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Juanma Lillo: Guardiola's new number two a guiding light like Cruyff

6 months ago
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The appointment of Juanma Lillo as assistant coach could lead to Manchester City's most extreme take on Pep Guardiola's tactical blueprint.

The master working as an assistant to the apprentice sounds like a strange fit but, in appointing Juanma Lillo as Pep Guardiola's number two, Manchester City have flipped the traditional order.

Of course, in terms of footballing success in the 21st century, there are few who can rank above Guardiola – whose innovative tactics have helped to inspire a generation of coaches, with his Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City piling up the trophies.

By contrast, Lillo, whose post in Manchester will be his 21st role in a nomadic coaching career that has taken him from his native Spain to Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Japan and China, has never lifted a major honour.

This, however, is largely irrelevant to the City boss, who earlier this year stated it gave a "bad, bad message" to judge coaches simply on the trophies they win.

It was hard not to imagine he was referring in part to Lillo – a tactician he holds in the highest regard.

"Juanma Lillo has played a significant role in Guardiola's career," wrote Marti Perarnau in his book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution. "Johan Cruyff gave Pep his opportunity as a player and eventually promoted him to captain Barcelona, but it was Juanma Lillo who guided him through his transition from player to coach."

It is significant that Guardiola's biographer, who enjoyed inside access to his entire Bayern tenure, should rank anyone close to the great Cruyff in the prepping of Pep.

"You hear all these people saying, 'Oh Pep, what a good manager he is'. Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far," Guardiola told the Guardian in 2016. Lillo is in rarefied company in the City manager's affections.

AS JUANMA USED TO SAY...

A little known figure in English football overall, it is likely City's first-team squad are well aware of the man whose hands-on approach will soon be helping to hone their efforts on the training ground.

"Hardly a day passes without Pep making reference to the ideas of one of his two great mentors," Perarnau said of Guardiola's time at Bayern, much of which hinged – as did his early days at City – upon the ability to implement his methods outside of Barcelona's Cruyffian temple.

"At work, much of his conversation starts with, 'As Juanma used to say…'."

Now City's players will get to hear first hand such pearls of wisdom as: "The faster the ball goes, the faster it comes ball" – a snappy Lillo phrase Guardiola repurposed to persuade Bayern's players to invest in his playing style.

"They'd say, 'Who cares! Get it up the pitch right away, hit the ball long'," Guardiola told Perarnau. "It was a f****** pain in the neck to get it over to them and I had to explain it over and over again, as no doubt I'll have to in England as well."

As City were transformed from a trophy-less outfit limping to third in Guardiola's first season to the 100-point 2017-18 machine, it is impossible to imagine their players did not become well-versed in the teachings of Juanma Lillo.

MEXICAN SEND-OFF

This is the pair's first professional union since Guardiola opted to end his playing career in the unlikely location of Culiacan, Mexico, where he travelled to play under Lillo – a coach who become LaLiga's youngest at just 29 with Salamanca in 1995 and one he had long admired.

"There's only one thing that gives or takes away order in a game and that's the ball itself, so I like my players to be in lots of different partnerships but also strung across different areas of the field," Lillo told Perarnau when explaining his preferred playing style.

"If their passing is good, then we'll be moving our rivals all over the pitch and then you’re going to find free men easily because they'll either be forced to break up playing partnerships or string themselves out across the pitch.

"If the players don’t take time to construct play it will be difficult to get the ball to the right places up the pitch and then dominate the opposition."

Sound familiar? Lillo's approach basically amounts to an undiluted and entirely uncompromising version of Guardiola's juego de posicion.

It would be unfair to cast a man of such experience and strong opinions as a 'yes man', but Guardiola is essentially going to his tactical Rosetta Stone for the next phase and possibly last phase of his City career. The 2020-21 season will be the final year of his current contract and the first time he has ever started a fifth consecutive season at the same club.

DOUBLING DOWN FOR GLORY?

Vincent Kompany and Xabi Alonso were two of the names linked with the position of number two before Lillo's arrival. There was a common thread to be spotted between those two esteemed players of the modern era and Mikel Arteta, who left City to take the top job at Arsenal in December.

Lillo certainly represents a departure from that thinking. Any younger man appointed would have been lumbered with talk of being "Pep's heir". Does the apparent lack of succession planning suggest Guardiola putting down roots or clearing the ground for a tidy exit? The length of Lillo's contract was not disclosed, but he never tends to hang around anywhere too long.

It also feels like a move in step with the major pivot points in Guardiola's career, which circumstances suggest we have reached. City are set to have their recent domestic dominance ended by a formidable Liverpool team, as they also appeal against a two-year Champions League ban and look at how that might impact any squad refit.

When he took one point from his first two matches in charge of Barcelona, Guardiola was buoyed by Cruyff's blessing and pressed on with a blueprint that secured a LaLiga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble in 2008-09.

When Bayern's players persuaded their coach to take a more direct approach, only to be picked off and humiliated by Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League semi-final, he swore 'never again'.

Mocked as a man who did not coach tackles as mid-season hammerings derailed 2016-17 at City, Guardiola played and pressed and passed some more until English football danced to his tune.

In adversity, he tends to double down. In the face of Liverpool's awesome opposition, Lillo's appointment suggests Guardiola's answer is to go Full Pep.

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