Juan Manuel Lillo: The finest coach Guardiola ever had

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 29, 2018

“You know, football is full of philosophers,” Jose Mourinho once said. “It’s full of people who understand much more than me. It’s full of people with fantastic theoretical philosophies. But the reality is always the reality.”

Mourinho spoke with the intention of both defending his own methods and derogating those of football’s idealists. But, to Juan Manuel Lillo, the Portuguese’s comments would have been viewed as a compliment.

For Lillo, the abstract is more important than reality. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a philosopher. Coaching, for Lillo, is as much a process of thinking, contemplating, ruminating, as it is instructing.

He has always been a coach. From the age of 16, with Amaroz KE, he stood on the sidelines, nascent ideas beginning to form in a mind stimulated by football. Lillo was never a player, though, and he has admitted he regrets that. “I would give it all back for 15 minutes on the pitch,” he once said.

In the early 90s, at Cultural Leonesa, Lillo was credited with creating the 4-2-3-1 system. Here was an innovator, a pioneer, not yet out of his 20s and already laying the foundations that would later influence some of the game’s best coaches.

It was clear early on that Lillo was different. Others began to take notice. César Luis Menotti, the Argentine idealist and romanticist who, like Lillo, was known as a cerebral and erudite coach, professed his admiration for the Spaniard. “I’ve met someone madder than us,” he told compatriot Jorge Valdano, “who talks about playing football the right way.”

The right way was, to Lillo, the way of aestheticism. Technique over athleticism. Guile and creativity over brawn and physicality. But, even to a man like Menotti, Lillo’s outlook was unconventional. “I don’t visualize attack and defence. I don’t think either of them exists,” Lillo said in a 2016 interview with ESPN. “The game is the game as it is, and you have to do different things during the game. Some plays happen with the ball, and others without the ball. If defence existed, I don’t see a better way to defend than with a very good initiation of the game that permits a natural order among the players through correctly starting a play from the back.”

This was a typically calculated, thought out comment. Lillo has, since his early days as a coach, sought to look beyond the obvious, the tangible in football. His belief is that everything is simplified, that football is viewed, incorrectly, throughout the world as a sport dictated by a set formula or by the nuance of a tactical setup. Lillo insists that “you can’t know every detail or have a definitive answer. Nothing is fully perceptible. The reality is that nothing is real”.

Inevitably, his attempts to articulate his thoughts have been viewed by some as overly didactic. Philosophy served him well away from the pitch, but on it, his discourse was forgotten. When Lillo was sacked by Almeria in 2010 after an 8-0 defeat against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, it was his fifth dismissal with as many La Liga clubs. He had not, and still has not, spent longer than four years with any of the numerous clubs he coached.

Lillo became the youngest coach to reach Spain’s top flight when he guided UD Salamanca to promotion in 1995 at the age of 29. A year later he was sacked and moved on. From 1996 to 2000 he coached Real Oviedo, Tenerife and Zaragoza, but he was dismissed by all three.

There was inevitable criticism. Some labelled him a “bluff”, others decried his rhetoric as condescending and supercilious. His intelligence was used against him. It was an example of football’s inherent anti-intellectualism: Lillo, who had a library of over 10,000 football magazines and newspapers, who preached the importance of thinking, was called out as a pretender. He later admitted that it got to him; he was sensitive and unprepared for such a rejection of his principles. But he was undeterred. He left Spain and headed for Mexico: a fresh start.

It was there, while at Dorados de Sinaloa in 2005, that Lillo coached Guardiola, who had headed to Central America in the twilight of his playing career. The Catalan had met Lillo years earlier, when the latter was at Oviedo. Guardiola, then at Barcelona, had introduced himself and the two discussed tactics and ideas.

Lillo was enamoured. He could see already the makings of a talented coach. Though Guardiola joined Dorados in 2005 as a player, it was effectively five months of study. He and Lillo spoke daily, challenging each other, exchanging ideas. For Lillo, it was paradise. He has spoken regularly of the importance of educating, of making “players conscious of things they can’t see”. And here he was: a mentor, a teacher, passing on his ideas to a man who would go on to achieve unprecedented success. “He was the best coach I ever had,” Guardiola said of Lillo. The “maestro”, he called him.

For Lillo, Guardiola’s development as a coach has provided more satisfaction than any success or trophies ever could. The game, as Lillo has repeatedly bemoaned, is about more than victory, about more than the end result.

“When we say that what matters is the result, it’s a lie,” he said in a revealing interview with the Blizzard in 2011. “Journalism analyses everything via success — and as a result, journalism always wins. The analysis, the reports, are carried out via success so they’re always right. No one is looking at the process except through the prism of a result. That’s hugely opportunist. And wrong. That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill. The objective is the journey, the process; the work matters. What enriches you is the game, not the result. Fulfilment comes from the process. You debate the game not the results.”

For Juanma Lillo, football has always been about far more than winning and losing.

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