Henk ten Cate: 'Part of forming a young player is playing them'

The former Barcelona and Chelsea assistant coach talks exclusively to about educating players and why he thinks Louis van Gaal is the best coach.

AS A PLAYER in the 1980s, Henk ten Cate left the Dutch club Go Ahead Eagles to spend a season with the short-lived Canadian NASL side Edmonton Drillers. An unconventional move, it was a sign of things to come.

By the early-90s, ten Cate was already retired and building towards becoming a coach. He studied in Holland and in Milan, monitoring Fabio Capello’s gifted Rossoneri up close. After managing a litany of Eredivisie teams throughout the rest of the decade, he moved to Barcelona and memorably served as an assistant to Frank Rijkaard – the magnificent Catalan side racking up a Champions League and two La Liga titles in ten Cate’s three seasons there.

SPAIN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SOCCER Ten Cate spent three years at Barcelona alongside Frank Rijkaard with the club winning two league titles and a Champions League in that time. ARMANDO FRANCA / AP/Press Association Images ARMANDO FRANCA / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

Ever since, he hasn’t stopped moving. Different teams, different leagues, different countries. Firstly, he took the manager’s job at Ajax before a stint at Chelsea as Avram Grant’s number two. After leaving Stamford Bridge in 2008, he took Panathinaikos to the last-16 of the Champions League and then spent time in Qatar and China. Last year, he was back in Holland, coaching Sparta Rotterdam in a caretaker capacity.

The 59 year-old can’t sit still for long. With such a heavy technical background, he has a special interest in innovation and education and is constantly seeking out new ideas. Last week, he was in Dublin for Web Summit 2014 promoting a new training tool – Teqball. Designed to improve a player’s touch, concentration and stamina, ten Cate feels it can be an enormous benefit considering the demands of the modern game.

“If you look around, especially in Europe, you’ll see that the spaces to play are more and more narrow. So one key issue is that you have to constantly be in control of the ball. To improve your skills and technical ability, this game suits you very well. It’s fantastic as a rehab source – for players coming back from injury who need to improve their touch again.”


The game is getting faster and faster, the spaces are getting narrower and narrower. So, I think it’s key to improve the basic skills of the players, especially young players, to ensure that they won’t be troubled with one or two players around them, that they are in control of the ball and they can do anything they want with the ball. This is what makes big players like Messi and Ronaldo. They’re always aware of where the ball is and where their opponents are.”

Ten Cate feels Ronaldo has benefited enormously from the more technical and tactically-demanding landscape of La Liga and thinks the attacker wouldn’t have become as formidable a player had he remained in the Premier League.

“Good players adapt very quickly and he adapted very quickly to the Spanish league. He was used to playing in bigger spaces in England. The game is more open there but in Spain you have a lot of opponents who park the bus in front of the box and the spaces are very small to move into. This is why players like Ronaldo and Messi are outstanding. They’re two of the very few players who can move themselves free in tight spaces without losing the ball, or contact with the ball.”

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group B - Schalke 04 v Chelsea - AufSchalke Arena Ten Cate was an assistant coach at Chelsea between 2007 and 2008, a season in which the club finished second in the league and lost the Champions Legaue final on penalties. John Walton / EMPICS Sport John Walton / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

Despite a relatively successful spell in the Premier League (ten Cate’s Chelsea finished two points off the top of the table and were the width of a post away from being crowned European champions), he was sacked after just seven months in the job. He thinks the frenzied environment of English football – the trigger-happy chairmen and the intense media scrutiny – is indirectly affecting the development of young players who aren’t afforded the opportunities to gain requisite experience.

In England, the younger players don’t really get a chance to perform in the first-team because of the pressure on the manager so it’s always easier for the manager to sign experience. But part of forming a young player is playing them and playing them at the highest level.”

“It’s one of the reasons I think Dutch football has played a major role in world football over the last couple of years. Because of a lack of money, we had to educate young players because our good ones were being taken away from us. In the surrounding countries, you can earn much more than in Holland and so every year, we had to start players who were younger and younger. But this gives them a head-start on the rest of Europe because they have this experience of playing at the highest level. If you look at the Dutch national team, they have some great players but the rest are young but who already have three or four years in the Dutch top-flight and European competitions. You learn a lot as a young player in those games and this gives the young Dutch players an edge over the rest of Europe.”

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Third Round - Arsenal v Southampton - Emirates Stadium Ronald Koeman has done 'amazingly well' at Southampton, according to ten Cate. Adam Davy Adam Davy

In the summer, two Dutch coaches arrived in the Premier League and have experienced contrasting fortunes. Ten Cate believes Ronald Koeman has done ‘amazingly well’ at Southampton given the pre-season circumstances.

“It’s fantastic what he’s doing over there. In a short period of time, he had to put together a whole new team, almost. But it says a lot about the club and about him. He brought in guys from the Dutch league in Tadic and Pelle and I think he’s created something with the team – that’s why they’re successful. And it’s a good thing for Dutch football as well.”

At Old Trafford, think not-so-brilliant orange. Louis van Gaal’s first few months in the Manchester United dugout have been mixed. A poor return of 16 points from the first eleven games of the campaign has seen the early-season optimism dissipate. But ten Cate believes his compatriot is the ideal man to get United winning trophies again.

“I rate Van Gaal as the best coach – because of the titles he’s won, because of the way he works, because of his attitude. He’s the only one – the only Dutch coach – to go to Barcelona, Bayern Munich, the national team, now Manchester United. He had offers from all over the place. I don’t think it’s surprising that something like that happens to him and not to me or other coaches. He’s not easy to work with but he’s a good guy, a good person.”

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Chelsea - Old Trafford Ten Cate believes Louis van Gaal will be pleased that Manchester United are improving all the time and slowly coming to terms with a new way of playing. Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

Van Gaal has a well-versed philosophy but implementing it has been problematic. Injuries have wreaked havoc on any sort of medium-to-long term planning. Instead, it’s been a frustrating day-to-day process, the pile-up in the treatment room ensuring that from 11 league games, United have had eight different centre-back pairings. Still though, they’re two points from fourth place and ten Cate says van Gaal will be pleased, regardless of league position.

What he sees – and this is important – is that his team is improving. He’s implementing a different style of football. And then it’s about waiting for the right moment – then the team will be doing great. I had the same experience at Barcelona. We were six months building a new team, we weren’t doing that well but you could see the team improving. And I think it was January when all of the pieces fell into place and we won, I think, fourteen in a row. So it’s about waiting for this moment.”

According to ten Cate, Van Gaal also brings with him a belief in allowing young players prove their worth. Given the intense scrutiny on managers in the Premier League, he thinks it’s a refreshing approach that will only benefit the youngsters at the club.

“The young kid at United now – (James) Wilson – Van Gaal is giving him a chance. He’s always looking at quality and his motto ‘is if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. You cannot train experience. Experience you get by playing.”

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