Rene Meulensteen: Coaching lessons from Man Utd to Australia
Written by Simon Austin and Josh Schneider-Weiler — May 6, 2022
OUR guest for Episode #38 of the TGG Podcast was Australia assistant Rene Meulensteen.
This was our first pod in front of a live audience - recorded at the Batch Bottlestore and Deli in Altrincham. Meulensteen talked about his early days as a coach in Holland and Qatar and his 12 years with Manchester United. His final six years were as first-team coach with Sir Alex Ferguson and the most successful in the club’s history, yielding three Premier League titles, a Champions League and World Club Cup.
Meulensteen told us about his individual work with players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes and explained what made Sir Alex such a phenomenal leader.
The first half of the pod is an interview and the second a Q&A with the audience. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Rene Meulensteen: I was born in a small place in Holland called Beugen, close to the German border. Holland has a very good infrastructure in terms of football. Every little village has its club and training fields. I grew up wanting to be a professional footballer, but from very early on I felt a passion for coaching.
When I was 16 one of the local coaches said, ‘Could you help me out with the Under-9s?’ I did that and after three weeks he couldn’t do it any more because of work commitments so I carried on. I’ve never stopped since!
Soon I knew there was only one thing I wanted to earn my money in. I’ve also always had an interest in travelling and thought it’s not going to be Holland where I’m going to succeed. I felt I needed to stand out. Too many coaches go to courses and believe what the people of the federations tell them. I was never like that, I was always more of a rebel.
COERVER COACHING AND DOMINATING THE 1 v 1
And this book is where it all started. I got it in 1985 and it’s by a coach called Wiel Coerver. There were no videos then, so it’s four steps of lots of different moves. I read the preface and thought, ‘Flippin’ heck, you don’t need to go to University to understand what this man means.’
It was very simple - look at the best teams and players and he went back to George Best, Eusebio, Cruyff and so on and they all had the ability to dominate the one v one and he thought this is what we need to teach the young kids.
It was all based for him around technical development and repetition. The KNVB never embraced it. If you cannot beat a man in a 1 v 1 you will not beat him in a 11 v 11. You have to have the tools first. Then you get them into the games scenario.
The big thing top teams have is rhythm when they have the ball. But eventually you want to hurt the opposition, get behind them and score goals. Every player needs to be a specialist in the 1 v 1 situation. That is where my philosophy stems from in how to develop young players and add something to senior players, like I did at Man United.
Then we had another massive icon in Dutch football, Johan Cruyff, and I have always lived a little like blending the two together, develop the players as Coerver sees it and make them play like Johann Cruyff sees it.
Not everything is new. Go on YouTube and type in ‘Holland 1974 pressing game.’ You’ll piss yourselves laughing. There was no video analysis at the time, but watch that team press. They went all 11 and it worked. And the total football concept. Cruyff was a striker but he was all over the place. It was a great, great mix.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS AT MANCHESTER UNITED
(Rene produced a video about Coerver techniques with kids from NEC Nijmegen, using his own money and a loan from his brother. He then went to work with Coerver in Qatar for four years. During this time he became friends with Qatar U17 coach Dave Mackay, the Tottenham and Derby County legend. This led to a meeting with Les Kershaw, the Academy Manager at Manchester United and then Sir Alex Ferguson).
The void they had was that they had the Academy and the development centres, but no technical development. They were looking for a technical development coach but couldn’t find one and that’s why they came to me. They came up with the title Skills Development Coach. Les said, ‘If we put you on one team it won’t have the same effect as if we spread you out, because we need you to educate coaches, parents, players.’
I came over in January 2000, spent five days at the club and did four training sessions at different levels and then got the job. Sir Alex was great. As soon as he came to United he knew he had to upgrade the Academy, but you also have to move on. The key to successful management is to make sure you’re in the right place in five years time. You need to develop players who can meet the demands of the game in five or 10 years time, because it will change.
He came to Littleton road, to the Cliff, a number of times, to see what we were doing and the environment we were trying to create. The moment he showed his support for that programme it takes a lot of doubters away.
In the beginning I didn’t have too much to do with him but he was always showing his interest while I worked for the Academy. It speaks volumes for Sir Alex to say, ‘Go on, go for it.’
ADD NOT CHANGE
(In 2007, after a short stint as manager of Brondby in Denmark, Meulensteen returns to United as first team Technical Skills Development Coach).
Bit by bit I started to do more and more and players would stay behind and I could pick them up, or when they were coming back from injury, and that was great for me because you have quality contact time.
Players, the right ones, grab everything that makes them better. If they don’t see the sense of it or if you talk nonsense you’ve got no chance, but if you can show them the reasons why and back it up, because you have the tech, you can show with video. I never like to use the word change, because then people say, ‘What have I done wrong?’ I always like to use the words add or improve, because they are positive and people are more receptive to them.
Because there are too many one dimensional and one directional players - if I’ve got the ball I face that way and nine out of 10 players will play that way. The solution is I need the skill to change the angle of attack and then the space is there. It’s another element of unpredictability. Unpredictability is a package and if you understand the package you can pick the right answers all of the time - one touch, hold the ball, a long switch, carry the ball, take somebody on.
As first-team coach (Meulensteen was promoted to this position in 2008) I integrated that whole thing within the sessions I did. We had so many world-class players. You can’t work with those players in a standard way of coaching, the stop stand still scenario. You need to inform those players and facilitate with a level of repetition and then let them take ownership, because that’s how good they are.
Data is good, but I think a lot of times it is mis-used. A lot of times people say, ‘player A has 95% pass completion, he must be good.’ But what if he only passes the ball over five to 10 yards, compared to someone who takes high-risk passes that lead to goals but who has lower pass completion? Is he a worse passer?
Data should be used but in the right way. You need to make sure you have your own principles of way. We had a certain way we wanted to play. People ask me, ‘What was United’s identity?’ Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp are dynamic, direct, high tempo, intensity. Pep Guardiola is keyhole surgery, tick tick tick. We were a bit of both. If we had teams like Bolton, Wigan or Stoke with everyone behind the ball we would drag them in, drag them out, then take them on in 1 v 1s. We played other teams who were more open, like Arsenal, and we were quick and dynamic.
WHAT MADE SIR ALEX FERGUSON SO SPECIAL AS A LEADER?
Personality, commitment and drive, knowledge, the right people, adaptability, man management and delegating.
People would say to me, ‘It must have been a difficult job working with Sir Alex Ferguson. Absolutely not, it was a joy. I never felt any moment of anxiety and that was because of how he managed and how he was with everyone. Every single session he would walk in, go past you and tap you on the shoulder, ‘Well done.’
He was very engaging, with a great sense of humour. He loved a good craic and always had jokes or riddles. Before away games the players would eat at 7 and we as a staff would eat at 8. And a thing that always stuck with me - we hardly ever had any formal meetings. Everything that got discussed was informal, on the training pitch or around the dinner table. ‘How’s it going doc?’
The next thing is getting the right people around you. They all need to be managed and make sure everyone is pulling in the right direction. He delegated, especially in the last phase when I was there, to the different heads of department. He knew what was going on but he trusted us. And if you feel that trust…
He had the ability to move with the times. Fabio and Rafael were young enough to have been his grandchildren, but he adapted with the times and technology, he grew with it. Pre-match analysis was chopped up - introduction, opposition, how did other teams beat them but eventually it was all about us, 75/25. Because we are Man United. How we will win the game. And that was reinforced in the last session before the game.
He would hardly ever let anyone know the line-up until the day of the game. He wanted the players to be on their toes all the time.
If you go out and know it’s going to rain, take an umbrella with you. Prepare the players for change. During the game things change. There are so many variables. Make sure they are ready and explain to them why.
I call it scenario football. In training, you might say you are 2-1 up with 50 minutes on the clock and the opposition need to score two goals. Or you’re down. Ten minutes to go, how many balls should we get in the box? You need to get two or three good chances to score a goal. If you have a plan, you maximise the time you have got. If not, you hit and hope.
We all know the important goals that Kiko (Federico) Macheda scored for us, against Aston Villa and Sunderland. He was a talent. He had everything going for him, a good physique, quick, a goalscorer, he just maybe had the wrong surroundings around him and his own personality and mentality.
I remember one incident he came to me. Giggs and Scholes and Neville were always having a go at him. ‘Why are they always shouting at me?’ ‘Listen, believe me, you should be happy they shout at you. The reason is they believe in you and what you can do. But there is something they’re not happy with.’
I remember when he scored the goals he was all smiles because he got all the compliments, he ran in the stands with his dad. The whole media jumps up. But you need to be strong to deal with it and give it a place. I said to him, ‘Is this your claim to fame? Look at what Giggs and Scholes have done, title after title. This is your launchpad, nothing else. And it’s whether you go on or fall down.’
COMPARING RONALDO AND ROONEY
In terms of talent and potential they are very similar. With Rooney, his main underlying motivation was enjoying playing football, that was his biggest thing. Play as many goals as he can, score as many goals as he can, but the love for the game. For Ronaldo, his biggest underlying motivation was, ‘I want to be the best in the world and nothing is going to stop me.’
He invested that within his lifestyle, his diet, his sleeping patterns, his strength and conditioning training. He was all about achieve, achieve, achieve, more, more, more.
RONALDO’S RETURN TO MANCHESTER UNITED
What is the most important thing? Ronaldo scoring a goal or Man United winning a game? Man United winning a game. Therefore, if you get in a goalscoring position but Giggs is in a far better position for a tap in, what do you do? You square it, because winning the game for Man United was in the bigger scheme of things for Ronaldo important.
What do you want to do to become the best player in the world? We need to score more goals, therefore United are going to win more games. There is no point you scoring three goals but United lose 4-3 because you don’t track back. Your scoring goals is a tool to get what you want, winning more games. The more Man United wins, the more chance we win more titles. The more titles we win, the more important you are going to be, the more chance you will have to be selected the best player in the world.
I don’t want to be funny, but if it wasn’t for Cristiano Ronaldo and the goals he has scored this season, where would we be? The only thing if I was involved with him now… he is still the predator, he still wants to come in the end phase, but I think he needs to start to understand there should be more appreciation for him to be a more important part playing in the game.
If Cristiano drops in pockets, he never does anything spectacular, he just pops it off and walks away. But he’s a good footballer. He should be able to do that more but he’s got no appreciation for it, because the only thing he wants is to score goals. But again you need to start that transition - 'Cristiano, you can be much more important for Man United if your contribution is bigger.' But nobody has probably ever addressed that with him and he doesn’t see it. Although he is 37 he feels 27 - ‘I want to score goals.’
Yes, you will still score the goals, maybe less, but you will be more important for the team and it will be better for United.
In my time at Man United, there was not one opponent we thought tactically or football wise, ‘Oh dear oh dear, here we go.’ We knew if we would go to Anfield it would be difficult, because of the atmosphere and hostility. Even Champions League wise… if you are in that winning momentum it breeds that level of belief and confidence. 75/25, we always wanted to be on the front foot.
In Rome, Barcelona were not yet at their peak. At Wembley they were better, they were very good.
There was not a tackle in the first 60 minutes in Rome, it was like a game of chess. Then it’s moments that decide the game. In preperation for Wembley we covered all areas, got back to a good 1-1 at half time, and Messi was at the peak, along with Xavi and Iniesta. We thought if we can overcome the 15 minutes (of the second half) and drag it on to the last 25 to 20 minutes we would probably have more opportunities bringing people on to change the game.
THE END AT MANCHESTER UTD
(In May 2013 Manchester United announce that Sir Alex Ferguson is to step down as manager after 26 years).
A text message came at 11 at night and it was Simon Wells (United analyst/ scout). They had had a golf day with the players. He said, ‘A lot of the players think Sir Alex is leaving at the end of the season, do you know anything about it?’ Then my neighbour texted me, ‘Is it true?’
I didn’t know anything about it. We were in talks about going to Australia for pre-season; he was taking us to the famous vineyards. It didn’t really sink in as to what consequences it would have.
A lot of people said, ‘It was an ageing team’ but I am 100% sure that if he had carried on we would have made astute signings and been up there to win it (the Premier League) again, because everything was going perfect.
We were made to believe nothing is really going to change. It was clear David Moyes was coming in and bringing (assistant) Jimmy Lumsden but it was, ‘We’ve had a good chat with David, he knows how important you guys have been so I can’t really see anything happening.’
It couldn’t have been further from the truth, because I had two meetings with David Moyes and found out a lot was going to change, including my own thing. I was basically squeezed into a corner, because I was trying to find answers, how is this going to work, and he couldn’t explain this to me. Mick Phelan he didn’t keep on. Eric Steele he didn’t keep on. Then he brought his old people in and suddenly I was the only one left with them.
Not a problem, but how is this going to work? It was clear to me he wanted to do it in his way with his people. I almost begged him, I said, ‘David, please, just go and sit in Sir Alex Ferguson’s chair, enjoy the view and let us just carry on.’ Because I’m telling you, it is different.
David Gill (chief executive) made his announcement (about leaving) even before Sir Alex, so he wasn’t able to control that transition period either. That is the whole thing that has happened with United at the moment - there is no stability, there is no continuity. What is the identity?
ERIK TEN HAG
I know of him. I went to visit him in Munich when he was there, working as an assistant with Guardiola and spent a week with him there. It’s not a surprise that he eventually wanted to do his own thing. He got to Utrecht as a coach first and did well and then to Ajax and has done extremely well. Ajax was in a little bit of a wobbly situation when he took over there. It shows you have to have the right people, the right support, the right resources, the right structure in place, and if that all pulls in the right direction you have success.
It doesn’t matter whether you bring an experienced or inexperienced guy in at Man United, he will have his challenges and I’m sure he is the sort of guy who will have thought it over and thought it through. He will know exactly where United is. What he has is a very strong way of how he likes teams to play and I think he has the right way of getting that across.
First of all, make sure you have the right personnel to do that. Then he has to make the transition from the Eredevisie to the Premier League, which is different. With Ajax, he can turn up to a team in the right-hand side and win those games on 60 to 70%. In the Premier League, that is impossible. He has to re-establish a level of belief and confidence, not only in the players but in the fans, in everybody. Give him the time, give him the support. And when you get a run of results the confidence will come back.
ADVICE TO YOUNG COACHES
I’ve always been big on helping young people. You need to invest and study and you need to get to know what’s out there, but form your own opinion, your vision. Why did I go with Wiel Coerver? Because I believed in it. Invest in knowledge. As a young coach you have to put your hours in. As a young coach I was always on a football pitch, whether I was training myself or helping someone else to coach. Because the more you coach, you can make all the mistakes in the world and you get better at it.
Communication is a big thing. You need to learn how to communicate, how to communicate with different age groups, because you speak to an 18-year-old differently to an eight-year-old. And you have to unlock opportunities for yourself, so you have to try to meet the right people who can help you. And if the door is locked, find another way in, be determined about it. I don’t stop anywhere where the door is closed, I will find a way to get in.
Be clear. Try to determine really what you want. If I know where I want to go I can plan my journey. I wanted to make my living in football as a pro coach and eventually I wanted to coach Real Madrid. Dream as big as you can and move up the ladder. So I got closer and closer and closer. Then you put purpose to what you do and if you have purpose you have direction.
And resilience, don’t be afraid. Some things don’t come off, don’t get disheartened, keep going. The universe will reward you.
INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL WITH AUSTRALIA
I’ve always stuck to my principles and values, everywhere I went, even when I went to Brondby, even when to Maccabi Haifa. The one thing I was most bitter about was Fulham. I felt really betrayed when they did what they did.
There is a massive difference between club and international football. It is chalk and cheese. Club football is 24/7, especially when I was first-team coach at Manchester United. I say to my son, Joppe, ‘When you’re in there your heart never stops, you’re constantly thinking about training sessions, games, solutions and it just keeps going.’
International football goes in pockets. When you get together you have to cram a lot into a short period of time. When we could play home games again in Australia it means when you have to travel 23, 24 hours. The players a lot of times rock up a day to a day-and-a-half before, then they have a session and a half and we need to prepare them to play such an important World Cup qualifier. My influence in club football was much bigger, because I could really address things on and off the pitch with players.
Graham Arnold (Australia Head Coach) played in Holland in the 90s, with Roda JC and NAC Breda. He was a raw old fashioned striker, a brave player who scored a lot of goals, so I knew about him. Then he stayed with us for a week at United to do his Pro Licence. I took him to one of the reserve team games here in Altrincham.
We were about 45 mins before so I said, ‘Let’s go and have a pint,’ and that’s when the guard comes down and we started to hit it off. We were talking about football two to three times a year and he rang me in January 2018, ‘I’m going to do the Australia national team after the World Cup. Would you fancy doing it with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah I’ll do that.’
Graham is Australian, lives there and covers that area and the Far East. We have a lot of players in Europe and before Covid I travelled a lot to see those players in their club environment. I travel in Fifa windows wherever I have to go, whether that’s to Australia or the rest of the world.
It was something I’ve always wanted to do, work on the international scene, and I would absolutely love to experience a World Cup.