Rene Maric feels there are occasions when people get him wrong. “Sometimes I read articles and comments about me and feel I’m reading about someone else,” he says. “It’s like they took a picture of me and used my name but it’s not the same guy.”
The facts create a sufficiently compelling image. Maric is one of Europe’s most progressive coaches and, earlier this month, signed a contract extension that will ensure he remains one of Marco Rose’s assistants at Red Bull Salzburg until 2021. He is also astonishingly young. This interview takes place on his 26th birthday, which happens to be a rare day off, at an otherwise deserted training ground where he works “up to 100 hours a week, but most of the time it’s 70 or 80”. Apologies for the imposition are waved away. This is not work, he says: we are talking football.
That is exactly what started everything off in the first place. If Maric’s tale has attracted interest then it is because this is a very modern story with few parallels. He was coaching in his home village, Handenberg – 30 miles north of Salzburg – after being forced to give up playing in his mid-teens, but opportunities to exchange football philosophies were limited in a settlement of 1,000 inhabitants. There was more luck online, where like-minded souls could be found in coaching forums and chatrooms. With four of them, Maric began the project that would inadvertently accelerate his career beyond all imagining.
“It was just five guys who wanted to talk about football and did it together,” he says of the Spielverlagerung blog, which launched in 2011. It is still running and the most cursory of browses reveals its seriousness: these are weighty ideas that bear little regard for brevity, dissecting teams, players, tactics and managers in infinitesimal detail. “How to break a low (4-5-1) block with (Guardiola’s) positional play” is a 3,100-word example from last month; this kind of text is impenetrable to many but, as Maric explains, offering up user-friendly analyses was not the intention.
“I think people have got the impression it was more about journalism, or commenting on people in football, but that was never the goal. For me it was about thinking of something, throwing it out there and just finding people who’d comment. In my village it’s hard to get regular feedback on things; on the internet you throw it out and can have 5,000 readers and 200 comments.”
Maric, by now studying for a psychology degree, had assumed he was writing for coaching enthusiasts, and perhaps amateur coaches. Then an email arrived from one of Thomas Tuchel’s assistants at Mainz and everything changed. “Tuchel had seen one of our reports about his team and thought: ‘That’s pretty accurate, how did they know?’ He invited us to Mainz and wanted to know our opinions: our views on the game, what we thought of their opponents, football things in general. We spoke for two hours and he gave us some small projects to see how we work and think. We did it for a season.”
The Spielverlagerung crew would carry out ad hoc assignments for Tuchel, mainly involving opposition analysis and scouting. Other jobs began to come along but Maric was not consciously using the blog as a means for his own advancement. “There was no market, I wouldn’t have known where to look. Sometimes I’d get a message asking me to do something, sometimes you didn’t receive any mail for five months. So I could never have lived from it. Occasionally someone would offer money and I’m like: ‘Yeah, sure, I’m studying, €200 for talking about football is a small miracle.’”
But the work did come. Assignments arrived from Matthew Benham, owner of Brentford and Midtjylland, and then, finally, from Salzburg. At that point Rose was managing the under-18 side and had, like Tuchel, been attracted by the accuracy and depth of Maric’s analysis. They met several times, discussed tactics and training methods for hours, and then Maric decided to take the plunge. “I thought: ‘Hey, why don’t I just ask?’ We’d been talking about all sorts of things and then I asked: ‘Next season do you need an assistant coach?’ He said: ‘Yeah, let’s try.’ In the end it worked out pretty well.”
It is an understatement. Salzburg won the Uefa Youth League in 2016-17, the pair’s first season together, defeating Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Rose was quickly given the first-team manager’s job and Maric stepped up with him and last season they reached the Europa League semi-finals. Maric has taken to his hands-on role in a manner that has impressed everyone, although he is at pains to point out no one has wrenched him from a darkened study.
“In my life story they always say ‘the blogger’,” he says, referring to those misconceptions. “But I was coaching kids at Handenberg when I was 17. Then I coached them at amateur level, where my youngest player was 15 and the oldest was 44. Regardless of the level and the context, you need to know how to address players.
“Sometimes I meet guys who have a reputation for being old-fashioned and critical of the new generation of ‘laptop coaches’ and it’s a pretty nice talk. You have similar ideas. They might have said before we met: ‘He’s only about the tactics.’ And then I meet them and say: ‘It’s the players.’”
Salzburg were left devastated at their Champions League play-off defeat by Red Star Belgrade three weeks ago – their fifth reverse at that stage, with Maric comforting some of the players on the pitch – but cheered when they were drawn to face RB Leipzig in the Europa League two days later. They meet in Leipzig on Thursday. Red Bull has, put simply, well-publicised interests in both and the movement of players between the two clubs means several friendships will be rekindled. “We have a great squad even if players leave every summer,” Maric says. “New players of high quality arrive all the time, very big talents you can develop. It’s a privilege to work with them.”
Maric thinks it is “improbable” he would have progressed so quickly without the attention his writing brought, although he would have tried to work his way up through the Austrian system. He attributes his appetite for football debate to his Croatian roots. “People discuss everything, sometimes very aggressively; you have to explain yourself and that plays a part in your deeper thinking because you think: ‘If I just say this, someone will say it’s bullshit.’” As he grew up he developed his ideas by poring over the theories of Johan Cruyff and Ernst Happel. He still considers himself to be, in essence, the coach who started in the countryside.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the top level or amateur level,” he says. “If you have the feeling you helped another human being do better at something he enjoys, nothing could be nicer in this job.”