Advertisement

The making of Arne Slot – ‘he is more intelligent than Erik ten Hag’

Arne Slot with the Eredivisie shield
Arne Slot won the Eredivisie title with Feyenoord in 2023 and the KNVB Cup this year and back-to back Dutch coach of the year awards - Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images

A couple of miles from the German border, Bergentheim nestles on the edge of the Netherlands’ answer to the Bible Belt. Two churches stand sentry beside the canal bisecting this village of chocolate-box prettiness, although there used to be three. Rote learning of the New Testament was once a feature of local education, as Arne Slot, today the community’s most famous son, found out first hand. “He especially liked the story of the Good Samaritan,” recalls Jan Ophof, his childhood mentor. “That one made an impression on him.”

But on an unusually balmy spring evening, it seems, in these secular times, as if the one truly unifying faith here is football. Children of all ages are gathering in the sunshine for after-school training at VV Bergentheim, on artificial pitches of a standard to put those of many major towns to shame. “We have good sponsors,” smiles chairman Bert Nijenhuis, as he shows off the immaculate clubhouse. They also have quite the story to tell. For it is to this bucolic setting that Slot, their celebrated alumnus, returns every August to deliver a coaching clinic. Except this summer he will do so as manager of Liverpool.

Arne Slot at VV Bergentheim
Slot returns to VV Bergentheim, where it began for him, every summer

His appointment stirs immense satisfaction among those who have tracked his talents from the start. At 45, Slot has already brought cachet to Bergentheim through his feats at Feyenoord, defying initial scepticism in Rotterdam to become known as the “Messiah on the Maas”. Liverpool, though, is a promotion that astounds even true believers. It is little wonder that the club’s committee is already scrambling to book a trip to Anfield next season, or that it is planning to screen every Liverpool match live in the bar.

One of Slot’s many monikers in the Netherlands is the “Xavi of Bergentheim”. It might be a touch generous, given the testimony of many former team-mates that he was never especially quick or nimble. But Ophof, a richly expressive figure with a playful grin and a shock of slicked-back grey hair, identified in his protege a precocious coaching mind. “He was nine years old and he would ask me: ‘Can we do this, can we do that?’ And I kept looking at him, thinking: ‘Is he really only nine?’ Even then he was direct, technically very strong. He knew whether to pass it out to the right wing or the left, in a split-second. He would go to sleep with the ball and wake up with it.”

Amid the Liverpool fervour, a running joke between Ophof and Nijenhuis is that Arne, as a player, would not be called the strongest in his own family. That distinction falls to his father, Arend, a former headmaster and member of a Dutch amateur team who came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Where paternal ambition was thwarted, Arend was determined that nothing about Arne’s nurturing should be left to chance.

Jan Ophof
Jan Ophof, Slot's boyhood coach, says his protege was thinking like a coach at the age of nine - David Rose for The Telegraph

“Arne was only six when he first came here, and I was coaching 10-to-12-year-olds, but his father said: ‘Can he play with your team?’” Ophof explains. “It was the right thing to do. His father was very strict, very hard.”

“Discipline, discipline,” Nijenhuis agrees. “Oh yeah,” Ophof says. “If the boy wasn’t good at football, he didn’t like the boy.”

Mercifully, for Liverpool fans nervous about Slot’s credentials to succeed Jürgen Klopp, there are few signs of the same harshness with Arne. After eight years in coaching, one consistent tribute to his style is that he has empathy, knowing precisely what to say to a struggling player – and how to say it. ““Look at what Thomas Tuchel did,” says Ophof, referring to the Bayern Munich manager berating centre-back Kim Min-jae for “greedy” defending against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals. “Arne would never do that to a player. He would do it face-to-face in private, never for the cameras.

Slot has built an image around his equable temperament, seldom lurching too high or too low. It is a psyche typical of Bergentheim, which, you can detect on even a brief visit, is not a place inclined towards hero worship.

On a tour of the club premises, Nijenhuis stresses how, for all the pride they have here in Slot’s achievements, they feel the same powerful emotions about the Second World War resistance fighters that this region produced.

VV Bergentheim U12s training session
Bergheim is proud of its famous son but, in characteristic Dutch fashion, does not put him on a pedestal - David Rose for The Telegraph

Any notion of him being the village’s greatest export, he suggests, should be kept in perspective.

One nagging doubt about Slot on Merseyside is whether he simply represents Erik ten Hag Mark II. Even the besieged Manchester United manager was the future once, arriving at Old Trafford on a wave of goodwill after winning the Eredivisie with Ajax, just as Slot did at Feyenoord last year. The two have an age gap of only nine years and grew up just 40 miles apart. Another no-nonsense Dutchman, another Johan Cruyff disciple promising to reinvent “total football” in the Premier League? Liverpool supporters could be forgiven for claiming that they have heard this one before. Except Ophof insists, in defence of his star pupil, that they need not be worried. “Arne is more intelligent than Ten Hag,” he says, with disarming bluntness. “He is different.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For illustrations, it helps to travel 90 miles north to Leeuwarden, where Slot’s steepest of coaching trajectories began. In this picturesque little city, the heart of Friesland, Gerald van den Belt is on his lunch break. As financial director of Cambuur, known locally as the “folk club”, he is busily organising a relocation to a larger stadium in three months’ time. But for one hour he is happy to elaborate on the virtues of Slot, one of his closest friends.

The pair socialise together, play padel together, their paths so entwined that Van den Belt’s son, Thomas, is a rising star under Slot at Feyenoord.

It was Van den Belt who gave Slot his first break in management at Cambuur, under Henk de Jong. “You want to know the first thing I told Arne?” says De Jong, as he strides through the stadium lobby, back for his second stint in charge. “As a coach, don’t be a grey mouse.” Roughly translated, he means that it was important for Slot to stand out. Not that there was ever much danger of him fading into the background.

Henk de Jong and Gerald van den Belt
Henk de Jong and Gerald van den Belt gave Slot his first crack at management at Cambuur - David Rose for The Telegraph

As an evangelist for using data to his team’s advantage, he made an early impact by telling De Jong to reduce the number of high crosses from wide areas, arguing that only one in 80 would be successful. “Arne spent 10 minutes trying to convince Henk about this,” Van den Belt remembers. “In the end, Henk replied: ‘That’s a good idea. We’ll cross 160 times and that way we’ll always score twice.’”

Eventually, Slot converted Cambuur to his way of thinking, going to extraordinary lengths to do so. “Our fans thought he was mad at first,” Van den Belt says. “So he said to me: ‘On Tuesday evening, invite anyone to the club who wants to come.’ He spoke for two hours, with video analysis of his reasons for changing, for asking his players to spend a few more seconds creating a better chance, rather than resorting to a high cross. He encouraged fans to be patient, not negative. Afterwards, they were very excited. Arne will do anything to achieve a better result. Anything that’s a bad influence, he tries to transform.”

Rob McDonald, a striker for PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle in the mid-to-late Eighties, observed a similar trait. He has lived in the Netherlands for 40 years and one of his many roles in coaching was at Zwolle, where Slot first forged his reputation as a shadow striker, making up for a lack of speed with visionary passing. “The thing I noticed about Arne was, not arrogance exactly, but the fact he had so much confidence in himself,” McDonald says.

“I could tell from his face that he was gutted when I didn’t pick him for the team at first, but business was business. He had an air about him on the pitch. A player would try to tackle him hard, and he would just shoot them this glance. He has had the same attitude as a manager. It is one of ‘I know what I’m talking about, listen to me.’”

Rob McDonald
Rob McDonald, the former PSV and Newcastle forward, coached Slot at PEC Zwolle and identified an iron streak of self-confidence - David Rose for The Telegraph

It would be misleading to characterise Slot as an autocrat. But he is distinguished, like the titans who have gone before him at Liverpool, by a consuming thirst for glory. “He doesn’t want to ignore a single per cent of his potential influence on a result,” Van den Belt says. “He is an absolute winner. We use the word ‘winner’ a lot in football – about Paul Gascoigne, for example. But Gascoigne was crazy and could have won so much more. Arne, on the other hand, realises that doing stupid things runs counter to winning. You have to stay in control if you truly want to have influence.”

There can be a tendency towards cultural exceptionalism in England, a suspicion that accomplishments in Dutch football mean nothing in the Premier League. What Slot has engineered at Feyenoord is genuinely startling, however. Van den Belt relates the story of how, in 2022, the club lost 7-0 in a pre-season friendly to Copenhagen, with their Danish opponents accusing them of not taking the match seriously. Nine months later, despite an almost wholesale turnover of players, they won the league. That, his friend argues, is why he is now treated as a “demi-god” in Rotterdam.

All his career, his attention to detail has been relentless. At Zwolle, where his face looms large on the club’s wall of heroes, he developed a habit of launching the ball high into the sky at kick-off. Dutch TV pundits mocked him mercilessly for it. But what they neglected to notice, Van den Belt says, is that he was doing it deliberately, wrongfooting the opposition as they looked directly into the sun. “‘What an idiot,’” his critics laughed. And yet that year, Zwolle scored seven times within the first 30 seconds.”

Arne Slot playing for Zwolle in 2013
Slot spent 10 years at Zwolle in two spells, scoring 66 league goals - VI Images via Getty Images

The same meticulousness applies at Feyenoord, where Slot has taken a particular interest in maintaining his players’ circadian rhythms. “Dutch teams play at ridiculous times because of the TV demands,” McDonald says.

“So Arne changes the schedule, making sure that they train at the same time that they’re playing the next night, enhancing their metabolism.” His approach has yielded rich reward, including a Dutch Cup triumph last month, but he craves a grander stage. “After three years, what more can he do at Feyenoord?” says his friend Pascal Frederiks, Zwolle’s former right-back. “I was a little surprised at first that Liverpool didn’t get a bigger name. But why not? He can articulate everything in his head extremely well.”

This ease of communication is a key attribute in separating him from Ten Hag. None of the usual criticisms of the United manager – that he lacks warmth or human connection, that he is too stern in his manner – are likely, McDonald predicts, to be raised against Slot. “When I look at Erik in interviews, I can 100 per cent put on paper what he’s going to say. Arne will at least put a joke in now and then. He knows precisely who he’s talking to. He has this way of showing people respect but still getting a little dig in.”

The task that confronts Slot at Liverpool is vast. A school of thought holds sway that he is simply a holding substitute for Xabi Alonso, that he could easily shrivel in the shadow of Klopp’s cult of personality. Still, the overwhelming view in his native land is that he can confound expectations, reminding Liverpool’s superstars how to create a team greater than the sum of their parts.

“Arne always has a message that the collective, the team, makes the individual look better,” Van den Belt says. “That’s a very important part of his football philosophy. A scout told me recently, ‘Never take players from Arne Slot’s team. They always look better than they are.’ That is, when you think about it, the biggest compliment to a coach.”

A scalding baptism awaits Slot. But if there is one view on which his compatriots are united, it is that he is not to be underestimated.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.