“You cannot make it without good people in management anymore”
Leo Beenhakker has an impressive CV. He started as a coach in 1965 at SV Epe and later coached clubs such as Ajax, Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Feyenoord. He was also the Dutch national team coach and during the last World Cup he brought Trinidad and Tobago to a new level. Now he is doing the same in Poland. He has been successful as a coach for 42 years.
What is his secret? His message to other coaches is clear: you cannot make it without good people in management anymore.
“Throughout the years soccer has obviously changed, especially at the top. When I began, you only coached and did not have to worry about the other things. Nowadays you are much more a manager and that is the big difference. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that soccer is still just a game, the consequences of winning and losing have becomes much bigger.There is a huge amount of money in soccer and you have a whole host of people involved with the club, who all have their interests, particularly the sponsors. They all have interests based on the performance on the field.
“I do not need to point out that the media has also gained more interest in soccer. Back in my early days you had a couple of specialists who reported the sport for their newspaper, then a radio channel was added, later a camera for the television and just look at it now. Everything and everyone is concerned with soccer, whether you are the Cosmopolitan or People magazine, you must do something with soccer, a soccer-player or a coach, because soccer is high profile. Those are all influences which you as the technical leader of a team must manage. And I can tell you, it is not easy.”
“Soccer itself has changed as well. It is not measurable, but it is clearly visible. You cannot say like with speed skating: `It has become ten times faster than in the past’. But those who understand the game can see that it has changed. The players have also changed. As a coach you must be very alert, because when you are five years older, then the players are five years younger. Therefore you must be very alert to the new generation.
How do they think, how do they feel? That does not mean that you should always agree and go along with them, but you must realize that with every generation the society and culture changes.That is logical. The current generation thinks and lives very differently than the generation of 10 or 15 years ago. And if you add the fact that you have to deal with players from several different cultures to this, you have your hands full.”
In the United Kingdom they recognized this very quickly. As a coach you have to deal with two forms, now more than ever: the pure soccer management and the people management. In that week at Feyenoord I also noticed the importance of this. It is an enormous task to keep everyone together. Of course they don’t all have to be the same. I think every player must keep his own individuality and his own character. He should not make any concessions, he comes from his own culture and we must preserve all our cultures. If a player goes abroad, I always say: be yourself. In your social life, your family life, in your religious life, etc. but there is one important thing, are you able from your own culture, make the step to the soccer culture? That soccer culture, at least if you want to be successful, is everywhere the same. That is simple. A Japanese club must, to be successful, play the same principles and ideas as a Polish club. There is one way to have success, but it is perhaps made up of 100,000 small things all put together. That starts with simple things like being on time. That soccer culture is for the time you are at the club and the rest is for at home.”
“This is how Guus Hiddink did it with South-Korea. He had the advantage that he had a year and a half to work with those guys, but in that culture it is very normal that young people are subservient to the elderly. They don’t talk back and do what they are told, without bringing their personal thoughts and beliefs into it. But this can’t happen in soccer. Young players also have to get involved in the complete coaching process. That was a huge breakthrough for those people. They saw a 20 year old who was able to carry the team. This can be accredited to Guus Hiddink. He was able to fit the national team into that soccer culture.”
“As a coach you must ensure all these conditions are in place, before you can start thinking about soccer. It starts with finding good staff. Staff, whether it is medical staff, technical staff, the material man or the press chief, must all be on the same line. How can we prepare those players in the best possible manner for that game? Because that’s what it is all about! There sometimes may be another approach for a Brazilian then for a Dutchman or an African. Everyone experiences it in a different way. Because that is not simple, it is important to have staff who has sufficient knowhow and who all speak the same football language. And here too it is your task as a coach to manage the staff.”
“Within the staff I think it is important to also work with local people.They can help you with the way of thinking and the mental aspect of the players. This way they can provide me with a lot of valuable information. But they must be able to work at the same level and from the same perspective as me. I always want someone on my staff who comes from the Dutch culture. Someone who speaks the same soccer language. It is impossible for me to develop 20 boys in a short time. When you, for example, work with Wim Rijsbergen in Trinidad, then it does not matter whether Rijsbergen or I talk with that player. For the players it is also clear, whether they are talking to Rijsbergen or me, they will hear the same ideas.”
“But you’ll have to be on top of it. Formerly it was friends amongst each other, playing cards and drinking a beer after the game, but nowadays the situation is different. The players also experience it differently now. This doesn’t mean it is better or worse, its just different and whether you are working in Trinidad or Poland, it is also different. But eventually you must ensure that you get them at the same level in your soccer vision. Eventually there is just one objective, but the basis is always different. This is why I like about working abroad. Every time it’s a hell of a job, but it is fantastic to see this developing. Absolutely fantastic!”
“How do you get them there? You open your eyes and need people skills. Watching and observing. This is why good staff is so important. Then you can regularly distance yourself and circle around like a helicopter to observe from a distance. That’s what I frequently do in the beginning.I let them train in certain exercises, purely to train and I don’t intervene too much. I watch, listen, observe. From there you are able to gain a lot of information on the personalities and the individuality of the players and you will gain insight in their qualities.”
“Thinking about the main point: ‘how do I get that player in optimal shape for the game on Sunday. It is not only a question of standing open or passing well or making the correct choices. In the first place he must be positioned well in the game based on his talent and qualities. Then I say: ‘that player is in order, he is healthy’. Healthy in the sense of functioning within the team, being ambitious and pursuing objectives. From there you will start fine-tuning.
Things like, when he does that, you do that. This will eventually take you to football management matters. It is now a minimum of 50% people management and 50%s soccer management. Those two things cannot be detached. A good example of this is Feyenoord. The problem there was not a soccer problem. There are probably 1 or 2 teams in the Netherlands who have more quality with regard to organization but that is not the problem.That can be taken care of with a different playing style, or another organization. You can compensate a lot to make it work for you. Of course not everything, but a lot can be compensated. The problem at Feyenoord was people management, an area in which they totally failed.”
“You cannot solve that problem in a week, you do not have enough time. The Sunday before I started at Feyenoord we spent the whole afternoon with the technical staff, and we talked about all the players, we discussed everything. We then trained on Monday and then you start observing. On Tuesday you must start with game-oriented training because we had a game on Thursday. But that was not our emphasis. There were so many misunderstandings, antagonism and irritations, which is impossible to solve in such a short time. The only thing we could do is emphasize to those players that we should put all those problems aside for one week. They didn’t need to forget, just put it aside. When a new coach comes, he can start the new season and he’ll have enough time to tackle the problems in a structured manner, but for now, put it aside and don’t take it onto the field with you.”
“The result was a team fighting for two play-off games, who due to certain factors still missed the boat. Whether these factors are a red card in the away game against FC Groningen or an individual mistake from a player, these things can happen and I don’t dwell on them. These type of things happens, a coach cannot do anything about that. And then you will see how vulnerably a coach is. In the game against Groningen the players were focused and worked for each other. You are winning 1-0, everything is going according to plan and how we agreed and then suddenly you are one man down. There you are, not only as a coach, but also as a team. The moment we scored to make it 1- 0 I told Metgod: We are going to win this game. Everything was going as planned and all of a sudden things change. The same thing can happen in life. We have so much arrogance in life and we frequently think that we have everything under control, but as soon as one guy presses a button and all the electricity is cut off for 24 hours, you realize you are not in control at all. That’s why there is no place for arrogance, just do it when you win, but also when you lose.”
“For years I have been seen as someone who always plays the same organization. I explicitly say organization, because a system of play is a completely different story. In the organization I play with two midfielders beside each other, numbers 9 and 10 play behind each other and never beside each other, four people at the back and then numbers 7 and 11 on the sides. You can then go in any direction. You can play with a 4-5-1, it depends on your choice. At the beginning I like to choose a clear organization and say ‘this is how it is, this is how we will play’. The difference arises in how you are going to fill these positions. With Poland against Portugal I played with two defending midfielders who always played from behind the ball. Against Azerbeidzjan you don’t need two of these players, so I organize the team in the same way, but on one position you put a player who can attack and your number 10 can be a midfielder who comes on the ball, but also a striker who falls back. Then you suddenly have a completely different team.”
“You frequently watch you players, you try to pick up information on them in all kinds of ways and you watch them play in several positions. The moment I think I have enough knowledge about the players, I make a choice. But this is always from the organization. That organization is our house and this is the way we will play. Whatever happens, we play this way. I don’t like to adapt to the opponent. I don’t mind adapting, but exclusively in the choice and the qualities of my players. I don’t think it is good to play one time with three defenders and the next time with five. I do not believe in this.”
The moment I started at Poland, they had just had a dramatic World Cup and there was a terribly negative atmosphere both with the public and the press. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. As a result, the players weren’t very enthusiastic either. Then you must bring in a clear organization to the players and train from there and you will create a certain steadiness and a certain belief in the group. When you are then aided by one or two good results, the players will start to grow into their roles. Recently I chose to play with one defending and one running midfielder in a game. Then I sit down with the other defending midfielder. But he immediately said: ‘I understand it, you don’t need me today, right?’ He also saw the opponents on DVD and understood that he would start on the bench and that is a fantastic process. Exactly the same happened with my captain. Against Belgium we played this way, against Portugal this way and against Azerbeidzjan this way for that and that reason, they all get it all. Because they know that they will be needed again against another opponent the next game. This depends on qualities, but also whether you are in form or not. When I choose a certain player, I always explain my reasoning. You now see them thinking along and in order to accomplish that you need people management.”
“This is very striking for their culture. You frequently see very authoritarian, snarling coaches at the clubs. We are very different. I believe the players want to achieve the same as me. They want to play, play well and win. And if they do not want that, then they should play in a recreational team. That’s why I always say: if you do not want this, then please leave. Just leave me alone. I will not be angry with you, but just leave. But in Poland the coach is above the players. Never an objection, never some form of discussion, never. Also they never want to explain the reasoning for certain choices. I want that a player understands why we do something, for which I make choices. Before a game I need to cut four players out of the 22, that must take place in the stands. I therefore always start with those players, never with the starting line-up. Afterwards we go to the 7 players who sit on the bench, what is their role and in which positions can they be substituted, so that they can prepare themselves for this. Last I name the 11 starting players.”
“I do this to give everyone the feeling that they are important to the team. Because they are. You must treat them for this reason as valuable and involve them entirely. Take the training as an example. Players are not stupid, so when you start throwing bibs around they know what’s going on. The red team is the starting team that I have in mind. Then we will play 8 against 8 or 11 against 11. The B-team will be playing as if their lives depend on it and the A-team will regularly lose. That is fantastic, because that B-team will improve the A-team. I play in short periods of 6 or 8 minutes and then correct a bit here and there, possibly modify the teams, but it is great to see how the A-team improves. Eventually it will turn out that their quality is (frequently) better, as long as they put everything into it. That is then a learning moment because if they play against Azerbeidzjan, they frequently think completely differently than when they play against Portugal.”
“Your role as a coach is of course different. Training a club is clearly a question of making a team better. As a result, you must automatically make the players better and/or make the players function better. But I believe that currently in football - and then I mean professional football – you must especially learn how to play together. That the player on the right knows what the player on the left does. This takes you to the Dutch soccer school. Trained in hundreds of thousands of exercises, but always related to the organization in which you play. I frequently choose positional games, but once again, always related to the organization. I therefore tell the player, you play on 6, you on 8 and you on 10. A number is a position. That usage of the numbers comes from my Ajax-past, but it gives so much clarity. When I tell someone: you play in this position, number 7. Do you know what 7 does? Then it is immediately clear. That is another advantage of a fixed organization, they also know what each other must do. They know that as a 6 you must remain behind the ball. If he does not do that, the players will make him come back themselves, I do not have to do that as a coach. Obviously the players play in a position which they also occupy in the game.”
“You can of course refine this in every detail. That depends on your choices. Where do you defend, how do you defend? Do you defend to gain possession or to prevent the opponent from scoring? How important do you make ball possession? Is it your basis or do you opt for the ball forward, the long ball? This also depends on the qualities in your team. If you have good, running players up front, then you tend to play the ball behind the defense. If you do not have those running players, then you will opt for the build-up and may choose to build up down the flanks more often. It is simply a question of assessing and exploiting qualities.”
“At a national team it is another story. We are together for 10 days, the first two days are completely individual. They all bring their own baggage from the club. One player was lost another was sick, the other one won, the fourth was benched, the fifth was injured. Some players consider it as a trip to see their friends and family. Therefore each time the first two days are used to get the right mindset and mainstream the way of thinking. At this level, especially when you have little time, then you spend attention to the playing together part. That there is a balance, that the team functions as a team and that everyone knows what he must do, especially because they come from several soccer cultures. At Celtic they play differently than at Auxerre or Dortmund.”
“What I learned through the years is that I can now rationally examine a game. If you are a young coach, then the emotions can sometimes have the upper hand. Of course I sometimes react to the referee or the linesman, just to try something, but I can now rationally focus on the problem and what I can do help the team. That is now, whereas I also had a phase where I was led by my emotions and where I was too busy with myself and lost the overview. I learned this when I went abroad. Of course you keep your emotions as a coach, but you learn to rapidly switch to control these. The consequence was however that after a game I was completely exhausted. You have so many emotions and you can’t let them go, because you control them. From that moment on I learned to focus on where the problem is, where you can help, what is going well and what can be improved. This is pure experience you acquire throughout the years. Of course it also has to do with your character.”
“For me it is unbelievable that I had to teach a 28 year old midfielder, which foot to pass to when the striker comes for the ball with an opponent at his back. When I watch a game here in the Polish league, then I think that they suffer unnecessary loss of possession about 40 times per team per game, because they don’t pass the ball well (too slow) or that they pass the ball to the wrong foot. Just imagine when you take those 40 bad passes away (because that is trainable!) how much better they would play! When you see how frequently players get in trouble because they receive a ball wrongly, with their back to goal, so receiving defensively. Whereas they have plenty of space. Simple things like that, we teach 12 year olds in Holland.”
“Here in Poland I was confronted with the fact that they do not pay any attention to ball possession. The consequence of it is, that when they lose the ball, they all have to run back into defence. In the Netherlands we reason very differently: if we have the ball for 60 minutes, then we won’t have any problems during those 60 minutes. That’s why I always say: ‘don’t run back, stay there’, but that is also a question of trust and uncertainty. We will defend to recover the ball! Because when we have the ball, it is our game, we determine the pace, we decide whether to play the long pass or the short pass or if we go or not. But this is also a beautiful process, more so when you see that you play well and win. For us the breakthrough came against Portugal. We didn’t just win that game, but we have played extremely well. You cannot train against this result, because they have been persuaded that it works and then it goes fast.”
“Of course you can also play a bad game sometimes and that has also happened, but there is now a basis in which everyone knows what he must do, everyone knows what he wants and everyone also knows: if we do that, then we are good enough to participate. You must never wonder whether you are good enough. That is very difficult to say. The question is whether we are good enough to play at that level and have success. And now they know that they are able to beat the number 3 or 4 of the world. With Ronaldo, Deco, Nuno Gomez, Simao, they were all on board. When they beat those guys, you can imagine how they walk in next time around. Of course you must then make sure they return back to earth as a coach, but that is people management.”
“How I handle the fact that I become five years older and they get five years younger? I stand there in the middle and I follow it. There are a lot of things that I do not understand and I don’t need to understand. If I compare my youth with this youth, then it is ready. You grow with them, but you must keep your eyes open, not only with regard to age, but also with regard to culture. That was also one of the discussions at Feyenoord. Some guys came in wearing a hat. Same thing applies to clothing, music, the social forms, the interests. A couple of years ago we all of a sudden had mobile phones and now the iPod. I do not want to prohibit all of this. Their music choice is not my music choice, but that is logical. I cannot start playing an oldy by Frank Sinatra. Whereas I would much rather hear that but also with use of language, I want to stay up-to-date. I have always said: if I have the feeling that I have lost touch with a next generation, then I would stop immediately as you cannot function anymore. But the way it is now I can still laugh, play and talk seriously with them.”
“Sometimes they think I am a cool guy and sometimes I think they are extremely cool. But I see that some old top soccer players stayed in their own period. That is not good, you must continuously develop as a coach. You must stay on top of all those new developments, whether you like it or not is simply not important. You must know it and you must give it a place in your soccer work. This way I consider dining, for example, as a team activity.During diner you mobile phone is turned off and you are not sitting with it held to your ear. Diner for me is a team building thing, having fun together and talking.”
“But once again, you go along, but without doing concessions to your own soccer culture. That remains intact whether your name is Beckham, Castelen or De Mul that has nothing to so with it. If you want to be successful, you will have to do that and that and leave that and that. Wherever you play and whoever you are, the big players understand that. That is why they are big players because you also have players who have problems with rules and who think that they are big, but they aren’t. They have another culture at home, which they take with them to the field and they do not want to adapt to soccer culture. Those players won’t be able to make that step. That is the reason that you see a lot of talented players fail.“