Almeyda: I'd love to experience another World Cup
Matias Almeyda has coached in his native Argentina, Mexico and now USA
Former Argentina midfielder has revitalised the fortunes of San Jose Earthquakes
He discusses his philosophy, management and the Bushido Samurai code
Despite Matias Almeyda's coaching career still being in its infancy, he has already earned a reputation for reviving struggling teams. He performed this feat in his first coaching role at River Plate back in 2011, which was followed by spells at Banfield and Chivas. In all three cases, he led his charges to silverware.
At the beginning of 2019, he took the hot seat as coach of San Jose Earthquakes, who last season finished seven points adrift at the foot of the MLS table. Fast forward to today and the former Argentina international is helping his side fight for a play-off berth.
FIFA.com spoke to El Pelado to find out the secrets and philosophy behind his work, which include his admiration for Bushido, the Samurai's renowned code of conduct.
FIFA.com: There’s been a common theme to your coaching career so far – you join a club that’s going through a difficult spell and then you turn things around. What’s the first aspect you tackle to get a team back on track?
Matias Almeyda: I try to make each and every player feel joy in what they do, and that they should take things in their stride and understand that mistakes are part of the process. I treat everyone equally regardless of their ability. There are no such thing as stars. This belief has been reinforced in me over time and I think players appreciate this approach. We try to foster a family-like atmosphere here.
Anyone watching San Jose has noticed these changes have come about quickly. How has this been achieved?
Everything we achieve is thanks to the lads working hard and pulling together. The effects of the changes came about faster than we thought they would, given how last season went, and also because of how we started out. We worked hard to hone our tactical approach but we put even more emphasis on restoring players’ belief. This was achieved through a holistic approach from the coaching staff, psychologists and nutritionists among others.
In terms of tactics, what was the greatest challenge?
It was changing the approach on the training pitch and bringing in new ideas. The team was used to playing in a rigid shape, dropping deep and then hoping to hit the opposition on the counter. Now our system is quite the opposite, as we’re more attack-minded, more dynamic and more aggressive. It took a while to sell the idea to the players of defending as one and pressing from high up. Through this approach I ensure that my players run less and have more fun.
Is this fun for the sake of it or a means of getting the best out of your players?
First and foremost, it’s a tactical approach. Back in my playing days I was a part of some gifted sides in which the coach made us play 4-4-2 and focus on passing down the flanks. What a waste of what we had to offer! We were blessed with some real talents who were crying out to have plenty of the ball.
The kind of football I’ve always liked and will always want to implement is the same as when I was a five-year-old – playing in a way that puts a smile on your face. And how does this come about? By enjoying having the ball. I want my players to keep it on the deck and move the ball about. I think that they enjoy playing this way rather than sitting back and trying to win games that way. I’m not saying it’s the be-all-and-end-all of tactics, it is just the way I like to do things.
Of everything you’ve learnt in Europe, what’s been the biggest influence on your current coaching philosophy?
There is something that stands out above everything else. Once when I was a player, there were five or six Argentinians in the squad, and we’d keep to ourselves. There were two guys from Yugoslavia who were also in a clique – there was no mutual understanding and already problems were arising from this. Sometimes people don't talk to each other and then perhaps a misunderstanding exacerbates this issue.
Here half of the team speak Spanish and I want to avoid such pitfalls. It’s better for us all to mingle together at the table and try and get by in English, and when we're travelling by coach we can listen to music from the countries of each player.
There are 12 different nationalities in the squad and we try to make people bond. The challenge of trying to bring together people from different walks of life and do so through the medium of English, a language I myself still struggle with, really opens my mind and betters me as a coach and as a person. This puts a smile on my face.
You follow the Bushido code of conduct. Do you try and rub this off on your players?
This is a personal journey of mine and it’s not straightforward. I've chatted to the players once or twice about the subject because I don't hide away from it. The knowledge is just something else I have to offer and I do so to everyone – not just the players but the cleaners or the doormen that work at the club, for example.
It helps me treat everyone as equals. Yet in a team talk I don’t mention the Samurai, I stick to football. Having said that I want my players to channel these warriors because followers of the Bushido give their all for love, dignity and honesty in their work. Such values are disappearing in both football and life in general.
Are you close to achieving this?
They're already at this point! The change has been incredible. We saw what the players would be like when leaving the stadium after a defeat, we made a note of this. Now they are angry if they only manage a draw. We are getting to the bottom of how they function as human beings. At the start of the season if you had asked any other MLS team who they'd most like to face, they would have said San Jose. I'd like to know how they’d answer that question today. Many teams would think twice before naming us.
You won the Concacaf Champions League with Chivas. Now that you are familiar with the MLS, why do you think teams from this league struggle to reach the FIFA Club World Cup?
There are some top players who play in the MLS. However, to make matters fair the leagues need to run concurrently – during the 'Concachampions', clubs from Mexico or other countries are already well into the swing of things. MLS teams go into the competition just a week after the end of preseason and on many occasions are knocked out straight away. This needs to be remedied, and clubs also need more convincing of the benefits of doing well in this competition.
What do you want to achieve from your coaching career?
It is still early days for me but I would like it to be similar to my playing career. Achieving that will be difficult because as a player I got to represent some big teams and I featured at two World Cups and the Olympic Games. Making this come about will be a challenge, I would have to do really well.
Do you aspire to become a national team coach in the near future? Or do you think such a role is for someone older who is not as fussed on experiencing the day-to-day rush that club football offers?
I would love to! For me, just because you are a national team coach doesn’t mean you lay about at home. Although you don't go to training every day there is still a lot of work to be done; you have to take in many games, keep in touch with players and know how they are doing off the pitch.
It would be a chance for you to go to another World Cup…
Going to a World Cup is the most fun you can have in football. I'd love to enjoy another and experience something as special as this again. In the two World Cups that I played, I felt conflicted, because I didn’t want any family to come along because I wanted to be isolated, purely focused on football. If I got the chance now I'd just want to experience it with a smile on my face. It would be the icing on the cake of my coaching career.