TGG Podcast #60: Ruben Selles - In the eye of the storm at Reading
Written by Training Ground Guru — January 31, 2024
AS manager of League One Reading, Ruben Selles has one of the toughest jobs in the Football League.
Owner Dai Yongge has turned off the taps, leading to the Royals being docked four points for late payment of wages, as well as being hit with a transfer embargo. There have also been a number of staff redundancies, with more to come.
Furious fans invaded the pitch against Port Vale in January as they called for their owner to sell up and leave. Against this fractious backdrop, Selles is trying to keep a young and inexperienced side in League One.
The Spaniard was our guest on Episode #60 of the TGG Podcast, in association with Hudl, and explained what it's like to lead the crisis club. He also gave insights into his globetrotting career, including managing Southampton for the second half of last season and coaching a young Rasmus Hojlund at FC Copenhagen.
You can listen via the Player below and read an edited transcript of the interview after that.
1. FINANCIAL PROBLEMS AT READING
(Reading have been hit with a four-point deduction this season because of late payment of wages by owner Dai Yongge. There are also ongoing redundancies and fans invaded the pitch against Port Vale in protest at the owner, causing the game to be abandoned).
Ruben Selles: Well, it's not the ideal scenario, that's for sure. From the very beginning, it has been really difficult for us. We started with nine professional players in pre-season. Two of them were injured and two were goalkeepers. But from that difficult situation we promoted some of the young lads from the Under-21s, kept them working with us in pre-season and also during the season.
As a product of that, I think we have an established team right now: very young, energetic, that know how to win matches in any category and that's the best part - to see all those boys and the team growing in terms of competitiveness and spirit.
Unfortunately, I cannot control the things around (the team). It’s been a lot of surprises for us, in terms of transferring players or the points deduction. Unfortunately - or fortunately - I think we've learnt how to go with those things and learn how to manage things, almost hour by hour, day by day.
The instability around us is big. The group of players and the technical staff are doing their best to keep the team in the league, to win football matches and to create an environment where we can go almost through every situation.
I don't see it like an epic, it's more, 'Let's focus on our task, let's focus on what we can do.' I'm focusing on coaching and supporting them. They (the players) are focusing in terms of how to take care of themselves, the food, the sleep, the recovery, the proper training.
It's extraordinary to see the togetherness they have created around them, but it has not been something special or epic; it has been more 'Let's do our job, let's do it properly.'
The main problem for us has been that the situation has not been settled from the very beginning. When you have a plan and it changes and changes again, it makes it difficult. We are also losing coaches that have a specific area and there is no replacement, so that means that the rest of the technical staff are going to get more workload and we need to do it in a different way.
Our workload is already high, so it's difficult. You need to adapt and adjust every single time, but it's nothing we can control, so we just need to adjust. It has not only been Andrew (Sparkes) or Ed (Niedzwiecki) - we lost some other people for different reasons because some other clubs are paying attention to our situation, so it has not been difficult for teams to make job proposals to members of our technical staff.
And of course they prefer some kind of security in a different environment, so that's the difficult part, because you are working with unexpected situations almost every single day.
The transfer embargo means we cannot pay for a player, but we can bring in loans or free transfers, as much as they fit in our limitation for salaries. The EFL has been very strict with us on that, they have reduced our capability to get players in in terms of wages. But we can get players.
My priority is don't lose players in this market, because I think we have a young and energetic team. We have almost double the average number of scouts every single game compared to the last three seasons, so now we have 14, 15 scouts, because we have players playing regularly in our line-up who are 18, 19, 20-years-old that are attractive for some other clubs. So my priority is to keep them together, because we have been in a period where we worked really hard with the team.
Now we have an established group of players, so the last thing we need is to start the process again. Our priority now will be to keep them together. I don't know if that is going to be possible, but I will fight for it.
We have some attractive players right now and I know that we are in the situation that the financial side is not stable, so I know if the proper offer comes for one of the boys the club is going to let them go, but I I don't have any a specific offer or proposal from any of them.
I just speak with Mark Bowen and ask him, ‘Please, when it's something that is going to happen, just let me know.’ Otherwise, I don't want to know any minor detail on that, because it's not going to change anything on my daily basics and is just taking my time.
2. GIVING UP WAGES
(In November 2023, Selles and Director of Football Mark Bowen deferred their wages so that other staff could be paid).
I don't like to make that a big thing, (it was) just a moment where there was no money to pay everyone in the technical staff and I'm in the position that I can wait some days for my wages to be paid, so I don't need that to be first or the last day of the month.
I think the greenkeeper (groundsman) or people around the club with different contracts need that percentage more than me, so I just we spoke with Mark and we just tell the club that we can wait a little bit to get our money. We got the salary after five, seven days, but it was the proper thing to do in that moment.
I think when you are in a leading position you need to make some decisions and, as Simon Sinek said, leaders eat last. I think that is what you need to do in those situations. So it's nothing for me, nothing special.
I know people have been talking about it but I think it's the proper thing to do and I will expect any other in my position to do the same. The training ground is fantastic, the Category One Academy is fantastic, the technical stuff is good, but the stability needs to come also from the club. You can have an amazing house and very cheap furniture.
We have a very good platform, but we need to put that platform into a long-term plan. Sometimes it's not about the building or about the facilities, sometimes it's about how you make it work together.
I think a lot of us will change our facilities to be able to have a little bit more stability in the financial side and have a better long-term plan, just to be more calm and stable in the daily routine.
I think this is the easiest way, just to build something, but the real thing is to build the culture inside the club to make people feel safe and develop themselves. It's just difficult now in this situation.
3. START OF CAREER
I'm from a neighbourhood in Valencia called Marxalenes and I started to play for a small team there called Paretta. Here there was some kind of trend that when you become 16, you start to coach the young ones and I did it together with my friend.
It was not the best season, but that's when I started. I played when I was 16, of course, and at the same time I stand there and coach the small ones. That was the first approach I had with coaching and I had great experiences.
That was the first moment I realised the things I don't need to do anymore or how not to do things. It was a kind of realisation, at around 16, 'Maybe I don't have the attributes to be a professional player, but I want to be as close as possible to that grass, to that feeling.' That was my first experience and I remember with a lot of love.
What I really know is that playing and coaching help you to understand the game better. My son, he's 10-years-old and he likes playing, but he also likes coaching and analysing situations. I think it's important if you are younger that you start in coaching. Then you have more opportunity to learn, because the period between 12 and 18 you are a great learner.
Sometimes, like in my case, it's casual, but the sooner the better.
In Spain, it's a public system, not like in England and other places. In Denmark, for example, it is difficult to get in the system to get your B License. A Pro License in a Spain is a public system. Some years ago, like 10, 12 years ago, people decided to go and make that complaint to the European Union, so in Spain there are private Academies and public Academies for coaching.
That makes the quality of coaching better. I think that system also helps the players, because if you see training in some small clubs in in Spain, you will see very organised training with very clear concepts and players actually buying it.
I got mine (Pro Licence) when I was 25. I'm a Bachelor in Physical Science and Sport and made my specialisation in football. You can make the UEFA B and the UEFA A in combination with your career, because some of the themes and topics were the same. It was just the UEFA Pro where we needed to spend more time.
That opens more opportunities and you don't need to be a former player. We have some UEFA Pro coaches leading Under-16, U18 teams, but this also makes a powerful market for the Spanish coaches because you know the competition between us. It's open to almost everyone who has the ability and the willingness to want to coach. I think that makes you better, because the market is bigger than in any other place in the world.
4. COACHING ABROAD
We started in Greece in 2008. I think it can sound crazy, but I live in Valencia from when I was born until I was 25 and moved out when I got the call from Aris Thessaloniki. I think life comes in some different formats and in that moment, when Aris Thessaloniki came, with Quique Hernández leading the project and Xavier Tamarit on the technical staff, and they contacted me, I was like, yeah.
It was a gamechanger for me. It was a life moment where my girlfriend, my wife now, was pregnant, so it was a difficult decision, but that decision to go to Aris Thessaloniki and to have that year there, gave me some new experiences.
It was that first moment that opened my international career. Languages are important, so my English was not really well when I started in Greece, but it was enough, and we also tried to learn some Greek. You learn to cope with different cultures and live in different environments.
Going out, finding a house, a car, a supermarket: it's just completely different. From that moment I knew I could work in any country in the world interested in having me, so I think we made the correct decision and until now it has been a a good journey.
I think the English coaches are as well prepared as any other coaches in the world. I think sometimes it's just about having that first experience that I already spoke about, with some of them working in Belgium, Spain, other countries. You can expect that for sure more English coaches are going abroad from now into the future.
5. JOINING SOUTHAMPTON
Matt (Crocker) became a really good friend and a really big support for me in my entire time in Southampton, so thank you for for that. Some years ago I moved from Qarabag to Denmark, to a team called Aarhus.
At some point in my time in Aarhus, Rasmus (Ankersen) contacted me, because they had some vacancies in their system (at Brentford). We didn't make it, but we kept our relationship for the years after and then when I was in Copenhagen, my second year, they contacted me as they were opening a process for new technical staff in Southampton. They asked if I was interested to make the interviews and start the process.
I had an interview in London with Matt Crocker - it was nothing more and nothing less than two football people talking about football and experiences. At the time I was 38 and had had 13 years in football in some different countries. When you talk about a topic you have been working in for that amount of time and the experiences you had in different countries with a person that completely understands you and has the empathy with a lot of things, then you are talking the same language and it’s always easy.
They had some other candidates, of course, and Matt was in charge of making the first filter. Then of course the next interview was with Ralph (Hassenhuttl) and we spent I think three hours talking about systems, methodology, training, games; comparing what it had been in his career and his way of coaching with my career and the different teams I had worked at.
I didn't know the reasons why they wanted to change. I think the coaches working before me in Southampton were doing a good job, but it was not for me to to analyse that, it was more about a club who starting a new process and I think the process was right, meeting with the Sporting Director and with the manager. It was just an opportunity to go and work with what I think is one of the best coaches in the world.
With Ralph, from the very beginning, we connected together. Of course, we were not agreed in 100% of our points of view, but that's what you need to have - a little bit different.
But the view he has about football - the high pressing, being dominant against the ball, the 4-4-2 as a main system, I think we pretty quickly connected on that and from the very beginning he gave me a lot of freedom to manage the daily basis of the team and I was very comfortable working with him.
I think what I created there was an organisation for Ralph to not take the daily basic training and together with Richard (Kitzbichler), who was the other assistant, and Carl Martin we created the structures in the day for Ralph to step in, get information, check the training and step in when it was important. He was leading all the tactical aspects and minus one training, so that never changed, it was just for him to have more freedom to watch the team from a different perspective and then make his stamp in the moments that were important to do so. I think that was how it should work for a good manager in in England.
He has a very clear idea of how a technical staff should be, with everyone working as a unit, but everyone having different competencies. In that structure, we have Ralph who was leading the process, we have a Richard, who was the assistant manager, who was leading in terms of tactics and support to Ralph, you have myself, who was leading the organisation for the daily basics and supporting against the ball (out of possession).
We had Carl Martin working in-possession and Alex Clapham working with set pieces. I know it's a very organised set-up, but again you need to find the synergies and the moments where you can give your input and your information. Then it's for Ralph to make the final decision and I think it worked in the time we were together.
I took a lot from that organisation in Southampton, when I needed to take the team for the last part of the season, and also at Reading, in a different way, because the resources are a little bit different, but I established some roles in the beginning of the season just to help with every single detail of football, individual or in terms of game plan, and people knowing exactly what you expect from them.
6. HARD GOING FROM ASSISTANT TO HEAD COACH?
(Selles was made caretaker Head Coach of Southampton when Hassenhuttl was sacked in November 2022. He took charge of one game - an EFL Cup win against Sheffield Wednesday - before Nathan Jones was appointed boss on a permanent basis. He then took charge again in February 2023 when Jones was sacked, and this time continued to the end of the season).
It's never pleasant when you need to replace a coach, like we had with Ralph, who trusted me to come into the organisation. Because it's not only Ralph who didn't make his job properly; when you are failing, it is the entire club failing. That was a difficult period, because Ralph was out on a Sunday and we had a game on a Wednesday.
You need to be sure that the team is competitive and people keep their standards and do their proper job - players and technical staff,. You know if you don't step forward in that moment you probably will not be competitive for the next game and the team will continue going into a direction we don't want, so it was pretty challenging.
It was pretty difficult to say to Ralph and Richard goodbye and then go onto the pitch and try to get the team ready for the game. I think we managed the situation quite well, we managed even to draw at home, we managed to go through on penalties to the next round. In three days we played Liverpool away and already we were told the day before the game that there would probably be a new manager coming.
At the same time you know that you are in charge, you need to make things happen, you need to make decisions from the very beginning. That was the first bit of management I had and I think we managed quite well due to the circumstances. When Nathan (Jones) came, we just give him the team to start with his process.
I think it's a completely different role, because you come from supporting somebody, creating situations and spaces for somebody to make a decision, to actually making the decision and not being able to spend that much time to analyse the situations. You need to make decision after decision after decision, that's the big change.
It was completely different from my second experience in February, when we took the team straight after the transfer window closed and had that first game against Chelsea and then the club decided to go with us until the end of the season. In the very beginning, the first couple of days, we were told the club was looking for a coach and we probably only had one game, but then the circumstances changed and we were told we can be there until the end of the season.
That is when everything changed, because now it's not temporary, now it's not for three days or for a week, it's actually you needing to lead every single situation and of course it's difficult, of course it's much different. It's 24-7 when you are facing the most competitive league in the world with the bigger environment in terms of media; the league that most people in the world view every single day. That requests a big amount of energy in the daily basics for you, because basically you cannot make any mistake when you communicate.
The situations for us in the club were exceptional, so it was a big learning for me.
7. IMPACT ON FAMILY
Well, I'm very lucky, because I have a family that supports me in everything and my wife has been very supportive with me from the beginning.
I'm the kind of coach that leaves home at six in the morning and come back at 7:30, 8:00 in the evening, so I try to spend time of quality with them, if that thing exists.
She was the one that in the very beginning told me, ‘Do your business, we will be fine, we will be here to support you.’ We have been navigating together for 15 years that kind of situation, but it was like, 'Now it's our opportunity, we see the opportunity as ours, as a team.'
The kids were suffering also that situation. Sometimes it's not for them, because all of a sudden they also became targeted at school, because I was the manager of the team in the city and when you win a game it's good, everything is fantastic, but when you don't win the game or you lose, then it's not pleasant for them and the kids can be a little bit hard to each other in those ages.
But my family was very supportive and we know what it is to live in football and we know the things around football, so we knew also the best way to do it is just to be together, so it was not difficult in that sense, it was difficult in the dimension of it.
It's worldwide when you are in the Premier League. My wife was in the gym at 12 or 1:00 and every TV is showing your press conference. It just changes your life. I don't think it changes our life in the way we are or the way we act, but it just changes the repercussions that you have in the world; people communicating with you, people recognising you, from the moment you go to drink a coffee or when you go to pick your kid up from school.
8. USING PSYCHOLOGISTS
I've been using psychologists my entire life and I used a psychologist in that period (when he managed Southampton) and we also get some support for Ana (his wife) and the kids, because it's really an experience and you need support to manage it in the proper way.
This situation is just difficult, because if things are going well and you are winning matches, then it's good, because when people recognise you in the street or with your kid, people have only good words for you.
But when things are not going that well, it become sometimes ugly. For Ana and for me it was critical that we keep an eye on the kids and bring them the support they need. I got Christian (Engell), a psychologist that was working for us in Copenhagen in for the last couple of months at Southampton - for the club, but also for me.
Until today I'm working with another psychologist in Spain that helps me to go through those things and we also try to get some advice for the kids, so I think it's important, for all the situations in life. I consider these situations as a manager in the Premier League like extreme situation and I know some of the other managers also use the LMA, with Jen (Jennifer Lace) as Head of Psychology. That also helps us a lot.
I had Jen visiting me like couple of months ago to see if everything was going well with the kids and also family. I think you cannot do things alone in the world of football and everyone needs a good team around them, especially managers. We need the teams around us to take care of a lot of things and mental health is very important.
9. SOCIAL MEDIA
You have different versions of how you manage that. I think you have the version of getting somebody to work with your social media, because you still want to be able to communicate things, to be able to post things.
I decided to stop communicating and giving my opinion or even opening (social media) though, because if you need to get information from anybody, you get it from the people around you.
Most of the time it can be consuming for you if you also open social media, because it’s the opinion of somebody far away who has no idea. You are human and it can change your mood in the day and you don't need that distraction.
It’s strange, because my wife is actually a specialist in social media, she has her own business in social media with her sister, but they decided to completely stop that because I think especially in the Premier League your exposure is huge.
You have the press conference the day before the game, for 30, 40, 50 minutes. You have the individual interview for TV almost every month; the media day; the post-match interviews; you have requests every week.
Especially when you have two games per week, you end up talking a lot, so it arrived to a point that sometimes you don't have anything more to say. So risking something in the social media to make a post for the fans like, ‘Thank you for coming today, it was not our day' - they already know it.
You don't need to repeat your message three times. I don't need to go to Twitter and make a line of 10 tweets explaining my philosophy or why I do things. I feel I have enough exposure with the media that I do right now in League One, so I don't need those platforms to create any more content.
We have the platform now (in this interview), so I will take that space to explain what I feel, how I feel, what is my philosophy, what is my life experience.
10. COULD YOU HAVE STAYED AT SOUTHAMPTON?
(Selles was again named interim Southampton manager in February 2023 after Nathan Jones was sacked. The next game was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on February 18th, which Southampton won 1-0).
We thought if we go there and win that game, we may change the rest of the season for the club, because everyone was predicting us to get relegated and it was February.
So that's what we did and in one point after that game I just had a kind of all or nothing conversation with the club - 'Okay, if you want me as a coach until the end of the season, we will just make a new agreement. But my agreement is only going to be until the end of the season, even if the club stay in the Premier League.'
I didn't have an automatic renewal for that, so the club was not attached to me in that sense, so it was an all or nothing decision for me. I think at the end it was not an option for Southampton either.
We didn't win enough football matches, we know, but it was a quite unique situation. I didn't even think about being in anybody else's technical staff, because I wanted to try (management) myself and it was not an option for me, I was not interested.
11. DID YOU GET ANY OTHER OFFERS?
Well I got a couple of interviews in England, but also from from abroad - including from one team from the MLS. But the only club that really came strong was Reading.
With Reading, we know the situation of the club, but in the beginning the evidence we got was that the difficult times were over and that we can move forward into a project to have a big budget and fight to come straight back into the Championship. That project, with the three year (contract), spelled for us the necessity for the club to go with a young energetic team that could compete by attracting young talented players.
That's one of my strengths, to give that confidence for those young players. I thought it was a good opportunity, also with the facilities that we have, with the fan base - we thought that with the evidence we got in the beginning that the difficult times were over for the club and we have a new period where we can be successful.
That's what was attractive for us and that's why we decided to to come to Reading. Unfortunately, the situation changed pretty quick.
12. PLAYING PHILOSOPHY
What we try to be - right now in League One and in that second part of the season with Southampton - is a very energetic team based on high pressure.
We are the team with the smallest PPDA in the league, so that’s Pressure Per Defensive Action. We try to be the protagonist, having situations where we can press and force the opposition to find the spaces where we can win the ball back and exploit the spaces in transition. And (we are) a team that is good in possession, that tries to find the quick triggers to attack.
We try to have games where we are very intense and we try to be very front-footed, so that is the main part of the philosophy. We started with the system 4-2-2-2 in Southampton. In Reading we also make the change to 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, trying to keep the same principles, but adjusting a little bit into the players we have and the league we play in.
We don't believe in being passive, or being in a low block, especially when you play against the big teams. We try to be a team that can play in possession, having quick attacks and trying to find the ball as quickly as possible into the pocket on in the wide channels to go deep and attack those spaces with speed and quality.
13. HOW DO YOU TRAIN THAT STYLE?
Our training methodology is similar to what Pep (Lijnders) and Jurgen (Klopp) are doing in Liverpool, because we actually came from the same base of Ralph Hassenhuttl. That was great for me to meet Ralph, because I chose the style I want to play with that high pressure.
I think your playing style is linked with your training style, so if you see one of our sessions now, we start always with a warm-up that ends with a passing drill, trying to get some synergies between play, but also trying to work in some specific situations, second-man, third-man situations, and then we try to put every time a different counter-pressure drill. It can be a counter-pressure rondo, it can be a counter-pressure possession, a counter-pressure game.
At least one drill needs to have that concept for the counter press. Then moving forward working in the different aspects of the game, but counter press is always there, because the game is global, not separate moments.
14. DEVELOPING YOUNG PLAYERS LIKE RASMUS HOJLUND
I've been lucky, I have worked with a lot of young talented players in my coaching career. Some of them are playing now for the first team (at FC Copenhagen) and did a really good job under Jacob Neestrup in the Champions League, getting Manchester United out of that group stage (this season).
When we came to Southampton, it was similar, developing players like Romeo Lavia or Tino Livramento. Or Gavin Bazunu as goalkeeper, who has an exceptional potential.
And now in Reading, we knew we wanted this young and energetic team and it's something that I find very pleasant when you trust some of the young talented players. You help them in their game, you help them in the individual session, in the video analysis, and you see them going from one stage in their career, moving a little bit forward.
There is always a set-back for them, so it's not a linear improvement; there's always a moment where they lose track, but they come back stronger and accepting of those periods.
I just find this fascinating. Two examples are Romeo Lavia, who's now in Chelsea and has also his ups and downs with us in Southampton, but he became a really powerful Premier League midfielder. I also worked with a talented Rasmus Hojlund in Copenhagen.
He needed to find his way out of Copenhagen, to the Austrian League, in a league that was his kind of game, with a lot of transitional games, where he became a monster, and from that period in Austria he became a super player and now he's in Manchester United.
I find it fascinating how to develop individuals in a collective game and how you can make in your methodology trainings drills for everyone that give the individual part for the player to become better. I also have the philosophy that young players, when you give them the opportunity, have that 10% extra, because they are attached personally to you and will go to places that maybe some other players will not go for you. That relation between coach and player becomes really powerful.
Rasmus Hojlund is a learner. He learns a lot from the environment, from the time we were he stepped into the first team in FC Copenhagen he didn't have enough time enough playing time and he found him and his environment they found a league like the Austrian league.
We talked about the PPDA before. (Austria) is the league with the lowest average of PPDA, so that means it's a league of high pressure and high transition moments and that was his game in that time, so immediately when he went there he became a key player for his team - score goals, win balls really high, intense and that gave him the confidence to go into the next level.
I think in six months he makes his move to Atalanta, with Premier League clubs having him in their agenda. He went there, another team that likes to play that kind of high-pressure football. He learnt a lot from that experience and now in Manchester United he's also getting in that level. He's already made it into the Danish national team, so I think with Rasmus you can expect him to be rated as one of the best strikers in the world.
I think he will become that when also the United team becomes more established. Every young player has moments where they have this set back and then come back again. I think he's in a really good moment. I think you can only expect better things from him at Manchester United.
He’s a mentality monster. He has a good family that takes care of him. His two brothers are playing for FC Copenhagen for the first team right now. One of them was even in the squad when they played there (Manchester United) and his environment is really strong and he's a really strong character.
You don't have that often, that young talented player with that kind of mentality. It’s Premier League, the exposure is the biggest in the world, and when he has missed, everybody is talking about it, but it's just part of the process and he will become a better player and he will become stronger in his mind through this process.
He has been brilliant in all the other competitions, he has been brilliant for United. I think it's a matter of time that he's going to connect that with the fans and once he makes this crack he's going to be unbelievable.
15. FUTURE AMBITIONS
My ambition for the rest of the season is just to keep a team together that can perform and stay in League One and continue developing players. My ambition for my own career, from the start, is to go to the very top. I always have the ambition to be a manager in the big leagues, playing against the big ones.
I got to get a bit of it last season, but now I need to earn the right to go there and stay there for longer, so step by step, working day by day.