The candidates in question are Mauricio Pochettino – the third time in the last four years that he has been in the running – and Marcelo Gallardo and Ricardo Gareca, both first-time nominees.
To discuss their merits, FIFA.com called on the services of Alejandro Sabella, a candidate for the FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football in 2014 after leading Argentina to the Final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
“It makes us Argentinians who’ve played the game and coached very proud,” said Sabella, who is in touch with his three fellow countrymen. “They really deserve it too.”
Gallardo: River Plate’s Magic Johnson
Sabella knows ElMuñeco (“The Doll”) well, having given him his River Plate reserve-team debut back in 1991, when Gallardo was 15.
“As soon as I arrived at the club I started hearing about a kid called Gallardo who played in the ninth division, but I told them he was too young,” said Sabella. “I saw him at the end of that year, in the divisional final. The moment he touched the ball I realised he was different. He played as if he was 30.
“Marcelo was to me what Magic Johnson was to the [Los Angeles] Lakers: a playmaker, someone who makes things happen. That’s why I once said: ‘If you want to know what football is, then open up Gallardo’s head and you’ll find a textbook with illustrations.”
Sabella did not predict then if Gallardo would go on to make a good coach, but the fact is he had what it took: “He was a scheming No10 and scheming No10s are usually decent coaches. He always had that global vision he’s praised for today.”
He also had a commanding voice and an ability to manage his team-mates, qualities that he now displays with the players under him. He showed that in the decisive moments of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, against Gremio in the semi-finals and Boca Juniors in the final.
“That’s how he gets them to stay mentally strong, motivated and focused and to keep that intensity and the fire that burns inside them. It’s difficult to do that.”
Continuing to extol the virtues of the River coach, Sabella added: “He’s got the ability to innovate, to have a plan B and a plan C. He always pushes himself so he can then push his players.”
Gareca: a respect for knowledge
Sabella and Gareca first met while on Argentina duty. “I can’t say I thought he would end up coaching but the signs were there.
“Firstly, he commanded respect with his character and presence. Secondly, he was a tactically-astute No9 who knew how to find space at the right time. That’s what a coach in the making does.”
Sabella believes that is when Gareca began to devise a style of play for his teams. “Even as a coach, he still feels he’s a striker, he still thinks about the opposition goal. He gets them playing good football and they score goals because of it.”
Sabella found that out for himself in 2010, as an opposing coach, when Gareca’s Velez Sarsfield finished second to his Estudiantes with the second-highest points tally recorded by a runner-up in the history of Argentina’s single-round leagues.
“That Velez team added to our achievement and it made me have even more respect for him as a person and for his football knowledge.”
Sabella admired how Gareca “adapted to become a national team coach, which is very different to coaching a club, but he’s done it without relinquishing his style.”
He also spoke of how Gareca “convinced, improved and organised” the Peru players, revealing his leadership qualities in the process.
The 2019 Copa America was a case in point according to Sabella. After losing 6-1 to Brazil in the group phase, Peru went on to reach the final, where they made life hard for the Brazilians.
“He showed his technical and tactical ability, while also demonstrating how he’d raised their self-esteem. He made them better players.”
Pochettino: a master builder with a vision to match
Sabella has never coached or faced Pochettino, but as one of the first Argentinians ever to play in England, in the late 1970s, he knows what it means to succeed there.
“He’s successful even though he hasn’t won titles and that doesn’t surprise me,” said Sabella. “When I was national team coach I went to see him when he was at Espanyol and I came away very pleasantly surprised.
“I don’t say that much but I spent six hours with him talking about football. He was very much involved in his job, meticulous and thorough, and very open in his way of thinking.
“He started working at the club where he retired. That shows character, leadership, knowledge and professionalism, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
Nor was Sabella surprised that Pochettino’s springboard in England was Southampton, a club known for developing talented young players.
“Pochettino has a gift when it comes to teaching and he’s patient. With the work he’s done with young players there and at Tottenham, he’s had a significant part to play in the success English football is currently enjoying.”
Sabella also praised the Tottenham coach’s ability to connect with his players: “You don’t stage comebacks in knockout ties like he did in the Champions League against Manchester City and Ajax without being able to reach a player’s heart.
“He’s a master builder with a vision to match and he uses his know-how and character to get people to buy into that vision.”
Summing up his achievements with Tottenham, Sabella added: “It’s not unlike what Simeone has done at Atletico Madrid. He’s revived the club, managed resources in the same way a boss would, and created a virtuous circle.”