AC Milan, 2014
Starting at the highest level felt natural to me.
I know how that might sound to you, but hear me out. The top level of football is the environment I know best. Not the youth. The highest level.
Choosing such an important club as AC Milan for a first job as a coach can feel very natural. If you have the competences and the confidence, then you feel prepared for it.
When I got the call from the President in 2014, I felt I had all of those things. It was a role I had been preparing for ever since I had left Milan as a player two years earlier. I was leaving the club to play in Brazil – but, before I went, the President and I had a conversation about me returning one day as a coach.
“Prepare yourself,” he told me. “Look around you, and see if you see some good talents in Brazil.”
Of course, nobody thought my return would be so fast. Five years, maybe. But two? I don’t think so.
My curiosity about the coach’s job was always there. Many times, in my first years as a player with Ajax, I would talk to Louis van Gaal and watch how he was doing things. Later, when I started doing my coaching courses, I realised I could recall with great detail how each coach I had played for did his job. So, whether I knew it or not at the time, I was always interested.
As a player, I was always considered to be a coach on the field. Part of that was that my collaboration with the coaches was always very close – I just saw it as an extension of my role as a player.
I think that’s also a matter of character.
I always had leadership qualities and an interest in the tactical side of the game. But I was also interested in the people around me. The players. Often, there are conflicts that have to be solved, or issues on a personal level that have to be supported. I think, over more than 20 years as a player, I’ve experienced most of these conversations and moments of solving things.
As a coach, you have no choice but to deal with these things. If you don’t, it can lead to problems in other ways. I have always thought that the management of all these aspects off the field is just as important as what you do on it.
Spending the final years of my playing career with Botafogo in Brazil (above), together with the role I had alongside head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira, gave me the chance to prepare myself for what was to come. I’ve been privileged, from a young age, to live football around the world. The experiences that gives you are invaluable.
It creates the capacity to adapt, to understand the things you don’t know.
Playing in Brazil was also like going back to my youth – in terms of the position I played, the freedom and creativity I felt on the pitch, and the simple appreciation of playing football.
I was able to work closely with the coaching staff there, too – doing a lot of work with the analytical team, individual analysis, game analysis. Being part of the discussions.
I was very much ‘in the kitchen’.
I also had the chance to work with the Under-16s and Under-17s, which meant I could complete the practical part of my coaching courses there – although I still had to return to Holland often to complete my courses. It was tough, but I was committed to it because I knew that it was taking me somewhere.
“When I came into the job at Milan, I didn’t feel lost. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted to do things”
When the call came from President Berlusconi asking for help, like I said, it felt natural for me to accept – because of my relationship with him at that time, but especially for what those colours mean to me. I could have played for a few more years and experienced even more football and fans worldwide, but I knew what kind of moment they were in, so I ended my playing career and came to help AC Milan.
I believed that I knew how to solve the issues that were there.
And I felt prepared for it. My time in Brazil had given me a taste of so many facets; playing, being part of the coaching staff, having my own team.
There were lots of people at the time who were saying: “He should build up slowly, and start low.” But I don’t really agree with that. Why should I start in an environment I am not familiar with? So that I can make mistakes there instead of somewhere bigger?
I would like to know the coaches who are not making mistakes any more, even if they have 20 years’ experience.
When we talk about the experience levels of a coach, we often look at how many games he has coached or how many hours he has spent coaching. But knowing what you want, how you want to play, how you want to manage – having clear ideas about all these things that come with coaching – there is no guarantee of having that even after 10 years.
There are examples of guys who started coaching and after five or six years they say: “I’m actually more confused now than when I started.”
I think that, if one has the talent, if one has the ideas, you should give him or her the chance and then judge. And that’s not only for football, but for life in general.
“What you see on the pitch reflects how the players feel off it”
When I came into the job at Milan, I didn’t feel lost. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted to do things. Even from the time I was doing my courses, I have always been crystal clear on what I wanted – how I would create a cohesive team, how I want to work on the individual, how I want to collaborate with the people of the club and how I would deal with pressure. I knew all of that, because I had done it.
That’s why I wasn’t fazed when I found myself coaching players I had played with – like Kaka, Christian Abbiati, Daniele Bonera. Someone such as Kaka (below) wasn’t just my player; he was a close friend as well. But coaching them was the easiest thing in the world for me, because of the approach I take in general with players – that they are people first, then players after.
Having that approach takes away a lot of things. I don’t need to explain that I’m the coach and I make the decisions. And vice versa – they don’t need to tell me that they are the ones actually playing, making the difference on the pitch. Having that mutual respect, in attitude and in how you speak with each other, makes it very easy.
It’s never a nice situation to come into a job in the middle of a season. Especially because I knew Max Allegri, who had just left the club, was a good coach. Sometimes, of course, things just don’t work out. For me, it was a privilege and an honour to be in a position where I knew so many others would love to be.
In the end, managing Milan was a very positive experience. After being four points from the relegation zone, we finished on the same points as Torino, who qualified for Europe – we missed out by a goal difference of just two goals. In terms of the results we obtained – not only by the numbers, but also by the way we played – it was a really positive time.
It was a great experience for me to contribute to getting the club and the team out of the situation they were in, and to have left something positive at the end for the club.
I hoped to do the same when I joined Deportivo La Coruna.
It was a more difficult challenge than Milan, though. The team was 18th in La Liga and without a win in seven matches, completely lacking in confidence. Physically, mentally, morally… the environment was depressed.
In this case, what you see on the pitch reflects how the players feel off it.
In the first week, I was mostly observing and getting information. Having done that, I started to put in place the interventions. The first thing I tackled was the organisation of everything – when and how to do the video analysis, when we have individual conversations with players, group sessions.
I drastically changed all that had been done before. You have to create a shock effect, otherwise you continue with the same routine. You don’t break the negative spiral.
“The biggest job for me was to keep them believing. Even if we lost, I would focus on the good things they had done”
And so we started training twice a day. Not because we wanted to kill them – it wasn’t about fitness, but about the commitment and focus that training requires, and getting a lot of time with them so I could understand who could do what.
Then it was about getting the leaders in the group together and making clear the things I wanted from them. It’s fundamental that you have a group of leaders who support the philosophy, support the coach. That is half of the job in terms of getting the team where you want.
We did that quite fast. It was clear that the will to work was there; in fact, it was fantastic. But confidence isn’t built in a day.
The first match was unfortunate. We lost 1-0 to Real Betis, but the team played with an incredible intensity. The same thing happened in the second game, another 1-0 defeat at Alaves. That’s when you enter a phase of doubt, when results are still not coming.
At that moment, the biggest job was for me to keep them believing. I would say the result is a consequence of what you do – the processes you have in place. My focus before matches, in terms of communications with them, was on that.
Even if we lost, I would focus on the good things they had done. “This is the improvement. This is the process that we are going through. It’s just a matter of time before the results will come, but we need to keep believing.”
People need to be fed with positivity, because it’s too easy to be negative – it’s human nature. We were constantly feeding them with positive images, positive thoughts, positive feedback. Being critical but constructive, and knowing with whom, when and how to do it.
We also asked them to give their feedback on what should be improved or not, so that it wasn’t just us telling them all the time. Using all these psychological tools helped to maintain the team’s belief in what we were doing.
It was a difficult situation, but I think we created a positivity that was felt by everyone around the club. Even people from outside the club noticed it. They would say: “The team doesn’t look like one that is fighting to stay in La Liga.”
Confidence was growing with each match, even if the results were not showing it.
“I often see the most creative players having to adapt within a system, but football is not mathematics”
It took us eight matches before we won our first game. I don’t think that many coaches would have survived eight matches without winning at that stage, but there was clear improvement in the team – how we were playing and the chances we were creating. Only Barcelona and Real Madrid were creating more than us.
Yes, it was frustrating, because you feel your work is not being rewarded. But we kept hanging in there and, in the end, things started to turn around. Results started coming. But there just wasn’t enough time.
Up to this point, I have been able to celebrate one thing as a coach – Cameroon’s qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations.
A national team job was also a new experience for me.
You have less time to influence your players directly, so the methodology changes a bit. I had to adapt the ways I worked before to the shorter time available.
One thing that doesn’t change wherever you’re working, though, is that the most talented players will always make the difference. These days, I’m not always sure whether creative players are the main focus of many coaches. I often see them having to adapt within a system, but football is not mathematics.
I think there is room for everyone to implement their ideas, though. For me, that’s the main thing – to have clear ideas for yourself and work with your team and your players to try to create that magic.
Wherever you might choose to start.