Jumbo-Visma turn to Manchester United boss for advice

The Dutch team have sought guidance on managing internal competition within the squad as well dealing with the aftermath of victory.

by Jonny Long

photography by Getty Images

In this current era of super-teams, Jumbo-Visma top the pile at the end of the season following a dominant Tour de France and a number of major one-day and stage race victories.

UAE Team Emirates have already responded by signing the likes of Adam Yates and Jay Vine to further stack their ranks with additional top-level climbers, while Jumbo-Visma add Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan van Baarle and Ineos Grenadiers snap up the flourishing Dutchman Thymen Arensman. It seems with each passing year the biggest teams merely continue to stockpile top talent in their squads.

The question naturally arises, then, of how to manage such talent, and unlike UAE Team Emirates where Tadej Pogačar is the clear out-and-out leader, the situation is less clear at Jumbo-Visma.

Primož Roglič won the first battle for supremacy at the 2020 Tour de France as Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin fell into domestique roles such was the Slovenian’s talent, but then 2021 saw Jonas Vingegaard emerge and finish second overall at the French Grand Tour that year. In 2022 Roglič bounced back with wins at Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné, but this summer’s Tour obviously saw Vingegaard become the only rider who has found a way to beat Pogačar, albeit not without the help of Roglič and Wout van Aert. The Belgian was also tireless in July during his three-pronged pursuit of stage wins, the green jersey and helping deliver the overall title for Jumbo-Visma.

Hoarding the best of the best can be a blessing and a curse. To win the Tour requires all members pulling in the same direction, focused entirely on the job at hand, with any internal politics threatening to derail the entire operation. At the 2022 Tour, Jumbo-Visma seemed to navigate this issue with aplomb, some bike-swapping jeopardy on the Roubaix stage aside.

However, just because it works once doesn’t mean it will again. Roglič is presumably still hungry for the yellow jersey, Vingegaard will want to defend his title while Wout van Aert will want to keep doing what Wout van Aert inevitably does.

In the search for answers, Jumbo-Visma head coach Merijn Zeeman decided he needed outside counsel. In the aftermath of the Tour triumph, he turned to fellow Dutchman Erik Ten Hag, who also works at the pinnacle of professional sport as the manager of Manchester United, to gain some insight into how he manages to corral a bunch of multi-millionaire twenty-somethings into a football team.

A bit of context for those who don’t like/watch football/soccer: Manchester United are one of the biggest, most famous and successful football clubs ever but have suffered a fallow period over the past decade. A lack of major trophies and ability to compete either domestically or in European competitions has seen numerous head coaches turfed out, while billions has been spent on recruiting on-the-pitch talent to little effect. Erik Ten Hag has only been in the job a few months but arrives with great pedigree from his previous jobs and seems to be making a good go of it so far. In other words: this seems like a person worth obtaining advice from.

“[He’s] someone from a completely different sport, but I wanted to understand from him: how do you come up with tactics?” Zeeman told NOS about his initial meeting with Ten Hag following the Tour in July. “What is the essence of your sport for you? Before you make a game plan, what’s behind it? I had the opportunity to talk to him about that a few times.”

“I recently visited him again in Manchester,” Zeeman recently told Helden Magazine, the conversation this time focusing more on how to manage internal competition within sporting squads as well as helping to get athletes going again after reaching the pinnacle of their sport.

“Because Erik ten Hag also had to deal with that at Ajax [Dutch football team] and now he also has that at United, I talked to him about this. As a coach, how do you deal with players who have won everything and suddenly find themselves on the bench? In the past, athletes had to accept that. At the time, there was less attention for the human approach, I think that is not appropriate in this day and age.”

A development since their last conversation is that Man United star Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s had a tumultuous return to the club, has done a cynically-timed pre-World Cup interview with great all-round dude Piers Morgan where he says he doesn’t have any respect for Ten Hag and that he feels “betrayed” and like a “black sheep”. Although if Jumbo-Visma try to return the favour of advice they might just tell Ten Hag to blame Fred Wright.

Yet these conversations reveal part of Jumbo-Visma’s preparation for next season. How do you motivate a squad to once again reach the dizzy heights they just have? To achieve the same again but with less to prove? Meanwhile, for Tadej Pogačar, he’s got the money-can’t-buy incentive of affable revenge that will likely guide him through the winter all the way to the start line in Bilbao at the 2023 Tour de France.

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