With Carlo Ancelotti being relieved of his position in charge of Chelsea FC today, several names immediately began to swirl around the rumor mill. The popular rumor of choice today has Guss Hiddink returning to the club as director of football operations (he's admitted to advising Roman in personnel decisions for the last two years already) and bringing with him Marco van Basten as his tactical manager. Marco is a bit of an unknown commodity at this point, so I thought I'd quickly introduce you to the potential new manager so you know a little more about him.
As a player, van Basten was noted as one of the best strikers of all time. He scored 218 career goals for Ajax and AC Milan, and added another 24 for the Dutch national team. He was twice the world's player of the year, and won the UEFA player of the year three times. He was also a part of teams that won every single Dutch, Italian, and European club trophy during his time as a player. He was without a doubt one of the best players of his generation.
Marco began his managing career as an assistant coach at Ajax in 2003. He impressed the Dutch FA enough that he was appointed the manager of the Dutch national team just before qualifying began for the 2006 World Cup in 2004. He immediately became a somewhat controversial choice, dropping several established regulars from the squad who weren't performing well in favor of younger players who had been in excellent form. Instead of picking form perennial Dutch powerhouses like PSV and Ajax, van Basten formed the core of his team from minnows AZ Alkmaar. It's worth noting that he was also a huge fan of our own Saloman Kalou, who was denied Dutch citizenship just prior to the campaign that led to him starting his international career with the Ivory Coast. The youth movement appeared to have payed off as the Netherlands were unbeaten in qualifying, winning 10 of the 12 games and drawing the remaining 2 en route to the World Cup.
The Dutch team remained unbeaten in the group phase of the World Cup, drawing Argentina and then beating the Ivory Coast and Serbia to advance to the round of 16. That group was widely considered to be the "group of death" in the 2006 tournament. They were eliminated in a wild game against Portugal 1-0 in a game that eventually featured a record 16 yellow cards and 4 red cards. Marco was then extended as Dutch national coach until the 2008 European Championships concluded.
The Dutch team unsurprisingly qualified for the tournament, finishing the qualifying campaign with 8 wins, 2 draws, and 2 losses. Once again, the Dutch drew the group of death, being lumped with Romania along with France and WC champions Italy. The Dutch won all three games of the group phase before being shocked by Guus Hiddink's Russian squad in the quarterfinals. The Dutch FA was again impressed with van Basten, and wanted to extend his contract through the 2010 World Cup. Marco declined, instead taking the vacant managerial position at his former club Ajax. Marco finished his international coaching career with an impressive 23 wins, 5 draws, and 5 losses (these figures don't include exhibition friendlies).
Marco took over at Ajax prior to the 2008/2009 season following a disappointing season for the club. He led Ajax to a disappointing third place finish, finishing one point behind FC Twente (coached by Steve McClaren and who would win the Eredevisie the following season) and missing out on the Champions League. Ironically, the champions in runaway fashion that year were AZ Alkmaar, the team which was largely boosted in their development by van Basten's heavily criticized faith in their players at the international level. After that disappointing season, van Basten resigned from Ajax (the club had every intention of retaining him). He's been out of managment since then, but has been rumored in quite a few high profile openings.
While it was a disappointing season domestically, it was not a bad season in Europe. Ajax was started in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA cup, in which they advanced with a trouncing 5 goal aggregate win. They drew a difficult group (Zilina, Hamburg, and Aston Villa were all in it), but had secured advancement with a game to play into the round of 32 (they were leading the group at that point, but played a bunch of kids in a draw to finish 2nd). After defeating Fiorentina in the round of 32, they were defeated by Marsielle 4-3 on aggregate in very controversial fashion. All told, it was not a bad little run in the tournament when considering how they were eliminated.
While the results of that season were disappointing for the club, van Basten did four things that really stood out for me in his time there. First, he began working with promising young right wing Luis Suarez. Under van Basten, Suarez developed from a raw winger into a much more complete attacking player. The results of that development have been key to the way Liverpool have used him this season, allowing them loads of tactical flexibility.
Secondly, he controversially sold highly rated center back Johnny Heitinga (currently of Everton) to Atletico Madrid to raise funds for his biggest purchase that year. He was targeting a young Danish midfielder that Chelsea, Barcelona, and AC Milan all coveted. Christian Ericksen has gone on to become one of the most highly sought after young midfielders in the world, currently being linked to most top clubs (ourselves included). Ericksen will likely fetch a fee similar to that of Ramires if sold this summer, so I guess the decision to sell Heitinga and buy Ericksen wasn't such a bad one in the long run.
It did create a hole in the center of the defense though, and van Basten had a decision to make in how to fill it. He liked the look of young academy product Thomas Vermaelen, and immediately slotted him into the first team. Vermaelen was impressive enough that he was purchased by Arsenal after that season, and impressed greatly in his Premier League debut. The promotion of Vermaelen came at the expense of a more technically gifted centerback who was slightly undersized.
Instead of burying that player on the depth chart, Marco took that centerback and decided he was good enough with the ball at his feet to try out at right back (the fans were aghast at this decision at the time). Gregory van der Wiel took to the position immediately, and has since developed into one of the best in the world at that position and become a key member of a World Cup finalist. It's no surprise that he is also on our radar this summer.
As a tactician, van Basten really doesn't seem to have a bread and butter approach. With the national side, he ran out a 4-2-3-1, a traditional 4-3-3, and a 4-1-3-2 in about equal amounts. He also dabbled with a 4-3-2-1 and even a 3-5-2 at times. With Ajax, van Basten seemed to prefer either a standard 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2 attack, although he again dabbled with the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-2-1 looks on occasion. He generally didn't use "like for like" substitutions, as most changes also involved formational adjustments. Many of these formation changes tended to result in mental lapses from the young squad, which in turn led the fans to complain of his needless tinkering.
If van Basten is indeed appointed the next manager of Chelsea, there are several things I'd expect to see. First, he doesn't seem to have any trouble trusting unproven players if they look good in training. He's made controversial decisions at both the national and club levels, ignoring cries from the fans and media to play proven veterans. I'd expect his appointment to provide ample opportunity for the kids on the cusp of breaking through. He also rotates the squad quite often, rarely starting the same 11 twice in a row.
Work rate is a highly valued characteristic to Marco. If players aren't constantly moving, they are likely to see limited roles. This will likely be bad news for some of our older players, but great news for guys like Ramires. He also seems to value positional flexibility highly, so guys that can play multiple roles well are likely to start more often than not. With van Basten, I'd expect to see Chelsea without a clear identity as far as a preferred formation. He'll likely run any number of combinations out there depending on the matchup, which will be a real strength if the players can handle it. This seemed to be a large reason why he was so successful at the international level, but his young Ajax squad tended to struggle.
While he doesn't have the Chelsea connections of Andre Villas-Boas, van Basten does have the credentials to make him worthy of consideration for the job. It also doesn't hurt that he seems to be a personal favorite of Guus Hiddink, and I don't think there's a Chelsea fan alive who doesn't have a soft spot for Guus. It will be interesting to see how the rumors play out in the next several days, but as I mentioned earlier the immediacy in which this firing happened today makes me feel that Chelsea already have Carlo's successor lined up. That likely rules out anyone currently managing at the club level, so the Hiddink/van Basten rumor passes the initial smell test. What are your thoughts on potentially hiring van Basten...would you be satisfied or would you want more previous success at the club level? Any concerns with his trust of the youth or tactics?