Friday, December 08, 2006

A tribute to the quiet Dutchman: Frank Rijkaard

There will always be those who doubt Rijkaard's talent as a coach, because of his previous record, because he has such fantastic players to work with. But one does not have to look far to see where many coaches have tried and failed with a team of mythical talent - in fact, you only have to look 1 point down the league table. Of course, I refer not to the utilitarian, almost Chelsea-like (but that's another post) Real Madrid of today, but to the excesses of the past 3 seasons. Once upon a time it was unfathomable that a team possessing the genius of Zinedine Zidane, the deadly finishing of Ronaldo, the creative instinct of Luis Figo - you get the idea, I could go on for a bit - could play so badly and fall to opposition of much lesser pedigree. But genius players are also human beings. The art of managing a great team is, in my opinion, two-third man management and one-third tactics.

Reasonable people can disagree about Rijkaard's tactical prowess, but there's no doubting the fact that his man-management skills are impeccable. Having struggled in PSG with a coach who did not know how to handle him, Ronaldinho's greatest tribute to Rijkaard's worth is perhaps the claim that
"Frank Rijkaard understands me perfectly."
Deco reckons that the Dutchman is the perfect manager for Barcelona. And here's Lionel Messi, with ultimate proof of the players' support of the coach:
"I owe everything to Rijkaard. Let me put it this way: if I hurt myself for him, I would not feel the pain."
Both Sammy Eto'o and Ronnie have celebrated goals scored this season by running to Rijkaard on the touchline, and both celebrations were curiously timed. Eto'o's came after rumours of a rift between him and the coach, and Ronnie's when the talk was all about the possibility of Rijkaard leaving Barca to coach AC Milan or the Netherlands NT. I've already quoted Ronaldinho on Rijkaard, but the most telling thing Eto'o - one of Barca's most important players, as demonstrated by how much we've struggled without him - has said that reflects on Rijkaard is his typically blunt assessment of the reason for Barcelona's success. In his own words:
"Do you know what is Barcelona's big secret? There are no [expletive deleted, use your imagination] in our dressing room."
To put that in context, he was talking about the politicking that sometimes occurs in squads where certain players will refuse to pass to certain other players in games for personal reasons. This was allegedly the case with Michael Owen at Real Madrid for a while. On the Barca side, there were some rumours at the beginning of last season that Xavi did not get along with Van Bommel and therefore did not want to pass to him in games. Now, the rumour itself is obviously insane because 1) everyone would notice if Xavi suddenly stopped passing to one of his fellow midfielders considering how many passes he makes per game and 2) Van Bommel scored his first goal for Barca off a Xavi pass not long after this rumour was bandied about. But anyway, it illustrates what Eto'o was talking about.

The fact that the squad is so harmonious (even if you think all the talk in the press about how happy the players are is all PR, we have probably the lowest public bust-up/argument rate in the Spanish top flight) is a great tribute to Rijkaard's ability. Apparently he doesn't like a big squad because it becomes hard to keep everyone happy where playing time is concerned - a concern well illustrated with poor Lilian Thuram's frustration at not playing regularly, and that of Henrik Larsson's before him. But Rijkaard has shown that he can minimize the number of fringe players in a squad where there are pretty much 2 men for each position. Everyone plays, everyone contributes to the results. Just one example - Gio and Sylvinho probably have one of the more unique job-sharing arrangements around, covering the left-back position between the two of them without any problems.

He shows great concern for not only the talent of a potential signing but also their personality, and how that will contribute to the mix. Hence the signing of Gudjohnsen and Thuram. Gudjohnsen is perhaps not the best goalscorer we could have bought, but he is a great squad player and would never poison the atmosphere - very important when the first choice forward is a man as brilliant and slightly unhinged as Sammy Eto'o. In the same vein, Thuram took over the role of Larsson - to be a calm voice of experience, a role model of professionalism for a young team. (Both were - are - also excellent, classy players, of course, but that's the other side of it.)

You could argue that in contrast to Real Madrid's aging galacticos, many of whom had won everything in sight already, Barcelona's young team, hungry for glory, would have been easier to motivate. But after winning the league title in 04-05, and starting the 05-06 season at a stroll, many in the press speculated that the stars - particularly Ronaldinho and Deco - no longer had the hunger to win more titles. (This is slightly ridiculous in the case of Deco, a man who will never stop chasing victory, glory and recognition as long as he lives - a drive only equalled in the squad by Eto'o. Perhaps he was starting to expect to win too easily.)

Anyway, Rijkaard dropped Ronaldinho and Deco for a potentially tricky away fixture, causing a small earthquake in the Catalan press. It was all done peacefully - 'rotation' being the word used - and nobody complained in public, but that didn't stop the wild speculation. The team won 1-4 without them, and both were great in Barca's Champions League fixture after that league game. The rest, as they say, is history.

What about this season, then? No-motivating-needed Sammy Eto'o was struck down with injury (the most important of a clutch of unlucky injury problems), Ronaldinho struggled to find form, Deco started brilliantly then sunk into a bad patch, the new signings were bedding in far too slowly and Puyol was being plagued both by physical problems and emotional anguish. The team played so slowly at times it looked as if we were going the way of the galacticos.

Call me whatever you like for having this kind of faith in such an unfathomable man, but I always thought Rijkaard could whip them back into shape. Not that I expected him to bring out the stick instead of the carrot, but whatever works. Barca may not be playing quite as brilliantly as they were at this stage last season, but then think about the injury situation. As one bright spark at the Guardian pointed out, what would Manchester United look like if Ronaldo was out for 3 months, Saha for 5 and Solskjaer for 6 weeks (well, okay, that's not a hypothetical - poor Ole.)

Or say, if Chelsea were missing Drogba for 5 months and Robben for 3. How about a closer to home comparison - if Real Madrid had Van Nistelrooy out for 5 months and Robinho for 3. That's the kind of situation Barca are in at the moment, but having qualified for the knockout rounds of the Champions League (just) and remained on top of La Liga (just) so far, it's not going so badly. That's down to the way the players have responded to the situation, but a lot of the credit for that also has to go to Rijkaard, for the way he's cultivated that mindset.

And how does one motivate a group of players who have more than 100 trophies between them (no kidding, and this is only counting major tournaments, league titles and cups)? In the most important match of the season so far against Werder Bremen at the Camp Nou, Barca flew out of the blocks, had 5 clear chances inside 20 minutes, scored 2 and had the game wrapped up. This was a bit of a surprise given that, as Giuly admitted a while ago, "the team have gotten used to starting badly." Not this time.

Even more importantly, in the second half the team had the confidence to sit back and absorb pressure for 45 minutes, secure in the new-found knowledge that what has been at times a leaky defence this season would not concede. That was something new, too.

What was in Rijkaard's team talk to inspire such a reaction?

Take it away, the greatly improved Eidur Gudjohnsen:
"Before the game, the manager just said to enjoy it. What happens, happens but he said to imagine the people who dream of playing in front of 100,000 fans and to experience a fantastic night like this."
Not exactly Queen Elizabeth I before the Spanish Armada, but Rijkaard's unique grasp of the psyche of a great player - which he was, not too long ago - ensured that he knew exactly what to say.


soccermad said...

Great post Linda, go pick up the latest issue of Champions. There's a big Barca section inside that has interviews with Rijkaard, Messi, and Puyol. There's also a retrospective on some of the men who've coached there.

What did you think of Ronaldinho's pass to set up the second goal on Tuesday? Sublime is the only word for it.


Yrsa Roca Fannberg said...

Great post. I totally agree with you that Rijkaard is so important, he is maturing as a coach, in a tactical sense, but his human skills and knowledge are admirable. I once heard an interview with him at the beginning of the season, where he rotated the players because it is of no use if he would have 11 unhappy ones and that sometimes in order to keep them motivated he did not field his best team. This was at the height when Barça played really badly and he said that it was too early to draw conclusions and make decisions as he wanted to be sure of his decision. I think this is one of the factors the players respect him so much, that his decisions when they arrive are well thought and not some kind of spur of the moment, he also does things for the team and not for his own glory.
I once wrote something on him, it is in may or april on my blog, please read and let me know.

Congratulations a really good piece.

linda said...

ac: Thanks! I am trying to get my hands on the Champions issue, but living in New Zealand has its drawbacks - one of them being that no one except ex-pats from Asian, Soth America or Europe are interested in football.

Ronaldinho is looking better and better. I'm still not convinced he's fully fit, but that doesn't affect his great vision for passes and his creativity, which are as great as ever.

Yrsa: I totally admire Rijkaard for the way he has handled everything. With the way his time at Barca started, he could have been in open war with the press by the time things improved on the pitch (like Van Gaal was all the time) but he was sensible enough to avoid it. You're right to point out that the players respect him because of his decision-making. I think that's very important for a manager who has these star egos to deal with.

I did read your post on Rijkaard when I first came upon your blog, and enjoyed it immensely. Your way of writing about football is fairly unique and very interesting to read.

risingson said...

Another excellent post! Very knowledgeable...

Do you even have time for school?

soccermad said...

Hey Linda, check this out from UEFA's site.


linda said...


Why thank you! I'm on holiday right now from university, but the summer job is keeping me busy, which is a pity, because there's a lot I could be writing about. Ah well.