Two points off Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of La Liga, Real Sociedad are flying high under Imanol Alguacil this season.
Alguacil’s managerial career started out at Sociedad in 2011, where he worked his way up through various positions in the youth team setup to become manager of the B team in Spain’s third division during David Moyes’ tenure in 2014. His subsequent appointment as manager of the senior team, first temporarily in March 2018 before a permanent appointment in December of that year, makes him one of a very small minority of managers to rise from a head coach role down in the third-tier of the football pyramid to a top-flight appointment.
Baseline expectations should be low for any new manager setting out at this level. Most don’t last long in the game, or at least not in a managerial role. 375 first-time managers set out in third-tier leagues (e.g. League One, Segunda B, 3. Liga), between 2010/11 and 2014/15. Five seasons later, nearly two-thirds were no longer working as a head coach.
Of those that do survive, the vast majority remain stuck at the level they started out at. Just under 1 in 20 had moved up to the second-tier five years later, fewer than the number who had instead dropped down to the fourth-tier or below by this stage. In total, only 28 managers succeeded in getting an appointment in one of Europe’s top leagues in any of their next five seasons.
So what differentiates those managers who did make it to the top so quickly? Like Alguacil, 1 in 3 managers who got a top-tier job within five years began their careers at B teams. And La Liga’s current crop of managers provides further examples beyond Alguacil. Valladolid’s manager Sergio progressed from Espanyol’s B team to a first team role in 2014. And, of course, Zinedine Zidane’s rapid ascent to managing a triple Champions League winning side began at Real Madrid Castilla.
Notably, no managers starting out in England during this period progressed from League One to the Premier League. There are current Premier League managers who cut their teeth further down the Football League, but they started their journey earlier and took longer to make their way up. English clubs do not have the luxury of a B team environment to nurture budding young coaches and the current PL2 setup doesn’t give clubs the necessary confidence to take a leap of faith on a young manager, even an ex-fan favourite.
Perhaps the solution lies in Germany rather than Spain, where clubs often promote assistant managers. One of the Bundesliga’s brightest talents, Julian Nagelsmann spent time as Hoffenheim’s assistant manager as well as being part of the youth team set-up. His replacement when he left to go to RB Leipzig? Hoffenheim’s former assistant manager Alfred Schreuder.
We are used to thinking about the development pathway for young players, but if we want to produce the highest-quality coaches we need to work out how to give the best young managers a route to success.