Third time lucky for KAA Gent and Trond Sollied?

In football, they say never go back. Trond Sollied, however, is returning to KAA Gent for the third time and on this occasion, everyone hopes that he will hang around for longer than one season. The now 52-year old was plucked from his native Norway back in December 1998 after winning the Norwegian league in his first season as head coach of Rosenborg. Sollied moved to the Oslo giants after an impressive five-year stint with Bodø-Glimt, which included promotion from the second-tier, a second-placed finish the year after, a cup win and another top-three finish. Indeed Sollied was player-manager until 1993 and the defender helped the club emerge from the dark days of the 1980s when they were playing third tier football.

Sollied was an instant hit in Oost-Vlaanderen, as he delivered a third place in his first season, finishing behind Anderlecht and Club Brugge and securing a UEFA Cup spot. A considerable improvement for a side who had finished eighth in the table in the previous two seasons and fourteenth before that – indeed Gent had not been in the top six since 1992. De Buffalo’s were thankful to one of Sollied’s countrymen, who had the best season of his career – Ole Martin Årst. Årst had been allowed to leave Anderlecht after 11 goals in two seasons and it was very much Gent’s gain as he netted 30 times – earning him the title of joint top-scorer alongside Westerlo’s Toni Brogno. The exploits of the two Norwegians did not go unnoticed and both would leave the Jules Ottenstadion – Årst moved south to Standard Liège while Sollied switched to Club Brugge.

The move to West Vlaanderen most certainly did not go down well but though Årst would not return to the club, save as an opposition player. Sollied was lured back in 2007. His second period at the club was somewhat less fruitful and indeed it was doomed from the beginning. Gent were in search of a new head coach after current Belgian national-team boss Georges Leekens brought three progressive years to an end and left for Lokeren.

Although Sollied was coming to a stronger Gent, which had established itself as a subtopper, he could only manage sixth spot in the league. The season was not a complete write-off though as he ensured that they qualified for European competition, after they lost 3-2 in a thrilling cup final to Anderlecht. However, at the outset both parties knew that should a suitable offer from abroad arrive, that Sollied would be on his way again and indeed the Gent hierarchy had to convince him in the first instance to delay his foreign adventure. And sure enough, when the call from Heerenveen came, Sollied was on his bike.

Ivan De Witte made it clear that there were few Belgian options on the market (Enzo Scifo no? ;)) and so the club had to look abroad. They chose the path of working with someone whom they knew intimately and so arrived at Trond Sollied, who left Lierse having just about succeeded in keeping the 1997 champions in the top flight amidst a great deal of controversy involving naming an ineligible player in the matchday squad.

Sollied is a coach with a proven track record in both Belgium and abroad. In a five year spell with Club Brugge, he won two league titles and two cups although curiously not both in the same season. He tasted success in Greece with Olympiacos, winning the title with a side that included fading superstar Rivaldo and while he was fired in his second season at Heerenveen, he recovered from a shaky start that included a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Twente to defeat the Tukkers in the final of the KNVB Beker – the club’s only major national trophy in their history.

The Norwegian coach is a loyal disciple of the 4-3-3 system, in which he employs a triangle in midfield, with one player just in front of the back four. This figure is particularly important as the full-backs operate virtually as wing-backs. A fan of versatile players, he also calls his centre-backs “his policemen” and demands that they take no prisoners. Sollied also likes to have two players wide of a strong central striker but not two out-and-out wingers as his aim is to have five players in the penalty box at the moment the ball comes into the dangerzone. Despite having delivered results throughout his career, he is also a coach who believes the style of football is important.

Upon his appointment, Sollied reiterated his commitment to a relaxed approach regarding discipline, for which he is famous (although it was a contributory factor towards his firing from Heerenveen), saying:

“The only rule is that there are no rules.”

However, this may be difficult to achieve for there are a lot of big personalities in the Gent dressing room, with whom Dury had difficulties in dealing. Sollied maintains however that it would be an error to introduce any new rules and that so long as the players show respect for each other, everything will run smoothly. He prefers to trust the players to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner and hope that they will repay his leap of faith.

Do not though be lured into a false sense of complacency about the calibre of Sollied as a coach. His philosophy is not naive and he does not just simply tell the players to go and play as they so wish. Sollied is a coach who places great importance on training, in order to drill his somewhat unique playing style into his charges but one who also employs a scientific approach, as two of his former players revealed. Rivaldo had this to say:

“The training sessions of Sollied are hugely beneficial, comparable with those at AC Milan. He would not be out of place at an absolute top club.”

And Geert Verheyen, who played under Sollied at Club Brugge, says that the guidance of the Norwegian enabled the player, who was never known for being blessed with the greatest amount of natural talent, make the most of his ability:

“Most coaches told me to play according to intuition but Sollied was the only one who used almost mathematical methods to teach me where to run and how to open up and exploit space. As a result, I became a more effective player.”

This time, Sollied is walking into a very different KAA Gent. The club are a safe bet to be in and around the upper echelons of the league, if not yet quite on the level of Anderlecht or Standard. The squad boasts several fine players such as the dynamic Yassine El Ghanassy, the experienced Bernd Thijs and Ivorian attacker Yahya Soumahoro to name but three. This will be their last season in the Jules Ottenstadion, which Sollied deems too small for a club of their stature.

The critical question is of course whether Trond Sollied will stick around long enough and it has not been an elephant in the room for the club have tackled it head on. The intention is that Sollied spends two initial seasons before assessing things thereafter, such a period of time would constitute his longest in Gent. From the club’s point of view, it is to be hoped that the affable Sollied, who always tries his level best to communicate in Dutch, honours his word. Can we really believe him? Only time will tell as despite having spent eight years in Belgium, no-one still knows who Trond Sollied really is.

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