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Football

A Potted History Of Hipster Football Managers

Football hipsters can be identified by a variety of distinct tells, not least their confident use of terms like regista, trequartista and catenaccio.

by Will Magee
04 March 2017, 7:36am

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

On 25 November 1953, a match was played at Wembley Stadium which would change the course of football history. On a magnificent unbeaten streak of 24 games, the Hungary team known as the Mighty Magyars stepped out onto the pitch and proceeded to annihilate a supposedly invulnerable England side. The Hungarians triumphed 6-3 on the day, with the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Nándor Hidegkuti methodically dismantling their opponents, despite the presence of England legends like Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and future manager Alf Ramsey in their starting line up. The fixture would become known as the 'Match of the Century', dubbed as such by the English press after a humbling and unexpected loss to a manifestly superior national team.

While the raw talent of the Hungary squad was no doubt a decisive factor in the encounter, equally important was the tactical innovation which allowed that talent to flourish and thrive. Much of that innovation came from the mind of Gusztáv Sebes, the head coach of the Hungary national team and the country's Deputy Minister for Sport. Born the son of a cobbler in Budapest and a trade union organiser in his younger years, Sebes was a committed socialist who believed his ideology could be applied to football. In the early post-war period, his political outlook made him a suitable managerial candidate as far as the communist authorities were concerned, and so having originally headed a three-man committee he was rapidly promoted to sole charge of the side.

Playing a self-professed brand of socialist football with a focus on mutual cooperation, Hungary came to be one of the greatest teams the game has ever seen, as they showed that November when they trounced England on Wembley's hallowed turf. While England shaped up in their usual, dated 'WM' formation, maintaining a rigid shape based on the predominant tactical consensus of the past few decades, Sebes' men formed up in a 4-2-4 with interchangeable and fluid positions on the pitch. Sebes' theory was that each player should be able to fill in elsewhere as well as carrying out his own positional responsibilities, with the team thinking as a collective as opposed to a group of individuals with distinct duties. Meanwhile, he pioneered a whole new set of positions, with Nándor Hidegkuti acting as his deep-lying forward, Ferenc Puskás a nascent midfield playmaker, overlapping full-backs who could double up as wingers and an incipient sweeper in front of a neoteric back four.

Sebes' socialistic tactical alterations helped shape the  Totaalvoetbal of Rinus Michels, while there are echoes of his groundbreaking ideas in the prevailing tactics of the modern day. Though the Mighty Magyars never quite achieved their potential, losing 3-2 to West Germany in the World Cup final of 1954, their legacy has been intricately woven into the fabric of the beautiful game. What's more, Sebes' unconventional genius inspired not only the generation of managers who succeeded him, but also an elusive sort of supporter who exists on the peripheries of the present moment. Having lapsed into relative obscurity since his tenure as Hungary boss ended in 1957, Sebes is the godfather of the hipster football fan, or at least that's what some would have us believe.

On the face of it, Sebes was the grand master of what are now timeworn football hipster stereotypes, from niche formations to heavily accented team sheets, socioeconomic game theory to tactical nerdiness of all shapes and forms. He also had the advantage of never quite attaining mainstream success – Hungary ended up as valiant losers, after all – while his suave but austere Eastern Bloc aesthetic is fairly 'in' amongst fashionistas these days. Whether or not this is enough to class him as the godfather of the hipster football fan very much depends on whether one recognises the concept of a football hipster in the first place, with some inclined to denounce as 'hip' anyone who doesn't adhere to the philosophy of  Mike Bassett, namely that the only valid formation is "FOUR-FOUR-FUCKING-TWO". That said, there is no denying that the hipster archetype has slipped into football's collective consciousness over the past few years, seemingly at some indefinite point between the second LCD Soundsystem album and André Villas-Boas taking over at Porto.

According to conventional wisdom, football hipsters can be identified by a variety of distinct tells, not least their confident use of terms like  regista trequartista and  catenaccio. They will, invariably, own a selection of vintage football tops, including but not limited to Borussia Dortmund, Livorno and Real Oviedo home shirts as well as the 1990/91 West Germany strip. They will have a detailed and meticulous knowledge of all of the continent's second division form tables, not for the sake of accumulators – like normal people might – but because they are genuinely interested in the weekly fortunes of Eintracht Braunschweig. What's more, they will have a profound admiration for a select few managers, who by association become hipsters themselves.

Like all things that are supposedly 'on trend', hipster managers go in and out of fashion. The fastest way for a manager to become outmoded is for them to be overexposed in the media or, worse, receive widespread acclaim for their work in the game. Much like Gusztáv Sebes retains his niche cool because the Mighty Magyars failed to win the World Cup, managers who rake in the silverware tend to do so at the expense of their left-field credentials. So the darlings of yesteryear's football hipster include Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and, naturally, Villas-Boas, with the first two now far too well known to retain their cultural cachet in bohemian circles, and Villas-Boas still recovering from his time at Chelsea, possibly the least fashionable of contemporary clubs.

Andre Villas-boas. PA Images

In the ongoing rehabilitation of Villas-Boas as a hipster manager, there are perhaps some further clues as to how the phenomenon is meant to work. Not only does he still look the part with his unshorn beard and exquisitely shaped quiff, he's also managed to retain the facade of having an original philosophy involving – in no particular order – transitions, micro-tactics and a double midfield pivot in the midst of a 4-3-3. Combine this with the fact that he won three trophies with Zenit St. Petersburg and still somehow managed to be heroically unpopular, and the essence of the hipster manager is gradually restored to him. It is crucial for such a manager to be an unrequited and underappreciated genius, constantly searching for tactical and intellectual improvements even if that means advocating a brand of football that the average fan thinks is shite.

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Accordingly, the hipster manager that has best survived the test of time surely has to be Marcelo Bielsa. An erratic and mercurial man in possession of football's best pair of spectacles, he is so hip that he even has a recognised tactical system named after him in the form of  Bielsista. Often described as a fundamentalist, his pioneering use of a fluid 3-3-1-3 formation with a high press and an even higher defensive line is a South American take on  Totaalvoetbal, with links back to Gusztáv Sebes in turn. This, combined with the use of positional terminology like  líbero enganche and the frankly absurd  lateral volantes, makes him a luminary in the sphere of recherché tactical machinations. He is often presented as an intellectual, almost academic figure, a trailblazer whose approach is so off the wall that he was nicknamed  El Loco early on in his managerial career and the moniker has hung around ever since.

Marcelo Bielsa. PA Images

The list of places that Bielsa has managed reads like a tour one might take while writing a vast body of magical realist fiction, which in fairness seems like something that Bielsa himself might do in his spare time. He has coached in Rosario, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires and Catalonia, spent turbulent but productive spells in charge of the Argentine and Chilean national teams, and since resigning from the Chile job in 2011 been boss of Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and Lazio, the latter for a total of two days. Bielsa quit Lazio on a point of principle with the club having failed to sign the players he wanted, which on the evidence of 48 hours in Rome seems a magnificently impulsive and indeed edgy thing to do. If all of this has preserved Bielsa's hipster kudos in what seems like perpetuity, it helps that he won all of his major silverware back in the nineties, barring that most ambivalently received of international accolades: an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004.

Cited as an inspiration by Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, amongst others, Bielsa has at least roused a younger generation of managers to success despite getting mixed results himself – his win ratio has varied across his career from 22.22% to 61.76%. He is no doubt considered a formative influence by the new breed of hipster manager, too, with his take on the pressing game certainly in vogue at the moment. Jorge Sampaoli is widely considered to be another of his disciples, with Bielsa's fellow Argentine currently making waves at Sevilla and apparently in line for the Barcelona job. Of course, should Sampaoli ever take over at Camp Nou, he will doubtlessly cease to be beloved of hipsters whether or not he maintains his aura of effortless, hairless cool.

While Sampaoli has cultivated his hip image by overachieving with a diverse team of capricious and sufficiently inflected talents – think Joaquín Correa, Daniel Carriço and Benoît Trémoulinas, not to mention criminally underrated former Stoke man Steven N'Zonzi – producing a fresh take on  Bielsista is not the only way to earn a niche following. Other contemporary hipster managers include Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann, Leonardo Jardim and Ian Cathro, the latter earning a place on the list for shocking the Scottish football establishment by occasionally using a MacBook Pro. Tuchel has managed to take up the hip mantel at Dortmund which was bestowed upon him by his immediate predecessor, mainly by flitting around the Bundesliga's European places while still providing confused English pundits with the opportunity to say the word ' gegenpressing'Nagelsmann is only 29 years old – still young enough to enthusiastically engage in hipster culture, were he so inclined – while Jardim is a Portuguese-Venezuelan Francophile with a selection of extremely debonair cashmere scarves, who also happens to currently have Monaco scoring absolutely fuckloads of goals.

These are all reasonable criteria for being labelled a hipster manager, with the definition fairly broad in the minds of those who use the phrase. The case of Cathro is perhaps the funniest in terms of demonstrating how utterly inane this stereotype can be, with the man essentially damned as a trendy for having the temerity to use a laptop, as if he's writing a screenplay in an independent coffee shop as opposed to utilising modern technology to supplement his coaching techniques. While categorising certain sorts of managers and fans as hipsters is undeniably 'a thing' these days, there's a strong argument for it being a reductive way to dismiss the game's most compelling tacticians and personalities, the people who admire them, and basically anyone who doesn't meet the standards of the accepted footballing norm. Sure, it seems unlikely that Marcelo Bielsa would refer to any major tactical theory as 'a load of old bollocks', but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the footballing equivalent of cereal cafes and Fairtrade coffee beans.

Znedek Zeman. PA Images

If there is one manager who actually reflects the true spirit of cultural hipsterdom, it is surely Zdeněk Zeman. Sure, he's a Czech with an accent in his name, he's a sharp dresser and has been known to smoke cigarettes in his press conferences, but he stands out through his wilful refusal to conform for its own sake. Writing in his autobiography,  I Think, Therefore I Play, Andrea Pirlo describes Zeman's approach as bordering on "the very limits of reality." The fact that he has coached 16 teams, several on more than one occasion, is testament to his ability to baffle and alienate his hierarchical superiors. Currently at Pescara, he has won three trophies in 34 years of senior management, namely two Serie B triumphs two decades apart and a Serie C2 title with Licata back in the eighties.

He has managed both Lazio and Roma (twice), upset pretty much everyone in Italian football, and in the meantime shunned mainstream success with an almost religious fervour. He is a contrarian by nature, a free spirit, and a non-conformist to an almost absurdist degree. As such, he is the closest thing football has to a genuine hipster manager. He is adored by a small group of likeminded tactical recusants for setting his teams up in a theoretically intricate, geometrically inspired, defensively porous 4-3-3, for refusing to compromise on his principles despite all the empirical evidence available to him, and most of all for being staunchly, devotedly, fanatically niche.