Rene Meulensteen: To build a winning team takes 18 months... without a patient owner you can forget it

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First Team Coach Rene Meulensteen of Manchester United in action during a first team training session at Carrington Training Ground on October 14, 2011 - GETTY IMAGES
First Team Coach Rene Meulensteen of Manchester United in action during a first team training session at Carrington Training Ground on October 14, 2011 - GETTY IMAGES

"I asked the owner at the time in the interview, 'how long do you think this will take?'", says Rene Meulensteen, discussing his frustratingly short spell in charge of Israeli club Maccabi Haifa. "He said 'I don’t care as long as we get back [to the top]." 

The owner in question was, and still is, Ya'akov Shahar, who employed Meulensteen as manager in the summer of 2016 and fired him six months later. It's a familiar story in the world of football management, with short-term thinking and head-chopping tendencies of certain owners curtailing the careers of managers and the upward trajectory of their own clubs. Are all these sacked managers bad at their jobs?

As the first team coach of Manchester United from 2007 to 2013, Meulensteen has experienced first hand what the inside of a successful club looks and feels like, but even that didn't prevent disappointing spells in charge of Fulham, a ludicrously short 16-days Anzhi Makat hachkala, and the aforementioned dealings at Maccabi Haifa. 

"That is the sort of thing. When any club says 'can we pick Rene Meleunsteen as manager?', they would start to Google and there’s no hiding place. A lot of people would say 'why would he become a manager'? He’s only been two months at Fulham, a month over there."

Meulensteen is currently the assistant manager of Australia, and enjoying it. He's also not yet done with management, having "drawn the short straw" on a few occasions, and confident that with proper support from the boardroom, he could have transformed the fortunes of Maccabi Haifa in particular.

"I said it will take roughly 18 months, give or take," Meulensteen continues. 

"I explained that the first six months I have to look at what we’ve got, the players have to get used to me, how we want to play, we can see where we are in the league, and we know how big the challenge is. Then, depending on the finances available, we can decide which players we can get rid of, and which players can we bring in.

"Then you build a squad exactly the way you want it, and that takes you another six months to get them to play the way you want. Give or take you’re around 18 months.

"What did we do? Six months in we lose the derby to Hapoel Haifa in the Maccabi stadium. We lost that game 3-0. We were basically... it was 80-20 (possession), we should have been 3-0 up after probably 20 minutes, but we missed two great one-on-one chances. Whatever. 

"We lost that game and then the emotion kicks in, the fans start to shout because of the emotional impact of losing a derby, the owner can’t stand it and thinks he has to do something, so off you go. Boom. See you later. And see what happens?

"I kept saying ‘listen no problem - you think I’m the problem, I’m not the problem. I’m part of the solution but if you can’t see that, it’s up to you. I’m telling you I’ll be going, no problem, you’ll be having exactly the same problem next week, in two months, six months, if you don’t constructively do something about it'".

Every season managers in leagues across the world lose their jobs after bad runs of results, with many going on to join the seemingly never-ending merry-go-round from which clubs pick their new 'right man' before sacking him months later.

Shifts in playing style (which take time to implement) and man-management style rarely make long-term strategic sense, and result in impossible demands being placed on the person selected to coach the first team. A manager is often doomed before they start. 

"Most of the time when you start it’s not your team. When I met with Sir Alex Ferguson in 2006/7 when I became first team coach, he’d been there since 1986 and had already built two or three very successful generations of players. Manchester United was Sir Alex Ferguson. 

Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, is seen alongside coach Rene Meulensteen during a training session at Carrington training ground the day before their Champions League quarterfinal first let soccer match against FC Porto, in Manchester, England, - AP
Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, is seen alongside coach Rene Meulensteen during a training session at Carrington training ground the day before their Champions League quarterfinal first let soccer match against FC Porto, in Manchester, England, - AP

"Look at Jurgen Klopp coming into Liverpool. He’s had his success at Borussia Dortmund, was there a long time, goes into Liverpool, same as Pep Guardiola at City, and it takes them about 18 months to get the team where you want them to be. There’s no coming away from it.

"What has Klopp done with those players? He’s made them as fit as he could. He’s got them through different training regimes to get them fitter than any other team to sustain that energetic dynamic game of pressing and playing forward, making forward runs in behind, and it’s very competitive".

Which brings us on to Meulensteen's former club Manchester United and the job of empire rebuilding that has taken place since Ferguson departed. A change of management was always going to be difficult to navigate, but the shift in leadership at boardroom level and in the coaching team behind the scenes has resulted in United plummeting to upper mid-table finishes.

"If you ask me 'are they doing it the right way?', it’s hard to judge because I don’t see the work. At the end of the day the proof is in the pudding. We all know after the flying start it became a bit of a bumpy road, some good performances and also plenty of not so good performances. You could see before the coronavirus thing, with Bruno Fernandes coming in they’d brought in a player with Man Utd DNA and that all changed. 

"It’s both recruitment and coaching. You need to look at the squad you’ve got. If you look at Liverpool, City and Chelsea - what players would they want to steal from Man Utd?

"I don’t think United have consistently, under Ole, been able to play consecutively in the best possible lineup because of issues like [Paul] Pogba and [Marcus] Rashford being injured. Every manager wants to play his best team. Klopp has been able to play his best team week in week out - that’s what every manager wants." 

During our conversation Meulensteen draws up his eight-step blueprint that he believes makes for a successful club:

Rene Meulensteen's guide to what makes a successful club
Rene Meulensteen's guide to what makes a successful club

The question then, is that if he knows how to build a successful club, has his own vision, has experience of working with one of the most successful teams in English football - ticks all the boxes - why has he not been given the opportunity to execute it and build a legacy somewhere?

As with so many things in life, it may well be down to fortune, timing, circumstance... and a lot to do with reputation.

"When there’s an owner with a lot of money but no f------ clue, has no idea, which is basically what I experienced at Fulham with (Shahid) Khan, as a manager you’ve got no chance.

"The weirdest thing is that I’ve been put in the manager’s position a few times without wanting that job. Fulham was one of them because obviously I went to help Martin Jol. I like Martin Jol a lot as a coach and a guy, and suddenly after two games Martin is gone! I still didn’t know if he left by himself or was sacked, or whatever it was, and suddenly I was put in his position without being consulted. Which was a weird thing because I knew what the challenges were at Fulham. 

Manager Martin Jol has been sacked by Fulham following defeat at West Ham, which has left the London Premier League club 18th in the table. LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Martin Jol the Fulham manager chats with Rene Meulensteen the Fulham head coach prior to kickoff during the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Swansea City - GETTY IMAGES
Manager Martin Jol has been sacked by Fulham following defeat at West Ham, which has left the London Premier League club 18th in the table. LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Martin Jol the Fulham manager chats with Rene Meulensteen the Fulham head coach prior to kickoff during the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Swansea City - GETTY IMAGES

"But you’re not going to say no, and you embark on a journey, and it was very disappointing to see that, again, the people of the hierarchy don’t give you the opportunity and the benefit to really finish the job that you started. 

"If you look at the league, I’ve done 12 or 13 league games and nine were in the top 10 so in the Premier League you know your back is against the wall. And when you’re in that predicament and position, you get goals that were offside, goals that weren’t given, penalties, whatever. It’s never been for me a situation where I’ve lost sleep over it. I was very disappointed over that decision, but then I went to join Guus Hiddink in Russia - a similar scenario.

"Again, Hiddink disappeared, I get put in charge of that job and then one month in everything falls through the floor. What does the headline say in the newspaper? Meulensteen sacked after 16 days."

As Meulensteen points out, a lot of the success of Liverpool and Manchester City has been down to steady leadership at the top and the man in charge of the team given time to implement his ideas. Klopp finished eighth in his first season in charge at Liverpool, Guardiola finished fourth. Perhaps managers need to choose their clubs as carefully as the clubs are supposedly choosing them.

"I’m not saying I’d never go back to managing a club - definitely not - but it’s become more and more relevant to me… as you can see I’m a very pragmatic and structural thinker - it’s not like I do things off the cuff! For me, a lot of times it’s just plus and minus, ticking boxes or you don’t.

"A lot of people want to be a manager because they’re the main man, because of ego, but I don’t give a toss about that. I like to do something I love doing that I’m good at, I like the people I do it with.

"Unless you’ve got a club and an owner who is prepared to basically take the time to understand me as a person, and me as a coach, and understand my history I’ve had as a coach at Man Utd and the things that happened after, and then say ‘I’m buying into you and what you stand for, I’m not buying into your past'. That’s the only way.

"Things will happen for a reason, and the reason I’ve ended up with Australia has happened for a reason. I‘m very happy with the people I’m with at Australia."