Meulensteen: How to polish a diamond like Ronaldo
Written by Simon Austin — August 18, 2017
FIRST DAYS in football don’t come much tougher than this.
Rene Meulensteen, newly promoted from Manchester United’s Academy, had been appointed skills development coach for the first team. His job was to improve the technique of some of the finest players in European football: Scholes, Ronaldo, Giggs, Ferdinand, Rooney. Men already at the very top of their games.
Less confident coaches might have turned and gone home, but Meulensteen relished the challenge. And so too did United’s stars, from the very beginning.
“The key to top players is that they recognise whether something is bullshit or quality to make them better,” the 53-year-old says at a café near his home in the Cheshire town of Wilmslow.
“I always said, ‘we’ve got something we can add to your game’. Add is very positive. Add means more, add means better. Not once did a player come to me and say ‘what a lot of bullshit that is’. And believe me, they would have, because they were top players.”
Having been with United’s Academy since 2001 (other than a brief spell as manager of Denmark’s Brondby), Meulensteen was given the new role in January 2007. First-team technical skills development coach: a job I haven’t heard of before or since. It was born out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s belief that any player, no matter how old or how good, could still improve.
Meulensteen went about his work using a mixture of one-on-one and group work.
“Sometimes I’d do a tactical group session for the warm up, or Carlos [Queiroz] might say ‘you’ve got half an hour Ren, I want a session with a lot of turns,’ or I’d do one-on-ones at the side of the pitch or after a session.”
Even Paul Scholes, renowned as one of the finest central midfielders of that (or indeed any) era, improved his skills with the Dutchman.
“You don’t try to teach Paul Scholes how to hit a pinpoint 60-yarder, because he can do that better than anyone else in the world,” Meulensteen says.
“But we worked on shifting the angles when he was in possession, so he could turn away from trouble to open up options. You pretend to go one way, turn out and are still on your good foot - and boom,” he swooshes the air with a palm to mimic a Scholes 60-yarder.
He was also able to expand what the less technically gifted members of the squad were able to offer.
“With Wes Brown for example, if he got in the build-up position and there was no option, he might have hoofed and hoped earlier in his career,” Meulensteen explains, “but no, not at Man United. You need to be able to change quickly, with a Cruyff turn or a stop-turn, and pass accurately to keep possession.
“We would work on the moves he could do, that he was comfortable with, and forget the rest. Then you build in an element of pressure and ask him to do it in a game situation. And you'd regularly see Wes getting forward and doing a stop-turn when he ran out of options.”
At the beginning of the 2007/8 season, the Dutchman was tasked with working particularly closely with Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He was suspended for the first few games [after being sent off at Portsmouth], so every time the team went off I’d stay to work with him,” he remembers. “A lot of the time it was just me and him. We worked on his appreciation of scoring goals.
“He always wanted to score the perfect goal, a 25-yarder into the top corner. I told him you will get in many more positions to score than that - and you can learn from the great scorers United have had, Law, Van Nistelrooy, Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer.
“One of the main things was setting targets. Research has shown that people who set clear targets have a lot more success than those who don’t. I still remember the exchange we had at Carrington:
‘How many goals did you score last season?’
‘Well, you should go for 40.’
‘What?! Nearly double?’
‘But you’ve never even practised finishing properly before.’
“With Mick [Phelan] and Carlos we set about the process of making him aware about his position and making him understand what to do in different positions. We did a lot of work on finishing from different angles. I had a format where I divided the penalty area into zones and you think about what to do in each of the different zones - lace kick, chip, inside foot, one touch or two, do you move into a different zone and so on.
“Then you break down the key elements of what makes a good finish. So now he's aware of position, the type of ball coming in, how he's going to receive it and the type of finish.
"The free kick was another one he started to work on. That was his idea. The only thing I said was, 'take a step to the side, so your approach is more natural with your leg.' We filmed it so he could see the difference and he developed and evolved it. He wanted to get better and put the practise in.”
That season turned into a remarkable one for both Ronaldo and United. The Portuguese scored 42 goals in all competitions as the Reds retained the Premier League title and reclaimed the Champions League.
Ronaldo, once regarded as an immature talent, captained United for the first time, won the European Golden Shoe and came runner-up in the Ballon D’Or to AC Milan's Kaka.
Meulensteen says Ronaldo and United were a marriage made in heaven.
“Ronaldo came to the right place at the right time in his career,” he insists. “First and foremost, because of Sir Alex Ferguson. He needed that strong figure to say, ‘I will make you better, trust me.’
“And it was a really strong dressing room - Scholes, Neville, Giggs, Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic. Wow. They appreciated him and respected him and could see the potential.
“And Ronaldo positioned himself brilliantly. There was no arrogance, he was just a hard-working kid. He was very confident, yes, but it was through his work that he showed everyone, ‘I want to be the best player in the world and I will help you too.’”
Looking at the player Ronaldo became, it’s easy to forget the player he once was.
“When he first came to United, as an 18-year-old, he could do a lot of things with the ball," Meulensteen says, "but they were not necessarily that functional. But when we worked with him he just bought into it, boom, because he could see it made him a more dangerous and complete player: the flick behinds, the changes of angles, the disguise. He became the whole package.”
Would the 18-year-old Ronaldo thrive in the Premier League now, in an era when immediate results are expected and youngsters are shown little patience?
“Yes, because Ronaldo is Ronaldo and he would still have the same potential,” Meulensteen argues, “but the process he would go through could be harder, more stop-start. Nowadays every young player needs to hit the ground running straight away or it’s 'ah'.
“Managers don’t want to take risks by bringing young players in. They would rather have an established pro to make sure they get the points on the board. It's 'if I don’t get the points, I’m out'. The landscape has changed.”
Meulensteen, a graduate of the Coerver coaching system, realises his 12 years with United may forever mark the height of his career, even though he is still only 53.
"I had an incredible experience at Man United, to be right at the top of the game," he says. "Will that ever come back? I don’t know."
Meulensteen relished working one-on-one with some of the greatest players in the world. Another he speaks particularly highly of is someone who never hit the heights at United, but who went on to twice win the Golden Shoe, as well as being named the best player at the 2010 World Cup.
“Where Ronaldo was right place, right time, Diego Forlan was wrong place, wrong time,” Meulensteen says. “He was a great guy and a fantastic player, but because we had Ruud [van Nistelrooy] there, scoring every game, he could never get into the side in his best position.
“Diego came to me for extra work when I was still with the Academy. He had two really good assets – he was very well balanced and was equally good with left or right foot, which is rare.
"He had no moves though. He could not manipulate himself into a better position. I said, ‘you can go either way because you have a fantastic left and right foot.’ We worked on his technical ability and he loved it and got better and better.
“I used to say, 'you might not benefit from this at United, but whenever you go to your next club, you will start to realise what a more complete player this has made you.' When he went to Villareal and Atletico he would text me, ‘did you see that move? It was something we worked on.’"
FERGUSON: THE GREATEST
With first-team coach Phelan and assistant manager Queiroz, Meulensteen helped implement a different style of play at Old Trafford, one designed for the subtleties of European football as well as the cut and thrust of the Premier League.
“It's crucial to have rhythm and keep possession. But with Sir Alex it was possession with a purpose. In attack, he emphasised that element of disguise, that unpredictability.
”When you get into more congested areas, your rhythm needs to change to one-touch interplay. We worked on that every single day. Every possession game was about those touches because you can't defend them.
"Too often you see teams take touches they don’t need. That’s when the level goes down. If five players touch the ball twice it takes about 10 seconds to get the ball around. With one touch it takes five seconds and the speed of the game goes up and you get players out of position. Drag them in, drag them in, then boom.”
Meulensteen, who was promoted to first-team coach when Queiroz left to become Portugal boss in the summer of 2008, exited Old Trafford when David Moyes replaced Ferguson in 2013. You can still tell that hurt him - and he says United's attacking verve and unpredictability left the building when Ferguson did.
"If you look back, I felt those were the first things to disappear in the United team after Sir Alex went. If the players don’t use it, they lose it. Before, we had a whole array of methods to score a goal. Stop us here, then we will get you there.
"After that it comes down to the quality of the players to execute and we had that quality in abundance."