Early life and miscellaneous
Ruben Selles Salvador to give him his full name (yep, he’s literally called “Saviour”, read into that what you will) was born on June 15 1983 in Valencia. The Selles family are match-going Valencia fans; this included Ruben himself in his early years and his long-term ambition is to become Valencia manager one day.
In his teenage years he played on an amateur basis as a defender for various Valencia-based sides: Parreta CF, Burjassot CF and the University of Valencia team, which began as a university side before becoming a federated team. However, he decided early on that he wanted to go down another route, starting his coaching career at the age of 16 when he managed Parreta’s under-9s.
Selles began studying two years later, taking a BA in physical science and sport at the University of Valencia from 2001 to 2006. Later studies included a doctorate in sports sciences at the University of Valencia in 2007 and a masters in high performance in collective sports at INEFC in Barcelona from 2006 to 2009. His final project there was entitled Planning a Greek Super League soccer team (by this point he’d started work at Aris Thessaloniki as a fitness coach).
He picked up his UEFA Pro License at the age of 25, studying alongside one Carlos Corberan. In fact, the two studied together at university for five years so will know each other well.
Selles is Reading’s first Spanish manager and is actually quite the linguist, being able to speak four languages. Besides Spanish and English those languages also include Russian, which he picked up at Shinnik Yaroslavl, and Norwegian, which he learned at Stromsgodset:
“I feel that it is important to learn the language when moving to a new country. I want to do it, out of respect for the country I live in.”
Where he’s been in his coaching career so far?
Selles’ coaching career has taken him across seven countries, including his home nation of Spain and current one of England. Including Reading but not including Parreta CF, he’s been involved in some capacity at 13 clubs, and that’s usually been in some kind of assistant-manager position.
Selles has jumped around an awful lot in the first 15 years of his professional coaching career. His comment to Sky Sports - “I’ve always shown I’m willing to move in search of opportunity” - feels like quite the understatement. Certainly, his willingness to try new things and test himself in different environments can’t be faulted.
So what has he achieved in those 15 years?
Selles was part of the backroom team that got Qarabag to the group stages of the Champions League in 2017/18, making history in the process as they were the first Azerbaijani side to do so. That came at the expense of FC Copenhagen - a tad ironically as they’d go on to hire him in 2020. Copenhagen’s William Kvist said at the time of Selles’ arrival:
“We are in the process of putting the country’s strongest unit together around our team, and we have come a long way. With the hiring of Rubén, another piece has fallen into place, without us reaching our true goal yet.
“We have always had Rubén on our list of talented people we would like to have around the team. He has strong competences both on training ground and in his analytical work, and he has good international experience, for instance from Qarabag, where he was around the team that reached the UEFA Champions League group stage - unfortunately at our expense.”
That Copenhagen spell followed another one in Denmark - a successful period at Aarhus under manager David Nielsen, who’d previously worked with Selles at Norwegian club Stromsgodset. While Selles was at Aarhus, The Whites earned their best top-flight points tally (64, having previously not breached 50) and qualified for the Europa League.
Jakob Ankersen, one of Selles’ players at Aarhus, told The Athletic:
“It was pretty funny because when Ruben came, things just changed. The club hadn’t won anything in 25 years and it was always an up and down team. But when he came, he started with basic drills. He would work with the back four, teaching them when to push up, when to drop off, and working together in a compact shape.
“All this basic sh*t that people hate to do; but it’s really important. He just did it and didn’t care if these boring drills took 40 minutes or more. It had a really good effect and the tactical changes he installed were the reasons why the two years together were successful, and ended with us finishing in our best position in the 21st century.”
How did things go for him at Southampton?
Selles joined Southampton as first-team lead coach in the summer of 2022; although the move was primarily conducted by the club, he was the first choice of manager Ralph Hasenhuttl too. Selles hit the ground running at St Mary’s, being given a significant amount of authority and soon being highly regarded at the club.
He had a solitary match in charge as an interim boss in November 2022 after Hasenhuttl’s exit, overseeing a penalty shoot-out win over Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup before Nathan Jones took charge on a permanent but ultimately brief basis. When the Welshman was sacked in February 2023, Selles was given the job himself - initially again as an interim, earning a surprise 1-0 win at Chelsea, before getting the gig outright until the rest of the season shortly after.
That victory at Stamford Bridge would be Selles’ penultimate win of the season - the other coming two matches later at home to Leicester City. That latter result lifted Southampton off the bottom of the table for the first and last time under the Spaniard; relegation was confirmed via a 2-0 defeat to Fulham with two games to go.
Overall, his league record was grim: two wins, four draws and 10 defeats; 18 goals scored and 33 conceded. That’s not to mention a shock FA Cup defeat at home to Grimsby Town, who ran out 2-1 winners at St Mary’s.
Southampton podcaster Martin Sanders has a scathing view on Selles, who he referred to various times as “stubborn” in his summary for us on the former manager’s part-season spell in the dugout. Sanders is critical of Selles’ “one-dimensional way of playing” and use of the “failed ways of Hasenhuttl” (both managers adopted a 4-2-2-2 and high press), but he takes a particularly dim view on how Selles used Southampton’s January signings.
“Ruben was stubborn in his approach and failed to use the signings made in January. Tall striker Paul Onuachu was brought in and never used much by Selles. You had one of the best dead-ball takers in the division in James Ward-Prowse, and never once did Selles utilise him and tall Paul.
“Big money was spent in January, yet Selles failed to use any of these reinforcements how he should have. The board specifically bought players in January to give us a chance of staying up and ultimately he lost his job because he was so stubborn in his style of play.”
“We should have never given him the job and we should have taken it off him pretty quickly because he was absolutely clueless I felt. He had some good players at his disposal - we didn’t have a sh*t side, yeah we had a lot of young kids, but he could have got so much more out of that squad if he utilised the signings.
“We got relegated because he was stubborn and he failed to do anything different.”
It’ll be interesting to see how much of that comes through into Selles’ time at Reading. Is stubbornness an innate trait of his management or something specific to his Southampton spell which will be learned from?
It’s worth pointing out also how different the circumstances should be at Reading. Selles will have a pre-season for preparation and a blank slate to build from, rather than having to turn things around at a struggling club that had recently gone through two managers by the time he took over on a permanent basis.
What are his main qualities and traits that he’ll take into the Reading job?
Excluding the more character- and tactics-related aspects that I’ll talk about more further down, the big thing that jumps out from Selles’ overall coaching career is just how detail-oriented he is. We can see that from his impact at various places, starting with Neftci Baku in Azerbaijan. His agent Alexander Buberman said:
“When he was in Azerbaijan, the feedback I got was that the players made huge progress in performance. Straight away, he paid attention to the small details and was thorough in his work. He came to a new club but he wanted to educate himself. He always wants to progress.”
Selles followed that up by becoming chief data analyst (as well as being a coach) in 2014/15 at Norwegian club Stromsgodset, where he had a “very positive impression in a short time”, according to Norwegian outlet Drammens Tidende.
He was held in similarly high regard a few years later when at Danish club Aarhus. Lars Friis, who worked with Selles there, said:
“He is a coach who works very, very hard on the small details. He doesn’t want any form of coincidence on the pitch. He always has a clear direction and leaves nothing to chance.”
“He is deep into [analysis]. He is born and raised as an analyst, so he is out of that school and that’s clear when you work with him. He is great with video. He finds a lot of things by studying video and he makes small clips to help the players.”
Pierre Kanstrup, who played at Aarhus during Selles’ time there, echoed Friis’ thoughts in a 2018 article from local outlet Arhus Stiftstidende:
“He has brought a completely different football culture. Not that it is not professional here in Denmark, but he comes from an extremely professional environment where an incredible amount is required of each other. And he has brought that to AGF.
“There is neither time nor space to slack off on anything for training. You can do an exercise where you make 100 passes, and the 99 are just sitting in the cupboard, but if there is just one person who doesn’t do it, well, then it’s not good enough.”
We can also see that attention for detail in more specific ways too. Ralph Hasenhuttl, then Southampton boss, praised the set-piece work of his coach to The Athletic:
“Ruben is responsible for the set-pieces. I must say that in the last games, especially our defensive set-pieces, we have made progress. We have had a lot against us but we have won a lot of first touches. The most important thing is that defensively, we have that feeling everyone knows what they have to do and does the job in a good way.”
Aarhus striker Kasper Junker had a similar assessment of Selles’ impact on set-pieces:
“The analyses he makes of the opponents, their set-pieces and way of playing, always hit the spot. You could see that against FC Midtjylland, where he had spent several days analysing their set-pieces. And the plan he had laid out was perfect, because they weren’t really dangerous, and it must have been a very long time since that happened.”
Selles also carries his attention for detail into how he gives players feedback - led by evidence, not emotion, as explained by manager Nielsen:
“He is absolutely second to none in a number of ways. He has a determination and a willingness to actually help the players with everything, with preparation, with positioning. Everything.
“With Ruben, the players feel they have somebody who can always tell them why things did or didn’t go the way they wanted during games. When I was a player and the team played badly, managers would just say things like ‘that was terrible, you have embarrassed the fans’. There are still some managers like that.
“But what’s happened in recent years is all these young coaches have come through with an underlying plan and story for the games and this is where Ruben is exceptionally good. The players know they always go to him with questions. ‘Why did this happen? Why didn’t that happen?’ He is always able to give them an answer and that helps them in the games.”
What’s he like with youth development?
Selles has had youth roles at both Villareal and Valencia; he took charge of the latter’s Juvenil B side in 2020 before joining Copenhagen as assistant coach - a move he admitted at the time was too good to turn down. However, he left Valencia’s youth side top of the league after six wins, one draw and one defeat.
Shortly after joining Valencia’s youth setup in 2020 (a move he referred to as a homecoming after 12 years abroad), he spoke about the need for young players to take personal responsibility. Although the comments were made in Spanish (and translated using Google for this article), he specifically referred to the English phrase of “extreme ownership”.
“We work on a concept in English that is ‘extreme ownership’, which means having responsibility and owning everything we do and everything we can control. From the first day we are instilling it in the boys: they are responsible for who they are and for everything that surrounds them.
“It’s simple: whatever you can do well, you should do well. And everything that depends on you, you must do to the maximum. We believe that with this concept we can help children to become better people, of course, but also so that they can be better professionals.”
As it happens, Selles’ ability to develop young players was a factor in his appointment at Copenhagen. Then-manager Jess Thorup said:
“I know Rubén’s strong work from his former clubs, and he already knows the 3F Superliga really well. He also has international experience and has most recently worked at one of the very best academies in Spanish football. It also means a lot to us that he knows in depth the work of talented young players, where we have a lot along the way.”
And Selles has since spoken about his fondness for bringing through youth. In June 2022, while a coach with The Saints, he said:
“I love when you can create an environment with a lot of players from the academy, when a lot of lads are arriving to the first team and performing.
“A lot of the time it is about giving them the opportunity, not just about their quality. Sometimes we will prefer someone a little bit more experienced from the outside, somebody more exotic, but at the end of the day the boys that are educated in the academy and the young players that are coming from other clubs are hungry and sometimes have better abilities.”
What’s his character like?
Selles seems like a very amiable chap. The Athletic noted that he’s “been described as being warm and positive”, while the testimony of various players who know him backs that up too. In that same article, Aarhus’ Ankersen said:
“I really enjoyed having him. He was such a good guy. He was a friend to me but in a professional way. He always made sure we were focused in training but outside of it, we could talk and have fun. He would ask about your family and other things in your personal life.”
“You don’t usually go to your manager if it’s about family stuff; it’s pretty rare. But with the assistant coach, I think it’s really important to have a guy you can go to in difficult times, like when a family member is sick. You can always talk to Ruben and he understands. He is just so easy to talk to.”
While Southampton’s Oriel Romeu said:
“Players really like him and he’s got great football knowledge. Ruben has always been very close to the players since he arrived, having loads of chats in a good way, always trying to be proactive and always trying to cheer people up. So that’s why people respect him.”
Selles happens to be switched-on politically. In this interview with El Espanol, conducted in 2020 while he was at Valencia, Selles spoke about the complexities of coaching at “refugee club” Qarabag, which has an inherent political aspect due to being displaced during the Karabakh War.
What’s his playing philosophy?
As mentioned earlier, Selles has a similar outlook to Southampton predecessor Hasenhuttl, with both employing a 4-2-2-2 and high press when in charge of The Saints last season.
In practice, using that formation means width being provided by the full-backs, two defensive central midfielders protecting the back four, and two narrow attacking midfielders supporting a strike pairing. So what’s the relevance of the 4-2-2-2 for pressing football? Well, as The Coaches Voice explained:
“The 4-2-2-2 is a good shape from which a team can counter-press centrally, and also launch counter-attacks. This is because, without many movements or rotations, there should be significant numbers around the ball when possession is lost centrally.”
Selles outlined his preference for pressing high in this interview with Southampton shortly after his arrival last summer:
“Ralph is a coach that likes to be active with his team. Likes to defend really, really high. Likes to have a good defensive system to press high, to get the back four far away from the goalkeeper, to press the opponent, to get the ball back as quick as possible, so I would say we have a lot of common points with our philosophy.”
“Ralph is from the Red Bull philosophy, where you can find the organisation and the respect to the ball that you need, so I think we are in the same line.
If that seems a little gung-ho, Selles has more safety-first instincts too. Friis, a colleague at Aarhus, described Selles as a “big believer that it’s the defensive part that gives the victories”. That’s likely to come from Rafael Benitez, described by Selles as a “very organised” manager who has “always been a reference” - he was Valencia manager while Selles studied in the city. As Selles told The Telegraph:
“I didn’t have any network, no person that I knew who was connected with professional football. [But] if you want to be successful, you need to learn from the best and Rafa was the best. It took a little bit of time when I first started. Of course you were not allowed to watch. So you needed to sneak a little bit.”
Selles’ preference for high-pressing is generally at odds with Benitez’ more conservative approach. However, as The Athletic noted, there’s a similarity insofar as how compact Selles wants his side to be. He’s also learned from his experience at various clubs that have been up against it - more underdogs than dominant sides - which made him more pragmatic, as Friis explained:
“He’s got a strong philosophy on how he wants to defend and this is also because, as a coach, he knows you need to understand what kinds of jobs you are going to end up getting.”
“Also, with the kinds of jobs we had after that, we had to defend because they were fragile teams. If you concede a goal with a fragile team, then you are in trouble. So, you need to start somewhere.”
The bottom line
Having done all that research into Selles, I’ve got no doubt that he’s a coach with a lot of potential. He’s been highly praised by those he’s worked with at various clubs (particularly Aarhus and Copenhagen), he’s been headhunted various times and he has a wide range of experience. That’s not only in terms of where he’s worked, but also in the diversity of roles he’s taken up - starting as a fitness coach before later working in analysis, assistant management and then management outright.
But he’s still in the early days of his managerial career, and his time at Southampton was a stark reminder of how difficult the step-up to management can be. We’ve seen rookie managers fail in one place but excel elsewhere though - just think of Brendan Rodgers’ botched period at Reading which preceded his rise with Swansea City.
The question now is good a fit he is for Reading specifically. We’ll soon find out.