A doyen of coaching, albeit unintentionally so, Juan Manuel Lillo is regularly cited as an influential figure in the careers of many a player and coach, among them Paulo Bento, Domingos Paciencia, Jose del Solar and Sebastian Abreu.
Formerly in charge at Real Sociedad, Tenerife and Almeria, to name just some of the clubs on his CV, Lillo has an even higher-profile disciple in Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, whom he looks upon almost as a son.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, the Spanish coaching guru discussed his relationship with the Barcelona coach, his take on their success and the philosophy that has made him a role model for so many of his colleagues.
Thinking outside the box
The Basque-born Lillo is not your average football coach. Put a simple question to him and he will invariably come up with a surprising response. Ask him about his footballing influences, for example, and the nonconformist in him replies: “A lot of people will give you answers for that, but I can’t.
“I don’t have any lists,” he confessed. “My take on it is that you learn as you go along but that you don’t have any idea where from. If I had to name someone, I’d mention people that nobody has heard of, like Demetrio Tarradillos, who told me when I was 16 that I wouldn’t make it as a player but that I had a future as a coach. I could also mention [Cesar] Menotti, [Francisco] Maturana, [Angel] Cappa and [Jorge] Valdano, but I’m only giving names to avoid saying, ‘I don’t know’.”
That unconventional response provides an insight into Lillo's theory on the whole process of coaching and instructing: “I think we put too much emphasis on the teacher and never enough on the student. I don’t think there’s anything more to teaching than showing how it’s done. There’s a learning process for sure, and it’s the footballer who learns. And if there are some coaches who see themselves as teachers, then why don’t they teach everyone equally? Why are there some who always end up knowing more than others?”
Lillo’s career as a football educator began when he took charge of Salamanca at the age of 26. Within the space of three years he had taken them from Spain’s third tier to the top flight, with Lillo then moving on to coach Tenerife, Almeria, Real Sociedad and Real Oviedo. And it was during his time with the Asturian outfit that he made an acquaintance that would have a profound impact on his life.
“It was the end of a league game against Barcelona, in Oviedo. We’d lost 4-2 but we’d played well,” he said, taking up the story. “There was a knock on the door and in came Pep Guardiola, still in his kit. He asked me if I minded having a quick chat with him. How could I mind talking to the best midfielder in the history of the game? He told me he really liked how my team played and that he wanted to stay in touch. And what started out as a little professional thing turned into something much bigger.”
Friends for life
The two grew closer and closer as the years passed, so much so that thanks to Guardiola’s influence, Lillo almost landed the Barcelona job. “He was going to be director of football under Lluis Bassat, who was running for club president at the time and was the firm favourite to win. He said the coach’s job was mine if Bassat won. In the end [Joan] Laporta became president, but I think that shows you the huge respect we have for each other as professionals.”
Earlier the two had come together in Mexico, where Lillo had been appointed coach of Dorados de Culiacan and had asked Guardiola, who was in the twilight of his career, to join him. The two remained in contact when their brief professional association came to an end and, such is the understanding between them, that few are better placed than Lillo to explain the philosophy Guardiola has pursued at Barcelona, a philosophy the two men have shared for many years.
“It’s based on a structural approach that takes into consideration the needs of the game and the player,” explained Lillo. “In reality the concepts of technique, tactics, physical preparation, attack and defence all merge into one. People use these terms because it’s an uncertain world and they need to cling on to something solid. They want to have control in a world where there is none. We don’t base our work on that though. We look at the bigger picture.
“It’s complicated because life is complicated,” he added. “That’s why people really don’t know much about what goes on at Barcelona. For example, the theory’s always been that if you’ve got one player who does one thing well, then you need to put him alongside another who does a different thing well. That doesn’t make sense though, because that’s breaking things up, not putting them together. That’s why Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and Cesc [Fabregas] work so well together.”
Warming to his theme, Lillo had this to say: “When you go and watch one of Barça’s youth teams in action you’ll invariably see their players control the ball with one foot before hitting a pass with the other. That might seem like an insignificant thing but it has this massive butterfly effect, because if players control the ball with that foot, they need less touches to move the ball on, and that gives you greater vision, which means you can read the game better.”
As far as Lillo the footballing visionary is concerned, it is the footballing philosophy that underpins Guardiola’s side that makes them great, not their on-field success: “It’s only because we’ve got the benefit of hindsight that we come up with things like that. Pep could have lost games doing things exactly the same way. If Michael Essien had cleared the ball properly at Stamford Bridge [in the build-up to Iniesta’s winning goal in the second leg of Barcelona’s 2009 UEFA Champions League semi-final against Chelsea], Barça wouldn’t have won the title that year and maybe the team we know now would be different.
“Luck plays a huge part in it all,” he continued. “What counts is the process, not the results. A coach should always be judged on the process he pursues.”
When his legacy as a coach comes to be judged, Guardiola has both the results and the process to back him up. Lillo has had much to do with that, and with the success of many other coaches. And that in itself is worthy of recognition.