respect and prestige, however, weren’t always given to managers, though. And when Helenio Herrera was starting his managerial career it was unheard of.
However, in years to come, the Argentine’s success and impact on his team made him the first real superstar manager and paved the way for the kind of respect coaches are given today.
Rise to prominence
Herrera was born in Argentina but his family would relocate to Casablanca, and that is where he would start his playing career. Here, he’d turn out for a series of clubs as a central defender that included Stade Francais, and Red Star Olympique. His playing career, however, wasn’t adorned with the success that his managerial career would be but was imperative in shaping his understanding of the game.
Herrera’s managerial stint with Real Valladolid is what caught the attention of Spanish giants Atletico Madrid and the Argentine would win 2 La Liga titles with the Rojiblancos, announcing his pedigree as a manager on the international stage. His attention to fitness and mental preparation, attention to detail and tactical nous was immediately apparent. He would then go on to take charge of Malaga, Deportivo and Sevilla before then taking charge of Barcelona where he would win the League title another two times.
Becoming a legend at Inter
Despite all this success, it was, however, Herrera’s time at Inter though that would really catapult his status as one of the best managers the world had ever seen. He arrived from Barcelona with his midfield dynamo Luis Suarez and would set up the team in a 5-3-2 formation.
Grande Inter, as the team would later be known as became famous for their watertight defence and lethal counterattacks. Though ‘Catenaccio’, the playing style that he supposedly adopted has been often lazily referred to as an overly defensive approach in the years since what it really involved is a patient and concentrated defence and quick counterattacks.
The wing-backs in the back five, for instance, would not merely defend but also fly down the wings whenever given the opportunity. Giancinto Facchetti, one of the best left-backs to grace the game scored 75 goals in his Inter career, an astounding number.
Inter would win 3 Serie A titles under Herrera’s stewardship and also win consecutive European Cups in 1964 and 1965. They emphatically beat Real Madrid 3-1 in the first final, (with Sandro Mazzola getting on the scoresheet twice) and Eusebio’s Benfica in the next.
Herrera is remembered as one of the most ruthless, domineering and dictatorial managers the game has seen. He wasn’t the most likeable, and nor was his football too aesthetically pleasing (especially his tenure at Inter) – but he knew how to win and how to extract the last ounce of drive from each of his players and eventually that is why he is remembered even today.
Herrera invented the ‘ritiro’, a retreat used by teams even today when a club is going through a spell of bad results. The entire playing squad isn’t allowed to go home and instead checked into a resort away from the city to train and bond together. Herrera would also monitor player’s personal lives, often overstepping a line other managers would dare not walk over.
His heightened sense of discipline applied to his own life as well, and he never smoked and rarely drank, followed a strict diet himself and got up to meditate early each morning. These are all factors that led to his astonishing focus and drive, that eventually rubbed off on his teams and drove them to success.
The Argentine’s attention to psychology is also well documented, and he would take extraordinary and painstaking efforts to know all he could about each player in his team. Herrera would make sure he knew what was required to fire each of them up. It was this persistence and desire, this will to win that would make Herrera the genius that he was, and place him so high on our distinguished list.
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