“Zlatan Ibrahimovic really pushed you to be on your toes,” Paul Clement recalls. “I remember how strong Zlatan was with his team-mates; I have never seen anyone demand so much from his team-mates.”
Clement has worked with some of world football’s biggest names – Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, Didier Drogba. The list goes on and on.
The former Derby, Swansea and Reading boss has worked as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea, Paris St-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and has been sharing some of the things he has learned with BBC Radio 5 Live’s Euro Leagues podcast.
In a chat with the podcast, the Englishman reveals just how demanding Ibrahimovic can be, how Ronaldo’s professionalism even extended to the way he fitted out his home, and how Ancelotti once got his players to sort out the tactics before a big match.
‘Zlatan and Cristiano were special’
Clement has worked with some of the greats since Ancelotti promoted him to work as a first-team coach at Chelsea in 2009. And the Euro Leagues team wanted to know: Of all the players he has worked with, who would he most like to invite to dinner?
“Over the time at various clubs, you do lean towards certain players more than others because of your personality, the language you speak and who you relate to more.
“Two special people and characters as players were Zlatan and Cristiano. Of course, everyone can see the special talents they are on the pitch but on a personal level they are also interesting, funny and confident.
“Zlatan does it very openly, speaks very confidently – and at times it is arrogance, but that is what he is. He used to be like that on a daily basis and would ask me questions such as: ‘What is Didier Drogba like?’ I would go into detail about what he is good at and Zlatan would be like, ‘He is not as good as me’ and would make you laugh.
“They were both very professional on and off the field. The way they looked after their bodies with recovery, knowledge of nutrition. At his house in Madrid, Cristiano had special recovery facilities that you would find at a club or a health spa. He had a cold plunge; he really invested in his profession and health. Those type of people go the extra mile.
“All the players at big clubs are very professional, very driven and want things done right. They want training to be prepared well, they want it to be competitive and well organised and rightly so.”
Hard work pays off for players
Clement never progressed beyond non-league football as a player, going into coaching in his early 20s, becoming a PE teacher in his native London and then spending seven years as a coach at Fulham’s academy before joining the youth set-up at Chelsea in 2007.
So how did he deal with some of the biggest personalities in world football when he stepped up to first-team coaching duties? And what was the secret to their success?
“I came out of the reserve team at Chelsea into the first team, which had four or five national team captains. Petr Cech, John Terry, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and Branislav Ivanovic – there were so many strong personalities and that was my first experience of being your best every day. You have to be concentrated and focused as a coach and deal with these type of professionals and athletes.
“That continued through the clubs. I remember how strong Zlatan was with his team-mates [at Paris St-Germain]. I have never seen anyone demand so much from his team-mates. Some were prepared and OK with it; they could handle it.
“Brazilian left-back Maxwell was an example of that – someone who he played with at Ajax, Inter, Barcelona and PSG. When Zlatan had a go at Maxwell about something in a game or in training, he would just tell him where to go. Some other players were like shrinking violets and I felt for them. They were shaking in their boots when Zlatan had a go at them.
“At Chelsea, there would always be a group who stayed behind and work on their finishing. Frank Lampard would be one who would stay behind every day to work on his craft, shooting off his left and right foot from the edge of the box and moving into the box to work on his one-touch finishing. Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda would be the same.
“At other clubs, Zlatan would absolutely be one who would spend extra time after the end of training. At Real, I would do some extra work with Gareth Bale, especially when we moved him to the right-hand side. He needed to work on that right foot. He was getting into positions where he needed to be able to lift the ball to the back post or cut the ball back with his right foot and it needed some development.”
And working with a great coach…
Ancelotti, now Everton’s manager, worked with Clement over seven and a half years in four countries. From the start, the Italian impressed the young English coach with a novel approach to tactics and player motivation.
“In 2009-10 with Chelsea, we had won the Premier League and finished the last game of the season with an 8-0 against Wigan at Stamford Bridge. The following week we were going to play Portsmouth in the FA Cup final with a chance to do something very historic by being a double-winning team. It was a fantastic opportunity.
“The night before the game, Carlo was addressing the players, to talk about the tactics for the final. But rather than using the tactics flipchart, he started to ask the players questions. He said: ‘We have been at it one season now. I think you know how I am asking you to play. What do you think about the tactics for tomorrow’s game against Portsmouth?’
“It was the first time I had seen that. I was standing up at the front with the marker pen and hands started to go up. Cech, Lampard, Terry, Drogba. All of a sudden we had defensive points and offensive points and he said: ‘That’s it. That is what we are going to do. Off you go and do it.’ He gave real ownership to the players and we won the game to become double winners.
“In the 2014 Champions League final with Real Madrid, we were playing Atletico Madrid, a great rival, in Lisbon and we were 1-0 down at half-time. This was a great example of how someone deals with the pressure of that sort of game – at half-time and how he would speak to the players.
“What I saw was someone with immense experience, who spoke in a very calm way and dealt with the facts. He gave information but not too much and in a way that would help that players and give them confidence.
“The players went out in the second half, calm and controlled, and played a very good game and went on to win the final.”