Derby County inherited another legendary midfielder in the dugout when they appointed Phillip Cocu to succeed Frank Lampard.
The 48-year-old Dutchman subsequently becomes the Rams first non-British head coach in their 135-year history.
Naturally, his arrival has been met with a mixture of caution and enthusiasm. Cocu, unlike Lampard, is long into his managerial career, having begun in 2013 at PSV Eindhoven where he enjoyed an illustrious playing career and lifted three league titles as a coach. But he’s not in Kansas anymore. There’s also his recent failed spell at Fenerbahçe, where he lasted 100 days and 15 matches, though, for all intents and purposes, the Istanbul club was embroiled in chaos.
Although the Championship is a force unto itself, Cocu has a chance to rehabilitate his managerial career, which looked promising, but what can supporters and neutrals expect?
One of the most accomplished midfielders of his generation, Cocu was renowned for his tactical acumen, industrious style, never-say-die attitude and leadership. Growing up supporting Ajax would, in turn, shape his own philosophy. A brilliant all-rounder capable of playing in numerous positions, Cocu, for much of his career, was a dynamic box-to-box midfielder, before converting into a controlling midfielder then, finally, deep-lying creator. Versatility was a blessing, not a hindrance. He could, if his manager wanted, even play in defence. “The only positions I’ve not played in is goalkeeper and right-back,” he said.
If anyone could lay claim to being the modern ‘total footballer’, then it was the man dubbed Pinokkio. Naturally, the concept of totaalvoetbal evokes powerful images of the Amsterdam school, though it would be unfair to label him as a disciple. Instead, Cocu is more pragmatic. Learning under Dick Advocaat, Guus Hiddink and even Louis van Gaal (who puts the team before individual creativity), and being a student of the game ensured he’d end up coaching once hanging up his boots in 2008. Consequently, many of their approaches are incorporated into his own coaching philosophy.
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From the onset, he was touted for big things. Barcelona wanted him to manage their B team – some at the club even saw him as a credible successor to Pep Guardiola. He would turn his former club down, where only Dani Alves and Lionel Messi made more appearances as a foreigner, to remain as Fred Rutten’s right-hand man at PSV before being given full control. It quickly transpired what kind of football he wanted to play.
Cocu, in line with his education, prefers to deploy a more orthodox 4-3-3. His tactical approach, which requires skilful midfielders (with one sitting in front of the defence) and wingers, is geared towards creating scoring opportunities with the fewest amount of passes possible. Under his leadership, PSV became renowned for their transition play and counter-attacking; he wasn’t obsessed with dominating possession, even if they were among the very best at keeping the ball.
The right fit?
At least during his PSV spell, Cocu demonstrated the foresight and flexibility needed to survive and succeed in this cutthroat business – showing he’s not one-dimensional (there’s always a ‘Plan B’). Although preferring aggression before aesthetics, you couldn’t really describe his style of play as direct, it’s just that he prefers not to take up to thirty touches before a shot on goal.
Professional football, whether folks like it or not, is a results business. Cocu experienced that first hand during his brief sojourn in Turkey, but there were, of course, mitigating circumstances. Derby, from the outside, look a stable outfit. Naturally, he’s inheriting another man’s team, so don’t expect too much from the get-go.
As with any new manager, the first weeks of pre-season are focused on seeing which players can be useful and what areas need addressing to implement his vision. He’s never experienced a league like the Championship before, arguably the most competitive across Europe, but in the ensuing marathon, supporters can rest easy knowing he’s not one of those fundamentalist coaches who sticks to a single approach.
During his successful tenure at PSV, as touched upon, Cocu was never afraid to go the opposite way, especially in a period where key members of his playing staff were unavailable.
This willingness to adapt could hold the Dutchman in good stead but, again, wins are like oxygen. If he’s consistently picking up three points, the Eindhoven-born coach will be given room to breathe. His job now is to devise a strategy to get the best out of those at his disposal. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so the onus is on supporters to be patient, which is easier said than done in today’s 24/7 news cycle.