Now that the 2016-17 season has concluded, let’s take a look at 10 managers who exceeded expectations for their clubs.
Before the season, no one expected Hoffenheim to even challenge for a Europa League spot. After handing the managerial reins over to 28-year-old Julian Nagelsmann in February of 2016 and narrowly avoiding relegation, Hoffenheim approached the new season with decidedly low expectations. However, that didn’t stop one of the youngest squads in the Bundesliga from making history.
Hoffenheim finished fourth in the table and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in club history. They lost only four games during the entire 2016-17 league season, and they were able to beat top German clubs like Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen, FC Köln and even Bayern Munich in the process.
Hoffenheim officially secured Champions League qualification after a 1-0 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt with three league games to spare. Led by the youngest manager in Bundesliga history, it was a historic season for the club.
If Nagelsmann builds on Hoffenheim’s success from this last season, his name will be linked with some of the top jobs in both Germany and across Europe, but he’s also just recently extended his contract with Hoffenheim until 2021.
It may be a surprise to see Jose Mourinho’s name on this list after Manchester United finished sixth in the table (and spent roughly £170 million to do as much). However, it would also be harsh to label his first season a failure when he achieved exactly what the club publicly stated as the objective at the beginning of the season: to qualify for the Champions League.
Yes, United qualified by virtue of winning the Europa League, but he still got the job done. Despite reaching the objective, Mourinho’s first season in charge of the Red Devils was an interesting one. United lost only five games throughout the entire league season, and the team even went on a 25-game unbeaten streak at one point.
That being said, the reason United didn’t finish in the top four is because they drew too many games against teams in mid-table or fighting against relegation. During that 25-game unbeaten streak, the team drew 13 games.
United improved defensively this term, only conceding 29 league goals, but they also really struggled in front of goal. In fact, after Ibrahimovic’s team-leading 28 goals across all competitions, the club’s second highest scorers are Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with 11 goals each.
But Manchester United also won three trophies in Mourinho’s first season: the FA Community Shield, the EFL Cup and the Europa League. The club hasn’t exactly returned to the glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson, but they look to finally be on the right track under Mourinho.
From the start of the season, Jürgen Klopp’s objective was for Liverpool to finish in the top four. The squad Klopp was working with was not the best team in England, perhaps not even top four on paper, but it was still an exciting team with players like Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and new signing Sadio Mane.
Liverpool were in great form during the first half of the season, losing only two of their first 19 fixtures. During that span, they beat Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester City and Leicester to announce their title bid.
However, Liverpool’s form dropped in the second half of the season. Strangely, their best performances would come against the top sides, but then they would struggle against teams in mid-table or fighting relegation. Alongside victories over Tottenham and Arsenal, they lost to Swansea, Watford, Hull City, Stoke City and Crystal Palace.
Klopp was eventually able to steady the Liverpool ship and get them over the line. After beating Middlesbrough 3-0 on the final day of the season, Liverpool confirmed their fourth place finish and qualified for the Champions League playoff round.
It’s not easy for any manager to coach a team playing its first ever season in the top flight. However, RB Leipzig are not your typical starry-eyed debutants. Even before winning promotion, RB Leipzig were one of the most hated teams in the country for being owned by energy drink manufacturers Red Bull. Incredibly, Leipzig won promotion to the first division just seven years after Red Bull purchased and completely overhauled the club in the fifth division.
Regardless, that didn’t stop Ralph Hasenhüttl from making history with the club. In spite of the hate, Hasenhüttl led Leipzig to a historic league season. They were undefeated throughout the first four months of the season, winning 10 of 13 league fixtures. At one point, Leipzig were even fighting for the Bundesliga title, sitting only a few points behind Bayern Munich by early December.
Despite that dream popping after defeats to Ingolstadt and Bayern, the team only lost five matches in the second half of the season and officially sealed their qualification for next season’s Champions League after a 4-1 win over Hertha Berlin.
RB Leipzig finished the Bundesliga season ahead of Borussia Dortmund, scored 66 goals and only conceded 39. It’s a remarkable achievement for a club with a new manager and playing its first ever season in the Bundesliga.
In spite of Diego Simeone’s great success since taking over Atletico in January of 2012, many felt that his side were destined to hit the proverbially wall eventually. They still had great talent (Griezmann, Koke, Saul and Oblak), but several key players were aging and it looked very unlikely that Simeone could squeeze any more out of this squad, especially after two crushing Champions League final defeats in three seasons.
After Atletico drew their opening two games of the season, rumors started to spread of a potential fall out between players and the manager. Those issues intensified after a span of losing three of four league fixtures, one of those being a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid.
But Atletico showed the fight that Simeone’s side is synonymous with over the second half of the season. From match day 20 to 38, Atletico only lost two games.
In the Champions League, Atletico eliminated Bayer Leverkusen with ease and knocked off English champions Leicester City. Atletico were back to their old form and some even considered them favorites to reach the final once again. However, Real Madrid remains a UCL bogey club that Atletico simply cannot overcome.
Back in La Liga, Atletico won five of it last seven games to secure a third place finish and direct qualification to the Champions League. It may not seem like much compared to the absurd standard Simeone has set for himself and Atletico, but it’s really another remarkable achievement for the manager.
What Spurs achieved this season under Mauricio Pochettino is nothing short of remarkable. Entering the season, Tottenham had the youngest squad in the league with an average age of 25.7, and they’d spent less money in the summer transfer window than all of their top four competitors.
Tottenham may not have had a great season in Europe, but they did have one of the best league campaigns in the club’s history. Incredibly, Tottenham did not just finish in the top four, they finished second — ahead of, most importantly, Arsenal. It was the first time they’d managed to do as much since the 1994-95 season, canceling what’s commonly referred to as St. Totteringham’s Day.
Tottenham lost only four games the entire EPL season. Statistically, they had the best attack in the competition (scoring 86 goals) and the best defense (conceding only 26).
Several young players stepped up to cement their growing reputations. Attacking duo Harry Kane and Dele Alli have developed into world-class talents, and they were the only team that seriously challenged Chelsea along the way. Credit to Pochettino, they played the most entertaining style of football in the league.
For the youngest team in the Premier League to finish in second place, and to have the best attack and defense in the league, is an incredible achievement. We’ll need to see who stays and goes over the summer, but if Tottenham continue on this path, you’d have to believe that they’ll eventually win the English Premier League and can even become a force on the continent.
Not many knew what to expect from this new Chelsea side under Antonio Conte. Despite winning the English Premier League just a season ago, Chelsea were coming off a stormy 2015-16. A string of bad results and internal issues at the club saw Jose Mourinho leave the club in December, and the team failed to qualify for any European competitions.
Star players Eden Hazard and Diego Costa had expressed interest in leaving the club, and not many knew what formation Antonio Conte would be using with his tactics at Juventus and with the Italian national team thought to be inapplicable in England.
Conte’s Chelsea didn’t start the season on a high as they only won three of their opening six games, including a home defeat to Liverpool and a 3-0 loss to Arsenal. Despite that poor start, it was that loss to Arsenal that changed Chelsea’s season for the better.
After that defeat, Conte changed the team’s formation to a 3-5-2, playing with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as wing backs and N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic as the two holding midfielders. Further forward, Hazard and Pedro flourished in their roles.
Chelsea went on a 13-game winning streak, and they never really looked back. The club officially clinched the English Premier League title on May 12th after a grueling 1-0 win at West Brom. With that, Conte became the fourth Italian manager to win the English title.
In a league that’s been dominated by Paris Saint-Germain, no one expected any other French side to challenge the Parisians for domestic dominance. Leonardo Jardim was entering his third season at Monaco, but the side he was managing was deemed by many as too young and too inexperienced to mount a serious challenge. However, this Monaco team not only challenged PSG, they took the league crown away from them in style.
In the Champions League, they finished top of their group and surprised the footballing world by eliminating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the round of 16 in a tie which saw a total of 12 goals. They then eliminated Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals before bowing out to Juventus in the semis.
Led by a revived Radamel Falcao and 18-year-old phenom Kylian Mbappe, Monaco clinched their first league title since the 2000-01 season. Despite his team’s youth, Jardim was able to get them to play a thrilling style of football, and he’s renewed his contract until 2020. But, if his legacy continues to grow at Monaco, it won’t be long before Jardim’s name begins to be linked with some of the top jobs across Europe.
Many were skeptical of Massimiliano Allegri when he took over Juventus in the summer of 2014 after the sudden departure of Antonio Conte. Juventus were looking to make more of an impact in the Champions League after dominating Italian football for the last three seasons. Allegri had won Serie A during his time with AC Milan, but the club started to decline when he was still in charge and he was sacked by the Rossoneri in January of 2014.
Despite the skepticism, Allegri has proven the critics wrong in his three seasons in charge, taking Juventus to even greater heights. Along with their continued dominance in Serie A, Allegri took Juve to the Champions League final in his first season, and they reached that same milestone this time around.
Unfortunately, Juventus would come up short in the final, losing 4-1 to Real Madrid. The Old Lady did what they could, but, like two seasons ago, they were going up against a team that’s considered by many as one of the greatest club sides of all-time.
That defeat shouldn’t take away from what Juventus accomplished and the work Allegri has done. They still won the Serie A and Coppa Italia, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at.
It’d be hard to find a manager who’s done a better job than Zinedine Zidane this season. At the end of the day, the game is about getting results and that’s exactly what Zidane’s Real Madrid side did.
Zidane led Los Blancos to their first La Liga crown since 2012, and Real Madrid became the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles. From the beginning, Zidane implemented a policy of rotation to ensure that key players were fully rested towards the end of the season and that the reserves were getting consistent minutes while pushing the starting XI. At first, many reporters in Spain criticized the strategy, but Zidane stuck by his decision and it paid off.
What’s incredible is that not just were the key players fresh, but many of the reserve players stepped up in big moments as well. Kiko Casilla was solid in goal when Keylor Navas was out during the first two months of the season, Nacho came up big in the quarterfinals of the UCL against Bayern Munich, Kovacic was phenomenal in midfield every time he came on, Morata was a great replacement for Benzema and Isco had his best season at the club since arriving.
Plus, Madrid look to have a future star on their hands with Marco Asensio.
As we all know, Cristiano Ronaldo finished the season in flying form as a result of Zidane’s strategy. Despite playing fewer games than in previous seasons, Ronaldo still managed to score a total of 42 goals in all competitions; 25 of them in La Liga and 12 in the Champions League.
Remarkably, 10 of his 12 Champions League goals came in the last five games of the competition — we went from debating whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s best days were behind him to wondering if he had already sealed his fifth Ballon d’Or.
To negate the job Zidane has done at Real Madrid would be utter nonsense. In all, it was one of the best seasons in Real Madrid’s history. Like Cristiano Ronaldo with the Ballon d’Or, Zidane has probably sealed the award for FIFA World Coach of the Year.