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Rating managers’ first touch: Guardiola, Wenger, Mourinho, more

Daniel Farke most certainly led by example at the weekend as the Leeds United manager demonstrated an accomplished piece of ball control over on the sideline during his side’s 3-0 victory over Watford in the Championship.

With a lofted clearance arching high toward his dugout, Farke quickly took stock of the situation, readied himself and proceeded to pull the ball down out of the sky with an elegant first touch, stopping it dead at his feet.

The impressive skill earned generous applause from the crowd (as well as a few stunned looks from the Watford bench), which led the German coach to bow his head and sheepishly acknowledge the admiration he was receiving from the terraces behind him.

A former centre-forward who never quite made it out of the German lower leagues during his professional playing days, Farke nevertheless proved that at least some of the old magic remains.

But the 46-year-old isn’t the first manager to have dazzled onlookers by rolling back the years and treating us to a rare glimpse of their technique.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Antonio Conte

During his first season as Chelsea manager, Conte was the recipient of an affectionate ripple of applause from the Stamford Bridge faithful when the Italian tamed a horribly misplaced cross-field pass on the edge of his technical area during a 3-0 victory over Leicester City in 2016.

Verdict: 7/10 — While undoubtedly stylish, Conte’s first touch did trickle away very slightly and he failed to stop the ball completely dead.

Roberto Mancini

A star for Bologna, Sampdoria and Lazio during his playing days, Mancini has demonstrated his prowess on the touchline several times since he retired in 2001. But the finest example came during his tenure as Manchester City coach when he used a nonchalant backheel to stun a loose ball, all without removing his hands from his coat pockets.

Never shy of reminding the world of his silken skills, Mancini also executed a flamboyant “scorpion” first touch while coaching Italy against Wales. But while it looks good in still images, it actually took a stray bobble off his backside that somewhat undermined the poise.

Verdict: 6.5/10 — Rating his City touch in isolation, Mancini picks up points for the unorthodox reverse sweep with a no-look implementation. But he loses a mark for merely diverting the ball back into the field of play rather than trapping it convincingly.

Pep Guardiola

Captured during a Manchester City training session in 2019, ex-Barcelona midfielder Guardiola was seen leisurely juggling a ball around before punting it up into the air and attempting to bring it down again in one fluid motion.

Verdict: 4/10 — Lack of big-game atmospheric pressure, allied with a fairly sloppy touch that forces him to lose momentum and divert his path.

Carlo Ancelotti

Even at the grand old age of 64, Ancelotti stunned the Real Madrid crowd with a beautifully refined bit of control during a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal tie against Chelsea earlier this year. Under the glare of the Bernabeu floodlights, the AS Roma and AC Milan legend took control of a stray pass, juggled it from foot to thigh and then coolly returned it to the player waiting to take the throw in.

Verdict: 7.5/10 — Not the most difficult ball to bring under control, but nevertheless Ancelotti was able to demonstrate textbook deployment of both feet, which were clad in brogues of the shiniest Italian leather.

Jose Mourinho

Mourinho played fewer than 100 games during a seven-year playing career in Portugal’s lower leagues. But as Manchester United manager, his footwork was pressed into use during a crunch clash against Liverpool at Old Trafford. Stationed under a dropping ball, the Portuguese was able to open his foot and deftly cushion the clearance down.

Verdict: 6/10 — Not the most challenging ball to control and with plenty of time to gauge the situation. Still, Mourinho was able to prove that he at least had a leg to stand on when it came to his regular public critique of the United players’ footwork.

Arsene Wenger

Another to have missed out on a successful playing career, the legendary Arsenal boss could still mix it occasionally. This was not a first touch per se, but Wenger’s understated mastery of the languid training ground keepy-uppy is still talked about among football’s social media elite.

Verdict: 7.5/10Le Professeur‘s wiry frame and academic demeanour doesn’t immediately suggest access to fleet-footed flicks and tricks, but that is what makes his skills all the more enjoyable.

Sir Alex Ferguson

A good forward in the Scottish leagues from 1954 to 1974, Sir Alex was rarely seen dabbling in the daily training ground grind during his acclaimed 26-year tenure as Manchester United manager. Perhaps there was a good reason for that.

Verdict 5/10 — All a little bit slow and sluggish from Fergie, especially in comparison to his erstwhile Premier League rival, Wenger.

Mauricio Pochettino

A star for Espanyol and Paris Saint-Germain during his career, the Argentina international introduced himself to the Premier League crowd in his formative years at Southampton with a delightful example of emergency chest control as a high clearance flew into the airspace above his dugout.

Verdict: 6.5/10 –– It’s not easy to control a ball with your chest, but Poch’s padded jacket may have lent him an unfair advantage.

Xabi Alonso

One of the world’s best midfielders for the likes of Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain, a 41-year-old Xabi Alonso still looks fit enough to do a decent job in the centre of the pitch. So it’s not overly shocking to see that the Bayer Leverkusen coach still possesses a lovely, measured first touch.

Verdict: 8/10 — Alonso made light work of a spinning slice from the goalkeeper while undoubtedly also having to track the ball through the halo of the floodlights. The epitome of grace under pressure.

Mikel Arteta

Incredibly, Arteta never played for Spain’s senior side but did graduate from Barcelona’s academy during a fine career that also saw him play for Rangers, Everton and Arsenal. A fine midfielder, he is more than capable of what he pulled off here: Trapping a high ball with a smart first touch on the pivot before clonking a 20-yard shot off the crossbar (which we assume was his aim given the lack of goalkeeper involved in the drill.)

Verdict: 6.5/10 — Nice use of body rotation to manipulate the ball, but given the training ground setting and lack of proof as to how difficult the initial inbound pass was to bring under control, it would be unfair to score Arteta too generously.

Rafa Benitez

But none of the above can even compete with the mind-boggling trickery of Benitez.

The ex-Liverpool manager came through the Real Madrid academy as a defender but failed to make the grade and hung up his boots in 1986 at the age of 26.

Hardly an accomplished technician during his playing days, he later demonstrated a total mastery of the football broadcasting landscape thanks in large part to this incredible piece of digital chicanery seen during the Merseyside derby.

Verdict: 10/10 — Flawless execution that actually gets better with repeat viewing.

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