Valencia, 2001-2004; Liverpool, 2004-2010
When I was 13, I was always making notes on my team: Real Madrid.
I was not good enough to play for their senior team, but I liked football. I was training all the time.
As I grew older, I had a problem with my knee. So, at the age of 26, I retired from playing and went to work with the Real Madrid Under-16s.
When you are a Real Madrid player, you have to win every game. When you are a manager, there is even more pressure. As players you share the responsibility, but the manager or the coach – you are the only one. And you have to win every year.
As a young coach, I travelled to watch all of our opponents. Even if I knew we could beat them 8-0, I would still go – even if it was just to see a corner or a free-kick.
There is a complex in Madrid – Cotorruelo – where there are three pitches together. I would be in the middle, watching two games at the same time, and then a third one later on. I watched everything I could.
At that time, I was also travelling a lot to Italy, and asking other coaches about systems and tactics – talking about football all the time.
Arrigo Sacchi was my idol, but also Fabio Capello (above) and Claudio Ranieri. I watched Ranieri for a few days when he was at Fiorentina, and spent time asking him questions.
"valencia had a great team, but they weren't winning trophies. it was my job to change that"
When Pacho Maturana was at Real Valladolid, I went to see him. In Madrid, I also worked as assistant to Vicente del Bosque, and learned from great coaches like Leo Beenhakker.
I was trying to learn from everyone, to absorb everything, and then to manage in my own way.
When I left Real Madrid, it was to continue testing myself – as a manager at Valladolid, which was where I really started to build my experience.
My next positions, with Osasuna and Extremadura, were challenging. But by the time I joined Tenerife in 2000, the experience I had gained gave me an edge.
Not unlike with Valladolid and Extremadura, Tenerife had been relegated from the first division and were targeting promotion back to La Liga. In that season, they were also competing with Atlético Madrid, Real Betis and Sevilla – it was the strongest Spanish second division in history.
Led by Luis García, who I later worked with at Liverpool, and Mista (above) – later so important for me at Valencia – we became a very good team that played really nice football. We won promotion back to La Liga by beating Leganés in the final game of the season.
At that time, Valencia had a great team. They weren’t winning trophies, though, and in 2001 it became my job to change that. We managed that, playing good football with intensity. We had the ability to play attacking football or play on the counter, but all the time to remain well organised.
Twice in the space of three years, after 31 years without doing so, we won La Liga. In 2004, we also won the UEFA Cup.
"the challenge against mourinho's chelsea was complicated – we always had to be at our maximum against them"
In my second season at Valencia, we played Liverpool in the group stages of the Champions League. We beat them quite easily in both games. I later spoke with Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard about those games, and they remembered how they couldn’t create chances against us.
In the summer of 2004, the challenge I faced when I arrived at Liverpool was like the one I had faced at Valencia. The team had some great players, but they weren’t winning anything. “You have to be contenders in three years,” the club told me. “To be challenging to win the Premier League or the Champions League.”
But the difference at that time, between Liverpool and Chelsea, Manchester United and even Arsenal, was massive.
Arsenal had just won the Premier League title and were settled as one of the top sides in Europe. Chelsea, under Roman Abramovich, were spending a massive amount of money. United had always had money.
With 30 to 50 per cent of the budgets of those teams, I was being asked to compete with them.
We had to sell players to buy new ones. That meant we always had to make the right decisions, which isn’t easy.
But as a manager I enjoyed the challenge, and I was enjoying playing against the best teams. Arsenal was always difficult because they played good football, which we had to be solid and very aggressive against. The rivalry with United was massive and challenging emotionally.
We always seemed to be playing Chelsea, under José Mourinho, and every time we had to do something different against them to compete. The challenge was complicated, and we always had to be at our maximum against them.
"at half-time in istanbul, at 3-0 down, my team talk was difficult – but the first thing was to keep the players calm"
In my first season, when I often had to rely on young players like Neil Mellor, Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, we reached the final of the Carling Cup. We played well, but eventually lost to Chelsea in extra-time.
We also reached the Champions League final, against AC Milan, after this time beating Chelsea in the semi finals.
At half-time in Istanbul, at 3-0 down (below), my team talk was difficult. My English today has improved, but it still isn’t even my second language. I’d started preparing for what I was going to say at 2-0 down, and then we conceded a third goal that made it even more difficult.
The first thing was just to keep the players calm, because their heads were down: “Stay calm. We have nothing to lose now.” That was the point – with nothing to lose, we just needed to start building something.
It was important I also stayed calm. The players were expecting solutions from me, so I needed to be calm to provide them. I needed to analyse things – which requires experience – and to use my knowledge to make the right decisions.
Even if you’re wrong, the players have to feel that you have an idea and that you’re right. They will follow you if they do. They will follow you when you change to three at the back at 3-0 down in a final.
I told Pako Ayestarán, my assistant manager, that I wanted to bring on Didi Hamann. I planned to play with three at the back, behind Hamann and Xabi Alonso in midfield, to control the movements of Kaká.
When my team talk finished, I asked Pako to get Didi warmed up. I then told Djimi Traoré to have a shower because he was the player coming off.
"it was the best champions league final ever, for the drama and emotion but also tactically"
Traoré was on his way to the shower when I started giving instructions about our new tactical set-up: the back three, holding midfielders and wing-backs.
I was then told by our physio that Steve Finnan was injured – I’d already had to substitute Harry Kewell because of injury – so I had to call Traoré back.
Finnan was furious. He was going to play on the right of the three, with Carragher on the left and Sami Hyypiä in the middle. Now Carra was going to be on the right, with Traoré on the left.
I was also thinking about bringing on Djibril Cissé on the right wing, because I didn’t think AC Milan had the legs to defend against him. But we had Luis García there, so I decided to wait.
The game plan had changed at half-time, but we played well in the second half and managed to score three goals. Carlo Ancelotti then brought on Serginho, which meant Gerrard had to play on the right because Vladimir Smicer – who had replaced Kewell – didn’t have the legs to contain him.
Milan had one chance – the famous double chance of Andriy Shevchenko (above) – but we were much better. We had control of the game, and we were counter-attacking.
We also knew four of their five penalty takers, and where they would aim their penalties. When extra-time ended, I was confident we would do well.
It was the best Champions League final ever. For the drama and emotion, but also tactically, because of how we had to change to three at the back. And for the penalty shootout, and the movements of Jerzy Dudek, who had been told what to do by Carra.
"the problem with overachieving is that everybody expects you to continue at the same level"
There aren’t too many people who have those memories. There aren’t too many who have won those trophies. To win a trophy like that, in that kind of final, is something that you cannot forget.
It is an experience that you take with you forever.
I had become the first manager to win the UEFA Cup with one team one year, and the Champions League with another team the next.
The European Super Cup followed later that year, when we also reached the final of the Club World Cup.
In 2006, we won the FA Cup – also on penalties, but this time with Pepe Reina (above) in goal. Again, we knew where West Ham would be taking their penalties – those little details make a big difference when you’re trying to win trophies.
We were overachieving, which was great. The problem with overachieving, though, is that everybody expects you to continue at the same level.
We were still having to sell players to buy new ones.
If you sell a bad player, you won’t get much money. So, you have to sell good players – potentially your best. Then you might have to sign two or three players to replace one of those players in different positions, and then get them to perform at the same level. It becomes very difficult.
"we reached that point at liverpool, where we didn't have the money to achieve more than we already had"
Reina was a great signing for us. Xabi Alonso was a great signing. Luis García could be up and down, but he was also a great signing.
We signed players who gave us great consistency, such as Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger (both below) were amazing at centre-back. Alonso and Fernando Torres were our big-name signings, but the consistency of Reina, Mascherano and Kuyt also enabled us to win.
We were also improving young players, or players who previously didn’t perform. We even set a Champions League record for goals scored in a single match, when we beat Besiktas 8-0 in 2007.
But in England at that time, as the manager, you have to start thinking about the business plan. This is something that you don’t think about in Europe, because the director of football is thinking about the business plan.
You have to think about players finishing contracts – whether they are paid big money, and whether you have the budget for them. Or, towards the end of each contract, whether to sell a player to bring in some money to balance the squad.
When you go to a new club – even one like Liverpool – in England and you are the manager, you have to consider everything.
You can improve things, which we were doing, but there is also a point when you need more money. If you don’t have it, you can’t compete against the other teams that do. We reached that point at Liverpool, where we didn’t have the money to achieve more than we already had.
You also need consistency, both in terms of performance and fitness, to keep your team at the desired level.
"at chelsea, i added david luiz as a holding midfielder. this made the team more solid – we finished third and won the europa league"
Our Liverpool was like that. We were growing and growing, but we didn’t have the money to sustain our challenge at the top of the Premier League. Eventually, my time there came to an end in 2010.
Trophies followed just about wherever we went – despite plenty of challenges.
I spent six months at Inter Milan, where we won the Italian Super Cup and the Club World Cup, while developing players like an 18-year-old Philippe Coutinho.
Then, we went to Chelsea. We joined midway through the 2012/13 season. In my first conversation with the board, they told me the only aim for the season was to finish in the top three.
We knew the team needed to improve defensively, so I added David Luiz as a holding midfielder. This made the team more solid, and as the season went on everyone learned what they had to do. We improved more and more as the months went on.
We finished third and won the Europa League (above). That was a great achievement, with a lot of difficult circumstances that most people never knew about.
From there, we went on to Napoli at a time of great change. The chairman wanted a rebuild after the club had sold Edinson Cavani to PSG.
We signed Gonzalo Higuaín, Raúl Albiol, Dries Mertens, José Callejón, Pepe Reina, Duván Zapata – and then, in January, Jorginho and Faouzi Ghoulam.
"to finish mid-table with newcastle, while improving players to add value to the team, was certainly a success"
This was a time when Juventus were winning everything, but we still managed to win the 2014 Coppa Italia – only the second time Napoli had won it since 1987. The next season we won the Italian Supercup, too.
As a result of the success we had, the value of the team grew. We brought in more players, including Kalidou Koulibaly for what turned out to be an amazing price – around €7m from Genk.
We’d signed Higuaín for €40m, and then sold him for €90m to Juventus. We were improving players and making the club a profit while also winning trophies.
In the summer of 2015, I went home – to Real Madrid. People at the time thought it wasn’t working, but we had brought in Casemiro (above) to balance the team – and obviously he went on to be a key player for them for years. We also signed Lucas Vázquez, who is still at the club, and Mateo Kovacic, who has done so well for Chelsea. We were not given enough time, but there is nothing you can do about that. You just have to carry on and think about the next challenge.
That came at Newcastle, where I moved in March 2016 – and it was a huge challenge. After relegation to the Championship, we sold a lot of players. Lots of our best players moved to teams in the Premier League. Again, we made a profit, but we still won the Championship in our first season and were promoted straight back to the Premier League.
With more or less the same team, we finished 10th in the Premier League, and then 13th – with one more point – the next season. Everyone knows the problems we had with spending money at that time. Trophies weren’t the target for that team, but to be finishing in mid-table while improving players to add value to the team was certainly a success.
The game is changing all the time. Since leaving Everton in early 2022, I have been working hard to stay on top of any developments.
The goal-kick rule change, for example. I’ve been analysing how different teams do it; how using short, medium or long passes affects the success teams have; how to play out against a 3-4-3, against a 5-4-1 low block, or against a team that has 80 per cent possession.
Just like at the start of my journey, I am watching football all the time and studying the game. I will make sure I am ready for the next challenge, whatever that is.
Author: The Coaches' Voice