What has Steve McClaren been doing right?

May 5, 2010

Steve McClaren has done it. P34 W27 D5 L2, and top of the league for all but six weeks of the campaign, he has won the Eredivisie title for the first time in the history of FC Twente.

The key to Twente’s success has been stability. When McClaren arrived at the club in 2008, he stuck with the loose 4-3-3 system Twente had been playing for the previous couple of seasons, and has played it even when faced with injury problems (with a relatively weak squad) or a brief loss of form.

Equally as important as stability in shape has been stability in personnel. In a 34-game season, nine players have started more than thirty games – Theo Janssen and Dwight Tiendalli being the exceptions.

McClaren managed to completely revamp the side and stamp his authority upon it, whilst retaining the resilience that had seen them finish 4th the season before he arrived. This truly is his side – seven of the eleven first-choice players are his signings, but he identified a solid spine of existing players that would remain – the Boschker-Douglas-Brama-Nkufo axis was there when McClaren arrived, and he clearly built around it.

Although Twente have been successful because of their discipline and organisation, there is no dedicated holding player in the centre of midfield. Wout Brama and Theo Janssen are two combative players who dovetail well and sit infront of the back four when Twente are not in possession, whilst the silky, left-footed veteran Kenneth Perez acts as the link between midfield and attack, and has few defensive responsibilities.

The wide players are difficult to categorize as forwards, creative wingers or hard-working wide midfielders – their role is a combination of all three. When in possession they move high up the pitch against the opposition full-backs, and Twente regularly look to play diagonal balls, but when the opposition have the ball the wide players get through far more work than Perez, dropping deep and closing down.

McClaren’s system has been widely defined as a 4-3-3, but Twente’s shape is more complex than that, and depends entirely on whether they have the ball or not. If they do, it’s a 4-2-1-3, when they don’t it is more like a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-4-1-1 – the latter would probably be more appropriate, because as mentioned earlier, the two central midfielders are not ‘holding’ players in the usual sense.

Twente's regular starting XI

This has been a problem when Twente have travelled away to big sides – they were thrashed 0-3 at Ajax, deservedly lost 0-1 to AZ, and found themselves 0-3 down after thirty minutes at Werder Bremen in the Europa League, in a match they went onto lose 1-4.

In a sense, it’s difficult to blame McClaren for this – the mentality needed to beat bottom-half Eredivisie sides is completely different to the one needed to grind out a 0-0 against a top-class side, and it’s difficult to switch your side for those rare matches, especially when you have built your side around the concept of stability.

Nevertheless, Twente will have to be slightly less tactically naive if they are to make an impact in next year’s Champions League – whether McClaren will be around to direct them is another question.

What McClaren’s success should not give way to is a revisionist attitude to his spell as manager of the England side, as happened last year when Twente finishing second raised eyebrows. The claims that he was ‘hounded out of England’ are slightly difficult to take, when he was merely sacked and disliked for being bad at his job. He made poor decisions both in terms of tactics and selection, and failed to get to Euro 2008 -unquestionably a sackable offence.

There was no suggestion (at least from any intelligent source) when he was removed from his job that he was a useless football manager, merely that he wasn’t up to being England boss. Widely regarded as an excellent coach rather than a skilled tactician or motivator, it’s relatively little surprise that he has prospered in a club role on the continent, where he is working with intelligent players day in, day out, and is able to do what he does best – coach them.

That should not detract from his achievement. One of the slightly odd comments repeated over the weekend was that McClaren became ‘the first English manager to win a major foreign league since Bobby Robson at Porto in 1996′. A major foreign league? No English manager has won the English league title in that time either.

What next for McClaren? Offers are apparently flooding in, and with respect to Twente, he would be a fool not to move on now. It will be difficult for him to advance his current club further; the only way is down in the Eredivisie, and making a real impact on the Champions League will be very difficult. Whether his reputation will ever recover in his home country remains doubtful – even this triumph was ‘celebrated’ in England by links to an old YouTube video where he puts on a slightly questionable Dutch accent.

If fulfilling his potential as a coach means spending the vast majority of his career abroad, then so be it; at least he is now known for something positive – aside from appearing on the banner of a football tactics website.

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