A not too dissimilar scenario unfolded at the Emirates Stadium when time arrived to search for Arsene Wenger’s successor at Arsenal. Freddie Ljunberg and Steve Bould were the closest to a ready replacement that the Gunners had prepared during Wenger’s impressive 22-year reign. The job eventually went to a multiple Europa League winning coach from Sevilla. Same thing has happened to Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola wherever they’ve been. Andres Villas Boas is the closest we’ve had to a coaching success among Mourinho’s troupe of wise men. Nowadays no one even knows where Rui Faria is.
Football history is replete with number twos or assistant managers who failed to make the grade once handed the real thing. Number 2s are exactly like national U-21 coaches. They too, never make the grade at senior level. Not one of the many assistants who formed Sir Alex Ferguson’s technical team during his hugely successful 26-year tenure as Manchester United boss was able to step into his huge shoes. Carlos Quieroz, Brian Kidd and Steve McLaren are among a heavy supporting cast that were never in the running when time came for the legendary Manchester United manager to announce his successor. The job instead went to then Everton manager David Moyes.
Exceptions to this rule have tended to be in Germany where soon to retire national team coach Joachim Low proved he was an upgrade on Jurgen Klinsmann by guiding Die Mannschaft to World Cup glory eight years after succeeding the Germany legend. Current Bayern Munich boss Hans Deiter Flick is perhaps the most successful number two of all time. Flick had been a number two all his life, notably assisting Low as Germany triumphed at Brazil 2014. That hasn’t stopped him from becoming only the second manager ever to win six trophies in one year.
One might cite Mourinho himself as a former assistant to Bobby Robson at Barcelona but The Happy One only made the grade via a coaching stint as a Number One at Uniao Leira. Barcelona B has proved to be a incubator for coaches, with Guardiola conquering Europe after taking over the Camp Nou reins after stepping up from the junior side. Luis Enrique took the same route via Celta Vigo and AS Roma, but doubts remain as to whether he would have been crowned Spanish and European champion if he had picked up the mantle straight after his stint at Barcelona B.
Perhaps the key to assistants succeeding is in the timing. Certainly Flick’s deep knowledge of the Bayern Munich players – seven of whom were with him during the World Cup – smoothened his road to success. But it’s hard to point a finger at another coach who can step up the grade and emulate him. Though France’s experiment with promoting from within failed miserably with Raymond Domenech, they can succeed if current U-21 boss Sylain Ripoli is groomed as a long term heir to World Cup winning boss Didier Deschamps.
This is because the current generation of players bursting through the ranks from France is unrivalled across Europe. A cursory glance at the squads to the Euro Under 21 Championship that commences Wednesday reveals a team brimming with outstanding talent. Leicester City’s Wesley Fofana, Sevilla’s Jules Kounde, RB Leipzig’s Ibrahim Konate, PSG’s Collin Dagba, Lille’s Boukary Soumare, Lyon’s Houssem Auoar, Rennes Edouard Camavinga and Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby would grace most senior national team line ups. Suffice to suggest, France can only be denied if they press a self destruction button.
France has only won the Euro U-21 championship once – in 1988 when they beat Greece 3-0. Otherwise, between 2006-2019, they didn’t even qualify for the biennial showpiece. But Sylvain Ripoli is clearly not ready to see defending champions Spain, and Germany, who between them have won 5 out of the last six tournaments, walk home with top honours again. Together with the aforementioned pair; Paolo Nicolato’s five-time winners, the Junior Azzuri, powered by the goals of Genoa’s Gianluca Scamacca and Aiden Boothroyd’s Young Three Lions; who are fielding Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood, Chelsea winger Callum Hudson Odoi and Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah, are France’s biggest rivals.