Marcel Keizer’s vision: “My wingers were unstoppable”

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Marcel Keizer talking with Hakim Ziyech and Matthijs de Ligt.

Marcel Keizer has been using his current period without a club to deepen the knowledge of his profession. The coach has an unmistakable football vision, with which he earned a lot of appreciation at Jong Ajax. And even at Ajax’s first team, despite the turbulent and emotional period at the start, Keizer was confident that his approach would be a success.

“I increasingly had the feeling that my football vision was coming in”, says Keizer. “Our way of attacking — focused on the center of the pitch — the way we pressed our opponents immediately [after losing the ball], how we had possession by creating [local] superiorities on the middle of the pitch… At a certain point it all seemed to happen naturally.”

And when did you have that feeling?

“I think it was in October. During one particular training the level was so high… The positional play [was very good], we tightened the rules further and further and even then the players delivered. Lasse Schöne in the small space was so good, Frenkie de Jong saw through balls that no one else saw… It was just so enjoyable and every day we saw more patterns and automatisms emerging. In the top matches with PSV and AZ we got proof that we could also do it in [the toughest] games.”

The belief was back?

“I didn’t feel like we were going to lose a match again during that season. That’s not the same as winning everything, but the feeling in the team was good. We scored so many goals, created so many chances: 51 goals, an average of three per game.”

What was the main difference between those games and your difficult start to the season?

“What I really liked about our game was the square in midfield and the runs in behind of our wingers. With Justin Kluivert and David Neres we had at one point two wingers that were unstoppable. Hakim Ziyech was right behind the attackers with the through ball, Donny van de Beek provided the depth runs from midfield, and in the base of midfield were Lasse Schöne and Frenkie de Jong. Lasse a bit more to the right in midfield, behind Hakim, and Frenkie shifted to Lasse’s left. Having an extra midfielder meant they not only supported each other if the team lost the ball, but it also meant the team had extra options in possession. It was a pleasure to keep on refining our playing style. Specifically, we were working on varying more our offensive play. If Hakim had the ball at the right half-space, Justin had to cut inside or Donny had to make a depth-run behind the defence, because they knew where Hakim would put it. One of many examples of those variants. If you control some of them, you become very unpredictable and difficult to stop. The players shared that conviction.”

To smash your opponent into pieces with attacking, dominant football…

“That’s so beautiful, ‘attacking dominant football’. Every coach says that, but the question is: ‘how’? How do you put it into practice? How do you make it trainable with exercises? Do you convince players of certain patterns? If you ask me, that phrase is usually just an empty slogan.”

According to your players, that is not your case… [As in that your teams are actually able to play attacking dominant football]

“Sometimes I tend to indoctrinate, I am very clear about how I want my team to attack. Which ball should and shouldn’t you pass as a player? I’m working on that a lot and I spend a lot of training hours on it. Which player should get the ball in which zone? Where to cross and where not to cross? [I like to see my team] overlap the flanks and play the diagonal pass, but I [usually] don’t like to see vertical passes from the right back to the right winger, or the horizontal ball from right central defender to right back. Just a few details, in which we could focus on in a very specific way. But of course, football is not an exact science, I usually like to apply a 90% rule. I can be very sure [about something], but in practice it can sometimes require an adjustment. I may not want my team to play certain passes [in principle], but I may have a certain player that thrives on it, and in that case, I’ll want them to. But only if I feel it is really benefic to the team. You see so often that teams let themselves be put under pressure, because they play each other in such bad situations. I am a coach who uses all his energy on the training field to make such things more controllable.”

Yet you had to search for the ideal formation for a long time.

“My aim was not in doubt, but without the overlapping wing defenders we had to look for an alternative route to that goal. I want to play with a lot of movement in my team. I don’t like fixed formations, but if I have to choose, a 4–3–3 and a 3–4–3 with a square in midfield are the ideal formations for me. That can be with fullbacks that are very high and the wingers on the inside, but also with a winger on the outside and a retracted defender. There are so many possibilities and variants to apply. As long as it is clear to the players what is needed and when. It takes a lot of discipline on the part of the players, but at the same time they have a lot of freedom within those limits.”

It is said that the team now trains harder and longer under Erik ten Hag [than it did under you].

“That bothers me. It’s not about how long you train, but how intense you are. After the first emotional months at Ajax this season [because of the Nouri situation], we have been really getting it on track. Believe me: really every player has given full throttle. That’s a must, because that’s how I build my training sessions. It all goes fast, they drink [water] in the middle of the field, and they quickly move on again. That’s my approach. Then you keep up the tempo, and as a player you automatically become fanatical. I think that a trainer should also fanatically encourage a group. Fanatic training is a condition for me, that is so important. You don’t have to train for hours to learn, but everything you do must be done with great commitment.”

When will we see you again on the training field?

“There have been some possibilities, but I didn’t have a good feeling about them. But I am eager to be back on the field. I can’t wait. In the meantime, I want to spend my days as effectively as possible.”

For example, updating your own database?

“Indeed, with Arne Slot I have a database with images of game situations. I now have time to refresh it. In my opinion, every position has good and bad actions. I link moments to that. What is a good running action, a good way of offering an option, or a bad one, for a certain position? That’s what I confront players with. You can only do that theoretically, but I think you mainly touch many players with practical examples. When I watch a game and I see a player making a certain choice or action, I record that on the screen and put it in my system at a position. For example, I have moments of Iniesta and De Bruyne in my archive, which I have shown to Hakim, for example. I notice that many players find it pleasant and therefore pick up certain actions faster and make them their own.”

And you also go out on the road yourself?

“Not only players, but also trainers must be open to change and to develop themselves continuously. If in three years’ time I am the same coach as I am now, I will have done something wrong. Within my own vision I want to grow and that’s why I look around. Why are things going so well at clubs like Napoli or Manchester City? What makes the pressing of Roger Schmidt’s teams so successful? So [after asking myself these questions], I get into my car and drive to Leverkusen, to have a closer look over there. I put time and energy into it, but as a coach it will also help me a lot. I am convinced of that. And in that context, no matter how crazy it may sound now, the last six months have brought a lot to me. It is extra luggage that I will benefit from at my next club, wherever it will be.”

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