It is said that great players are a blend of talent, instinct and intelligence and, when you close your eyes and remember Patrick Kluivert at his best, those very qualities certainly spring to mind. Quick outside the box and lethal inside it, the former Ajax and Barcelona striker was one of the biggest names in world football in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While the 39-year-old has long since hung up his boots, his thirst for success remains intact. The Amsterdam-born ex-Netherlands star is acquiring the experience to fuel his ambition of making a mark as a head coach. After impressing in an assistant coach’s role in the Dutch squad that Louis van Gaal guided to third at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, as well as catching the eye in charge of Curacao during Russia 2018 qualifying, Kluivert spoke exclusively to FIFA.com on the Oranje’s recent travails, ex-club Barça and his personal goals for the future.
FIFA.com: Patrick, with Louis van Gaal as head coach and you on the coaching staff, the Netherlands finished third at Brazil, but the team’s fortunes have dipped swiftly since your departures – to the extent of missing out on UEFA EURO 2016. What has gone wrong?
Patrick Kluivert: It’s sad, because we had a very good World Cup in Brazil and everybody was really happy, but I don’t know what happened after that. It’s nearly the same group of players and now they’ve not even been able to qualify for the EURO. One possibility is that at the World Cup your motivation is at peak levels and we got good results from the start too. When you’re part of a team that’s playing well, you then demand even more of yourself.
What differences have you noticed, in terms of what you’ve seen on the pitch?
To me, it looks like they lacked experience. The players from the old guard have been fundamental all these years, but you have to find a way to replace them. We need young players at good clubs, who have the mentality and quality you need to play for the Netherlands. That’s important. We’ve got players who can be decisive but they need more games under their belts and, until that happens, the burden can’t fall on them alone. You also have to have experienced players to guide those with less experience.
Memphis Depay would appear to be one of those ‘decisive’ young players, though he’s struggling to nail down a starting berth at Manchester United. Why might that be?
Memphis is a player with huge quality and that’s not something you lose, even at times like these. It’s simply a question of confidence and making the most of your opportunities. He needs time to adapt to a new city and playing style. It’s only his first year and I think he will end up being a success. He’s a great player and will be important to the Netherlands’ future.
At Brazil 2014 the Dutch squad was young too, but you and your coaching colleagues were able to make them tick. What was the key to that success?
Tactics played a vital role. Traditionally the Netherlands have used a 4-3-3 system, but we changed to a 5-3-2. That gave us an extra player in defence to help with marking and one more in midfield to cover the spaces, so the players immediately felt more comfortable. That was the key. We found balance in defence and gave freedom to [Arjen] Robben and [Robin] van Persie to find spaces in attack.
Turning back to Manchester United and Van Gaal, what’s your verdict on what they’re going through right now?
I know Louis really well, he’s a coach who knows how to motivate young players in order for them to bring their qualities to the team. When with the Netherlands there was a lot of dialogue and the players all shared the same philosophy. It’s different for him now because he’s at a big club with players of all different nationalities and I think he needs to get to know them a bit better in order to get the best out of them. Obviously, at a club of that size, people want results immediately, but it’s not as easy as that. United are in fifth place now and the coach is always the first one to get the blame for a bad run. However, I think he’s got so much quality and I hope he can turn the situation around.
After the 2014 World Cup you took the post of Curacao coach. Can you tell us more about the experience?
My mother is from there and I’d been to the island several times, so it was a challenge that really appealed to me. It was a great period, I had some real quality players and we went far [Editor’s note: reaching Round 3 of CONCACAF Zone qualifying for Russia 2018]. We did a very good job and the door hasn’t closed on coaching them again. My priority is to coach a club side, but if it’s not possible then I’d be delighted to work there for the Gold Cup qualifiers.
What struck you the most about the CONCACAF Zone, a region whose football you didn’t know too well prior to your time with Curacao?
It’s completely different to Europe. The players are very talented, but the football’s based much more around intuition than tactics. I found it a very interesting learning experience because, what’s more, it’s hard to build a team when you only to get to work with the players for a few days. You have to try and get them to click together in a very short space of time and you can barely do tactical work, but the team responded well. Also in our favour was the fact the majority of my national-team players played in the Netherlands, and so had a shared style.
What does the region’s football need to progress still further?
In CONCACAF it’s a totally different game and that’s something I like, but it is true that it’s missing the experience you get from taking part in the best leagues in the world. But the talent is there.
Following your time with the Netherlands and then Curacao, what are you up to now?
For the moment I’m working as a commentator for an international TV channel, but my ambition is to be the coach of a major team. Although I’m aware I have more to learn about the job, I’m looking for a good opportunity to prove my ability.
Having worked with some of the best bosses in world football, what kind of a club coach do you think you’ll be?
I want to be an attack-minded coach, but without neglecting the defensive side. One of the positives that I can offer the players is that I can understand them fully at all times, because I’ve been in their position. As far as [tactical] systems go, I think that’ll depend on the players’ qualities because, in my opinion, the best formation is the one that makes them feel most comfortable.
Finally, you were a fans’ favourite at Barcelona. How would you compare the team you played in and the current side?
The current side is a machine! (laughs). Well, in my time we had a great team too, it was already a club packed with good players, with an impressive style of play. Top players have kept on coming to the team and nowadays they’re doing so in ever greater numbers. There are a lot of things that have changed in football in the years since, but Barcelona are still as impressive as ever.