There are times when it looks more like ballet than football. One, two, three… the ball creates beguiling patterns as it is ferried around the pitch. Four, five, six… the players move in time to each other. Seven, eight, nine... the bewildered opposition chase shadows, unable to comprehend exactly what is happening until it is too late. Suddenly, the ball nestles in the back of the net. Another goal is added to the score.

That scenario is one you will no doubt be familiar with if you have spent any time watching the entertaining yet effective brand of football espoused in 2015 by the teams of Luis Enrique, Josep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli, the three nominees for the FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men's Football.

So what is the secret to their success? And what sets them apart? In seeking to answer those questions, sought the opinion of the experienced Juan Manuel Lillo, a man who has long championed possession football and who knows a thing or two about the three candidates. “They’ve all traced similar paths,” he said, before offering his views on the trio.

The inside view
The story starts in 1996, on the day when an Oviedo side coached by Lillo faced a Barcelona line-up featuring Pep Guardiola at the Estadio Carlos Tartiere. If the visitors were expecting a comfortable 90 minutes against one of the Spanish league’s lesser lights, then they were in for a nasty surprise. Though Barça eventually emerged 4-2 winners, it was a victory they had to work very hard for against a team determined to play them at their own cultured game.

After the final whistle had sounded, a suitably impressed Guardiola sought out the man responsible for Oviedo’s enterprising game-plan, an encounter that marked the start of a friendship that would change the face of the game.  

“I'm very fond of Pep and I feel very proud when I see what he has gone on to achieve,” commented the 50-year-old Lillo, whose coaching career has included stints with Real Sociedad, Millonarios of Colombia and Dorados de Sinaloa of Mexico. “He’s had great players under him, both at Barcelona and Bayern, but the tactical structure and organisation he pursues only enhances their skills and their ability to link up with each other. He’s made very good players even better.”

You have to look at how things happen, rather than base your explanation in terms of success or failure the whole time.

Juan Manuel Lillo on the shared philosophies of the three FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men's Football candidates

Luis Enrique also featured in that memorable game 20 years ago, scoring two of Barcelona’s goals. “I don’t know Lucho quite as well,” acknowledged Lillo, “but I’ve kept an eye on his work and what he’s achieved with Barcelona, his idea being perhaps to control games less, but to be in control in terms of the score. In some cases, the three forwards operate as a separate unit, though they know that the midfield, headed by Andres Iniesta, will create chances for them. They’re dominant in the way they play and even more so when it comes to results.”

Lillo’s links with Sampaoli are much more recent, the Spaniard having formed part of Chile’s coaching staff since last September, in the wake of their 2015 Copa America triumph. “One of his greatest assets is that he makes the absolute most of his training sessions, in response to the fact that he’s not able to work with his players every day,” said Lillo of the Roja boss. “He puts a lot of ground work in and he condenses all the key points needed to beat the opposition and spoon feeds it to his players so that they can take it all on board as quickly as possible.”

A shared philosophy
Having outlined the individual merits of the candidates for the 2015 FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men's Football, the authoritative Lillo moved on to the subject of why he believes the three coaches have pursued similar paths. “There’s a common pattern,” he explained. “All three like the game to be played on the ground rather than in the air. They believe that possession of the ball and having the team control it in a reduced space provides the organisation and stability they need to execute their game-plans.”

As far as Lillo is concerned, the manner in which the trio achieved success in 2015, with the UEFA Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup and the Copa America just some of the titles coming their way, was more important than the actual trophies themselves.

“Look at it this way,” he explained, “what would have happened if Alexis (Sanchez) had missed his penalty in the Copa America final against Argentina? We might not be sitting here talking about this. For me, the whole process would have been just as good, though others maybe wouldn’t see it that way. You have to look at how things happen, rather than base your explanation in terms of success or failure the whole time.

“That’s very important, and it’s what stands out about the three of them,” added Lillo, providing yet more insight on the trio before driving his point home, much in the same way that Bayern, Barça and La Roja do: “It’s all about increasing your chances of winning games and not just playing for the chance to win. It’s all about reducing how much luck comes into it, as far as is possible. That’s what it’s all about really. You look for the quickest way to win games. And if you look back through history, the teams who play better football have always won. And the teams who play better football are those who always go for the win.”

Three successful coaches who play the game the right way and play it to win. Deciding which of them will step up to the stage at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala is no easy task.