Ex-Barcelona Coach Praises Mkhitaryan, Team Armenia
YEREVAN (FIFA.com)—Armenia’s recent rise on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was indebted to their late surge in FIFA World Cup qualifying, which saw them finish just three points adrift of second-place Denmark in European Zone Group B. In May 2013, the Havakakan were down in 90th on the global ladder, but have since risen to their highest-ever position of 30th.
Raymond Verheijen, who helped prepare the side for the Brazil 2014 preliminaries in an assistant coach role in 2012, spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the country’s rise and the future prospects for the Eastern European side.
Verheijen is renowned as an esteemed coach, having worked with Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City as well as the Russia, Netherlands and Wales national sides. He departed Armenia in September 2012, but kept a watchful eye out as the team impressed.
“When I joined they had a relatively young coach (Vardan Minasyan was 35 when appointed in 2009) and there were some similarities with Wales and Gary Speed,” Verheijen said. “Young coaches are often open-minded. Because of this and the whole environment I thought it would be good. The other reason was that they have a very talented young squad.”
One member of that talented squad caught Verheijen’s eye and, given the Dutchman’s pedigree, he paid Borussia Dortmund’s No10 quite a compliment.
“Their top player is undoubtedly Henrikh Mkhitaryan,” he said. “He is one of the best midfield players I have ever worked with. I have worked with some very good midfield players, but the speed of his actions is very good.”
Mkhitaryan scored three goals in Armenia’s qualifying campaign and became his young country’s leading all-time marksman in the process. Their group was incredibly tight, with three points separating four teams behind winners Italy. Verheijen saw several positive factors in the side’s efforts.
“In general I was not very surprised they came very close to qualifying for the World Cup play-offs,” he said. “Their young squad was definitely behind that but they also had a very equal group. There were a lot of draws and one of the strengths of Armenia is the counter-attack, which is good away from home. They beat Denmark 4-0 away and also did really well to draw 2-2 in Italy.”
Minasyan vacated the reins following the campaign, and Verheijen saw a lot of potential in the former Armenia international, whose spell at the helm was the longest of any Havakakan coach.
He said: “I think as a first step it would be good to broaden his horizon in the eastern part of Europe. Maybe Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, somewhere there before he makes the final step to Western Europe. I think it would be good to do that gradual development.
“Although he’s very young, he’s calm and stable which is beneficial for decision-making, and obviously he was a good player so he has knowledge and experience of the highest level. I predict a bright future for him as long as he gets the opportunity. I wasn’t surprised he left though – I think it was time for him to move on.”
Armenia eye breakthrough qualification
Verheijen has worked at major tournaments himself, as part of Korea Republic’s backroom staff at three successive World Cups (2002, 2006 and 2010) as well as assisting the Netherlands (2000 and 2004) and Russia (2008 and 2012) at the UEFA EUROs. With Armenia pitted against Portugal, Denmark, Serbia and Albania in qualifying for EURO 2016, will the side be lining up in France in two years’ time?
“I think they could make the finals,” said Verheijen. “While Portugal will be number one, Armenia have already proven that they can get close to Denmark. Serbia were in the same group as Wales in the last qualifying group, and I’ve seen them play a few times and I don’t think that Serbia are a lot better than Armenia.
“So I definitely think they will be in third position, to qualify for the play-offs, and maybe even reach the second place. A lot depends on the new national team coach.”
While the new Armenia coach is yet to be determined, Verheijen is adamant that his focus lies on other projects for the foreseeable future.
“One day I will go back into coaching again, maybe in five or ten years – my advantage is that I’m only 42. Although I did all the World Cups and the EUROs, I’m still very young.
“In the meantime my priority is to develop the World Football Academy, working together with our ambassador Guus Hiddink. It’s very satisfying to work with the next generation of coaches and coaches in smaller countries, to share my experience with them.”
Despite his lack of desire to go back into club or international coaching, the former Wales caretaker and Barcelona coach revealed some of the techniques that he implemented during his time as assistant with Armenia and continues to teach around the world today – one of which he labels ‘football braining’.
He explained: “It is football brain training – training your brain in a football context. The percentage of your potential that will be used in the game is determined by your brain. If you can control your thoughts then you will use much more of your potential than when your thoughts are distracted by external factors. It’s all about controlling your thoughts.”
If Armenia can keep their minds focused on the task in hand during the upcoming EURO 2016 qualifying campaign, under the tutelage of a new coach and with star man Mkhitaryan pulling the strings, then they could reach greater heights on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.