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What's Fernando Hierro's role in Real Madrid?

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Just to add to the criticism thrown at the team and management over the past couple of weeks, Marca decided to highlight that Fernando Hierro gave a bit of a team talk in the tunnel at the Athletic Bilbao match.   That's what he's there for, though, and it shouldn't be a big deal.   Fernando's also been taking a fair bit of stick himself for the way the team has been playing.  Popular with the slightly older generation of Real Madrid fans, when Hierro returned to Madrid in the summer following Zinedine Zidane's appointment to Castilla, he soon became a familiar face in the technical area behind Ancelotti.   However, the role of an assistant coach can be a difficult one and often there can be misunderstandings over what the job actually entails.

In a club setting, the backroom team / coaching staff is first and foremostly under the direction of the manager and it will be Carlo Ancelotti who sets the tone and the policies.  The manager is ultimately responsible for all playing matters, and although certain areas of the tactics and training will be devolved to his assistants, everything will have to be run past the manager at some stage in the proceedings simply to make sure that everyone is thinking along the same lines.  Although Ancelotti remains in overall control of all playing matters, he will take input on a daily basis from his coaching staff, mainly from his assistant Paul Clement, and coach Fernando Hierro.  Each has his own speciality, and with Hierro having had a long career as a world class defender in the Spanish national team in addition to numerous honours as a player with Real Madrid, it's not surprising that Fernando will take the flak if the team don't defend to his own high standards.  Having played for Real Madrid between 1989 and 2003, winning 5 La Liga titles, 4 Spanish Super Cups, 3 European Cups, 2 Intercontinental Cups, 1 European Super Cup and 1 Copa del Rey in a fabulous career for the club, I think he is well qualified to coach Madrid's players in the basics of defence.

Although Hierro's present role will focus mainly on the defensive responsibilities of the current Madrid squad, all coaches need to have a broader understanding of other roles and positions.  Within the Real Madrid set-up, or any club of that level in fact, there is no definitive role for a coach other than to assist the manager with the training sessions, take charge of certain aspects of the session such as setting up a practice situation - defending at set plays or one-to-one marking for example, and contribute to the training sessions by offering specific advice when called upon to do so either by the manager or whoever else may be leading the session at the time.   The term ‘assistant' merely indicates that the manager / head coach has overall control and the rest of the staff follow his directives.   In no way does the term imply that an assistant coach is well-down the pecking order when it comes to seniority.   As a coach in his own right, Hierro's input from a defensive aspect will be a tremendous help to Ancelotti and just because he doesn't shout and scream on the touchline doesn't mean that Fernando is not contributing to the overall input from the coaching team on match day.

Typically, his main work will have been done on the training ground during the week.  On a regular day, one of the fitness coaches will take the team for a warm-up and after this the squad will normally be addressed by the manager who will outline the session plan for the day.  If the focus is to be on a specific system of play, then in all probability it will be the manager who leads the session.  If the session involves practising a particular system or other, then all the squad will be involved in what will amount to virtually a full-scale practice match, continually interrupted by the manager and coaches to highlight the specific aspects of whatever system they are playing.  It is in these type of situations where specific input from the individual coaches will be most effective.  If the move breaks down in practice due to slack marking for example, or if a forward finds it quite easy to lose his marker, Fernando Hierro will have the full authority from Carlo Ancelotti to stop the play at that moment, clarify what they are trying to achieve and correct any mistakes before resuming the session.  In doing so, if Fernando is not happy with the results or if the point he is making is difficult to get across to the players, he may run the play over and over again until the players get it right.  In these situations, where either Hierro or Paul Clement take the lead, Ancelotti will respect this.  Thus the coaching and management staff also work as a team.  It's a myth that because Fernando Hierro just happens to have the title of assistant coach that his role is merely to play second fiddle; you don't employ a defensive coach of that stature and not allow him to coach his own speciality.

Similarly, there will be differences of opinions throughout the season between the coaches just the same as there will be differences of opinion between the players.  However, coaching differences between the staff are normally thrashed out by healthy argument based on the justifications for any opinions that may differ, and the key factor here is that following these arguments / discussions, no offence is taken as any differences are based on professional judgements as opposed to personal feelings.  People working at that level invariably have very strong opinions based on years of experience therefore healthy differences will always occur from time to time, with enthusiasm often coming to the fore.  Often, one coach will want to make a particular point that the others may not have picked up on.

I was surprised, therefore, at the reaction from Marca and that they made such a big deal of the fact that Hierro had given a pep talk in the tunnel before the second half at Bilbao.  As we said, that's what he's there for and more than likely he was making such a particular point or delegating specific duties with regards to positional play / marking or even just emphasising points made in the changing rooms at the interval as last-minute reminders.  On a match-day, some coaches will leave the manager to take the lead with this, while others will want to have their own input at specific times; and the manager will respect this.  Normally on a match-day before the game and then at half-time the manager will have his say and then hand over to the coaches to add their own specific points.  It's an effective strategy and utilises the experience of the individual coaches by drawing on their own particular knowledge.  Once the coaching team comes together as a unit and they all begin to understand each other as individuals and if they all share the same philosophy, then the actual job titles can virtually be dispensed with.

Last season when Zinedine Zidane was on the first-team bench, the same questions were being asked. "What's he there for, he doesn't seem to do anything"?  In reality, both Zidane and Hierro will earn their money during the week on the training ground leading specific themed sessions; working at positional plays or individual weaknesses that can be improved through specific work.  After a game if the defence has not been brilliant for example, Ancelotti is likely to say that tomorrow "we will train in the afternoon and we will work on defence; Fernando will lead the session".  Hierro will then deliver a defensive-themed session in which the others will contribute.

Players will always listen to the voice of experience.  Hierro knows he is an assistant by title only; the players also know this and will respect his knowledge and experience.   The difficulty, though, for coaches like Fernando Hierro and people of his stature in the game often lies in getting others to see the game as they see it.  It can sometimes be hard going to get players to think at the level that elite players who have become coaches think, and to get them to see the bigger picture.  Passing on specialist knowledge in a way that players can understand can be hard work, and this is where the good coaches excel -  on the training ground.  The popular media shots of players laughing as they jog around the pitch for the benefit of the cameras couldn't be further from the truth.  The reality is that away from the cameras is where the hard work is done; and it's usually the people who appear not to do much when cameras are around who are the ones who put in the real work away from the eyes of the media and the public; people like Fernando Hierro.

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