Firstpost Masterclass: 'Coaching is an experience job, it gets better over time,' Eelco Schattorie on many facets of football management
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Schattorie gives rare insights into the mind of a football manager. He speaks about his methods, the decision-making process, the importance of youth development, dealing with stress and more.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Dutch manager Eelco Schattorie has been on the coaching and management side of football for close to 25 years. Right from overseeing the youth development sides to managing seniors teams in India, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, Schattorie has a wealth of experience when it comes to football management.
Schattorie's tryst with India started with Prayag United in 2012 when they used to play in the I-League. Later, he had stints at East Bengal and then in the Indian Super League (ISL) with NorthEast United and Kerala Blasters. In his only season with NorthEast, he ensured the club qualifies for the playoffs for the first time, winning the first-leg semi-final but eventually losing the tie 4-2 against Bengaluru FC. Last season, Schattorie was the head coach of Kerala Blasters but it was a disappointing campaign with Kerala finishing seventh and winning only four matches.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Schattorie gives rare insights into the mind of a football manager. He speaks about his methods, the decision-making process, the importance of youth development, dealing with stress, and more.
You have been coaching for quite a few years now. What has been your biggest learning in football management?
Coaching is an experience job. You can compare it to good wine, it gets better over time. It doesn't mean that the older coach is always better than the younger coach. It doesn't matter at what age you start but if you analyse yourself, the situation you get into, and evaluate them well, you'll become a better coach. Having said that, I do think that a lot of coaches over-organise. I learned with time to let go a little bit more and see the bigger picture. That means you don't have to overthink and put all the ideas on players. I always try to create a team in which the players can think for themselves. I like it when players can make decisions on their own. I try to guide them through the decision rather than telling them what to do all the time.
When you are managing a club at the highest level, how much of your job is actually related to just coaching and how much does it involve managing the club?
For me, football is divided into three areas. What is football? Football is a very subjective sport. A few like the long ball strategy while others like the build-up game. But the way you look at football is very important. The moment you step into a club, and especially in India, there will be people running the club who have never played football in their lives. For those people, the way they see football is completely different than the coaches. The moment you get into a club, there should be some kind of merging of ideas. Like the people running the club should give (head coach) full responsibility of leading the club or (control) over the whole footballing process. But sooner or later, they always get impatient because maybe the results are not there. Or maybe because they don't understand that football is a process. It takes time to build a team.
The second part is that there are a lot of forces around the club that influence the team and you don't right away see them. I will try to explain this. The only party that has a direct influence on a football match is the players. Then comes the coach and then the staff. These three parties have a direct influence on a football match. But then there are a few who don't directly influence the game but they affect the process - like the management, the sponsors or stakeholders, supporters, press, referees, opponents, the local politics. All these parties have an influence on the process.
Kerala Blasters have one of the biggest fanbases in India. Those supporters have a huge expectation on how the team should play. So as a club, if you don't communicate the process to the supporters, the expectations can put huge pressure on the players and the coach. The point I want to make is that in many clubs, outside forces are way stronger. It's the same as your local politics. If your local politicians are not football minded, they will not help with proper facilities for training and that has an indirect influence on the results of the team.
The third part is about managing a team. I spend a lot of time in developing the players. It doesn't matter if you are from India or Africa or Holland, there's talent everywhere. If you look at Indian culture, someone older always knows better. But football as a game has creativity and that means players need to make their own decisions. That is something I try to teach the players. Be more decisive, be more creative.
You have spoken about what is football and how there should be a merger of ideas and all. So for a football manager, how important is the decision-making process? What's your approach? Do you like to take as many opinions as possible or you trust your instincts?
When I started my coaching career, I wanted to do everything by myself. The older I became, the more I tried to delegate. There are certain areas that I always handle. Like many coaches have an analyst. I do have one but analysing the opponents before the game or after, I do that myself. I always like to analyse the opponent teams by myself. I don't like to give it to others because somebody else will not see what your eyes see. When it comes to overall working, I like to delegate. When you make decisions, you sit with your staff and you make a plan and later you start executing the plan and along the way, I would like to supervise.
I'm never scared to make decisions. That's one of the things I learned. I rather make a wrong decision and stand by it than hesitate and be scared to make a decision. So decision-making is an important aspect for the coach. I also think that players like that. They like the clarity a coach shows. If it's wrong, I'm also the first one to accept the mistake but at least the players see that I'm decisive. Over time, you develop a third eye or an intuition to a certain problem and you know how to make a better decision.
How important is the pre-season for you? How do you plan it? If a pre-season doesn't go as per the plan, does it have an impact on the entire season, like what happened during your stint with Kerala Blasters?
It is extremely, extremely important. Last season, I remember Mumbai had some injury concerns (in pre-season). Goa were not doing well. Almost all teams had a pre-season in India. I think it has to do with costs. To plan a pre-season in India is not easy because the infrastructure is not there. If you look at my pre-season with Kerala Blasters, we decided that we will go to Dubai. Pre-season is all about physical preparations. Why do you have a pre-season? To ensure players are fit for the season. You prepare them for the rest of the year. There are other parts like working on tactics and all but physical preparation is important in pre-season.
The first thing you do is to plan the games. Once you have done the planning of the matches, you work backwards by planning the physical training. You cannot do physical training three or four times in the first week. You should not overdo it. You should gradually move upwards, like start with easy and then bit heavy and move up. I have to follow a program.
The moment your pre-season is cancelled and you have to go back to India, you have to start planning the program all over again and by that time, most of the teams were busy. Because our pre-season got interrupted, the players didn't get proper exposure (fitness-wise). It was a disaster and you also saw that during the season. We had a lot of injuries. I'll give you another example. If you plan your pre-season with intense physical training, you can see that the players are fit in the beginning, but later you will start seeing injuries. The ISL is not that long but it's at least a six-month league. For those six months, you need your players to be fit. In order to do that, you need a planned, organised pre-season and if that gets distracted, sooner or later you will see problems.
When you are about to sign for a new club, do you ask for a certain time period to complete the job? Does this approach really help the football managers?
There are lot of good coaches who don't have big profiles, as in they didn't win many championships. Sometimes, a coach gets the job half way into the season and you have to take over from another coach. Sometimes, you need to take a job knowing the fact that it is going to be very difficult. I'll give you an example where coaches who were big players, when they started out they didn't have big coaching experience but it is easier for them to get a job. There is a big pile of coaches who don't have big profiles but are very good coaches. They don't have a choice of picking the right kind of job. At the beginning of my career, I had to take a lot of coaching jobs halfway (into the season) and saved them from relegation. It's a very, very difficult job when you have to step in and take the job from another coach and then start winning.
When you have a chance to take the job at the beginning of the season, and you are in a position to present your plans to the club at the start, it is always the best thing because you have time to plan. I'm very flexible and I have learned to work with what I have. But does that always give you a championship? No. But I'm 100 percent sure that wherever I worked, I made progress. Unfortunately, you don't always get the time to finish the work.
If you get a club where you have good players with good infrastructure, you have a bigger chance to win. Look at Bengaluru, their coach Carles Cuadrat was never a head coach before. His first job as a head coach was at Bengaluru but his team was always performing. Does that mean that Cuadrat is a bad coach? No. Don't get me wrong. What I'm trying to say is that if you step into a situation where you have a bigger chance to succeed, where you have chances to make certain demands, it is always good.
Is it important for a football team to have an identity?
I am actually watching The Last Dance on Netflix. If anyone wants to have an idea about how top sports are structured, they should watch that documentary. I really admire coach Phil Jackson. I even read his books. He is someone who's not a control freak. He actually uses the quality of the players. What I want to say is that he's not sticking to one system. When you talk about identity, he created an identity for that team (Chicago Bulls). There should be some kind of identity that fits the club. If you take Barcelona or Ajax, there's a certain style that fits them, but you don't need a very specific identity. It's more of a general idea, I think it's needed because it becomes easier when it comes to scouting or find people that fit the culture. If you don't have an identity and you bring in someone, either a staff member or a player, if they don't have certain elements of the value you have at the club then it will never work. So yes, I do think that identity is important.
So when you choose a particular style for your team, does it depend on your (manager) preferred philosophy or on the quality of the players?
There are certain coaches who have an identity and when they go to a certain club, they fail to put the same identity on that club. A club should be determined to find their own culture and find a coach who fits that identity. Jose Mourinho is the best example. I don't think he's a different coach from the time he started till now. He has the same way of working but in the last two-three jobs, it did not work for him. The moment he went to Manchester United, I had already said in interviews that it is not going to work out. That doesn't mean that Mourinho is not a good coach but it just doesn't fit the style or culture of that club. First the club needs to have an identity and then find a coach that fits.
Kerala Blasters have an identity but it is mostly related to the supporters. Everybody talks about Kerala Blasters' supporters but in the last six years, they had nine coaches. I go back to what I said in the beginning, the forces, the dynamics around the club. You need to know what they are to build a certain identity.
What's your preferred tactical formation? Do you have one?
A tactical formation is not something that is static. It's not like when you play a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, you think as if this is it. You don't choose a tactical formation first and then choose the players. You have to work the other way round. You have to look at the quality of the players and then choose a formation.
My first job in India was at Prayag United where they had one player called Carlos Hernandez. He played in the World Cup for Costa Rica. I arrived at the halfway stage and saw that he was overweight. He was not physically fit. He wanted to play in the midfield, in 4-2-3-1. On the ball, he was fantastic but defensively he cost us problems.
At a certain point, I tried to convince him that he was not fit. At first he was finding excuses but later I convinced him that he was not fit and then I changed the system to 4-4-2 diamond. I gave Carlos a free role as a striker. I had Ranti Martins as the main striker who goes to the box and I gave Carlos a free role. He could go wherever he wanted. Why did I do that? Because defensively, he was not fit, but I wanted to use his qualities on the ball so he could be wherever he wanted. When we did that, we won the IFA Shield and we were not beaten for the rest of the season. So shaping a formation is highly dependent on the quality of the players.
In your role as football manager, do you also work on developing leaders in your team?
This is a great question, especially when it comes to India. Indian people, and I am saying it with respect and it's also a good thing, are very humble. An elder person is expected to know everything and he's the leader. There are examples in Indian football where we see a player is a captain but he's not a leader. A leader here is based on the age but does that mean he's a leader? No, not at all. Not always. The leadership in India is always seen as the guy who's the oldest or the guy who works the hardest. Football is a game of a lot of mistakes. Not every situation is the same so you need a player on the field who can take control. You are born with that (leadership quality). Sometimes, you can have very good players but you don't have leaders in the team. That's a big problem. That's not something you can create. You really need to recruit (those kind of players). You need to find one or two leaders in the team.
Let's say you have a very good squad and all positions are covered but there's a highly talented player who is available and wants to join your team, and your club can afford the transaction. What do you do in this situation?
First of all, I like it when there's a clear picture of what we are doing. I don't prefer to work in a big group. In a football team, only 11 players can play. If the group is bigger, then you have more people who are not happy. What I try to do is to keep the team as small as possible. I like to have two players for each position, who need to compete with each other. Let's say you have a really good talented player, and this guy wants to play for your team. In this case, I would go and sit with the player. I'll be brutally honest with him about his position; whether he wants to work his way in because we already have two players. You need to explain what is the trajectory for him. And if he feels this is something that he would invest in, we'll take him. If he says that he wants to play right away then I will say sorry.
The most important thing is, many clubs make this mistake, they see one talented player or somebody who played two fantastic games and all the clubs want this player and then they end up bidding for the player but they already have three other players for the same position. I see so many times that the clubs are scared to miss out on a player and that creates a problem. So you need to be really clear on what you're doing and what you expect from a person who you are bringing in.
What do you look for in youngsters trying to make a mark in the first team? What qualities stand out for you?
The first thing that needs to be understood is that if a youngster is going from a junior team to seniors, physically it's a very big step. It also means adaptation. Any player, who on a technical level or at a physical level or at a tactical level, is able to cope with the first-team requirements, I will give him a chance. If he's better than a 25-year-old or 30-year-old, I don't care, I'll put him in the team. What is known in young people is that they are stubborn, impatient and they don't have much discipline. So what I want to say is that you need to be patient. In the beginning, things will go well but when there will be a drop in performance, you need to understand and accept that you are not doing well.
In India, someone who has never played football, like an official or an owner of a club, sees this young player playing very good for three games and it's all praise. Then in the fourth game, the player plays badly and then they will start asking all the questions. Sometimes they don't understand the ups and downs young players go through. If a player can cope with that at all levels, if players show that they can handle (pressure), I will put them in the first team.
How do you view the relationship between players and managers? You think a manager has to maintain a certain distance from the players?
I had a very good learning experience with this aspect. For a very long time in my career, I was an assistant coach. So as an assistant coach, you are in between the head coach and the players. When players are not happy in the team, they go to the assistant coach and not to the head coach straightaway. They try to put a message across by speaking to the assistant coach. Now as an assistant coach, you don't want to be in bad terms with the players but you also want to be loyal to the head coach. So I learned at a young age to be very straightforward. That means I will say what I think to the players and to the head coach. But you also have to be respectful to them.
What I learned over time is: I should be very straight forward and open but as a head coach, I do keep a certain distance. If you're friendly with a player, maybe he will think he can get preferences. I can be very friendly but if you are playing crap, I can straightaway tell you. I'm very direct and open but I will also keep a certain distance.
We know that managing a football club is a highly stressful job. How do you deal with stress?
Very interesting question. If I feel I'm in some sort of pressure, I tend to enjoy that. For instance, my wife always says to me that she finds it unbelievable how well I handle interviews and media right after the game. I'm not a person who gets scared easily. When I'm under pressure because of the results, my chest goes forward and I can fight the whole world. But that's not always easy. I have this thing inside me – even though the whole world is against me, I don't care. I do what I need to do and we'll see what the outcome is. In the beginning, you'll make mistakes, like reacting aggressively and all. This is again something I learned over time. I am a fighter. When the whole stadium will shout my name and tell me to get out, I will get even stronger. I don't mean it in an arrogant way but it's just a character trait.
So, in a way you've spoken about mental strength and it is something that is often discussed in sports. Mental strength also differs from player to player. Do you consciously make an effort to work on the mental strength aspect?
So if you look at it in two ways – you have the mental strength of the full team but that is built around the mental strength of individual players. I think some players have it naturally. Sometimes you see a lot of good players, football or other top sports, who lost a parent when they were young. That means from a very young age, they had certain responsibilities and they had to deal with it emotionally. Sometimes you see top players coming from poor backgrounds. On a daily basis, they learn how to deal with a difficult life. So automatically, you build your mental strength. You learn to deal with setbacks.
Some have it in them but for others, you need to guide them through the whole process. One thing is for sure: It doesn't matter how talented you are, if you don't develop it (mental strength), you will never reach the top. It becomes impossible. It's not an easy thing to develop. But I do have my ways. Like you saw with my (ISL) teams, even when our team was losing, we showed fighting spirit and that starts with my attitude. I also spend a lot of time with my players to develop that fighting spirit and strong attitude.
You have spent time in India and you were involved with Indian football. Can you point at a few areas where things are going wrong?
If you look at European or South American countries, they have over a hundred years of football culture. If you look at the ISL, it is just six years old. So the culture is not there yet. The second part is the underdeveloped infrastructure in India. Most clubs don't have a youth development, and everything starts at the youth level.
Let me say it like this. India have made a lot of development in the Information Technology (IT) sector. India have highly educated people in IT. Why is that? Probably because of the infrastructure. With football or with anything in life, it's the same. If you want to develop a good generation, they need to be educated from the school level. If you don't have proper infrastructure, if you don't develop from the bottom, you'll never really grow. If you look at the national team of India, the players only play 18 games a season. It is nothing. It is very, very less compared to other football nations.
In Europe and other places, we have seen clubs with greater financial wealth are likely to achieve success with regard to trophies. Do you think the financial aspect part has not entirely taken over in ISL and that makes the league a level playing field?
If you speak of budget and achieving success, yes, there's a relationship. If you want to be successful in the long run and you want to win championships, you need to invest. Best teams in the world are also the richest teams in the world.
There are some teams who get lucky one season and don't invest much but they go down again in next season. You need to know your position in the market. If you don't have too much money then you need to be smart in the way you recruit. In the long run, if you want to compete every season, you need a good budget.
NorthEast United, which had one of the lowest budgets in the ISL, qualified for the playoffs. But in the end, my players Bartholomew Ogbeche and Rowllin Borges got injured and my squad was not that deep. I did not have good backups. Teams which have a good budget, they have one good player for one position and also have another for the same position. That is because of the money. But not always. That's why I said good recruitment. If your club has a good youth development, there are more chances to be sustainable in the long run. But sure, the best teams in the world are also the richest.
You are from Netherlands and there's a big list of influential Dutch manages who shaped football in many ways. Is there any particular reason why the Dutch produce so many incredible football managers?
Holland is a very small country. We have like 17 or 18 million people. When we compare it to other football nations, it's a very small quantity. But somehow, we managed to bring out world-class players. How is that possible? There are aspects of culture in each country that represent the character of people. Because we are small and we need to compete with other countries, we became more inventive. We became more creative.
If you look at the history of Holland, we travelled a lot. This is not something to be proud of but we had a lot of colonies all over the world. If there's any problem that is related to water, like building bridges or ships, Holland is really good at it. Why? Because our country is in the lowland, we have lot of water, so we developed certain qualities. Germany have the best highways in the world. They have the best cars. They have the best engineers. There's something in German culture where they want to be the best.
When it comes to football, we have always been creative and dependent a lot on the youth development. Each village has a club and they also focus on youth development. You have more chances to become a football player in Holland than say England. Why is Holland so good at football? We didn't have a lot of quantity but we spent a lot of time in being creative.
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