Ernst Middendorp’s new approach

The Kaizer Chiefs coach has transformed from a temperamental individual into a calmer manager who keeps his cool even when provoked. He explains how he found his new Zen-like status.

A smile on Ernst Middendorp’s face is like a lunar eclipse. It rarely happens, but when it does it’s special. And recently, the Kaizer Chiefs’ coach has been wearing a smile more often. This “lunar eclipse” on Middendorp’s face is behaving as erratically as weather at the mercy of climate change. 

The German has undergone a huge transformation. The temperamental coach with a sharp tongue – who fought with bosses, opponents and journalists in his previous life – has been replaced by a man who would make even Buddhist monks envious, such is his composure under pressure. The old Middendorp would have waged a tense war of words with Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane, who threw countless jabs at the German and his club. 

But Middendorp 2.0 held his tongue and even complimented Mosimane as one of the most decorated coaches on the continent after humbling the Brazilians to hand them their first loss in the Absa Premiership this season. 

At first, this new Middendorp looked like a front. His smile at the unveiling at the club’s village in Naturena, south of Johannesburg, looked out of place and strained. He stood at the door of the auditorium with that smile and shook each journalist’s hand with a firm handshake. After his tumultuous first stint at Chiefs, this looked like nothing more than a man on a charm offensive to win over the media, with which he constantly fought and the club’s supporters, who weren’t too pleased at his return. 

However, he kept his smile and composure even when things were not going well for the club, finishing outside the top eight and losing the Nedbank Cup final to GladAfrica Championship side TS Galaxy. The big question then, is where is this Middendorp coming from? 

How Middendorp found inner peace 

“Let’s go back to 2016,” Middendorp says. “It really was a time where [I felt] I was driving into a wall. I was distracted by a lot of what was in my head, the outcome of the games where I thought that the officiating and other stuff was against me. My ‘honeymoon’ time [as Mosimane referred to Middendorp’s time in Thailand as technical director of Bangkok United] was a good time in terms of getting relaxed. I was very busy, which isn’t what you do when you are in a honeymoon time. I was very busy with a lot of stuff. I know the culture of South Africa very well. 

“I have a degree in economics and politics [from a university in Bielefeld, Germany], therefore nobody should tell me that I don’t know the culture and history of South Africa. But the culture of Thailand is different, there is no conflict. They don’t allow anybody to lose face. I was nailed there more than anywhere I have worked, by the bosses. And then you start reflecting. I said it before, I think that it’s not to my disadvantage to continue being that calm.”

His calm persona has rubbed off on the club. Amakhosi don’t panic when they have their backs against the wall like they did previously, weighed down by a long, barren run that saw them go four seasons without a trophy. Their composure was evident in the match against Cape Town City in the opening round of the Telkom Knockout. The Citizens led for 50 minutes after Kermit Erasmus found the back of the net just after the half-hour mark. 

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Chiefs huffed and puffed with no luck, but they didn’t give up or show any sign of frustration. That composure and patience paid off. Samir Nurković scored with six minutes remaining and the Glamour Boys went on to win the match on penalties. The victory set up a mouthwatering tie against their archrivals Orlando Pirates at Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday 2 November in the quarterfinals of the Telkom Knockout. 

The match will test the Soweto giants’ resolve as both teams have endured long spells without silverware. A trophy last graced Naturena in 2015 while the Sea Robbers haven’t been champions since they lifted the Nedbank Cup in 2014. The loser will be crushed, not only by conceding to their rivals but also going another year without a trophy. 

Chiefs come into the match on a high. They sit at the summit of the Absa Premiership standings and defeated the reigning league champions, Sundowns, in their last match. The Buccaneers, though, are still plugging holes in their ship so they don’t sink. They lost to Stellenbosch and scraped through against Highlands Park. This has been a tough period for the club and coach Rhulani Mokwena. 

Mokwena’s baptism of fire 

“Asavela Mbekile said to me at training, ‘Coach, whatever this is preparing you for, it is something huge.’ He came to me out of nowhere and he said, ‘Continue working hard and we support you [as players].’ For me, I am just at the service of this great club and the great players,” Mokwena says. 

“My love for the club is what keeps me going. Before I am the coach of Orlando Pirates, I am a fan of Orlando Pirates. I love this club. When you serve a greater cause, which is greater than yourself, you get more energy to keep going. The support of the players is also what’s keeping me going, along with the rest of the technical team. I am not alone in this situation. 

“Like I said, it is amazing when a player like Asavela Mbekile, who hasn’t featured much this season, can have the wisdom and humility to come to the coach and say keep going, we are right behind you and whatever it is that this period is preparing you for is something big. That, for me, gave me another spring in my step. I was very, very humbled by Asavela’s words.”

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Middendorp’s calm persona was put to the test before a ball had even been kicked this season. Highlands coach Owen da Gama taunted the 61-year-old and Chiefs in a press conference at Absa’s offices in Auckland Park to launch the 2019-2020 season. Frustration crept on to Middendorp’s face, but he didn’t react as he would have done in the past. He didn’t even react when the assembled crowd, with a number of Chiefs’ supporters, laughed at his ambitious intentions. 

“There were probably 100 people sitting in front of me,” Middendorp says. “When we said that we are challenging for the league, I believe that 98 were laughing, 98 had a big smile on their faces. We have taken a certain direction to go and prepare, knowing what to do and the mentality that you must have. If you want to produce a confident player, there are 10 so-called habits of being confident. You work on it, on and off the field. Even now, we at least have one off-the-field activity to activate it. 

“Produce, learn out of it, as I always like to say, and do things differently. If you think that you should keep doing what you have done in the past, because that is what I have heard, that this is how we do it, I said, please, stop this. You can’t do what you have always done and think that you will get different results. Sorry. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know that. We have done a lot of stuff differently. We could have done more things differently. You have to be patient. It’s difficult for me, but it’s part of the soccer industry.” 

Less possession, more success  

The football Chiefs have played this season has been a mixture of grit, direct approach and showing tactical flexibility with the number of changes they make to their formation in every match. It’s not always pretty, but it’s effective and they are at the top of the log at the moment. Their approach is tailor-made for cup competitions, where it is first about getting a win before looking to do so in an entertaining way. Middendorp isn’t too bothered by the team not dominating possession.  

“I know that it is fantastic to have the ball, and we work on it,” Middendorp says. “There is an article I read a few days ago, highly celebrating how dominant and how ball possession is fantastic to the eye. But what I am asking you is what does it mean when you have ball possession in your own half? What does it mean when you have ball possession around the centreline? Where is the purpose? 

“Leicester won the championship in England with a ball possession average of 44%. They are doing something similar in the moment with [Leicester manager] Brendan Rodgers, where the ball goes quick upfront. They had less possession than Southampton, but they won [their recent English Premier League fixture] 9-0.”

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“There was a game in Germany, in the second Bundesliga, Hamburger SV against VfB Stuttgart. Hamburger had 38% of the ball possession and they won 6-2. Ball possession is just one key indicator of being successful. 

“You have to look at what you want and what type of players you have around. With our decision to bring certain players like Samir and keep a player like [Leonardo] Castro, this wasn’t by accident. It’s because of what we experienced in the past season, to know that we have to do something different.”

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