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the square ball week: nice by nature

the square ball week: nice by nature

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The Association of Spanish Footballers, Spain’s players’ union, has a team called AFE that plays matches twice a year, during summer and winter transfer windows.

AFE has certain similarities to the recent history of Leeds United, in that by the end of their matches, all its good players have moved on to other clubs. Nobody minds, though; in fact it’s the point. “In an ideal world, on the last day I’ll be standing here on my own,” their coach for winter 2014, Thomas Christiansen, told Sid Lowe for an article in The Guardian.

That Christiansen was involved in the project seems entirely in keeping with the character he presented to the press on Monday, when he was formally unveiled as head coach of Leeds United. AFE is a team for unemployed footballers in need of new clubs, bringing them together for a month of intense training to get them back into shape, and to play friendlies and training matches (under Christiansen, they played Shanghai Shenhua, Club Alianza Lima, Huracán Valencia, FC Biel and CSKA Moscow) in which the players can attract the attention of clubs, scouts and agents, who can get the players back into employment again.

The players at AFE with Christiansen had, he said, “A real desire … and in most cases a real need.” Goalkeeper Toni Doblas was highlighted in the article; financial troubles at Zaragoza had led to a disastrous transfer to a club in Azerbaijan. Doblas reckoned that in three years he’d been paid five months’ wages, and was fighting his case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport — not a cheap undertaking.

With a full staff and a serious attitude to training and game preparation, the charitable aspect of AFE is hidden behind set-piece practice and video analysis of opposing sides. “We’re set up just like a professional team but with one difference,” said Christiansen. “We want our best players to leave.” And it works; despite low days when the phones weren’t ringing, when the squad needed the support and wise counsel of their coach, at the time of writing his article, Lowe was able to report that ten of Christiansen’s squad had found clubs, and he was becoming daily more alone.

As we search for reassurance, beyond the first rush of excitement over how good he looked in every style of nineties soccer fashion in his playing career, that Thomas Christiansen if a different sort of unknown to Dave Hockaday or Darko Milanic, it’s pleasant to come across articles like this that confirm that, behind the easy smile we’ve seen in his interviews this week, there’s the heart of a nice fella.

There are other hints too. After eighteen months at Bochum, his fourteenth team before he was 30, he was described as “an idol”: “[he has] the figure of a man who likes a beer and enjoys life to the full, but at 29 he’s taking his football more seriously than at any other time in his career.” Beer as well as goals? He’s the Eurotrash John Sheridan. Then there were the social media messages of well-wishers from his former club APOEL — many of them his former players.

Which is the important factor, and perhaps explains as much as any tactical analysis how Christiansen fits into the new coaching setup at Leeds United. Whether he played 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 at APOEL won’t tell us much about how he’ll get Leeds to play; as he said in his press conference, he adapted APOEL’s style to suit the players he had, and would be bringing neither the players nor the tactics with him. (He could have mentioned that before I hunted and downloaded a bunch of APOEL’s Europa League matches, but anyway. Cmd-del, sigh.)

What is significant is that he got the players he had to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, past Athletic Bilbao, the first time APOEL had ever beaten a club from La Liga. “We made history,” he told LUTV’s Thom Kirwin, with a smile. “So I’m ready for making history.”

Team spirit is important, he added; “The players are everything.” And as a coach, Christiansen says, he brings a vibe.

“The most important thing is to do something that you like, not because you’re getting good money or you get a status of being coach, but that you like what you do, that you have something to bring to the people, to the fans, to the players. That everyone can improve and be happy with what they have learned. And I get this feedback now, because I got so many messages saying congratulations for signing for Leeds, from many players, all the board members from APOEL, and that means I left something good in these clubs.”

Garry Monk, lately, has left a nest of snake emojis behind him at Leeds United; I dread to think what Steve Evans might have left, and pity the poor soul who had to flush it. It’s too soon to talk about Christiansen leaving, but what he’s bringing seems clear: an understanding of the standards involved in working for a legend like Johan Cruyff, experience of football across Europe and the Middle East, and a genial ability to create an atmosphere on the training pitches every day in which players enjoy working.

Which neatly balances some of the glowering villainy emanating from Christiansen’s right during the press conference. The intention of taking TC to Facebook Live might have been for the fans to get to know the head coach a bit better, but it was Victor Orta who made the bigger impression.

“All the people promise,” said Orta, United’s newish Director of Football, answering a question from the BBC’s Adam Pope about potential new signings. “Like if Thomas sit here and say, I will win promotion. For me, this is only words. I prefer he promise me hard work, he promise me real commitment with our club, he promise me really, really make his ideas [work] … I don’t want the coach that talks with me and says, I want to win promotion. Nobody can promise this. I prefer that he promise me hard work, that is one thing that he [can promise] here in this moment.”

Okay. So that was a forceful couple of minutes about what a coach should promise to Victor Orta. “Can you promise him some players, then?” pressed Pope.

“Yes. But in our core is budget. Because I know that in this market period, all the people understand the English teams, like a tax. You are a Spanish club, ask for a player, it’s one amount. If you English, it’s double. More times I prefer, and I talk in my first interview with Leeds United, the man, not the name, for me is more important. In a similar situation that he [Christiansen] arrive. A player that want to play in Leeds. Not only for money, not only for playing in England … This is my task now, to try to understand, who are players who want to play for Leeds United. And if in that moment, they lose money and other offers, or these kinds of things, for me, this player is right for Leeds.”

Alright Ken Bates, we only asked. Putting aside the point he’s making about recruitment — and if it means we sign Becchios rather than Browns, then it’s fair policy — what was clear in the delivery and the substance of who he expects to make him promises was that, even though we didn’t get an introductory press conference when he was hired, Victor Orta is in charge.

The backroom staff assembling around Christiansen has made that even clearer. From APOEL, Christiansen has brought Julio Banuelos as his assistant, and Ivan Torres as fitness coach. Head scout is Gaby Ruiz, who worked with Victor Orta at Middlesbrough, and joining as scout is Dani Salas, who worked with Victor Orta at Sevilla, and the split seems sensible, with staff working with players sourced through Christiansen and staff trying to find players sourced through Orta, until you come to the goalkeeping coach: Marcos Abad, who worked with Victor Orta at Middlesbrough and Elche.

The tales from Middlesbrough that have inspired caution about Orta are about split staff loyalties, a club within a club working for the guy who hired them rather than the organisation paying them, egos being bruised as professional boundaries are blurred. It could all have been newspaper talk, of course, or disgruntled griping, except that the brusque bossiness with which Orta began dominating his head coach’s press conference made it all feel believable.

Previous experience makes it feel believable, too. Back before Leeds United was gripped by Cellino’s madness, it was held by the ageing fist of Ken Bates’ vengefulness, with his lesser spotted spotter Gwyn Williams acting as his fingers around the dressing rooms. Williams didn’t have a staff with which to work against Simon Grayson and Glynn Snodin, so he had to hide in the toilets himself to gather evidence he could report back to his pater, and his presence helped create the situation Neil Warnock complained of when he replaced Grayson: of two islands, Elland Road and Thorp Arch, working against each other. How Warnock expected the addition of a Cornish branch to help was never clear.

At his own press conference last week in Middlesbrough Garry Monk said that the “new structure” at Leeds was a big factor in his departure, and if Leeds United’s structure carries on filling with old pals of Orta then it will be understandable that he was worried about being hemmed in by his boss’s mates, coaches and scouts likely to outlast the head coach who was only offered a one-year trial contract. We saw enough of Monk during his time at Leeds to work out that he’s not the kind of guy to trust a situation like that, to put himself at risk of the kind of alliances that did for Grayson.

Thomas Christiansen, though? The cheerful stein-guzzler of Bochum, the wide-eyed cultural explorer who left Denmark for Barcelona aged just 18, the concerned and thoughtful coach of unemployed footballers? An easy smiler with a focus on positive atmospheres, and the knack for raising players’ levels so they can make history? His easygoing perspective might just be the balm that can soothe Orta’s abrasive approach around the club, with the patience to protect his vibe even under provocation. If it’s to be good cop bad cop, Christiansen is best cop.

That he’s Orta’s choice, when the easy option was available — a fat offer to tempt Aitor Karanka back to the Championship — ought to also bode optimistically; perhaps Orta’s Middlesbrough experience has taught him to be more self-aware, to hire complementary if opposite characters from outside his circle, as well as relying his mates. That, or he’s seen in Thomas Christiansen’s good nature a chance to take advantage and mug him off completely, so that he can run Elland Road like a private fiefdom for his gang, letting the dope with the grin take the fall if it all goes bang while he stays in his office making bank. But surely not.

Perhaps we’ll find out more about these things over the next few months. Soon, too, we’ll see some footballers. Until then, I’m happy that United’s new head coach is someone we could split a cool bottle of white wine with on these warm summer nights. Let’s hope he’s around long enough to turn it into champagne, so then we can toast the Director of Football, too.

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