The Brain in Spain
Juanma Lillo, mentor to Pep Guardiola, explains his thinking on clubs, coaching and why society is sick
The youngest man to ever coach in the Spanish First Division and the 'inventor' of 4-2-3-1, blessed of an inquisitive and inventive mind, Juanma Lillo has always been considered something of a fooballing philosopher — even by those critics who think that theory is one thing, reality another. This is the man that regularly turns the relationship upside down — a footballer manager berating journalists for using meaningless clichés. A man who loves a dialectic battle, boasts a library of 10,000 volumes and a complete collection of the world's foremost football magazines and newspapers, and talks at length on theories of complexity, he is a determined defender of an expansive footballing style, placing positioning over all else, especially brute force. It is a style given expression, many years later, by Barcelona and the Spanish national team.
To his lasting regret, Lillo never made it as a professional player — "I would, he says, "give it all back for 15 minutes on the pitch" — but he became a familiar face on the bench all over Spain. For a while at least. When he took over at Almería last season, it was a return to the First Division for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, he had been in Mexico, where he coached Pep Guardiola.
Actually, 'coached' is a rather inadequate word. Guardiola has never hidden his admiration for Lillo, describing him as the coach that, along with Johan Cruyff, had the greatest influence upon him. And when Lillo talks about Barcelona, he can't help talking about 'we'. He has guided Guardiola and, during his first months as Barcelona B coach, and then first-team manager, he unofficially helped prepare Guardiola's sessions. It could have been official once: when Lluis Bassat ran for the presidential elections in 2003, his sporting director was going to be Guardiola. The coach? Juanma Lillo. Bassat, though, lost. Six years would pass before Guardiola took over. Officially, Lillo had no role at all — even though his fingerprints were all over the project. But fate can be cruel and earlier this season, Lillo was sacked as Almeria coach after an 8-0 defeat.
To Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.
You once said that you understood why presidents sacked coaches, what you couldn't understand is why they hired them in the first place. Have you worked it out yet? What's a coach for? What is your role?
First, there is the question of your formal role. On a very basic level you choose who plays and who doesn't. Otherwise, who would do it? But beyond that, I wouldn't try to establish a role, given our limited importance. This is a game, played by players. Those [coaches] who have expressed their significance seem to want to claim some personal protagonism or status through others. Our role is less than many coaches realise or want to believe. That said, within those limitations there are things you can outline. First, though, you have to talk about the difference between a professional sphere and a formative sphere. You have to ask what is a coach? Some are more didactic, some have a desire for protagonism, some are orthodox, some aren't. Some are stimulated by competition, others by the game itself.
And in your case?
Bear in mind that I started very young. At 16 I was already a coach. I wasn't a player and that has obliged me to be closer to my players, to seek complicity. That alters your outlook. I wanted to be a player, that's the thing. My vocación [vocation] with a 'V' was being a player; my bocación [from boca, mouth] with a 'B' is being a coach: I'm a coach to feed myself. All coaches are amalgams of things but I consider myself didactic. I want to facilitate players gaining a consciousness about what they are and what they are doing. It's not just about the game; it's about people. It is about everything. Nothing can be de-contextualised. How you live, what you are, what importance you give to relationships, to behaviour, to interaction… all of that effects how a team plays. In our society, there are loads of teachers but few educators, few facilitators. As [the Spanish philosopher and writer] Francisco Umbral said, every day people are better qualified, but less educated. People have MBAs, or an MBB, an MBC — but they can't cross the road, still less have the empathy to see things from the point of view of others. Academia is trying to turn us into machines. As far as my work is concerned, empathy is vital. A person performs better in any working environment in a good atmosphere than in a bad one. You have to make players conscious of things that maybe he can't see. Not least because these days playing in a team is harder and harder…
Because society is not set up like that; society drives you towards individualism. Football is a collective sport; you have to treat it as such. Everyone has their own way of being, you encourage relationships, association. To do that, you have to make sure there's the smallest possible difference between what you do and what you say. You have to be porous: can you listen? Can you direct? There are three types of authority: formal authority, technical authority and personal authority. I don't want formal authority, via someone else's power, the position of 'coach' or 'boss'. Authority is not something you impose; it is something that is conceded to you by those with whom you interact. I want to try to encourage self-discovery among players, dialogue and understanding. It is complex and shifting. You orientate people rather than order them. You balance, you adapt, you listen. Human beings are open; there is no answer that definitively closes any debate. It's not just that what works with one player doesn't work with another; it is that what worked with one player doesn't work with the same player at a different time and under different circumstances.
In practical terms, what does your work entail? The first day you turn up at a club, what do you do?
The first thing I do is have a personal meeting with every player. I turn up with loads of information and data about them. I want to confirm that information, verify it and challenge them with it. What does he think when he hears that? You can't be more open or honest than to tell a player what you have been told about him. I could keep that information to myself and establish a prejudice, but I don't. There's no greater act of sincerity than to tell a player what prejudices, what pre-established thoughts, I have about them. We all have prejudices — both good ones and bad ones. I show them mine, looking them in the eye. The next day, I tell the whole group. I show them what they think of themselves and the team, I hold up a mirror. Often you learn the most from their self-perception… I speak to people who know players, who have shared a dressing-room with them, who have coached them. If I can talk to their parents, so much the better. Then you have to know how to use that information.
In footballing terms, how do you set up your teams? The obvious, if simplistic, thing is that a coach gets to a club and thinks: who is my right-back, who is my left-back, who is my central midfielder and so on… ?
In my case, it's not like that. When you get a to a team 80 percent or more is already constructed; you have to see if you're going to clash a lot with what is already there… you have to go and learn from the players, not the other way round. Everything has to work together, amongst them. My mentality is interaction and relation. If you say, "let's evaluate the right-back", I say, "but who's alongside him? Who is in front of him? Who is nearest to him?"
You've said before that there is no such thing as attack and defence?
Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball? How can one exist without the other? But people need to communicate, so there is a reduction of concepts, a simplification. I understand that. The thing is, you have to be able to reduce without impoverishing. And that goes for everything. You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again. You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance, a rejection from the organism. How can you gain strength for football outside of football? If you run over there, what you are training for is running over there, not playing football. If you run you're going to get healthier because, fuck, it's healthy to run. But that doesn't mean you're going to be a better footballer if you approach it out of its context…
But doesn't the running help?
By making you healthier, yes. And if that helps you psychologically, then great. Maybe if you feel better, stronger, faster, you relate better to others on the pitch. Football is associative, combinative. But just running does not necessarily make you better.
Surely a fast player is still useful for football in a way that he wouldn't be if he wasn't so fast?
If he knows how to use it. And what is speed in football? We could be here for hours answering that. The concept of speed that people have in football is actually a concept from individual sports. It is a concept of transition — of something, in this case a footballer, going from here to there. He runs fast… so Usain Bolt would be a footballing phenomenon.
But isn't that a deliberately obstructionist argument? He doesn't have football talent, sure. But within the realms of football a fast player can be useful. You put your former Almería player Albert Crusat alongside Carles Puyol and make them sprint for a ball, for example, and Crusat will get there first…
Of course, but does Crusat know whether to make the run at the right time for that ball? There have been movements prior to the pass; you can't simply isolate the race between the two. He has qualities that give him an advantage over Puyol but to employ that advantage he has to know that he has it and know how to use it — and have teammates who know how to facilitate that for him. Alone, he is nothing. We all need everyone. The Bolt analogy isn't stupid. Because speed alone — expressed as the rapidity with which a person moves from one place to another — is worthless, it does not exist. There are so many tactical parameters, concepts of the game, and all of it is conditioned by an awareness of the qualities you have, the interaction of the players, the opponent.
Is the example of that Cristiano Ronaldo? He is very fast but there are times when teams deny him the chance to use that speed, preventing him going one-on-one against certain players, or closing the space into which to run…
…Ah, but you're establishing a cause-effect relationship. They don't exist, so…
Why don't they exist? They have to, don't they? At least at a conceptual level, in terms of methodology? Surely all football teams are at least trying to do something in order to provoke something else. If you are doing this — the cause — you are trying to create a goal — the effect? Isn't denying the existence of any cause-effect relationship ultimately a way of saying, "Sod it, it's all fortune"? Surely your job seeks to cause certain situations?
Yes, yes. I try to create a team that self-configures…
Isn't that cause-effect?
No. If I go from here to there, I am thinking of going from here to there. But that's all. I don't know what I am going to find en route. Cause and effect do not, in themselves, exist. It cannot be isolated like that; people shirk theories of complexity but that is true. How do you know that the cause was not an effect of something from before, and that the effect is not going to cause something else — in the context of countless other variables? I think the problem is that people always want to separate things. It's as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them. Things that sometimes are not even conscious. "I do this because of that"? No.
Ok, so in purely footballing terms…
Nothing is purely anything… nothing.
Ok, talking about the playing side of the game, what happens with the ball on the pitch? What do you look for? You defend a very specific type of football…
I defend the type of game that brings me closest to victory…
Sure, but you try to win with a style that is constructed around the ball…
Of course. Without the ball there would be no game. It's football.
But there are many coaches who do not lay so much importance by the ball…
Yes, they do build their teams around the ball — we all have to do everything according to the ball; it's the central actor. Without the ball there is nothing; the ball is the mother, the source of life in football. What's the goal there for? For the ball to go in it. Without the ball, nothing has any meaning. But, yes, there are some coaches who do not build their team around having the ball.
"Pragmatic", they call it. But you would argue that your approach is pragmatic too. You also want to win…
Also? No. Above all else. What a coach does is attempt to increase the index of probability when it comes to winning a match. As a coach all you can to is deny fortune as much of its role as you possibly can. Football has shown loads of times that without even crossing into the other team's territory once, you can still win 1-0. Arsenal were 1-1 against Barcelona and they had not had a single shot at goal. We work in an activity where there are many variables and chance is one of them. You can defend to the death and shoot every time you get the ball, but all there are are shots. There's no play.
You mention winning 1-0 without shooting: unjust?
The word justice is one I struggle to use in almost any area of life. Undeserved, yes. Improbable, very improbable — but it can happen. Justice is too strong.
But should football have something beyond the result? Is there a moral component?
Any human activity has a moral component. When we say that what matters is the result, it's a lie. It is precisely those [coaches] that talk only about the significance of the result that offer up excuses when they don't win. You catch the best excusers easily. Someone who sells results, sells smoke [vender humo in Spanish means to hide the reality by 'selling' an imaginary product, by talking without substance, being a charlatan].
So does it annoy you that there are coaches like that?
No. What does bother me is when they sell falsehood. It bothers me that their allies are in the media, that 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.
Isn't that normal, though? You take a result and then try to explain it…
That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill. Take what you're doing now, which is much more healthy: you value what you're doing now more than the number of copies you're going to sell. It's the activity that moves you, not the end result. You have to listen to me, transcribe it, care for it, type it, edit it… you're going to do so many things en route that the route, the journey, is the goal. That's one of the things I like to project to the players: the journey is the goal, the objective.
But you said your aim is to win…
But the objective is the journey, the process; the work matters. In a race you can be first, miles and miles ahead of anyone else, and then, metres from the line, fall over. And? Are you going to write that race off? You ran brilliantly. And it's far more complex than saying: win, good; don't win, bad. In the 18th century, scientists came across the complexity of things and found that so many of the things that they had simplified and understood were not like that. Things were impossible to prove, so they started to commit suicide. The smallest variation could change everything, it's chaos theory. You can't know every detail or have a definitive answer. Nothing is fully perceptible. The reality is that nothing is real.
But if the aim is to win…
Yes. But what enriches you is the game, not the result. The result is a piece of data. The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that's enriching. Fulfilment comes from the process. You debate the game not the results. Results are not debatable, they are. Do you buy a paper on a Monday morning for a euro and the only thing in it is list after list of results? Do you go into a football stadium, in the last minute of a game, have a look at the scoreboard and leave? You watch 90 minutes, which is the process.
So are we wrong to judge the process based on the results, even though the process intends to achieve the result?
You can't validate the process through the results. Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly. The media does that. And beyond the possibility that maybe you don't have the capacity to judge whether the methodological process is the correct one, it's flawed to judge on those grounds. The same process can have very different effects; and sometimes the same effects come from totally different 'causes'. Bayern Munich are a great team in the 90th minute [in 1999] when they are winning the Champions League and in the 92nd minute they're rubbish. How can that be? That moment, given the huge dimension of everything that went with it, serves to illustrate this point and so much more besides. I remember the fourth official leaning to his right to hold back the Bayern players who were ready to run on the pitch and celebrate… and a moment later, leaning to his left to hold back the United players who were ready to run onto the pitch and celebrate. All that in a minute. The thing is, después del visto todo el mundo es listo: everyone's a genius after the event. I call them prophets of the past. And yet they are wrong to even evaluate the process in the light solely of how it came out in the end and, on top of that, to keep imposing demands.
Has the environment around the game changed?
Yes, the garnish has eaten the steak. There's more pressure, more of what was peripheral has become central. Societies are being transformed and that is felt in everything. With every passing day, people spend less time on their life and more time on other people's, because their own life is frightening. New technology allows self-delusion to be easier than it has ever been before.
Let's get onto the specifics of your football preparation. You invented 4-2-3-1 at Cultural Leonesa in the early nineties. Why?
We look at the past through our present so I can't be sure I am accurately reflecting now what I was seeking to achieve then. I can't remember what I felt at the time but I wanted the players ahead of the ball to have more mobility and to be closer to the opposition goal. I wanted four attackers but with a rational occupation of space. We pushed very, very high, winning the ball near their goal. I basically wanted three media puntas. I was trying to create a spatial distribution, influenced by the type of players I had, that would work. And for years, everyone used it. I think it is a good system. But I am sure, if you look at the behaviour of players rather than the names applied to systems, that someone had tried it successfully a thousand years before — maybe a 4-4-2 with a striker a little deeper and wingers pushing up looks the same. The thing is, there's an obsession with creating names for things, tags. So I gave it the name 4-2-3-1.
You mention spatial distribution. For you, the key is positioning, isn't it? What kind of things does that entail?
Yes. I believe in a game of position because it strengthens the relationship between the players in the team. That means, for example, fixing opposition players' positions, trying to develop numerical superiority in key spaces on the pitch, eliminating certain areas, facilitating certain actions, equipping yourself to have solutions and alternatives. I like players to receive on the foot furthest away, to open the pitch, to seek lines of passes.
Is that work individualised? Do you think: 'right, I'll get my left-winger one-on-one versus their full-back'?
No. People who sell that image are lying. Because you don't play individually, you play within a context of a team. If a player gets the ball in his own area, the opposition players all sit down on the turf and he runs the whole length of the pitch, dribbling round them and scores a goal… that's still not an individual act because if they don't sit down, he can't do that. What the other guy does is what imposes upon you this decision or that one. People talk about "individual actions", but there are not individual actions.
But doesn't a team work in order to strengthen certain individual traits in certain areas of the pitch and certain players? Don't Barcelona work in order to create a space in which Messi, for example, can run at a full-back that Guardiola has identified as being weak on a certain side…
Up to a point, yes, but you can't predict human behaviour. You can see that if Messi receives the ball in certain spaces he's dangerous. But that's conditioned by who he receives it from and when, whether his last move came off or not, what his emotional context is, how the opponents react. Positional play, which I work on, allows you to try to provoke certain situations, for sure. But it's more important that you have the intelligence, the culture, to know how to interpret what is happening, to adapt, to understand, and that you are able to seek the solution that gives your team the greatest advantage.
So, the best players are the most intelligent.
In any area of life, without intelligence nothing else has any value. Often it is more important where you apply strength than the strength itself, for example. If you try to lift a rock with a crowbar, whether or not you can lift it depends on where you apply the pressure, how you leverage it, not how strong you are. If you don't know where to stick the crowbar, it doesn't matter how strong you are.
Do you build certain moves, though?
Always. But more than moves, you establish a series of relationships through repetition. You try to create a situation in which the players are conscious of their options. The move is not always the same, the opponent changes. That's why I talk about culture; you need to understand. You know that for liquid, a deep, round bowl is useful, and a spoon too. For a steak, you need a flat plate and a sharp knife and a fork. But you need to know whether what they are putting in front of you is a soup or a steak in the first place. You need to recognise what you are faced with before you can judge which tools to use. Another example: people mistake a map with the territory. I know where I have to go to get home; I've even got a SatNav to help me to do it. But that's the map not the territory. That doesn't tell me if there are road works, or if a dog runs out in front of me. That's what I mean by culture: you have to know how to react, when to brake, when to swerve. The map shows you where you are going, the route you can take, but not how to get there. If you hit that dog and career off the road, then what? What really matters is the relationship of space and time.
So, how do you equip players for that?
Between us we construct a common language through which we understand what we are doing. Often that language is not even conscious; it is an understanding. But even without a coach that happens; when you are a kid, you learn that when certain situations arise you are better doing certain things. It's interactive, always. And it's often slow, unknowing: real change is the change that's imperceptible. Look at a photo of yourself 10 years ago — you're different, but you never knew that change was happening. You're different now to the person you were when we started this interview, but you don't know it and you couldn't identify the change. I actually try to make sure that a player doesn't have a pre-established plan, because it might be that it is of no value. If you isolate variables and maximise one thing, you minimise the other. If you focus on a player being fast, you subconsciously weaken his ability to do other, equally necessary things. That's not a good idea: humans are constructed as a complimentary network of qualities, not a hierarchical pyramid of them.
So, do you never do work that is aimed, for example, at strengthening a player?
If he had the need to, yes. But so long as he understands that he is doing it to help him play better, not to be stronger. He has to have strength for football, not strength full stop. What do I care how much he can bench press? I care if he can play. I train people so that they can play better not so that they can run more. It's a footballing preparation.
Let's try to put a name on your style, then. Who are the players you most like now?
Those that play best are those that best interpret the game and can offer solutions that benefit the team. For me, there's no one like [Andrés] Iniesta. He receives, he passes, he interprets, he evaluates the necessities of the team, he is constantly adapting. He could be a goalkeeper, he is so aware. Messi produces the best jugadas [moves, runs] in the world, but Iniesta is the best jugador [player]. And that's the word: play, it is a game, in which many people are involved; your ability depends on relating to them too. Understanding stands at the heart of it. It's not a list of qualities: fast, strong, whatever.
There must be cases of players who can understand but can't play? Players who see a pass but don't have the technical ability to play it. Then what?
That doesn't really happen. Qualities go together. Naturally, you see the passes you can make; if you can't make them, you stop seeing them. You're calling it technical ability but what you really mean is 'execute well'. If a guy executes a pass badly, his ability to see it shuts down; his organism alters. Ronald Koeman could see a teammate, [Hristo] Stoichkov, 70 metres away. Why do you think he could see it? Just because he could see it or because he knew that with his foot he could reach it? A guy who knows that he can place a ball 75 metres, opens up his perspective to do that. It's not even conscious. It is, though, a product of what you are, what you have been, your evolution and your context. You think even when you don't know you're thinking. People said Hugo Sánchez, who used to finish his chances off with one touch, finished "without thinking". But he had spent his whole life thinking about that play! It was natural, a part of his whole. As I say, it's not a list of qualities. If you're a great 'dribbler' but you don't know when to dribble, you not actually a great dribbler. People look at football like Jack the Ripper: let's do this in parts. No. We have lost the capacity for syncretism. And yet the reality is syncretic. 'Modern' coaches take things apart and put them back together again but that's anti-natural. Without our context we are not what we are. We are not a list of attributes. My aim is not to fracture and break apart what should be together, not to de-contextualise. And that's the oldest approach on earth.