On Manchester United Career
How did it feel to join Manchester United from PSV in 1999 for a then world record transfer for a defender? Did you feel any pressure that came with the price tag?
Of course, at the time, I was very delighted to go to United. When you succeed in your country and one of the biggest teams in the world wants to sign you, then, of course, that's a big compliment. Having Ferguson make that move for me, and with the quality of the players in that squad, it was a real pleasure for me and I was really proud to join a club as huge as Manchester United.
Being signed for a world record fee as a defender brings a certain level of pressure, but that was something that I didn’t think about as the deal was being done because I really wanted to join the club. I only really started to think about the size of the fee and the expectations that go with that when I was playing for Holland at the World Cup that summer - I was receiving more attention because I was a United player and the English press started to analyse all of my games at the tournament, which was a new experience for me.
At the time United brought me in, to be honest, people knew me as a player because I had played in the Champions League with PSV, but I wasn’t well known all over the world. The pressure didn’t feel like it eas mounting, but you do feel it because all of a sudden everybody has an opinion on you as a player and that was a learning curve.
When you signed for United, you're coming off the back of some great seasons in Holland. I assume that there must have been wider interest in you as a player.
That's true. The thing is back in the day when I played and you sign a three or four year contract with a club, it wasn’t as easy as it is these days to leave a club. The big clubs are more powerful these days and can buy a player out of a contract even if he has four or five years left, whereas when I played, players would typically move in the last year of their contracts. Every season there was interest from other teams, but I could never leave because PSV always said, “no, we're not going to sell you”.
When United came in for me, I expressed a desire to join them because I felt like I was ready to make the next step in my career. That summer, a lot of clubs wanted to sign me - big teams in Spain and Italy, but joining United was an easy decision because I wanted to play in the Premier League. United were also a team that I followed and they showed a lot of interest in signing me before any other club. It was a great project and it was the perfect opportunity for me to develop as a player and an individual.
You joined that summer with the club also spending heavily on Dwight Yorke, two massive investments at the time. We all know what happened that season (United would win a historic treble). When you joined, what did you think you would achieve that season?
When I joined United, I never expected to do that (win the treble) in my first season. As a player, my priority was to establish myself in the team and I wanted to show
the manager and the fans what I was all about by performing well and bringing the best out in my teammates, with the hope that it would bring trophies.
I knew I was joining a great team with great players, players with a lot of qualities and the mentality of these players was totally different than I was used to in Holland. Coming from PSV, one of the biggest clubs in Holland, the expectations were higher and the pressure was more intense because Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world and is expected to compete for every single title, which is why I wanted to join them in the first place.
Over the first few weeks and months, the feeling I had at the club was that this was a squad that was hungry for success. This was a group that wanted to win. All of the players wanted to be very successful for themselves, but also for the team - we wanted to show everybody that we had one of the best teams in the world.
As a team, at the beginning of the season, we never spoke about winning the treble or winning the Champions League. We didn’t speak about making history. Sir Alex wanted everyone to be committed, show our ability and have the confidence in each other to develop as a team that could challenge for trophies.
We didn't start the season very well, but we grew into the season and started to click as a team. The relationships and partnerships improved and started to get better and better. We felt strong and, as the season progressed, we felt if we could keep our performance levels up, we could go all the way. During that season, when we got to the business end, it wasn’t just the team, but everyone inside the club could sense we were capable of doing something special. Our opponents felt it too - they were scared of what we could do in games. As a player it was an incredible experience to be part of a team like that and to achieve what we did that year.
In that first season, not only did you go on to achieve something that's never been done before, and has never happened since, you also were recognised as the best defender in Europe. What kind of satisfaction did you have? You must have felt like you were at the peak of your powers.
Like I said, it's important for a player to show their ability and to set your own individual standards. I always looked at football at the highest level as an individual sportsman, working as part of a squad where my role was not only to improve myself but to improve all of the players in the team. You work with 40 other people to be successful and you will only be successful if everybody performs at their best and you find that groove. Throughout my career I always thought about the team, and when you win the biggest prizes with your club, sometimes the individual prizes will follow. I was named the best defender in the Champions League for two successive seasons, first with PSV and then with United. I think in my second season at United, I was the runner up for the prize. Top level football is all about consistency, but for me, the most important thing was performing for the team and winning those trophies and without the teams I was playing in, I wouldn’t have won the individual prizes.
As a player you always strive for that level of consistency. You know if you can achieve it with your teammates, then you have every chance of winning trophies, and that is what I wanted to achieve in my career. These seasons at United gave me a lot in terms of development, not only on the pitch, but also as a person.
To be successful, you need to have a good manager as well. We had all of that at Manchester United.
I always said I had great seasons at United and I felt very bad when I needed to leave the club, but when I went to Lazio in Italy, I felt even stronger as a player, but if you're feeling stronger, it doesn't mean that you are more successful. That’s how it can go in a team sport - success is determined by the people around you.
I was very happy at United to win so many trophies and to make history with the club, but also, to be recognised with individual trophies helps ease that pressure we spoke about earlier because there's always pressure that comes with being a world record signing. There’s always pressure when you play for a club as large as Manchester United and there's always people writing you off. So when you receive these awards, you are showing the world what you can do as a player.
It was a remarkable period of success for you at United, winning three Premier League titles in a row. How did Sir Alex keep you motivated to keep going and going?
He was always very, very direct. He was sharp and aggressive in a positive way towards us. I think that's why he was so successful as a manager because it's not easy to be that successful for so many years. He would always find a trigger to motivate each individual player that would get the best out of them and that would get the best out of the team. He was very good at that. His communication was always clear - he told us every season and before every game what he expected from us, what we needed to do. He never took it easy on his players, and he made it clear, especially to the new signings, that when you play for Manchester United everyone wants to beat you. Everyone wants you to lose. He created that siege mentality and it worked.
He made it clear to the players that when you play for United, there is never an easy game - you need to be on your toes. He always made sure that as players we were completely focussed on the job we had to do.
You also know that over the course of the season, you’re going to need a little bit of luck and you can’t afford to switch off and he was very good at adding players with the same mentality that he had, so there was never any room for anyone to take it easy in the squad. He pushed us as players and the players pushed each other, which was really positive for the team and that is why we were so successful and we won three titles in a row. And, if you were not producing for Sir Alex, then he wasn’t afraid to make big decisions and let you go. That’s what life is like at the top level of sports.
Fergie didn’t get many things wrong, but he has admitted that he handled your exit badly and should have retained you as a player. The season you left, Arsenal won the title and you were missed. Was there a sense of satisfaction on your end that he got that wrong?
No, it's not like I’m in Italy sitting on the sofa rubbing my hand when United are losing. When you leave United and how everything went, for the first couple of months it was hard for me to watch United or think about United. I didn’t want the thought back in my head because I didn’t want my time at United to end in the way it did. As a player, you understand that sometimes in football things can happen because of certain reasons, but I was very hurt by what happened and I didn’t feel good about it.
I took no satisfaction in United not winning the league that season. I was focussed on playing for Lazio and, just when I joined United, I wanted to show everyone what I was capable of as a player. Of course, you want to show the people in England that you're still one of the best defenders in the world by performing over there, which was very important for myself as an individual. At the end of the season, I was feeling sorry that United didn’t win the league. Of course it was difficult to think about the club because of what happened, but I still wanted them to do well because United was one of the most important clubs in my career and they helped me become one of the most successful players in the world. That’s what I thought about. Even though I felt bad with how everything happened, I had so many positive experiences at United.
At that time, I wished them all the best, but I also knew, by letting me go, that they were going to get rid of one of the best players in the world.
Life after United brought more trophies in Italy and back home in Holland. You played alongside some legendary players - who do you think was your best defensive partner in your career?
That's a difficult one. A lot of people think that the best player that you played alongside is the one that you've been most successful with. That was with Ronny Johnson at United and we had Henning Berg and David May at the time who were always ready to step in. They were great partners to play alongside with and, eventually, we understood each other perfectly.
I played more games with Ronny and we had a great partnership. We were great friends off the pitch as well, and we played together again at Lazio. At Lazio I also played with Fernando Couto and Siniša Mihajlović - who were great players. I think that Ronny was underestimated. He was incredible for United.
When I went to Milan I played with Alessandro Nesta and also with Paolo Maldini - two defenders who are up there with the best in the world. Even with these great players, I only won one trophy at Milan. Playing with these two was unbelievable. Nesta was brilliant on and off the ball, he had pace and remarkable positional awareness. He was one of the best. Maldini was the same. You don’t play for as long as he did at the highest level in Serie A if you’re not a top, top player. It’s hard to pick one, but if I had to then I would have to say Maldini and Nesta at Milan.
What was it like to strut your stuff in Italy, a country where defending is considered an art form?
That was great because everybody was saying that defending came from Italy. As a defender, to join play for two giant Italian teams, when they’ve paid a lot of money for you - it's special. Performing well over there alongside the great defenders, it was really satisfying for me.
I never won best defender in the league over there, they always gave it to Maldini or Nesta because defending is an Italian passion - the Italian’s are masters of the art, so they were never going to give that accolade to a foreigner (laughs). There was always one before me, I was always second there, but that's not a problem. It was very nice to play in that country alongside those two, and to also play in a league with very good defenders. At that time, the quality of the players and league was at the highest level. At that time, it was exceptional to play over there; there was a lot of competition between the clubs and a lot between the players in the league, because as I said, the Italians were the masters of defending and every player wanted to show that they were the best in the league. It was also great to experience a different culture and league, which was totally different from the Premier League. In England the speed of the game, the tempo was much higher than then in Italy. It was more aggressive and physical. In Serie A, sometimes it was like a game of chess. There weren't as many one-on-ones because there was a little bit more gamesmanship and the referees would let less go, so as a defender you need to adjust your game and way of playing. That gave me a lot as a defender and I felt like I improved as a player in Italy.
You played alongside so many world class players. Was there one player who really stood out for you over your career?
It’s difficult, but from across my career, if I had to pick one, then it would be Ronaldo at PSV. When I joined PSV, he was already there as a replacement for Romario. He was very young at that time, coming to Holland from Brazil, a country that was totally different in temperature. He was always cold! He said when he joined, “I'm going to score 30 goals,” and he succeeded. You could see in training how good he was. The ability that this guy had on the ball, his movement. His technique and his unpredictability - he was exceptional.I loved training with him because when you train with good players, you become better. You then see what he achieved in Spain and Italy, with the quality that he showed. With all due respect to the other players I played with, in terms of potential and pure ability, he was the best player I played with.
Mangers, you had Fergie, Ancelotti, Hiddink, van Gaal - who did you consider the best and why?
If we’re talking about medals and success, then it was Sir Alex. Coming from PSV, going to United, a massive step up in terms of the quality of players that you’re facing and also that you’re playing with. Sir Alex took a chance on me, making me at that time the most expensive defender - and I wasn’t a big name at the time. He gave me the confidence and the tools to become a better player and a better person. While I was at United I became one of the best defenders in the world. So in terms of that, he's the best manager I had. I had some good managers in Holland who were more hands-on in terms of training, exercises, drills but Sir Alex had the biggest impact on my career. He was my manager as I reached the highest level as a player. At United I developed so much as a player and as a person, which made that next step to Italy a lot easier. When I arrived in Serie A, in many ways I was the finished article and I didn’t need to learn that much in terms of playing. Of course, you need to adapt to a different culture, country, language, but in terms of football, I was already educated because of the time I spent with him.
Finally, who was your toughest opponent?
Well, I wasn't worried about facing anyone. No, that's the thing, at the level I played, I always backed myself against any opponent. Of course, there were always players that could give you a little bit of a hard time. I remember playing with the national team we played against Czech Republic who had Jan Koller up front. He was quite hard to play against - a lot of people think when they play a big guy like that, he's not that good on the ball, but he was quite good. He was taller than me so your timing when competing with him in the air needed to be good, but he was excellent in the air and used his body to control the ball well. He had a presence and at times made it more difficult than others because of the ability that he had. If you look at his career, if you look at his time with the national team, he was very successful. Everybody that ever played against him would tell you he was a handful.
On Manchester United - Ten Hag
You made a seamless transition from Holland to England as a player, how do you think Erik ten Hag will adjust to life in the Premier League?
I hope he can settle into the league as quickly as I did. It is going to be difficult. This will be a more difficult challenge from the one he faced in Holland, because in Holland he was at the biggest club with the biggest budget. There are three big teams in Holland that challenge Ajax, and the rest are way below that level in terms of resources and overall quality. He had to win the league with Ajax and he did - he could buy the best players - I mean, Ajax just spent £30 million on a player from Tottenham - with the resources they have, they should be winning the league every year. This is his first challenge. He is now competing with not just the top four, but with the likes of Arsenal, West Ham and teams like Brighton and Leicester as well.
His second challenge is getting to grips with the quality of playing three top opponents a week. At Ajax, he faced good opponents in the Champions League, but he will have never dealt with playing a season where the quality of opposition is so high all the time. His Ajax teams were brilliant in the Champions League, but they went into these games with a great feeling because of their dominance in the domestic league - everyone of his players raised the bar and they were a confident team. At United, he will not have it all his own way like this. He will need to get his team to compete at the highest level three times a week. He will need to show that top level consistency all of the time. The domestic competition is so strong and there were plenty of teams who performed better than United last season who have strengthened and will be stronger this season.
He needs to rebuild the team. He needs to bring in the players that he wants, and we’ve seen with United’s pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, that it's not always easy to get the players you need. They have to spend a lot of money.
He's bringing in a lot of players from Holland. Can they have an immediate impact in the Premier League? Can they produce in the same way that they've been doing in Holland? Do they need time to get used to the quality and intensity of the Premier League? A lot of players have found it difficult to adjust to the Premier League. Hopefully these players don't need that time, but they will need to be consistent throughout an entire season, which is very hard. It’s easy to perform when you join a club because everything is fresh and new, but as the games come thick and fast and the quality of the opposition doesn’t drop, it can become draining - the pressure starts to crank up. United is not a normal club - the pressure at United from the media and everything else is unlike anything else - this will be a new experience for him and some of these players.
Confidence is crucial. He must remain confident in what he is trying to achieve and also keep the players confident. The new signings will be under pressure and the expectations at United are huge.
I think that he will be a great appointment for United, but he will need time. Everyone knows that this is a huge job and rebuilding the club will not happen overnight, but this is United and at United you have to produce and you have to win. Draws and losses will not be accepted.
He will need to bring in the right players to play the way he wants to play, and he will be aiming to get the club back into the Champions League within a couple of seasons. I think that tactically and technically, he can improve what he has at United and hopefully he can give the players the confidence they need to start the season well and they can get some good results quickly because that will lift the players.
Preseason results have looked OK, but we need to be honest and understand that the quality of the opposition hasn’t been the highest level. The real test starts in two weeks time.
Preseason is good for building confidence and drilling the players in what he wants to see tactically, which is very important. Developing that playing style is massive because this has been lacking at United. Having a clear understanding of what he expects from his players is really important. From what I’ve seen and read, he is trying to do that and he needs to have that understanding with his players to have an immediate impact.
Some people think that ten Hag is a bit of a risky appointment given his lack of Premier League experience. You know what it's like to manage in England and you know what it's like to win the biggest trophies for Manchester United - what would you say in response to those concerns?
People always talk about your lack of experience as a manager. But how do you get experience? People need to believe in you and you need to be given an opportunity to test yourself with bigger challenges - he has that at Manchester United after doing very well at Ajax.
When Guardiola went to City, he didn't have experience in the Premier League. Yeah, he had experience in coaching at Barcelona and Bayern, but not in England. In his first season, he couldn’t bring his style of play to the Premier League because everything didn’t click for him immediately - it was a transition. He was criticised for that and people said he could never do it, but in his second season, his players adjusted to his methods and Manchester City won the title and he has won four Premier League titles in five seasons.
So I think ten Hag deserves the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to show what he can do. And then of course, within maybe one or two seasons, it will be fair to make an assessment to see if he has the quality. If he does well, then nobody will talk about his lack of experience. This is how it is at top level football and he knows that. He would have spoken to a lot of managers who have worked in the Premier League and people at Manchester United. He would have been preparing for the role and he would have been studying intensely before being appointed. So, I think he has all the information that he needs and he knows the size of the challenge that he faces. He will do things his own way and he will also need to find a way of managing the press - what you can and can’t say - how he deals with certain situations publicly.
Erik knows how difficult this job is but he is completely focussed. He trusts his ability and he needs to bring the same skills to the table that enabled him to be so successful at Ajax.
Of course, you won the lot at United. How far away do you think this team is from being able to compete for the biggest prizes and how long do you think it will take for UNited to get there?
Some people say it's going to take United several seasons before they get back to the level everyone expects the club to be at but it can happen quickly too. If Erik can bring in the right players, and the players start to understand his way of playing and they can demonstrate their ability, then they can make a difference right away and United could have a very successful season. Nobody knows how long it will take for United to compete for the biggest prizes, but the only way that he will be successful at United is to convince all of his players about his tactical style and the way he wants to play and by bringing the right players in. He needs players with certain qualities to help him play the way he wants to play football, and we all know that it isn’t easy for United to sign the players they want because when United come knocking, prices go up. Clubs are also reluctant to sell these players because it is very difficult to replace them - the type of players that he wants to sign are the best in their position, so they will cost huge sums of money, which brings its own pressure.
If you look at the recruitment so far, ten Hag has signed players from Holland that will not be used to the intensity of Premier League, so there is a risk that they will not be able to come to terms with the league as quickly as they need too. I still think that United need to bring in several more players to raise the quality in the squad.
On Man United - Style Of Play And Squad
You played in some great attacking United teams. If he can bring in the players he wants, do you expect to see swashbuckling football back at Old Trafford?
Yeah. He's definitely going to try and play in that Ajax style - looking to dominate possession and attack. He’ll try and find different ways to attack. In certain games, he will not be able to dominate possession, so he will be looking to play on the transition with quick breaks. He’ll be looking to play creative football. He’ll want to attack and he will want to win. You can see certain patterns in preseason that he has been developing and you can see how he will look to exploit spaces with pace when he attacks teams. That is what he is trying to do and you can see that in the type of players that he wants to add to his squad.
The players that he has brought in are all very confident on the ball in their position. They are capable of keeping the ball but can also hurt opponents by getting the ball forward quickly, that is why he is so keen on bringing in Frenkie de Jong.
This is his philosophy - the Dutch way of playing - as long as you keep the ball you don’t need to chase it. If you’re very confident on the ball then eventually spaces will open up and you can exploit them and make the difference. The challenge is replicating that style in the Premier League because of the quality of the opposition United will face. Most of the teams in the league have the quality to play possession or transition football and can hurt you. His style won’t be all that different from other teams in the league. City, for instance, play in a similar way as well.
He will need to get his players to fully understand his philosophy so they can make a difference. But, with the quality that he's facing, that's going to be a big challenge for him.
On Manchester United - Recruitment And Transfers
You coached Malacia at Feyenoord. What type of player are United getting and do you think he is ready for the Premier League?
The good thing about Malacia is that he's very confident about his ability. He's honest, hard working. He will give everything for United and will absolutely want to make the most of this opportunity. As a person, he is a good character too and he will get along with everyone in the squad.
He’s a clever operator. He plays on the front foot and is aggressive in his challenges. He is very confident on the ball and the United fans can expect to see him bombing down the pitch, making overlaps, delivering quality crosses into the box and also scoring goals. He has that in his locker. Defensively, he is very good one against one.
I think he will make a difference to the team and he will add quality to the left back option and give Luke Shaw some healthy competition. He is a young player, he still needs to refine parts of his game, but he will only improve and I think he is ready to make a difference straight away - that is what I am hoping for. I think he get his opportunities at United this season and, tactically, I think he is a good option from the bench to add pace to games, especially with the five sub rule that is coming into effect this season.
Similarly, Lisandro Martinez. What do you think are his best qualities and what will he bring to this United team?
He's gonna bring a lot of ball playing ability. He’s a defender that is very easy on the eye and he has that aggressive nature that you expect from an Argentinian defender - he’s tough, and he is very clever in the way that he positions himself. Size-wise, he isn’t the tallest, but he makes up with that with his awareness and timing. Despite his size, he wins a lot of headers, which is important and, as a centre back, you don’t need to be big to do well in England, you need to be clever. A lot of people will mention his height, and he will lose a few battles in the air, but I think ten Hag is looking at his versatility - he can play comfortably in a few positions - and what he can bring to his team with his ability on the ball. He is a perfect player for the way that ten Hag wants to play and he knows exactly what he is getting from their time together at Ajax.
As a centre back, you will see him step into midfield because he is so comfortable on the ball. He can also play as a six in midfield and I wouldn't be surprised to see him there in certain games because he is very aggressive, he is great at picking up second balls and he can find the right pass going forward. I think he is a great signing for United and I expect him to be a very good asset for the team.
Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire had a difficult season last year. Do you think Martinez will bring out the best in them as players and would you back him to establish himself as one of the starting centre halfs over the course of a season?
I always liked Varane as a player, but the thing is that he's had a lot of injuries in Madrid and now we’ve seen that at United. You never know what you're gonna get with them in terms of playing a full season. In his first season, he's shown that he can't last the distance, so that's why you need to bring somebody else in as well who has the quality to do well.
Harry Maguire had a tough season as well and a lot of people are always talking about him, his performances and the amount of money that he cost. Of course, we all expect him to do better and I think he has the potential to make a difference at United, especially playing under a manager like ten Hag and how he wants to play. That’s why he is so determined to bring in Frenkie de Jong, that is why he went all in for Martinez, because these two players are so comfortable on the ball and can really help the team dominate possession and play a certain way.
Martinez can help Varane and Maguire. We’ve seen that Varane and Maguire sometimes struggle to play out from the back and it's not always easy for them to do that, but I also think that they haven’t been helped by the players in front of them.
On Manchester United - Ronaldo
What are your thoughts on the Crisiano Ronaldo saga? Is this a headache and a distraction he simply doesn’t need.
Well, you don't want to have too much confusion within the squad straightaway, especially when you're starting as a new manager. You're working with one of the best players in the world. He's been doing very well, last season scoring a lot of goals. I was hoping that Ronaldo was going to stay because I think he could be very important for the club.
I think Ronaldo is still one of the best players at United. Even when he's not scoring, he's always making the opposition aware of him and they always need to pay him a lot of attention which creates opportunities and space for other players.
I assume that ten Hag spoke with him about the new season. I don't know exactly what happened, but it looks like Ronaldo wants to make a move and play somewhere else next season, which I think is a shame.
If the player has said that he wants to leave, although it's very tough for the manager and for the club and especially for the fans, then the situation doesn't need to drag on that long. United need to make a decision as a club and find a way to deal with his departure. The manager needs to build his squad and understand who he will be working with. United don’t want to be in a situation where they have been using other players up front, and those players that have been performing are all of a sudden dropped because Ronaldo didn't get his move and he needs to play.
You then have a situation where a player that has been agitating for a move all summer, who hasn;t featured in preseason or trained starting games, and that will create problems in the United squad.
Eventually you need to make a decision. I can understand that without having a new striker come in, that United won’t want to lose Ronaldo, because he can still still be a very important player for the team. And if United can’t replace him, then it's going to be very difficult to get those goals into the team because Ronaldo can still make the difference.
The issue is that Ronaldo knows how important he is to the club and as a senior player, he needs to be honest with how he sees things and what he wants to do, but United need to make a decision on this quickly. I think its a shame that he wants to go because I would have loved to have seen him at United with ten Hag this season but I don’t think that will happen.
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