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Juanma Lillo

Assistant manager, Manchester City, 2020– 

It was Juanma Lillo, one of Pep Guardiola’s greatest influences, the Spaniard turned to when recruiting a successor as assistant manager to Mikel Arteta. They first worked together when Lillo managed Mexico’s Dorados and Guardiola remained a player – Lillo had by then already become La Liga’s youngest manager at the age of 29 when guiding Salamanca into Spain’s leading division in 1995 – and have been reunited in the sixth country Manchester City’s new assistant will have coached in.

He most recently managed China’s Qingdao Huanghai, who he inspired to promotion to the Super League, and assists Guardiola having held a similar role with the respected Jorge Sampaoli. Like Guardiola, Lillo remains an admirer of the methods of Johan Cruyff, even if it was his knowledge of positional football that led to him working with Sampaoli. “(He is the) best coach I ever had,” Guardiola once said of Lillo, who could even prove the most influential addition City make ahead of the 2020/21 Premier League season.

Playing style
Like all coaches, Lillo’s methods have evolved, even if his understanding of football and his philosophy have remained consistent. While at Real Sociedad, from a 4-5-1 formation he favoured possession being played in central areas and offering numbers in wide areas, with the intention of dictating play via their grasp of possession; at Almería, however, he introduced variants of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, and experimented with a 3-5-2 and a 5-3-2 against opponents of the calibre of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

When working in Colombia, with Millonarios and Atlético Nacional, he showed his willingness to adapt to the abilities of those he inherited. He most commonly organised his teams into a 4-4-2, in which he had two defensive midfielders, or a four-diamond-two. In Japan and China, respectively with Vissel Kobe and Qingdao Huanghai, Lillo demanded his teams used a 4-2-3-1 formation, or variants of a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. Lillo’s belief – not unlike Guardiola’s – is that the longer the ball is in the opponent’s half and the closer his team remains to their opponent’s goal, the likelier victory becomes. His teams’ hopes of victory therefore largely rely on his players’ ability to create, over the instructions he gives.

When Millonarios were building possession with their four-diamond-two, unless confronted with a high press, their central defenders would advance with the ball to where their opponents first began to apply their press. Typically for one of Lillo’s teams, the idea behind that movement was to try and give a central midfielder the necessary time and space to receive possession, turn, and play the next pass; that time and space was also enhanced by others positioning themselves behind those applying the press.

In Andrés Iniesta at Vissel Kobe, Lillo managed a player – and one who perhaps produced his finest football under Guardiola –  capable of making a significant difference. He is likely even the greatest player Lillo has managed, and understood, in depth, the positional approach his manager sought, often making him the catalyst for their fluid approach. Their central midfielders prioritised adopting positions between the lines (below), and were able to achieve those positions because of the movements Iniesta and his fellow central midfielder, most regularly Hiritoka Mita, offered, and which largely connected their defence to their midfield and their midfield to their attack.

Those furthest from the ball combined to occupy further opponents and to contribute to the freedom that the ball carrier or those between the lines relished. Lillo encourages his teams to build attacks through passing, which often involves them pursuing lengthy passing sequences and combinations, and contributes to a sense of stability in possession.

When that initial press has been bypassed, and more advanced spaces have been progressed into, Lillo’s demand that certain players target those spaces and others prioritise combining in central areas owes to his desire to overcome the reduced time and space they will encounter there. Millionarios’ full-backs, Leudo and Álex Díaz, provided their attacking width (below) so that those with the finest close control could operate inside, combine, and progress possession.

Pressing and defending
One of the reasons Lillo so strongly believes in his teams attacking together is because of his desire for them to defend as one upon losses of possession and to combine in their attempts to swiftly recover it. He encourages long cycles of possession because he wants his teams to spend lengthier periods attacking than defending, but within those he wants his players to be prepared for the need to defend.

If the ball is lost in the attacking half, his teams defend, facing forwards, by applying an immediate, organised and intense press that involves his players take up varying distances from the ball, and being given different responsibilities (below). Where some move to press the ball, others prioritise potential passing options.

Those furthest from the ball work to minimise the spaces that exist between the lines and elsewhere. They also remain ready to offer a fluid transition into possession should the ball be recovered, to ensure that it is at least retained.

On the occasions quickly recovering it proves beyond them, their priority instead becomes protecting the central channels because of the route they potentially offer to the goal they are attempting to defend.  The spaces in the central channels are instead reduced, and are done so efficiently because their previous attacking shape consistently features so many players in central positions.

Juanma Lillo

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