An Interview with Kurban Berdyev, Part One: “I rate Maurizio Sarri higher than Guardiola”

Photo: Sport BO

Last month, one of Russian Football News’ partners, Kazan-based Sport Business Online (Sport BO), published a two-part interview with Rubin Kazan manager Kurban Berdyev, which took place in early January. Berdyev, who is arguably one of the RFPL’s greatest ever managers, is notoriously introverted and has never given an interview of this length and detail before. In total, the Turkmen spoke with Sport BO’s Vladislav Zimagulov and Airat Shamilov for almost seven hours. 

An interview of this magnitude and rarity was something we wanted to share with our readers, and so Sport BO has given us permission to translate and publish segments of the interview in English on our website. 

Discussing topics including his own playing career, how he has learned from coaches such as Lippi, Ancelotti and Sarri, his time at Rostov and his own tactical approach, this long read is well worth your time and is only a third of the original part one of the interview.

The original article in Russian can be found here.

EVERYONE NEEDS A REBOOT ONCE IN A WHILE

Kurban Bekievich, you have changed much in the years spent away from Kazan: even your press conference answers became different, more detailed, you hold open training every week, behave very emotionally during the matches. Have you liberated yourself internally, or it’s just for show?

My closed nature is a result of my personality. I don’t like to talk a lot, especially about my job, but if I do talk, I want to talk thoroughly and slowly, in a dialogue, to avoid incompleteness. Incompleteness scares me because it can be twisted either way. Before, I was a closed man because I feared the guys wouldn’t be able to keep both feet on the ground after the 2003 bronze medals. After leaving Rubin, I travelled a lot, and I understood that both the club and I should be more open. So, now you see that even if we don’t play too great, we’re still open for journalists each Thursday. During this interview, I would like to address our concerns. For the fans to understand what we’re thinking, what we’re seeing, where we’re going, what we want to change.

Thanks for agreeing to this meeting. It’s not the first time you’re saying that you have changed a lot in the last years. What did this “reboot” give you as a football coach?

First of all, I’ve changed my approach to positional attack. I’ve played as a playmaker, so attacking is in my blood. But my coaching career led me to such teams that I’ve always had to work mainly with defence. I came to the teams that were at the lower end of the table, and so I had to develop good defensive play. It was like that in Khimik Dzhambul, Kairat, Kristall, Rubin. By the way, in Kairat in 1991 we used a defensive line, and Galeev and I had great fun with our work, using the defensive principles of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.

Did you need that reboot? We mean when you quit Rubin in 2013. Would you agree that both you and the team were in crisis, and some kind of stagnation was felt?

Everyone needs a reboot once in a while. Concerning crisis and stagnation, this happened because the system that was well-organised and gave results got broken. But we have clearly defined the direction of the club’s development, and after many business trips, it became even more clear.

You were also a vice president, you had an additional workload, switching from coach to executive…

Yes, but when the system got well-organised, it was easy for me. All these positions… My only concern was football. Gusev, Saimanov and Golov took care of everything else. We took care of all organisational issues, and when the mechanism started working, I was only concerned with football.

Were the talks with the Rubin management long when you first came?

I’m deeply grateful to Kamil Shamilyevich Iskhakov for inviting me to join Rubin. We haven’t reached an agreement in our first meeting because we wanted to work on the infrastructure immediately, while Kamil Shamilyevich was only interested in Rubin’s results. But at our second meeting, we have agreed that we would work both on Rubin (the team) and infrastructure at once. If he didn’t invite me back then, my coaching career would be very different.

Did you start playing with three central defenders back then?

I’ve already used a formation with three defenders at Gençlerbirliği in Turkey, so there weren’t too many problems. Even now, we’re still playing with three defenders. But if we had two fast centre-backs, perhaps we would play with four defenders. Still, I was saying that in all the teams we worked with, we had to do a lot of work with the defence. And so, I became associated with defence. But the formation with three central defenders is more attack-oriented than the one with four defenders. It all comes down to the functional duties of attacking and defending players.

Did the illness of Aleksandr Matsyura, your assistant for many years, affect the team’s performance [in 2013], or this is an exaggeration?

No, it’s not an exaggeration. Matsyura, in addition to having a lot of knowledge in various fields, can feel the players. He’s able to talk to everyone and help them discover their potential. So, Matsyura’s illness disrupted the well-organized system. Matsyura got ill because he worked 24 hours a day. In Rubin, coaches could visit each other at 3 or 4 in the morning, discuss something, eat a bit and go to work. This was considered normal.

How long have you led that lifestyle?

Since 2006 or 2007. This life and work style became a habit, it’s still the same now.  I can sleep for half an hour during the day, or in the car while being driven.

Do you want similar dedication from your players?

Professional dedication – yes. And we’re seeing improvements. We’re analyzing their mistakes every game, creating videos, and now, we’re giving these videos the players to search for their own mistakes. The players would find six or seven personal mistakes at first, but now, they’re finding much more.

Wait. You’re giving the players videos so that they would compile a list of their own mistakes?

Yes. We’re giving some player a video, he analyzes it, then comes to us. Only his own mistakes, after every game. And then we’re watching it together. At first, they would find only a few mistakes, now they can find more, and we can point out 30 or 35 mistakes. The player may not notice some key elements that determine the quality of his game.

Have you been practising that for long?

When we felt that the guys can do that, that they were ready to understand. It’s like sowing season: if the ground isn’t ready, you don’t sow seeds into it.

Have you been using that in Rubin before? Did you learn that from someone, or it’s your own idea?

No, we didn’t use that practice before, and we didn’t learn it from anyone. We’ve started using it at Rostov.

What more have you changed?

After 0-0 with Zenit, we have completely changed the entire training process. Actually, I’ve been wanting to do that at Rostov, because when I was out of work, I’ve travelled a lot, seen a lot and got a lot of answers. But then we thought that we would start the championship, and then we’d change something on the run. However, we started to win one game after another in the league, so we decided not to change anything. And when we came back to Rubin, we decided that we wouldn’t use the new principles, because the team wasn’t ready. We had 25 players at the training camp. This is essentially wrong. This is too much. You should have about 17 players, plus three or four youngsters. This is at least controllable. But when you have 23 or 25 players, all with big contracts, with their own ambitions, someone still wants to play football and someone doesn’t… this is hard.

Photo: Sport BO

I WANTED TO ASK SARRI TO JOIN RUBIN AFTER MY DISMISSAL

Tell us what were you doing for a year after quitting Rubin?

Searching for answers to the questions I had. Moreover, I got a direction – this is most important: I understood what was my own direction. Not somebody else’s, but my own. I saw that. I’ve been interning at many clubs, comparing, contrasting, studying things. Life shows that I chose the right direction. At Rostov, I haven’t used that in full, I was afraid. But I have some things in my arsenal that I haven’t been using yet.

What would you like to implement?

Positional attack: this is a long process, but we’re sure that we’ll succeed; still, we have to improve the defence too. You have to organize the defence so that the whole system works synchronously, and everyone knows where and when to move. If someone thinks that it’s easy, they’re deeply mistaken. Look at the top teams that are satisfied with the score: they get men behind the ball. In positional attack, you need to have a unified understanding of a given situation. Creativity, variation, speed of interaction – that’s what I’m aiming to achieve. In the match against Lokomotiv at the end of the year, we’ve been getting some moments that we wanted to see. Ideally, I want a good attack/defence balance. You can field 5 or 6 attacking players with little defensive functions and play in the Russian championship successfully, but you can’t be successful in the Champions League without the right attack/defence balance. We did achieve some things in defence, but we haven’t worked on positional attack much yet. We understand that it would be hard to achieve balance, but I think we’ll get to that. We need time.

Whom did you intern with? Who’s impressed you the most?

I was most impressed with Marcello Lippi and Maurizio Sarri. Lippi is a great coach, a world champion, and it was interesting to see how he works in China. We agreed that I’d be allowed to visit his training sessions. As soon as I saw his first training, I understood how great he was. Organization of training, consistency, what he wanted from players – I’ve already known how he would play. And he did play like that the next day.

Did he know who you are?

No, he didn’t. He just allowed me to come, and that’s all. But he didn’t allow others, for some reason. The next day, he asked, “Why have you come to me? I’ve looked up who you are. Is it some kind of joke?” He made inquiries about me, we lived in the same hotel and would talk for hours afterwards. The greatness of the truly great coaches is in their simplicity and openness.

I’ve also visited Maurizio Sarri, he was the Empoli manager back then. Not many people knew who he was, and now, he’s the Napoli manager. But I saw powerful organization when I watched the Empoli matches. I looked up who Sarri was. He was an accountant! I didn’t understand how was that possible! At first, I thought, perhaps he’s relying on competent assistants? So I came to him. And he was a very simple, open man, in a tracksuit.

What was his secret?

His power is in his organization. The man never played football. But his head is so intellectual, he has a keen analytic mind that can systematize everything and organize the game. When Sarri was at Empoli, Spalletti, who was out of work then, called him and said, “Call me when you hold tactical training, I’ll come.” These pieces of training are really interesting, with attention to every detail, I enjoyed them every match. I rate him higher than Guardiola. His strength is in details, there is no small detail that is beneath his attention. Guardiola also pays attention to everything, but Sarri digs even deeper. That’s his strength. And when I saw that, I wanted to invite him to Rubin immediately.

Are you serious? To replace you after you got fired?

Yes! I did talk to him. His assistant told me, “Let’s go, let’s go.” When I came to him, I understood that this was the man who could elevate Rubin. Sarri is a very strong manager, and Napoli’s leadership is objective.

You’re naming only Italian managers. Why are you so interested in them?

I’ve also had an agreement with Guardiola, but couldn’t visit his training. I like Italians. I understand their philosophy, and Sarri is something new. This is the man who brings something new into football. Arrigo Sacchi even said that Sarri represents the next level of football’s development.

You also visited Real Madrid. How did Carlo Ancelotti receive you?

Here’s an example from one Real training. We stood at the edge of the training pitch, all the stars walk in, Carlo comes on last. And then he suddenly said, “Come here! Come!” At first, I couldn’t even understand whom he addresses. They were all already in the central circle, all the stars, Zidane was already on the coaching staff. Ancelotti says, “Why are you standing? You’ve come to watch, not to stand aside!” He was very approachable and easy in conversation, he even asked us something. They were to play in the final against Atletico, and my Rubin defeated Atletico beforehand. And Ancelotti asked me, “What weaknesses do you see in their team?”

Just like that?

Yes, he’s very open. It’s easy to them, they’re very approachable. Even when Rostov played Bayern, we agreed to have a dinner somewhere after the game. But after 0-5, there could be no dinner. I criticized the guys in the dressing room, quite harshly.

What for?

They didn’t believe they could win. Came on the field without hope. If you believe in yourself, you can do everything. Everything at all.

Even when you have no skill?

Even you have nothing but organization. If you understand how to organize the game well, everything is possible. But you can’t break, and they did. I criticized them, and then said, “They’ll come to visit us, and we’ll defeat them, but only if you’ll believe in that! And if you come out without hope, we’ll lose 0-5 again!”

Do you miss Rostov?

Very much. Rostov will always remain in our memory as one of the best pages of our coaching career. We’ve enjoyed our time there greatly. We lived like a family. And the women working at the base were so great! They surrounded us with such comfort and care, they were so warm and kind. How they cheered us after wins, and how upset they were after losing! I’m very grateful to all the base workers! And the fans were so great. This was a good period in life, and we value it as much as any other.

The Supreme One [literally Всевышний, one of Allah’s titles in the Russian language] is doing everything on purpose; I’m always telling that to the guys too. Here’s an example: CSKA won in Kazan, we won a very difficult match in Grozny in that runner-up season. Everyone in the dressing room was upset, someone even cried. I said, “Have you not a conscience? The Supreme One has been helping you all year, there were matches that we won even when we shouldn’t have. But in the last day, he didn’t help you, and now he’s watching your reaction: shall you praise him for the whole year, or you shall resent him for that last day? Understand that for yourselves!” And then I felt that the guys understood the importance of the Supreme One’s help. I accept everything like that: this was on purpose. Even those last-minute goals at Rubin this season. This is still for a purpose: to make us better understand our work, make better conclusions, search for mistakes in ourselves. Nothing is happening without a purpose.

Photo: Sport BO

THERE’S A LOST GENERATION OF RUBIN PLAYERS – AND THAT’S MY FAULT

You created a sensational team in Rostov – from nothing…

Their thinking has changed! When we joined the team and held our first meeting, the team was last in the table. I said, “We came here to play in the Champions League.” And they remembered that when we played against Europe’s best clubs. Kalachev said in the dressing room, “Bekiyich, I remember that first meeting. I swear I thought that you’ve been bluffing!”

Weren’t you bluffing? Did you believe?

Kazan’s example showed us that if all players, and coaching staff, and all other club workers give their all, you can do many things. You have to believe and give your 100 percent. And how the Rostov players changed mentally! They burned everything on the field, they defeated teams that were much more skilled than ours. If your game is well-organized, if you’re passionate, combative and respectful towards your partners, you can achieve many things.

Can you be successful without stars and top performers?

Sarri proved that. Napoli leads the Italian league without having major stars; they are mostly average players, with some promising youngsters. He will soon join some top club. I think that he’s the best manager in the world now. He teaches the players to think. This is the greatest strength of the manager. And in Russia, another strength is the professional approach to football.

I’ve recently visited the funeral of Balyaikin’s wife. You know, I still regret that I failed to fully discover this guy’s potential… I wanted to apologize to him right there, in Leninogorsk. But I didn’t. I’ll hold this inside of me. There’s a whole lost generation of the Rubin players… Zhenya is a talented guy, he could be playing on the highest level, but it seems I’ve done something wrong. This will remain with me for my whole life. Lenar Gilmullin [the player died young in a motorcycle crash] will always remain a pain in my heart… Alan Kasaev played well but gradually became worse and worse. I think he failed to realize his full potential. This is my fault as well. I want to say that if you taught the player to think – and this is very important – only then you can be truly called a coach.

The main thing for us is to change the ingrained stereotypes. After the half-time against Lokomotiv, the guys went out of the dressing room crying, “Play like that, play like that! Strangle them!” They felt that it worked. We had control, Lokomotiv was trying to do something, but when we had the right formation, they didn’t know what to do. The guys knew how to play against four opponents, against five. And they also enjoyed the game – it’s very important. If you enjoy the game, both the coach and the player believe in what you’re doing.

What are you lacking to get the result in such matches?

Creative players. Here’s a simple example: in 2008, we parked the bus and became champions. And in 2009, one player joined us – Dominguez: we scored more than everyone, conceded less than everyone and won our second consecutive championship. I reiterate: only one player came! He’s a creative player, and everyone else immediately improved alongside him. I haven’t taught him anything, I only told him what he should not do. And after that, he was playing as the situation dictated. Remember our win in Barcelona: Noboa intercepted Messi’s pass to Xavi, got the ball to Dominguez, Dominguez pauses, and during this pause, Gokdeniz ran forward and received such a great pass that he could just shoot first-time. If Chori passed the ball immediately, then Gokdeniz would have received it, and the defender would close him down; Dominguez distracted the defender until the last possible moment with his pause.

Can you train someone to become such a player?

Depends on the level. You can’t train someone to become like Dominguez. But you can train someone to Noboa’s level. The things that Dominguez does individually, other players just don’t understand. For instance, we can tell some player, “Receive the ball while half-turned, you’ll see this partner and that one.” But he still receives the ball while facing it, because he lacks proper education, and it’s the same for everyone. These things are simple, but they are ingrained by years and years of playing, and you can’t change that. We lack such a creative player. Look at all the league leaders, all of them have such players: Spartak, Zenit, Krasnodar, Lokomotiv, CSKA.

There were no such players in Rostov, too?

There were: Noboa, Kalachev, Poloz, Erokhin. They were hungry for the games, for everything – they weren’t paid for 6 or 7 months. We managed to change them mentally. And mentality is very important. I was at one closed conference in Italy (only for Italian club managers, but I managed to get there through my connections). Everyone said that mentality was the most important thing.

You’re talking about mentality often, and this prompts a lot of questions because not everyone fully understands what you’re talking about. The key to this transformation is work ethic?

Yes. But you also need to have the right attitude to everything. When to go to sleep, when to wake up, how to spend free time. All of this constitutes the modern system of professional values and principles. Not just “I come to training, I leave training and go to dinner, and that’s all”.

Are you telling the players what to eat?

Of course. But they still sometimes eat what they want. Some people do listen, but many don’t. Recently, one player went to a restaurant, had a food poisoning and missed the game. Thankfully, he recovered. Why would you go to the restaurant? Eat at home! We have eating guidelines!

What’s the percentage of managers’, players’ and executives’ contribution to the club’s success?

This is a complicated and important question. If the manager is approached by a club with great infrastructure that consistently gets good results, Bayern, for example, then the manager’s role is not as prominent as it is in some club where he has to both get results and build that infrastructure. The role of club management in finding the right personnel, choosing the right strategic direction and actually moving in that direction is very important. It’s key for any club that wants to achieve good results in the Champions League. I am sure of that. We have to rebuild what was lost and go forward. Yes, I do regret that we’d have to waste time on that again, but fear not. We have come to do just that, after all.

Author: Alexey Spektrowski

I’m a Spartak Moscow fan who dabbles in Soviet/Russian football history (mostly numerical and statistical). Contributed some data to the Spartak Moscow museum at Otkrytie Arena.

Comments

  1. Ville Sallinen says:

    Thank you great interview. Are you planning on translating also the other parts of the original interv

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