Ernst Middendorp has a well-established range of international contacts with whom the Kaizer Chiefs coach has regular contact to check what they are doing with their players during the Covid-19 lockdown.
That is because leagues and soccer clubs around the world are facing similar challenges as in South Africa.
“They also raise the issue of uncertainty,” Middendorp says, sharing a bit of the discussions he has had with his colleagues. “We all go on with our daily training activities, but most of us have no idea when we will resume playing.
“We also discuss whether the league season will be ended without completing the number of games that still have to be played, or that the season will be finished without playing the remaining matches.”
Amongst Middendorp’s international contacts are Frank Wormuth of Dutch Eredivisie side Heracles and Achim Beierlorzer of Mainz 05 in the German Bundesliga. In the MLS, the Chiefs coach refers to Sebastian Pelzer of Chicago Fire and former Kaizer Chiefs player, Bradley Carnell, who is the assistant-coach at New York Red Bull.
“Situations are different,” continues Middendorp, “for example, in America’s MLS they have played only two matches so far, whereas we, in South Africa, were heading towards the end of the season. It is important to know what is happening around the world and to exchange information.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only put an enormous strain on the world’s economy, it has also put severe financial strains on soccer clubs.
“It is worrying just to think about the immense pressure this has put on the business of football,” Middendorp explains. “Again, I am closely following the developments around the world. Look at Germany, where they are trying to restart the league season.
“The economic impact will be overwhelming on the soccer clubs if this situation goes on for more weeks without playing games. Let us just hope that people will learn lessons from all of this and that the Covid-19 pandemic will help change economic models and perhaps also explore different methods of planning.”
The Chiefs mentor not only has regular digital meetings with his own technical team and with some colleagues internationally, he is also in touch with colleagues locally, including the South African national team coach, Molefi Ntseki.
“It’s great to share thoughts as well from a national team perspective,” Middendorp reflects on talking with Ntseki. “It was amazing to get from him some of the dynamics from FIFA and also on the Olympics, which have been postponed. It was really inspiring to have that different kind of engagement.”
Of course, Middendorp not only discusses the problems that have come with Covid-19, he is also discussing football in general and, of course, about new tactical approaches creeping into the game worldwide.
The German coach uses this to have a close look at his own team, Kaizer Chiefs. “We have lost games that we were not meant to lose. We have analysed what the opponent has seen in us and, accordingly, we have been looking at variations of our game-plan going into our next match.
“For example, at times we achieved 80% of ball possession, but this didn’t always result in a positive result. So maybe we should look at having 60% of ball possession and use that time better to create the possibility of winning the match.”
Middendorp, of course, doesn’t want to reveal too much detail, but he does add: “In my discussions with Carnell about systems, he shared some of the dynamics they experienced.
“For example, when you play in a certain way, the opponents will at some stage understand your system, which means that you are forced to change. You always need to be able to adapt as a team to new circumstances. I found these discussions interesting because as a leading team in the league, most teams started to understand our play, and hence we had to start varying our approach.”
To conclude, Middendorp says: “Modern-day football requires flexibility. Remember, in the Soweto Derby we played Reeve Frosler on the left and many people got a shock, despite not knowing that we wanted him to give us variation and different options.
“We work with the players to be flexible, and the team as a whole must also be flexible. I rate flexibility highly with the players, the ability to adapt to different roles and circumstances. Because of all these discussions with the team and seeing how the guys pick it up, we believe that we are on course to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.”