Taking the Initiative
Andy Roxburgh, the former Uefa technical director, on how football tactics are changing
Andy Roxburgh remembers the day Juninho Pernambucano pitched up in New York. "He'd only just arrived. He went down there, right in the middle, 35 yards out. Looks up here, points to the top right corner. I'm going 'Yeah, yeah, ok'. Steps up, ball hardly spins, whoosh! A little while later, training camp in Florida, he does it again. I got the point! On set pieces, that guy… wow."
Not for the first time in our hour together, he's jumped to his feet, motioning towards the careworn Red Bull Arena pitch below. Wiry and spry, he has been left unscathed by a chilly east-coast winter, even if a crash course in the intricacies of Major League Soccer has had an enervating effect.
You expect he'll cope. His 18 years as Uefa's technical director having begun in an era that saw Europe struggling — in football and wider political terms — to adapt to unprecedented upheaval. He emerged as one of his continent's genuine visionaries, constructing a framework designed to protect a hitherto undefined coaching profession at both ends of the spectrum. A man whose own management career has been understated — seven years in charge of Scotland the only senior experience on his CV — can fairly be credited with a guiding influence on most of Europe's top coaches, from their education at grass roots to the regular symposia held for Champions League managers by the side of Lake Geneva.
If it was a surprise to see Roxburgh take on a first position in club football in his 70th year, becoming sporting director of New York Red Bulls, questions are allayed by the whippet-like energy he evinces in conversation — fact, opinion and theory bouncing off the walls. IHis contemporary and close confidant Sir Alex Ferguson may finally have retired, but Roxburgh's hunger seems as voracious as ever.
As well as working with managers at the highest level, you've spent most of your career nurturing prospective coaches. Is it difficult to ask players, or ex-players, to take a more academic view of the game?
That's a word I really don't like — "academic". I'd just call it "thinking". I don't find that there's anything academic about coaching; it's all extremely practical. Coaching guys for their Pro Licences, the stumbling block is that they're still thinking like players. On the pitch, a player thinks from back to front. That's why, when you've got your tactics board in the dressing-room, you put the goals at the top and the bottom. A coach sees the game from side to side, and it's totally different. As a player, you know what's happening in front and behind; when you're coaching, you're responsible for the whole show. A lot of them just follow the ball around when they start, can't stand back, because it's what they've always done. Sometimes, when you give them a crowded 11-a-side game to work with and say "Stop — what happened there?", they're totally lost. You need to teach them how to isolate a problem within a game and then develop it, and that's an art. You need a trained eye to do it. Some master it straightaway, but others can't take that backwards step and see the big picture.
In that case, is there a clear advantage in studying for your coaching qualifications while still a player — and recognising both viewpoints at an early stage?
I came through with Sir Alec [Ferguson] and, as he said to me numerous times when we were players together at Falkirk, he'd decided very early on that his future was going to be in coaching and management — so the quicker he got on with learning about it the better! Like me, he began coaching alongside his playing career and would admit that it completely changed his thinking about the game. I was exactly the same. We applied ourselves in what was an incredibly practical environment. That's why, years later, I used to urge players to enroll on our coaching courses. It'll set you up for your future career and give you a head start, but it will actually help you as a player too. I had them all: Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan, Willie Miller, Roy Aitken, Tommy Burns. If you're learning about the game like that, it can really improve you on the pitch. Those guys went on to prove it.
In an environment where ex-players have often walked straight into jobs with barely as much as an interview, was it initially difficult to assert the value of coaching qualifications?
Maybe, but we worked hard at it. My 18 and a half years at Uefa can be boiled down to one crusade — a crusade to make coaching a genuine profession in Europe. All 53 countries are now part of Uefa's Coaching Convention and, while it's not complete by any means, the foundation is now in place. Everybody understands what it means and respects its value — the fact that you can't work at the top level without your licence has seen to that. You'll always get a few individuals who are naturally gifted, but relying on that doesn't protect the business at all. To protect football players, at whatever stage in their careers, you need to develop people who know that they're doing — people who know how and when to give input, and who can make you better.
People who are outstanding teachers…
Yes — but again, it's much more of a practical business than an academic one. The first thing I'd say about José Mourinho is that he's brilliant at teaching methods. He's wonderfully detailed at organisation, outstanding in terms of knowing how to teach football. You can draw a parallel with Rinus Michels, who was just the same. Pep Guardiola, who's been living here [New York], is another great example: absolutely pragmatic, so clever and shrewd about what he does, always quizzing. I had lunch with him recently — amazing actually, we were in a public restaurant and nobody knew him — and he was asking me what Sir Alec's secret is. You have to know something about working with players to keep going for as long as he has, after all.
But isn't Guardiola proof that you need much more than the coaching and man-management aspects? By his own admission, he burned himself out while moulding arguably the best club side we've seen. There's so much going on around the role now…
For a start, your media awareness needs to be far greater than it ever was. Gérard Houllier reckons that the most important 30 seconds of the week for a top coach nowadays is the television soundbite after a match, especially if you've lost. Everybody's listening to it: your players, their wives, the board, the fans. It'll be re-run every hour. During our coaching courses, we started saying that this is the moment you begin preparing for the next game. What you say will already have an impact, and your face is an advert for the health of your team. You've got to become clever at it if you want to be in it for the long-term.
And isn't that harder than ever?
No doubt about it. Player power hasn't helped — players are so influential now and club owners take note of it. In the past you'd leave a player out, perhaps he'd tell his father and his father would say, "Aye, that coach is useless." Now he'll just tweet immediately or phone his agent, and the next thing you know there'll be criticism of you all over the media. Agents are another drama, of course. You'll notice that none of this is to do with football. Many colleagues tell me that the football pitch is the one thing that keeps them sane, because the peripheral stuff around it is so much more intense now.
Training coaches nowadays, you have to make sure they are absolutely ready for everything they're going to face — because if you go into a job and make a mistake, you might never get another crack. I always say that you have to wear three hats: technician, manager and leader. Your technical part might be very good, but if you're not capable of handling the rest you'll have a problem. At the highest level, leadership is the key element — can you persuade people, inspire them, deal with a crisis? How you deal with a defeat will often define your career — the Champions League coaches were all agreed on that when they met last September. If you can't handle defeat well then you'll die a death as a coach.
In your technical report on the 2011-12 Champions League, you said that the manager's role as "psychologist" to his players is as important as anything else now…
How a manager behaves will rub off on his players, so the first thing to do is to assess your own behaviour. If you come in on a Monday morning after a defeat and you're wrecked then you have no chance with that team. I believe that talent always rebounds, so if you've any kind of mental strength as a coach — or a player for that matter — you'll bounce back, and that'll filter to your team. That's what all the top guys do, because there are no guarantees about anything.
Last time I saw Carlo Ancelotti he was saying that, for all the power you have, as a head coach, the one thing that you can't control is the result of a football match. You can do all your preparations and make your selections, but it's a world of ambiguity — so you have to stick to a very clear vision of what you want to do and how you're going to handle things. There's so much noise around you, but you have to find a way to be yourself.
With all of these extra strains, can a younger manager really expect to go through his career being more than a coach now?
Again I'll give you Alec as an example — he's more like a CEO than a manager in the conventional sense. He's got all the background, knows all the practical elements, but like the head of any big business he knows how and when to delegate. That in itself is a gift. At big clubs now you have such a massive staff that the key word — and I know it's Alec's favourite — is "control". That's the secret if you're going to stand a chance, whoever you are. You have to be in control of the whole operation, be able to stand back to see everything, hear everything, judge everything. Your staff have to know that you're doing it.
The best way to reach that level and survive is to train your way up, make your first steps as an assistant, perhaps take a job at a lower league club. Make your mistakes there, in an environment where you might have limited resources and are constantly required to deal with tough frontline activity, and build gradually. You see shooting stars who rise quickly and disappear without a trace, but look at the top boys like Alec, Arsène Wenger and Marcello Lippi. They've worked their way up and learned how to keep their eye on things, while taking that step back when they need to.
In the Euro 2012 Technical Report, you ask whether "overcrowding in the backroom" is becoming an issue. If we accept that the CEO-cum-manager position now exists, is the burgeoning number of specialists beneath him a cause for concern?
I think you can end up with too many. You mustn't just have bodies in there for the sake of it, which is where that "control" word comes in again. It's crucial that there is organisation and structure — sub-leaders for all the groups, be they medical, coaching or anything else. It's an organisational issue and the person at the top needs to be able to oversee the whole show. You can extend it and look at the people players themselves have around them these days. I remember one national coach telling me that his players didn't just bring an entourage with them — they effectively brought a business. He counted out 20 individuals that a particular player had with him: a private physio, trainer, businessman, PR guy, all sorts. The manager needs to be well aware of these "staff" as well as those he is directly responsible for.
Sports scientists, performance analysts and their ilk are presumably included in these swelling backroom numbers. Is their influence becoming such that, at some point, a coach's tactical planning will be overtaken in importance by analytics and statistics?
The bottom line for me is that football is more of an art than a science. Of course sports science has a big influence and it's another element that coaches have had to take onboard, but these analysis programs and tracking systems can be described in one simple word: tools. Most top clubs use them now, but to what extent should you? What many coaches will do is judge with their eyes and use the tool to back up that judgement. If you have the facts at hand, then people will listen to your opinions. If I say to a winger: "You've been lazy in the first half," that's an opinion. If I then hit him with: "You ran 8km on Saturday — you're usually running 10km, is there anything wrong? Should I leave you out?" then I've confirmed it with a fact and he should listen. As tools that support what you are already doing, these facilities are useful — but there is no way they should take over.
So the relevance of tactics themselves is undimmed?
I prefer to use a word like "principles" — but for me, tactics simply means "how". Does a player know how to recover the ball quickly, how to press in advanced areas? Does he know how to make angles? How will he operate in a certain context or situation? Looking at it that way, it's always going to be critical. Good coaching today is not about drilling or telling — that was the old-fashioned way. One of the gifts of a top modern coach is the ability to ask questions. You're out there creating a practical dialogue: "How would you beat this guy now that he's tuned into you?" or "We're not getting down the line — what would your solution be?" It might seem simple, but you have to know exactly how to get the right response.
When we last spoke, late in 2007, you referred to a "sense of caution" in Champions League teams. Elements of the competition seemed stale, predictable. Since then, goals per game have risen by almost 0.3; statistical and visual evidence suggests the trend is reversing. What's changed?
Pep and Alec both said something similar at one of my last Champions League coaches' meetings. They felt that more teams — not everybody, but more — were taking the initiative. If you look down the years, most successful teams at the top level have done that. Rinus used to say that if you're purely a counter-attacking team you'll win some games but won't win the title. That's the Dutch attitude, of course, and it hasn't always been borne out. Chelsea proved last year that a "contain and counter" game could be successful, and José did it with Inter Milan too — he was explicit in saying how comfortable his team was without possession. But I think they've been exceptions; the trend has been that expressive teams like Barcelona and Manchester United will come out on top.
How do you define 'initiative'?
Look at Borussia Dortmund. They attack with and without the ball, and that's essentially what it means. It's not just about having possession, full-backs and wingers charging up the pitch. Jürgen Klopp is always talking about intense pressing, the 'Barcelona' bit if you like. Barcelona and Spain have set the tone and it's now being shown by a lot of the others. You try to play an aggressive attacking game, but you stay on the offensive as soon as you lose the ball. In the old days, even when I was in charge of Scotland, we would sporadically press if the opportunity was there. Barcelona, Dortmund and others do it automatically, and it's incredible. You have to be very fit to do it, and also know how to do it properly. And the results justify the style. Xavi said that, five or six years ago, he was about to become extinct — but the bottom line is what Barcelona have achieved by playing the way he and his teammates do.
If it's inevitable that trends are followed, does that reduce the scope for new developments?
Arsène made a good comment that suggests you're right: "We're the generation of coaches that use old shapes; we don't invent any new ones." It's true that results trigger trends. I remember the Spain v France game in Bruges in 2000; they both played 4-2-3-1 and I'd never seen it before. It was unusual, incredibly structured, and a lot of teams obviously went down that road afterwards. The 2002 World Cup final is another example, Brazil playing three at the back with two flying wingers and Germany doing the same. If there's success using a certain shape or approach, people will follow it — and the phase at the moment is about possession play and trying to take the initiative.
It's reasonably common to see teams operating without a genuine striker now, though. Did that come out of the blue?
It's funny actually. In 2002 I sat with Carlos Alberto Parreira and we spoke about shape. He told me that this was the way it was going — we'd soon be at 4-6-0. I thought he was joking, but he was quite serious: "Mario Zagallo told me in 1992 that it'll go that way. I'm sure he is right, but he just didn't work out how quickly." I asked what he meant — you need depth in your attack, after all — and he explained it would be a back four with an interchanging six, a bit like we used to see from Holland. I still didn't believe him but, sure enough, Barcelona started doing it: Messi up front but not; no real reference points for centre-backs to play against. Spain ended up doing it as well, as we saw last year — Vicente del Bosque says he sweated and sweated about it before thinking "Why not?" And, of course, Spain replicated Barcelona's success.
They had the players for it, though…
The players define the shape. Going back to Barcelona, what they did happened because they had Messi. He was the one that could come out of the middle, with guys like Iniesta and now Fàbregas bombing on past him. So Arsène is actually right, because what they've basically done is to play 4-3-3 without an out-and-out striker. The correct way to put it is that we still don't have any new shapes as such, but variations on existing themes that arise through individual quality.
You've travelled the world over the past few decades, primarily to spread the coaching gospel. Are there any areas whose football is evolving at particular speed?
I've been going to Japan for 15 years or so now, and that's the place that strikes me. The development there is fantastic — the J.League is strong and the national team keeps getting better. It's a similar situation in Korea: there has been a lot of investment and hard work all over the Far East. When the Japanese see a model, they'll develop and adapt it to its absolute fruition, so I have no doubt they will keep getting stronger. Football is flourishing in that part of the world.
And are there any more established regions that should be looking over their shoulders?
South America remains a traditional stronghold, but the only country on that continent that is really starting to embrace coach education now is Brazil. It's a surprise to me, but then you can see that they've based everything on a natural environment that gave them excellent players. That's how it used to be in Europe too, but the environment changed and we had to concentrate on developing footballers — they didn't just come from the streets anymore. It trickles up to how you deal with coaches. At some point they'll be faced with that in South America, too.
You're getting a first-hand look at another region of vast potential now. How do you assess the USA's situation?
Here in America there's vast participation — the biggest of all the sports — but the problem arises somewhere between the grass roots and the top. I don't really detect a middle. Here's an example: the reserve team here at New York Red Bulls. I expected there to be a small stadium in the area for them to play their games in, capacity of 2,000 perhaps, but there's nothing. You've either a college or university ground, or the huge arena we're sitting in. I came here from Switzerland, where every village had its own stadium — the one at Nyon held 8,000! There's massive interest in MLS now, and then other teams at the level below, but actual 'local' football doesn't seem to exist. I'm not going to solve it, but the lack of a club structure is certainly an issue for development here.
All the same, here you are — in your first club role since you were a player. What took you to New York Red Bulls?
Somebody asked me to come! I'd already extended my term at Uefa twice and it was an appropriate moment for us both to go in our own directions. It was a very polite parting of the ways, a natural conclusion. I spoke to a number of people after that but Gérard Houllier, whom I've been friends with for 20 years, told me about this project and stressed that it had fantastic potential. It would be a completely different role for me and I'd find it fascinating. So I went to meet the owners twice, and between them and Gérard they really sold it to me. There was a third factor — I came here on holiday last August and went for a walk with Thierry Henry, who tuned me in to everything and added to the impression that this would be a great challenge. Now I'm sitting at this desk, and we're about to open a new training ground that will put us right up there in terms of facilities. I didn't know the finer points of how MLS worked, and I'm getting to grips with them now, but it seemed an intriguing project in an environment that was quickly growing. It just shows you that none of us ever stops learning.
Roxburgh's office is rather sparely decorated, but as we rise to leave he picks up a large, framed photograph from one of the shelves. It's a variation on a famous one: the then-Scotland manager holding aloft a tartan scarf after elimination from Italia 90 at Brazil's hands. "I thought it was the only way I could remind the supporters, everyone back home, that I was one of them — you know?"
I think I do. For all his championing of methodologies, principles and structures, there's something visceral, elemental, that you suspect has sustained him over a lifetime. Half a century in the game has done little to reverse the earthing process he underwent with Sir Alex and their peers back in Glasgow. Tomorrow night, in fact, his old, old friend will be in town: the two will share dinner, doubtless a decent bottle of something, perhaps another chuckle at Guardiola's quest for the elixir of eternal youth. And now, as back then, there's a fair chance that they can do it all as virtual unknowns.