UEFA Champions League
Human touch
Hansi Flick’s success at Bayern shows why building strong relationships with players is more vital today than ever for coaches

This article is from the latest issue of Champions Journal which is available to purchase now.

Words Simon Hart | Illustration Joey Guidone

As the manager who led Dundee United, a provincial Scottish club, to a European Cup semi-final and a UEFA Cup final in the mid-1980s, Jim McLean was “a genius of his time” and a “fantastic coach”. The superlatives come from Mixu Paatelainen, United’s former Finnish centre-forward, albeit with an acknowledgement that McLean’s man-management methods might have needed a tweak or two in today’s game. Not least his post-match ritual of sitting his players down in the dressing room and offering each man, in turn, a public appraisal. “He’d come right up to your face, a matter of inches, and shout,” remembers Paatelainen, now managing Hong Kong’s national team. “You’d certainly get the message. Funny thing was, if you played well, he wouldn’t say, ‘Well done’. There was no praise at all. You were relieved, though, as otherwise you got a real roasting.”

Paatelainen has worked in five different countries in a 15-year coaching career and reflects on how times have changed. There is an oft-cited quote by Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann that “30 percent of coaching is tactics, 70 percent social competence” and Paatelainen regards this as “a night and day difference” from his playing days when “you were inconstant fear all the time”. He adds: “Players are more sensitive these days. Nowadays, especially in front of their team-mates, I don’t think it’s good to criticise somebody too much. Nowadays managers want to manage with real positivity and if somebody does well give them a real boost and let them know what they’ve done right.”

McLean’s successes in Dundee coincided with Sir Alex Ferguson’s spell driving Aberdeen to trophies at home and abroad in an era when the two clubs were dubbed Scotland’s ‘New Firm’. In Ferguson’s case, tales of his dressing-room ‘hairdryer’ are well told, yet Phil Neville, a member of his 1999 UEFA Champions League-winning side at Manchester United, offers a different perspective. Speaking in the 2019/20 Champions League technical report, Neville says his old boss was supremely adept at the social competence of which Nagelsmann speaks. “Sir Alex Ferguson was the master at it, he knew everything about your family – what jobs they did, what inspired you, what your upbringing was – so he could tap into the motivation that made you as an individual because ultimately your players drive the culture.”

Now coaching England’s women’s national team, Neville says such an approach is now essential for elite-level coaches. “When you’ve got 24 players in a squad every player is different and you need that ability to connect with different people from different races and genders and religions and make them into a team, and that’s where the 70 to 80% management comes into it. If you play for one of the Champions League clubs now, you’re a top player, you understand football, you know tactics – that’s the 20 or 30 percent that the top managers focus on – but the cultural bit, the connection, is massively important.”

Another view comes from Brendan Rodgers, manager of Leicester City, who notes the varying demands of the players in his squad. “There are players that come in and do their work, eat their lunch and then go, and then there are others who have different personalities and they need the communication and they want the talk.” For a coach, Rodgers adds, there is a balance to strike. “I think you can have the social side and the human side. Clearly, you need a high level of tactical idea in the game as well, but, firstly, it’s very much about the human side. There’s no doubt in this life, now, I think players need more management, more guidance, more support because their challenges are greater than they’ve ever been as players.”

Bayern München’s Champions League-winning feat in August highlighted the impact of a coach with an exceptional human touch, Hansi Flick. He took over an unhappy dressing room last November and by the end of summer had led them to the treble.

A man who knows him well, Israel coach Willi Ruttensteiner, cites the importance of Flick’s “social skills – communication, relationships, leadership” in the UEFA technical report. The Austrian elaborates: “It’s important that everybody feels good, that there’s a good atmosphere and appreciation for people. He brings this to football, which means appreciating and respecting every player, thinking of substitutes and kit managers. If you ask him, ‘Can you do this for me?’ he listens. In football today, players appreciate it.”

Of course, coaches now have the advantage of technology to support the points they wish to make to their players about performance, and, as Paatelainan points out, the aims of training sessions are explained to squads to aid their understanding. It is quite a contrast to his days at Dundee United. “You weren’t allowed to ask what you do in training, ”Paatalenainen recalls. “If you asked the first team coach or manager ‘What do we do today in training?,' the answer would be, ‘Shut the hell up, you’ll soon realise’ so you didn’t ask any questions!”

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UEFA Champions League
Human touch
Hansi Flick’s success at Bayern shows why building strong relationships with players is more vital today than ever for coaches
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