Ever since the 2011/2012 season, when the Russian Football Premier League abandoned the calendar year to instead follow the European season, it has been debated whether or not this was the right move. The switch meant that Russian clubs now play well into December, while also kicking off after the winter break at the beginning of March, when most of the country is still covered in snow.
While this always equals a bunch of cancelled games and a poor quality of games, it also gives a long range of challenges for the coaches and clubs off the pitch. One man who has experienced these challenges first hand is the former Krylya Sovetov physical coach Bart Caubergh, who worked for two and a half years at the club before leaving at the beginning of the winter break. Russian Football News caught Bart for an interview about the challenges coaching in Russia and life in Samara.
Caubergh joined Krylya Sovetov together with Head Coach Frank Vercauteren in the summer of 2014, after the club had been relegated from the top flight, and the main task was therefore to get the Samara outfit back to the Premier League. And looking back, that turned out to be a good decision.
“For me, the highlight was for sure the long time I worked in Samara,” Caubergh told RFN, “Two and a half years, that’s a very big part of my life, and it was also a great opportunity for me to learn Russian and Russian culture. It’s always nicer when you can work for longer at a place, because you can build something and go in depth. If I look back I can be very happy with all the things we have done. “
And Caubergh, Vercauteren and the rest of the team did achieve remarkable things.
“I was very happy to be Frank Vercauteren’s assistant for two and a half year in Samara, and I appreciate the opportunity. And if we look back, I think we can be proud and happy for the things we have done. First winning the FNL championship and the promotion to the Premier League. Returning to the top flight after just one year was very nice. And last season we finished 9th, Krylya’s best result in years.”
Part of the reason for the success was that the entire coaching staff knew what they were working towards, which quickly spread to the players as well.
“Frank and I have known each other for a long time, we worked together at Genk, Al-Jazira and now Krylya Sovetov, so we know how to work together, and how to pursue our goals. And after some time the players also began to understand it, and they could see and more importantly feel the results of our work.”
Having previously worked in the Middle East, Caubergh was used to difficult environments, but Russia still turned out to be a major challenge although the problems didn’t start until the calendar showed a certain month.
“The month of November was the most difficult for me; The temperatures, the difficult circumstances to train, and the Russian weather in general,” he told. “It was something I had to adapt to. For sure November. Until October everything was nice and fine; to train, to work and do what we had to do, but once November started, the last weeks before the winter break, it became very difficult to train because of the rain, the snow and the cold.”
At this point of the season, Russia suddenly became very different from the West European leagues, something that provided Caubergh with an interesting challenge.
“I would call this the extreme ‘external factors’ in Russia. These were for me the eye-openers. Especially for me as a fitness coach, they were the most interesting things to handle. The factors were long journeys, crossing time zones, temperatures ranging from +35 to -15 and switching between natural and artificial pitches. These were highlights from a professional point of view.”
The long distances were especially an issue during Krylya’s season in the FNL, where an 11-hour time difference and roughly 7,400 kilometers split the most western club, Baltika Kaliningrad, and the most Eastern, Luch Energiya Vladivostok. Obviously, this required some adapting of the methods on the training pitch, and doing so, Caubergh stuck with an important rule.
“It [adapting to the new circumstances] was a combination between things that were proven from a scientific point of view, but also, more importantly, to take football as a starting point, and to take the current situation and your own training and game plan as a starting point. And starting from that, adapting to the external factors.”
“So, for example, when you have the games, you can plan your training sessions, your training camps, and based on that you adapt to all these external factors. It’s not about changing your training methods, but more about adapting your methods and philosophy to Russian football, which is the starting point. Football is always the starting point.”
As anyone who has experienced the Russian winter knows, the weather can however be an obstacle that’s difficult to plan around, and it kept forcing the coaching staff to change their plans and think creatively.
“You can prepare everything as well as possible in advance, but you often have to make the most important decisions last minute,” Caubergh explained, “For example, we plan a training session for 11 o’clock the next day, and then we wake up and see 30 cm of snow, so we have to change the training plan.”
“Or for example, we plan our flight to an away game at a certain time, but then the weather conditions in Samara
closed down the airport, so we had to change everything. You can plan everything, but in the last-minute things can change. That’s also what’s difficult with football, because there are so many things, like a player who is sick or the weather, that can change thing, forcing you to adapt. It keeps you on the tip of your toes though.”
This didn’t make planning less important though. In fact, quite the opposite.
“Despite this, the most important thing is planning. You need an objective reference. Because then you have a starting point, and you know what’s the best for you under various circumstances, and from that point you can start changing,” Caubergh underlined.
With a three-month winter break between the autumn and spring part of the season, these can almost be seen as two different competitions, with the latter being the most challenging due to the long break that destroys any rhythm a team had.
“In football, the prizes are awarded at the end of the season, so it’s important that you stay ready during the entire season, and not only the easy first half. After the winter break you have 12-13 games, which means these games decide in which direction you move,” Caubergh reflected, “From that point of view, it was crucial for us to create the best possible circumstances for the team to prepare for what we wanted to achieve. In fact, it was more important during the winter break than the summer break.”
Caubergh and Krylya Sovetov definitely succeeded in keeping the squad ready during the entire season.
“From a physical point of view, we had almost no injuries, which was thanks to our preparations. Everybody stayed on the pitch, and all of our players were fit and ready for the first game after the winter break. In all pre-seasons in summer and winter during the past 2 and a half years we had a player availability of more than 85%.”
“Especially as a fitness coach, I can be happy and proud that we avoided injuries, and that we didn’t have any problems like that, because it helped Vercauteren, who could play most of the games with the strongest possible team.”
However, while the winter break is somewhat of a disadvantage for some teams, it could be an advantage for the national team.
“The only condition is that the players won’t be exhausted by the club coaches during the pre-season camps in January and February before the World Cup some months later. None of the biggest leagues have periods where the players are totally off in the winter. Russia have six to eight weeks’ preparation in January and February,” Caubergh argues.
“The players get an optimal period to recover in the winter, and the players have an optimal period to prepare for the second half of the season. The players have a very long preparation with their teams in the winter ahead of the World Cup, and then they play for three months, so you can expect that the players will be, or can be, even fresher than the players who have played 60 or 70 games throughout the entire season. These players should be more tired than the Russians, and it can be a huge advantage, if the players are doing the right things at the right moments.”
Krylya Sovetov are currently 12th in the RFPL after collecting 15 points in the 17 games in the autumn, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep up the trend of shooting up the table in the spring after the winter break.
If you’d like to read the full transcript of our interview with Bart Caubergh, it can be found right here. Here, you can learn more about how to train the right way, Bart’s thoughts on the foreigner limit, Krylya Sovetov’s young players and much more.
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Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.