x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

How Hiddink uses player egos for the good of the team

No coach in football is as comfortable with stars as Chelsea's new manager Guus Hiddink.

The Chelsea changing room is a terrifying place for a coach. It is full of the sort of players most coaches fear: stars. John Terry, Michael Ballack, Didier Drogba and the rest are old enough, celebrated enough, good enough and rich enough to know their own minds. Most have a longer history at Chelsea than any coach is likely to accumulate. He has to listen to them, not they to him.

No coach in football is as comfortable with stars as Chelsea's new manager Guus Hiddink. Some people can whisper to horses, or tame lions; Hiddink can handle football egos, as Chelsea's opponents Juventus may discover when the Champions League restarts tonight. Hiddink can also explain how he does it. Anyone aspiring to work in top-class football should listen. First, it is worth emphasising how rare his gift is. Even many brilliant managers lack it. Alex Ferguson at Manchester United is always scanning his players for signs that they are turning into stars who know their own minds and want some personal glory. David Beckham, the most valuable individual brand in football, was flogged to Real Madrid when Ferguson thought Becks had finally realised he was a star (years after the world did). Ruud van Nistelrooy, a brilliant goalscorer but a bloody-minded player, was benched then banished to Real.

Jose Mourinho, when he became Chelsea's manager in 2004, rejoiced at the club's lack of egos. Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, gave him a list of star names and asked him which ones Mourinho wanted. None, the Portuguese coach replied. He wanted players hungry enough to sublimate their egos to the team. Only later did Abramovich force Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko on him. Hiddink is different. When he was only 40, in 1987, he became head coach of PSV Eindhoven.

He understood that in modern football, where players are multi-millionaire celebrities, a coach must be more psychoanalyst than sergeant-major. He swapped jokes and cigarettes with his stars, asked their views, and in his first season PSV won the European Cup. Here are three case-studies in how Hiddink gets the best out of difficult players: Romario, PSV (1988-1993): The Brazilian was a selfish man, with no interest in the collective. He had just one redeeming feature: he was brilliant. Hiddink was determined to use that while getting the team to accept his selfishness. If Romario preferred sleeping (his hobby) to attending compulsory team lunches, Hiddink let him.

Eventually Hiddink let the forward face his chief detractors in a four-against-four game in a training session. "You can't hide in four against four," chuckled Hiddink. Romario stationed himself in defence, and played a brilliant but bonehard game in which his quartet triumphed. After that, he considered the debate about his work-rate closed. Edgar Davids, Holland (Euro 96): Hiddink sent Davids home after the publicly advised him to remove his head from other players's backsides. Then, before World Cup 98, Hiddink went to talk and listen to Davids, and recalled him. Davids played brilliantly and behaved impeccably.

Phillip Cocu, PSV Eindhoven (2004-2007): Cocu is a collective thinker, a coach's dream. But the Dutchman does have his own football mind. On the pitch, he reads the game as well as any coach. Hiddink trusted Cocu's instincts, he left him free to change PSV's formation during games whenever he liked. Most teams can only adapt to circumstances at half-time, but Hiddink's PSV could adjust several times a match.