First-team coach, Manchester United, 2007-2013
I’d just been promoted to first-team coach at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson called me into his office.
“Listen Ren, I want to have a quick chat about how I like to see United perform.”
He was standing by a flipchart where he’d scribbled notes down over three pages: one on defence, one talking about possession and one about attacking.
“When I see United attack, I want to see them attack with four things: pace, power, penetration and unpredictability.”
Bang, bang, bang, bang.
He spoke in the same way he wanted his team to play.
When he left, after 26 years in charge, that identity went with him. Those four things disappeared. It was laboured. It was slow. Too many touches. No runs.
Now, you see those things coming back in. Because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was part of that. He knows.
Mike Phelan was part of that. Michael Carrick was part of that.
They all know. So it’s not difficult to bring that back in, because they’ve lived it. They’ve experienced it. As have I.
I’ll be honest with you, though. I never expected to end up at a club the size of Manchester United.
My name is not Van Basten, Gullit or Koeman. And I never really played at the highest level.
But I was given an opportunity by Sir Alex. One that says a lot about the kind of manager he was. He recognised an area in the club where they needed to improve and, rather than going for a big name, he went for someone he believed had the qualities they needed.
Fortunately, in 2001, that was me.
Not that I believe in luck, or coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.
"It’s important for young coaches to develop their own philosophy, their own vision"
To explain what I mean, I will tell you a story about a young man with a passion for football. One day, he’s walking through the little village next to his and he sees a book advertised in a shop window that catches his eye. So, he goes into the shop, picks up a copy and flicks through it, eventually coming back to the preface at the start.
That’s when he gets really excited. Suddenly, his eyes have been opened to a new way of doing things. A better way.
I was that young man. And the book? It was by Wiel Coerver, the founder of the Coerver Method coaching technique.
For me, that book was the first trigger.
Coerver grew up as a coach in the era of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano, then later Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, Johan Cruyff... so he analysed them and what they were doing differently. He extracted the different technical qualities that he felt needed to be developed in young players and put a structure to it.
When I started to do my coaching courses, I found out that each one came with its own beliefs. The Dutch FA have their beliefs. England have theirs. So, where’s the truth?
When I was on these courses, I would always be questioning: “Why should we be doing that?”
I think it’s important for young coaches to develop their own philosophy. Their own vision.
Coerver was not the only influence on me, of course. Growing up in Holland, watching Ajax and the Dutch national team in 1974, I was a big admirer of the way Cruyff played the game. Later, when he got into coaching and management, I thought it was great the way he wanted teams to play, with an obligation to entertain.
So, I had the Coerver approach to developing young, skilful, technical players, and then Cruyff’s approach in how you let them play.
If you put the two of them together: success formula.
Then, of course, you add Sir Alex to the mix.
"It can be difficult when you go into a new place with different ideas. Because it’s change – and people don’t like change"
I’d been working with the national team in Qatar for around seven years when, one October day, my phone rang and Alex Ferguson was on the other end of the line.
My connection with the club had been made months earlier, when I was introduced to Manchester United’s Academy Manager, Les Kershaw. We’d spent a few hours chatting about the work I’d been doing in Qatar, but I didn’t really know if it would lead to anything.
Then, three weeks later, there he was: the Manchester United manager, on the other end of my phone. It was a bit of a weird experience.
The following January I flew over to meet him and the rest of the staff. Over five days at Carrington, they gave everybody involved with the Academy the chance to have a one-to-one conversation with me. I realised later what a well thought-through process that was: it meant they had a lot of different opinions on me and could decide if I was right for the club.
Outside those discussions, I also put on training sessions with three different age groups for them to look at. And, after that, it was done. I was going to be the Skills Development Coach for Manchester United.
It can be difficult when you go into a new place with different ideas. Sometimes you meet a bit of resistance, because it’s change – and people don’t like change.
So, once we got going with training, I invited Sir Alex in a few times so he could see for himself – not just from my words – what we were trying to do. See that this was change for the better.
We were trying to build the next generation. Not for now, but for the next 10 years.
Everybody around me bought into it. Everyone was pushing in the same direction, which meant I could do a lot of things very early on. The support of Sir Alex in that was enormous.
"Managing the reserve team was an opportunity to ask myself: how I would want my team to play?"
I focused a lot on the Under-9s in that first year. That group contained Jesse Lingard – a player I liked a lot. He was very skilful, very good with both feet, very agile. On top of that, he had bags of confidence and was very brave. That was one of the things I was sure would push him through.
But it’s all about giving kids an opportunity and asking, when they get into the Under-18s and then the Under-23s, what’s the best next step for their development? Is it Under-23s football, or is it going on loan?
Jesse went on loan to a few clubs. He had some successes, but some not so much. Some clubs employed a totally different approach and type of football. Some played more ‘fighting’ football, and Jesse is a player. You can pick Jesse up and stick him in the Barcelona team, no problem, because he suits that type of football.
The great thing for him is that he got the opportunity at United. And he grabbed it.
After four years at the club I got an opportunity of my own, to manage the reserve team. That was a chance for me to ask myself: how I would want my team to play?
It was about combining all the ingredients I like to see – freedom of expression, unpredictability in forward play – with the speed of play, and putting all of this into the Manchester United mould.
Sometimes managing the reserves was difficult, because they felt like hangers-on. So I made sure they understood that this was part of their personal development – their kickstart to whatever was next for them. In training, there had to be a purpose to everything we did.
And always a challenge, because if there’s no challenge players don’t improve.
Then we worked on two things: quality and intensity.
If you take all four – purpose, challenge, quality and intensity – players enjoy it. They want to come back for more.
"My aim was to bring Ronaldo from awareness to understanding"
Doing that role meant that when I came to work with the first team a few years later, I wasn’t a new face to many of them. And I knew how to approach working with players who were strong characters. Serial winners.
The big thing was that I never used the word change.
Imagine you say to a player: “Listen, we need to change something about your game.”
The first thing the player will think is: “Change? Why do I need to change? What am I doing wrong?” It’s a negative approach.
Instead, I would always say: “Right, today we have an hour together. I’d like to add this to your game.”
The word ‘add’ means more. It means better. That way, you don’t build a barrier.
Cristiano Ronaldo was someone I got to spend plenty of time with at the start of the 2007/08 season. A red card in the second game of the season meant he was banned for three games, which gave me the perfect opportunity to work on some things with him.
I believed he was one of the best forwards at a very young age, but he wasn’t productive enough. We needed him to score more goals.
I knew that was what he wanted too.
My aim was to bring him from awareness to understanding. To recognise how he could get from where he was to where he wanted to be. That was about a few things off the pitch, but a lot of things on it.
It was also about the value of setting aims and targets, and explaining to him that people who have a clear goal – and devise a strategy to get there – will be far more successful than those who say “I want that”, and then wait and hope for the best.
He was very receptive to anything that he knew could bring him closer to what he wanted.
"Top players need that freedom to express themselves and make their own decisions. They thrive on that"
Sir Alex was always big on the idea that what you do in training will manifest itself in a game: good and bad. So, training sessions with the first team were all at a very high level in two ways: the menu that we put together for them, and the execution of the players.
What I found with the top players at United, which is different to any other level I’ve worked at, was that they were excellent at taking on information and taking responsibility.
As a coach then, I needed to inform the players – for example, about a defensive problem we wanted to solve, or an attacking approach we wanted to look at – and then facilitate that session. But it wasn’t a coaching session in the style of: “Stop, I want you there. Stop, I want you there.”
It was about giving a lot of independence to the players. Empowering them.
Yes, we can give pointers here and there, and ask questions: “What about this? What about that?” But it’s not about coaching in the traditional sense, because the top players need that freedom to express themselves and make their own decisions. They thrive on that.
One of the things that always impressed me about Sir Alex, especially in the last six years that I worked with him, was his ability to delegate to his staff without losing control. He was always there, but he wasn’t really involved in the training sessions. And we didn’t go to him with things we could solve ourselves.
But when you look at the reasons why he was so successful, I think more than anything it was his ability to refresh things at just the right time. When you build a team, you go through different processes: a building process, then a performance process, and then you go into decline.
To be able to avoid that decline, you need to be able to refresh so you can extend the performance process for as long as possible.
Sir Alex always said the hardest thing for him to do was to let good players go. That’s also the most difficult thing to identify. Can I get another year out of him or not? Do I need to sharpen things up?
You can’t always get it right. But if you look at Sir Alex’s career, and what he has achieved, it’s quite impressive, isn’t it?
He got it right with Ole, too.
"Solskjaer has a big advantage over all the other managers. And it’s an advantage not to be underestimated"
When I first heard that he could be coming back to the club, I thought if that happens then it’s probably on the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Even when Ole was a player, we knew he had this great desire to do something beyond playing, as a coach or manager.
I first discovered it when I was managing the reserves. Ole played quite a few games for us while he was coming back from injury, and we’d sit down after training sessions two or three times a week, chatting and exchanging ideas. He was very astute in terms of knowing the game. Reading the game.
And as a player, he was exactly how he is as a manager now. In English, I think you say: meticulous.
His attention to detail, his preparation, his desire to learn: everything was top drawer.
You can probably guess my feelings about him getting the job permanently. I’m 100 per cent behind it. Look at what has happened since Sir Alex left: three great managers have come in. Fantastic pedigrees. Big names. Big experience.
But United is different.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows Manchester United. He knows how big it is, and he knows what it means to play in those big games. He’s won them for the club.
After Sir Alex left, the link with what United always stood for was gone. Ole knows the club inside out, so he knows what it takes to link it back together. That’s why he’s got a big advantage over all the other managers. And it’s an advantage not to be underestimated.
Without that knowledge, all those other managers start on the back foot. They want to push their own way through.
Ole starts on the front foot because he wants to push the Manchester United way through. That’s the difference.
So what you see with United now is: think forward, look forward, play forward, pass forward. And you see Ole gives players that element of freedom to express themselves.
That’s Manchester United.
It’s no coincidence that Ole has been the man to bring that back.
Like I said, I don’t believe in those. Everything happens for a reason.
Author: Tony Hodson