Brighton & Hove Albion, 2013-2014; Watford, 2014
It was clear to me that what I had learned with Johan Cruyff, I couldn’t just keep to myself.
I wanted to do the same as he did with us. Share it with the players. Try to make each one of them better through training.
That is the main reason I decided to become a manager. I think it also explains why so many of the players that he had at Barcelona have taken that path. Johan taught us a lot, and we also felt we were capable of teaching players something.
Each of his training sessions was a masterclass. That said, Johan was also a very demanding coach. You had to give your all in every drill. If that wasn’t the case, he would soon realise.
On the pitch, he taught me to think about what was really happening and what we could do. He made me understand the game, and that is what made me realise that he was a different type of coach who I could learn a lot from.
I also learned from coaches who were very different to Johan, and with very different ideas of the game from one another. I played under Javier Clemente, Andoni Goikoetxea, Louis van Gaal, Bobby Robson, Héctor Cúper and Paco Flores.
I tried to take the best aspects from each one, then implement them as a coach. The good – and there was a lot – but also the bad, too. It might be a cliché, but everything you go through as a player, under a coach, will be useful in the future.
The first team I coached was Catalonia Under-18s, and from there I soon took over the Under-18s at Barcelona’s academy. That allowed me to keep developing my career and to put into practice my desire to communicate with players in a place that had been my home for so many years.
“i can still feel the sensations of that first game in england”
After a year and a half, I found myself in the middle of what I will call a “family quarrel”. It was the summer of 2012. Jordi Cruyff was about to take over as sporting director of Maccabi Tel Aviv, and asked me to go with him. At the same time Johan, who had just signed as sporting director at Chivas, in Mexico, wanted me to coach their team.
I was caught in the middle, and it was a very hard decision for me as I was very attached to them both. But, finally, Jordi convinced his dad that I should start with him at Maccabi Tel Aviv. I am very glad that’s how it turned out, because that was one of my best years as a professional in a city I am really fond of.
I needed some time to adapt at the beginning. The issues that 17 or 18-year-old players have are different to those of professional players. You have to change your approach. Luckily, the group was very open – players who wanted to improve and adapt to a style that was very different to the one they had been playing. Things worked out, too, with brilliant results.
After that, I had the opportunity to make one of my greatest dreams – England – come true. As a player I’d always wanted to go there, but I had never had the chance. So when the doors opened for me to go as a coach, I didn’t think twice.
“you need your best team for the playoffs. that wasn’t the case”
They told me I was one of the options for Brighton, after Gustavo Poyet’s exit, because the club owner was Jewish and followed Maccabi – that meant he knew me quite well. We had several meetings, and finally they decided I was their best choice.
I can still feel the sensations of that first game of 2013/14. The team was in the Championship. We had to play away at Leeds United. When we left the dressing room just before kick-off, I was completely blown away. I had often imagined what it would be like to experience the atmosphere of English football, but the reality was far beyond all my expectations.
I knew I was going to enjoy that year, but I also knew it would be a lot of hard work. The Championship is a very tough competition, with games every two or three days, and it takes a great deal of effort to field a team that is competitive in each one of them.
We didn’t start well, but we climbed the table as the season progressed, got good results, and in the last few games found ourselves with a real chance of making the playoffs. In the last fixture, virtually in the last minute of the match, we qualified through a goal from Leonardo Ulloa away at Nottingham Forest. Unbelievable.
“that summer the situation was very complicated, with the israeli-palestinian conflict”
But, at such an important stage of the season – competing for promotion to the Premier League – we weren’t able to perform at our best. The team was worn out after such a tremendous effort over the season. We also had several injured players and others who didn’t feel certain about their futures at the club.
We can’t use that as an excuse, but the team obviously felt it. You need your best team for the playoffs, but that wasn’t the case for us. We had to play both games with players who hadn’t been regulars during the season; Derby County outplayed us and went through to the final.
The trip back home was very tough. We were aware that it was a great achievement to make it that far, but when you are so close to getting through and you don’t it’s a huge disappointment. It wasn’t enough for me. After that, the club and I had different ideas about the squad for the following season, and I decided that my cycle there had to come to an end. I went back to Maccabi for personal, rather than professional, reasons.
I felt I owed the club something. They had been very understanding when the opportunity to go to Brighton came along, and they let me go without any trouble. But that summer the situation was very complicated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“i knew that i had to experience different cultures, mentalities and philosophies to improve”
It had also happened in my first year in Israel, but then it had only lasted for a week or so. This time it went on for 50 days.
At times like that, you don’t just think about football. There’s your family, too – worrying from a distance – and the staff. People who trusted you and went there, and that makes you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for their wellbeing – and their families’ wellbeing, too.
We took the painful decision to leave and go back to England, this time to Watford. But I was only there a very short time, the month of September 2014, because I had some health issues. It was a team that seemed poised to be promoted to the Premier League, but I scarcely had time to enjoy it. That is an itch I still need to scratch.
Once I recovered, I started moving forwards again. I intended to keep working outside of Spain. I wanted to become the best coach that I could be, and I knew I had to experience different cultures, mentalities and philosophies to achieve that – coaching all types of players of different nationalities.
“at salzburg, i learned a lot about defensive concepts”
That new opportunity came along with Red Bull Salzburg, late in 2015. I knew this was a team with a very clear philosophy and style, implemented by Ralf Rangnick.
I was lucky to have three interviews with him. In those meetings he explained the proposal, which was very appealing to me. This was a team with everything I was looking for: good composure, young players who could evolve, and the capacity to challenge in all competitions and to play in Europe. I thought this step could help me to improve as a coach.
I have a clear idea of how I want my team to play the ball, and what I want the players to do. At Salzburg I learned a lot, especially about defensive concepts – particularly about pressing to regain possession after losing the ball.
I certainly left as a much better coach, and with silverware. We won two leagues and two Austrian cups. In the meantime, RB Leipzig – which also belongs to the Red Bull group – had turned into a major team. This led to a lot of players leaving for the Bundesliga, so I decided to go to France – and to one of their biggest clubs, Saint-Étienne. A club with amazing fans, where I was convinced we could do a great job.
“you are aware that if you fail to stay up, people could lose jobs”
I was also going to acquire knowledge. Ligue 1, just like the Austrian league, is a competition with a lot of transition play featuring strong, athletic players – something that also has a bearing on the tactical development of the games.
It is not easy to build a tactical team there because of the players’ mentality. I was really drawn to the project, and I am very happy that I got to know one of the best leagues in Europe.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go the way you want. The relationship with the chairman wasn’t the best and not much later, in early 2018, Olympiakos came along. It was a team that needed a little bit of revamping if they wanted to remain the top team in Greece.
Eventually, though, it was time to go back home. I had been away from my family long enough. Of all the teams I liked in Spain, Celta de Vigo was one of my top choices, and they called me in November 2019. I signed up to a team that was in relegation danger, with only nine points, and with only two days to prepare for a match against Barcelona.
“after the break enforced by the covid pandemic, things changed”
I knew it was going to be difficult. But I also knew there were good players there, and I was particularly aware that the aim for the season was to avoid relegation. This was a new situation for me, because up until then I had always coached teams that had a real chance of silverware. It is a totally different kind of pressure when you are fighting to stay up.
You are aware that, if you fail, a lot of people at the club may lose their jobs. That makes you think. At times, the time between one match and the next seemed to go on forever.
When the season restarted, after the break enforced by the Covid pandemic, things changed. We had to play every two or three days, but at least that meant you couldn’t think about anything other than football. As soon as one game was over, you were thinking about the next.
We weren’t safe when it came to the last day of the season. Those moments of high tension, like that game against Espanyol, are the ones when coaches really suffer. We had to show leadership and put our best foot forward. The match ended 0-0, and we had to wait on the pitch for the result of the Leganés game. If they won, we would have been relegated. When we heard their match had ended 2-2, the nightmare was finally over. We had managed to keep Celta in the First Division.
Regardless of what happened later, with me leaving the club at the beginning of 2020/21, all the effort and suffering was worth it. When you first arrive at a club, obviously you want everything to improve, and you want the opportunity to achieve great things. That wasn’t the case this time, but an experience like this makes you grow as a coach. It isn’t just about helping players to develop and improve, but about helping them get through such tough situations.
It may be that staying at the Barcelona academy for a long time would have been the easiest choice for me. I could maybe even have made a career out of it, but I am not really the conformist type. I wanted to experience the professional level.
Once you take that step, it is all about making the most of each opportunity as it comes along.