It’s difficult to describe geniuses without using the adjective obsessed. It’s as if it’s a requirement of all inventors, thinkers and philosophers to stumble into the realm of obsession. So it’s no surprise that Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanised rubber, which is used for nearly all rubber materials including tyres, was described by everyone who knew him as obsessed.
He spent the entirety of his life dedicated to unlocking the greatest industrial secret of the 19th century. His pursuit to become the first to create a process that allowed rubber to be used in all conditions led to a life of poverty.
As Charles Slack describes in his book Noble Obsession, Goodyear risked his own life and that of his family in his pursuit to unlock the secrets of rubber. In fact, six of his 12 children died because he was unable to support them, and he spent so much time in debtors’ prison that he jokingly called it his second home. He lived a life of struggle and suffering in an obsessive search of his goal.
To add more heartbreak to this already tragic story, in January of 1844, when Goodyear had finally perfected the vulcanization of rubber and taken out a patent for his historic invention, he discovered a fellow scientist, Thomas Hancock, had taken out an identical patent eight weeks earlier.
Hancock had got a hold of Goodyear’s final product in 1843 and successfully reverse engineered it, essentially stealing Goodyear’s invention. Goodyear took him to court but the judge decided it was impossible to determine how it was invented by studying it and granted all rights and royalties to Hancock. Goodyear’s life pursuit had been in vain. In 1860, Charles Goodyear died penniless and forgotten.
However, many years later, in one of his journals, the following passage was found: “Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”
A man’s obsessed quest resulted in a life of poverty and despair, only to be denied his treasure at the very end through what many consider theft. Yet he has the optimism and objectivity to see that his success was not in the result but in the ‘fruit which others have gathered’.
Ultimately, in the eyes of Goodyear, his success wasn’t quantifiable. There wasn’t a dollar sign next to his work. Instead, his success came in the form of progression and growth for mankind. He knew he had invented something that would change the world. However, success is in the eye of the beholder. There are those who desperately try to quantify success, and then there are those who see the journey as the achievement. And luckily for the footballing world, Juan Manuel Lillo is the latter.
Statistically speaking, Juanma Lillo, as he is more commonly known, hasn’t been a successful manager. In his 30-year career, he has worked in every corner of Spain, having managed 11 Spanish teams, and has even crossed the Atlantic to coach in Mexico and Columbia. Of the 18 teams that he has coached, he has been let go from nine of them. His winning percentage as a manager is around 37 percent. If this is the case, why is he regarded as one of the brightest minds in footballing history and why has he been an influence on so many elite managers including Pep Guardiola? As Juanma constantly states, it’s all about the journey.
Lillo began training at a very young age. At the age of 17, he was already a manager of his hometown club, Tolosa CF, in the Spanish third division. Within a year he had been hired by the nearby Club Deportivo Mirandés. Here, Lillo found his first major success when his third division team won promotion to the Segunda B División, although in his second season, constant disagreements with directors of the club about team play led to his dismissal. Fortunately for Lillo, he was able to ride his wave of success to his next job in the Segunda B, this time signing for Cultural Leonesa.
During his time at Cultural, he began to use the now popular formation 4-2-3-1. In an interview with Sid Lowe, he explains the formation in detail: “I can’t remember what I felt at the time but I wanted the players ahead of the ball to have more mobility and to be closer to the opposition’s goal. I wanted four attackers but with a rational occupation of space. I was trying to create a spatial distribution.”
This formation allowed his teams to press high whilst having that rational and well dispersed spatial distribution. This was the beginning of Lillo’s brilliance; positional play before it was trendy. Through his exhaustive study of football tactics, he came to understand the relationship of space and time well enough to apply it to his team and popularise a formation. The 4-2-3-1 came with him to his latest endeavour where he established himself as the next best Spanish coach.
In the summer of 1992, he signed for UD Salamanca, which to this day is his greatest claim to fame. Upon his arrival, he quickly began implementing his successful 4-2-3-1. Consequently, his side rarely saw defeat in the 1992/93 and 1993/94 seasons and eventually won promotion to LaLiga. At the age of 29, he became the youngest manager to ever coach in Spain’s top tier. He was Salamanca’s crowning jewel, and all footballing eyes were on the young manager from the north of Spain.
As with all recently promoted minnows that are thrown to the sharks when they make the step up into football’s highest level, they were eaten alive. They simply didn’t have the players to survive in LaLiga against giants like Barcelona and Real Madrid. This was to be expected and as we all know, with bad results there must be a scapegoat; sadly Lillo was the unfortunate soul. After four years in charge of Salamanca, he was fired in February of 1996 when his team found themselves in the relegation zone. They finished the season in rock bottom.
In the following four years, between 1996 and 2000, Juanma bounced around LaLiga managing Real Oviedo, Tenerife and Real Zaragoza without ever finding substantial results. However, it was after a match that his side, Real Oviedo, lost 4-2 to Barcelona that the future of football would change forever. Although his side had lost, they had put on a masterclass and had made Barça look like a mid-table team. There was one person in particular who was in awe of Lillo’s tactics – a young central midfielder by the name of Josep Guardiola.
The story goes that Pep had been so mesmerised by Oviedo’s play, he had to meet the man behind the scheme. After the game, he asked to meet the coach, Lillo. They chatted about tactics for hours and cemented a friendship which would lead to one of football’s greatest exchanges of ideas. They would go on to work together in Mexico nine years later.
Following his poor statistical results in LaLiga between 1996 and 2000, Juanma’s phone finally went silent. It wouldn’t ring again until 2003 when Segunda side Real Murcia was in dire need of new ideas and results. His stint at the helm of the Murcian club didn’t last long. Within a few months, he found himself without a job yet again. It wasn’t long before a Catalan club from Terrassa came calling hoping he’d deliver the magic potion he had used so many years ago in Salamanca. Sadly it wasn’t to be; Lillo was fired due to a lack of wins.
When one door closes, another is opened. In 2005, Juanma embarked on one of his most ambitious and exciting projects. He had been named the manager of Dorados de Sinaloa, a first division Mexican side. Guardiola jumped at the chance to play for the man whose work he admired so much. Even though Pep was in the final years of his playing career, the news still made a splash. One of the most prolific midfielders in history was going to the forgotten Mexican border town for one reason: Juan Manuel Lillo.
Those training sessions under the scorching Mexican sun must have been one of the most tactically enlightening periods in footballing history. Two brilliant minds experimenting, discovering, testing – like two obsessed scientists in a dark underground laboratory perfecting their creations. In the end, they didn’t win championships but that wasn’t the purpose of their trials. Just like Goodyear, they were in search of their life’s quest. These two geniuses longed for beautiful football.
Not long after, Guardiola would take charge at Barcelona, and as we all know football would forever change. Lillo, on the other hand, would finally return to Spain’s top tier after being named Almería’s manager.
On 20 November 2010, the pupil would put the dagger in his mentor’s Spanish career. Guardiola’s Barça scored eight against Lillo’s Almería, costing Lillo his final managerial position in Spain. Minutes after Pep sheepishly hugged Juanma when the match ended, Lillo was fired.
The parallelism between Charles Goodyear and Juanma Lillo is uncanny. His life’s work had been used against him, and just like Goodyear, Lillo was not bitter, for he saw the fruit of his work blossoming in the fields of Camp Nou under Guardiola. The world was finally a witness to beautiful football, his life’s work. His work had not been in vain.
He knew it wasn’t about the result at the end of each match but the transformation his players had made. The progress report wasn’t the score sheet on match days but the daily training sessions. His success wasn’t quantifiable like the press, club directors and sponsors had so often believed.
Lillo’s brilliance is in his thoughts and ideas, in his words and statements, in his approach and interactions. Most managers’ careers are scrutinised under the scope of results, but Lillo’s requires a deeper view into his mind and into every one of his words.
Lillo’s approach to football, and particularly managing, is player-based. In fact, in the past, he’s played down the role of managers on many occasions, stating: “A manager is nothing more than a facilitator, at the very most. A manager must be like God, be everywhere but nowhere to be seen. At the very most he or she facilitates things but not more. The players are what’s truly important, with good footballers everything is easier.”
In a nutshell, this is Juanma’s coaching approach. Football belongs to the players, and many times managers simply get in the way.
Perhaps this is the reason that so many people are drawn to his words. He speaks to the player and about the simplicity of football that seems to be disappearing by the day with more pundits, pregame and post-game shows, unnecessary statistics and those technologies which measure said statistics.
He especially dislikes coaches who nowadays see their players as parts of a machine which can be replaced at the first sign of dipping performance levels. Lillo sees his players as they should be: people with dreams and aspirations, fears and worries, who are more than just their capabilities. He says: “A footballer isn’t a bottle which must be filled, but a flame which must be lit.”
In the eyes of Lillo, football is losing its essence. We are over complicating the sport to an unnecessary degree. Lillo’s approach to the game might seem like a paradox in itself. When you hear him discuss strategies and tactics, he speaks in another language that, to the average football fan, might sound like he is discussing quantum physics, but to Lillo, this is a simplification of the game.
When researching tactics, many of us might delve deep into the abyss of coaching manuals and books, however Lillo doesn’t even have to go further than the rule book. In one of his most popular YouTube videos, Juanma enlightens us as to how the rule book is the best and only tactical book there is. The video is about 13 minutes long, and in it he goes into detail about several rules of the game and how he has interpreted them to apply them to tactics.
For example, he begins by deciphering the difference between possibility and probability. He says: “The laws of the game explain, via its rules, what one can do to increase the probability of winning. But the possibility for all teams to win is the same; if you, nine of our friends, and I play against Bayern Munich tomorrow, we have the same possibilities of winning as they do – 50/50. However, the probability of us winning is very little.”
He then proceeds to discuss the relationship between probabilities and styles of play: “If you set your team up with 10 players back and a lonely soul up top, possibility says you can win. This is the only sport which the laws of the game state you don’t have to cross the halfway line to win, of course, you can win. However, the likelihood is minimal.”
Lillo then continues to discuss the space in which the game is played: “The laws of the game also say that the field of play is wider than it is longer. There is a rule that says the length can be adjusted up to the halfway line. This distance is modifiable via a rule; the distance that can’t be modified is the width.”
He is, of course, talking about the offside rule. Using this logic he justifies playing with wide players, like wingers, explaining that the rules implicitly give us the formations which increase the probability of success.
He gives several explicit examples of rules and how they must be interpreted in order to increase the probability of winning, but what best defines Lillo is his statement when the confused interviewer asks him if there are certain decisions or styles of play which increase those probabilities. Before the interviewer can finish the question, Lillo frustratingly interrupts him and says: “You’re not listening. This isn’t about likes or dislikes, it’s about what the laws explicitly state. It’s not me saying these things, it’s the rules.” To Lillo this is a science; like the laws of physics dictate our world, the laws of the game dictate our sport.
It doesn’t matter which brilliant Lillo quote you come across, he makes you think about football in a way you’ve never done so before. Whenever you read or listen to him you forget how you see football, even if it’s for an instant. You see how meaningless results truly are when he offers his lens through which he sees the game. That is his genius.
Juanma Lillo has never been one to shy away from an exciting – and in many cases difficult – opportunity. In an interview he did between his time in Mexico and his second stint in Spain, he said: “I’m waiting for the right team to call. I’m always looking for something that fills me with passion. And I know when they do call it won’t be for a wedding or a baptism, it will be for a funeral.”
By this, he means that he is typically hired to save teams from relegation. So when Millionarios, one of the most emblematic teams in Colombia, approached him, he was pleasantly surprised. In January 2014 he debuted, and, as with all of his previous endeavours, Lillo made a big splash with his philosophical approach to football. He enjoyed some fairly good results in his campaign with the Colombian side but ultimately wasn’t good enough for the fans and club directors.
However, he caught the eye of Chile’s manager at the time, Jorge Sampaoli. Just like Pep had done several years earlier, Sampaoli discussed with Lillo the possibilities of working together, and in October of 2015 Lillo signed a contract with the Chilean Football Federation to become Jorge Sampaoli’s first assistant.
‘Sampaolillo’, as this fiery duo are commonly called, went on to win two consecutive Copa América titles, doing so with beautiful football and captivating the entire world with their passionate positional play. Consequently, the duo were hired by Sevilla, a team which had been highly successful under the reign of Unai Emery. Sampaolillo hit the peak of their success and popularity when they handed Real Madrid their first lost in 40 matches in January 2017.
As many have pointed out, many of Lillo’s signature tactics were seen in Sevilla’s play, and although he was the first assistant, he was given just as much credit for the team’s expression of footballing tactics.
After 37 years of training, Lillo’s shining redemption finally arrived. On the night of 22 February 2017, he finally reached the summit of football prestige and was given the respect a manager of his calibre deserves. Due to a suspension handed to Sampaoli in the previous match, Juanma was in charge of leading his Sevilla side in a Champions League fixture. On this evening, as always, his side was brilliant.
They defeated Leicester City 2-1 and the way Sevilla played, there should have been a much more overwhelming scoreline in favour of the home team. Under the bright lights of the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, amidst the historic Champions League anthem, right before the referee blew the whistle that evening, win, lose or draw, this was Juanma Lillo’s moment.
Just like Lillo’s triumphant moment arrived, Goodyear would have his redemption. In 1898, almost four decades after the death of Charles, a man by the name of Frank Seiberling founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Seiberling had no connection to Goodyear but simply wanted to pay homage to the man who had changed our lives so profoundly. To this day, Goodyear is a common household brand and his legacy will live on forever.
It’s difficult to say what Lillo’s legacy will be after he steps away from the game. Yes, he hasn’t won very many titles, he’s faced relegation more times than most managers, he’s been fired on several occasions, and he’s won only about a third of his matches, but is this how people should be remembered? Do our words and actions stand for nothing? Shouldn’t our success be measured by more than just numbers?
If the past ghosts of football have taught us anything, it’s that legacies are forged by those who dare to be different, by the revolutionaries who put forth ideas that had never been dreamt of, by those who were not afraid to stare defeat in the face, those brave enough to propose radical thoughts, and not only that but to hold fast when the critics emerged from the shadows weapons drawn. Those valiant few who know there is no such thing as right and wrong, but only mistakes to be learned from.
With that I’ll leave you with an anecdote which couldn’t personify Juan Manuel Lillo any better; an anecdote which came about in the process of writing this article.
When I was beginning my research for this article, I reached out to a friend who works in the Spanish Football Federation and is good friends with Juanma. I asked this friend of mine if Lillo had written any books about football because I wanted to learn more about him and his ideas. My friend told me that a few years back he had asked Juanma that same question. Juanma told him that he disliked writing books because before finishing the book, he would most likely think in a different way than he had when he started writing.
Juan Manuel Lillo may not have a book, but his thoughts, ideas, quotes, interviews, speeches and actions are enough to fill a library. He is the ever-changing book that he will never write.
By David Garcia @ijasport