Unsung Heroes – Juan Manuel Lillo

Spain’s youngest ever La Liga manager, accredited with the revolution of the 4-2-3-1 and a man Pep Guardiola himself calls ‘my maestro’. Juan Manuel ‘Juanma’ Lillo is a Basque born coach and a football romanticist whose ideas have transformed the face of the modern game. From futsal to management to philosophy, this is his story.

Hailing from the northern town of Tolosa, Spain, Lillo spent his formative years playing futsal to a decent standard and although never making it as a professional footballer, this modified version of the sport taught him a great deal. He believes it is here where he first started to understand football in respects its natural fluidity, and how the beautiful game should be played.

“My head and feet could never agree, but I already felt like a coach”

Juanma’s coaching career began at the tender age of 16 working with Amaroz KE and just four years later he took the reins of hometown club Tolosa CF, then in the fourth tier of Spanish football. Having impressed in the league with his intelligent and progressive coaching style, Lillo eventually worked his way up to manager of UD Salamanca in 1992. At this point, the Basque youth had become the country’s youngest ever manager to attain a national coaching badge.

Success didn’t stop there for Juanma, who was intent on perfecting football in its purest form. He staunchly advocated a sparsely used 4-2-3-1 formation which brought Salamanca great success over a 4-year stint in charge, the pinnacle of which was reached upon their promotion to La Liga in 1995. This achievement would bring about yet another personal landmark for Lillo as he became the youngest manager ever in Spain’s top flight.

Unbeknownst to Juanma at the time, this would unfortunately be the height of his managerial career. He was dismissed by Salamanca the next year with the club sitting four points inside the relegation zone much to the perturbation of their fans. Despite this, it would be an event at Lillo’s next employers Real Oviedo that would ensure his legacy. After watching his side bested 4-2 at the Camp Nou by Barcelona there would be a knock at his door.

In walked a fresh-faced Josep Guardiola. The Catalan may have just captained his side to victory over Oviedo but Pep was in awe of the coach’s tactics. The two men chatted for hours, deconstructing the very essence of football and formed an unbreakable friendship. It was Juanma who Pep credits as one of his greatest mentors and taught him about positional play, a game model used by Guardiola at every club he’s managed since.

Lillo is not a man to reminisce too much but if there was one moment he may look back on as a ‘what if’ then it would be in 2003 when, as part of Lluis Bassat’s presidential candidacy for the Blaugrana, he almost became manager of F.C Barcelona. Should Bassat have won, there was an agreement in place for Guardiola to become the club’s new director of football and his main job, to select a new manager. For Pep there was no doubt in his mind this would be Juanma, however, Juan Laporta would go on to win the election and shortly after named Frank Rijkaard as the club’s new successor.

Lillo and Guardiola’s paths crossed once again, this time in Mexico

As fate would have it Guardiola’s and Lillo’s paths would cross again, this time in Mexico. With Pep ready to hang up his boots he confessed he must play under the tutelage of Juanma before his retirement. The pair spent six months together whilst Guardiola undertook his coaching badges, Lillo would later declare Pep as ‘the greatest central midfielder of all time.’

Ironically the first time the two would meet in management it would coast Juanma his job at Almería. His side was demolished 8-0 by Pep’s Barcelona but the result and subsequent sacking would not dampen their adoration for one another with the coaches remaining in contact to this day. Guardiola often still seeks his advice.

Currently, Lillo is the assistant coach of Sevilla having forged a partnership with one Jorge Sampaoli since teaming up with the Chilean to coach his country’s national side. He is widely renowned as more of a footballing philosopher these days with his insight into the beautiful game being one of true uniqueness. A coach, a teacher, a mentor.

“Whoever knows only football doesn’t even know anything about football.”

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Naby Keïta: Africa’s brightest starlet

Born in the Guinean capital of Conakry, Naby Leye Keïta spent his formative years progressing through the youth ranks of local team Horoya Athlétique Club’s academy. Standing at just 5ft 8, the central midfielder casts a diminutive shadowing figure on the pitch, however, at just 21 years of age he has shown just why he is one of the brightest prospects coming out of African football with some larger than life displays in recent years.

Naby’s talent was first evident for all to see during his playing time in Africa, leading to the youngster being capped by his native Guinea before even donning the red and white first team strip of Horoya. International recognition at such a tender age would be the harbinger for greater things and it wasn’t long before Keïta held greater aspirations of playing in Europe. With his home nation being a former French colony prior to gaining independence in 1958, it perhaps came as no surprise to learn his next career move saw him plying his trade in the southern French commune of Istres.

Keïta rose to prominence via a string of positive performances throughout the 2013/14 Ligue 2 campaign which began with a debut goal in a 4-2 home victory over Nimes. The player quickly made a name for himself as a box to box, combative midfielder capable of covering mass ground but also intricate passing. His tenacious appetite for the game coupled with flashes of fleet-footed brilliance caught the eye of recruiters at Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg.

Having been rebranded by the energy drink conglomerate just 9 years prior, RB Salzburg quickly asserted themselves as a dominant figurehead in the nation’s fourth largest city despite waves of criticism from football fandom the world over. For many, Red Bulls takeover’s in both Continental Europe and the U.S signified the unwelcomed rise of commercialisation within the sport. Amongst all the animosity, one thing they can be accredited with is improving the standard of various leagues through meticulous scouting, and in Keïta, they had unearthed another gem.

Signed in the summer of 2014 for just €1.5 million, the teenager would go on to help his new club lay claim to consecutive domestic league and cup titles. He struggled at first, being deployed in a deep-lying defensive midfield role by the then manager Adolf Hütter before later moving to a more advanced position. This shift of saw Keïta flourish and highlights why comparisons with Chelsea star N’Golo Kanté are nothing more than presumptions built on their similar statures, race, and energy levels.

In truth, although he prides himself on interceptions, big tackles are not really Keïta’s forte. His real strengths lie in his speed of play and footballing intelligence. The athletic midfielder has a fantastic knack of making clever runs to draw opponents out of position before switching the direction of play quickly and it’s this skillset which has led to more astute observers claiming his style of play bares resemblance to the great Barcelona midfield maestro Andres Iniesta.

Keïta’s second season in Austria signalled the arrival of current manager Óscar García. The former Brighton and Watford coach instantly identified Keïta as a sublime talent and further allowed Naby license to roam in an attacking role. His encouragement and confidence proved to be well-placed with the Guinean scoring 12 times and registering 8 assists through the campaign.

Inevitably Keïta’s performances did not go unnoticed. In keeping with modern trends, the all action midfielder was plucked from Salzburg and placed at another Red Bull club, the newly promoted Bundesliga side RB Leipzig. An €11 million price tag along with the rise in playing standard could have easily overwhelmed the young star but it speaks volumes of Keïta’s character that he has taken the move in his stride, hitting the ground running, literally.

Leipzig currently atop the German first division having made light work of their opposition to date. Manager Ralph Hasenhüttl has adopted a high-tempo pressing game akin to the natural culture of the Bundesliga, a strategy that suits Keïta down to a tee. Having been utilised in between the lines of attack and defensive midfield in a 4-2-2-2 formation, Keïta is exemplifying his panache weekly and seems destined to take his career beyond the boarders of East Germany’s only Bundesliga side.

The 2017 African Cup of Nations is set to boast no fewer than 37 Premier League players but with Nigeria and Guinea failing to qualify, it’s fair to say that some of the Continents biggest stars will not be showcased. Following in the footsteps of great midfielders like Michael Essien and Yaya Touré is no mean feat, although the 21-year old’s continued development has seen him mentioned in that elite category. Moreover, Naby Keïta’s ongoing progression represents the same anecdote his hometown club Horoya symbolise through the white in their kit. Great hope.

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Associação Chapecoense de Futebol: Champions of Hearts

In the early hours of Tuesday the 29th November, football and indeed, the wider world was shook. News filtered through of a tragic event unfolding that had seen La Mia airways, Flight 2993 crash upon its descent into José María Córdova International airport, Colombia.

The disaster subsequently claimed the lives of no fewer than 75 of the 81 passengers on board that night. Amongst the fatalities, were 19 football players from Brazilian club Associação Chapecoense de Futebol. It was a harrowing incident which bares horrific resemblance to the 1958 Munich air disaster which decimated the famous ‘Busby Babes’ Manchester United football team.

Chapecoense were founded in 1973 through the amalgamation of clubs Atlético Chapecoense and Independente. Located in the Santa Catarina region of Southern Brazil, the city of Chapecó rose to provenance for its food production and distribution through food conglomerate Sadia.

The club has been aptly dubbed the ‘Brazilian Leicester’ by manager Caio Junior back in September for their heroics since 2009. His side have risen all the way from the 4th tier of the Brazilian football ladder to reach the top half of Série A in just 7 seasons. On top of this, they were flying to contest the final of the 2016 Copa Sudamerica final (the equivalent of the Europa League) against Colombian outfit Atlético Nacional.

Only three players survived the crash (Alan Ruschel, Jakson Follmann & Hélio Hermito Zampier Neto) and the disaster serves as a timely reminder of the value of life itself in an ever more money-orientated industry. Following such, proposed finalist opponents Atlético have shown their compassion in calling for Chapecoense to be crowned champions of South America as a mark of respect.

They’re not alone. Clubs across the globe have joined in solidarity to mourn the death of their compatriots whilst providing any condolences possible. Many sides, including Benfica, have offered to loan out players free of charge in order for ACF to replenish their vastly depleted squad, whilst many indigenous teams have campaigned for the club to be exempt from relegation for the next three seasons, as the club to begin the re-building process in times of despair.

Brazil’s President Michel Temer has announced the beginning of three days of national morning for their fallen citizens and requested that the embassy be moved closer to provide the best possible support for the victim’s friends and families. Only time will aid the healing process but in a similar vein to last year’s Glastonbury, with Chris Martin affording the recently deceased band Viola Beach their chance to headline the festival, Chapecoense’s story deserves to be told on the biggest of stages.

They may not have officially won the 2016 Copa Sudamerica, but they have won the hearts of the football community and world over. Pulling everyone together in the darkest of hours.

Forza Chapecoense.

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Safe stands for Hammers fans

The shocking scenes in the Olympic Stadium mid-week have yet again, highlighted the safety epidemic surrounding West Ham’s new home. The cup game between the Hammers and Chelsea descended into anarchy after the two sets of fans managed to clash inside the ground as a result of poor stewarding and limited segregation. The whole evening, coupled with previous crowd trouble has once again brought the game into disrepute.

Numerous suggestions have been offered on how to counteract these issues. Ideas range all the way from stricter security regulations to outing West Ham United from the ground altogether, but could there be an alternative solution? For years, the debate has raged on as to whether standing can legitimately be brought back into Premier League football stadia, after the horrors that plagued English football in the 1980’s. If one was to make a decision based on the socio-political context, the ship for standing has well and truly sailed, however, the modern Continental game would suggest otherwise.

The German safe-standing model for one has provided proven, sustainable success that standing area’s in modern-day stadia not only work, but flourish. Clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Hannover 96 have shown its effectiveness both in increasing capacity, and atmosphere. The decision carries even more weight when you consider one of the main concerns levelled at West Ham, is their inability to keep their fans seated. The steep rise of their stand, combined with the shallow seating creates a clear safety hazard.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare such models across countries given the historical connotations in England compared to those abroad, yet one has to consider the evolution of the game since the so-called ‘dark ages’. Every week fans stand uncontrollably across Premier League stadiums, and stewards are powerless to stop it. I’m not suggesting all football fans should stand, but the implementation of safe-standing areas would at least allow the modern day fan to stand and avidly support their chosen club in a much safer environment. It also provides a clear separation between various categories of fandom, where ‘family safe’ seating areas of the ground would be well away from the potentially raucous ‘ultras’.

North of the border, Celtic are showing safe-standing can work in British grounds, with trial areas providing further evidence of success. The government have said the issue will be ‘re-assessed’ after Celtic’s trial period is complete, however, campaigns against the notions of a re-introduction will no doubt be very strong. It’s an incredibly sensitive debate for many, but with concrete proof of a safe-standing model that works in the modern game, it may just be the answer West Ham have been looking for.

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Pep Guardiola: Genius or ignorance?

It’s 5pm on Saturday the 24th September. Manchester City have just completed their 9th consecutive win of the season and their 6th in the Premier League. Any pre-conceived doubts about Pep’s adjustment to life in England had been well and truly dismissed. It’s funny how much can change in just 3 and a half weeks.

Fast forward to Wednesday the 26th October and the picture now looks very different in the blue half of Manchester. Guardiola‘s men still sit top of the top of the table and in a qualification place within their Champions League group, however, find themselves without a win in five. The doubters have again crawled out the woodwork claiming Pep is naive to belligerently stick to his philosophy against the so called ‘bigger teams’. Robbie Savage stated he believed the Catalan manager should “fix City’s punctures and not try to re-invent the wheel“. For me, that statement in itself epitomises the short-sighted culture we carry in England when it comes to progressive tactics.

I think about this, but the solution is never as good as my beliefs“. This was the first time we have seen Guardiola’s patience tested this season, defending his side’s style of play after a 4-0 defeat to former employers Barcelona at the Camp Nou. “I have won 21 titles in 7 years playing this way. That’s 3 titles a year“. The point that Pep is trying to make to Savage and co is that Manchester City is a long-term project. It may not bring instant results. He is trying to create a platform upon which the Citizens can build. You wouldn’t lay the foundations for a skyscraper before deciding to build a 2 story house.

The fact of the matter is when you try and change the culture of an entire club, mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. It’s hard, especially in a country where arrogance runs rife in conversations concerning an idealistic playing style. What Pep wants, is to make young players like John Stones and Raheem Sterling better footballers, encourage them to take risks. In England it is in our nature to preach safe, risk-free play, however, you will only reach a certain level by following such teaching.

Whether you agree with Guardiola’s style or not, to suggest he should adapt his methods to a more stereotypical English approach means you are missing the point entirely. Pep won’t let the media and fans short-sighted ignorance stand in the way of the long-term success his genius beckons to provide.


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