There is no feeling like playing. But once you stop, the closest thing to being a footballer is being a coach.
Being in the day-to-day, in training, being part of a group and being on the pitch. That’s what I like the most.
Before I retired from playing in 2010, while at Valencia, I started to make a plan. The project of what I was going to do next. And in my head there was one idea above all else: I wanted to be a coach.
That made the transition smoother. But it’s still a change that requires a lot of effort.
There is a moment when you have to understand that you are on the other side. That you have to worry about other things.
I realised this at Atlético Madrid. It was a few months after I retired, and while I was doing my badges. Gregorio Manzano had given me a great opportunity to be part of his coaching staff – this was a very important step for me.
"rafa installed eight cameras in the training complex. if you didn't give your maximum every day, he would see it"
I am a person who is clear about things as soon as I set my mind on anything. Then it can go well or badly, but I have always believed that, when someone decides to do something, they have to do it with passion and convinced of their ideas.
Even as a player, I took certain points of reference from the coaches I had. One of the most important was Rafa Benítez (below), with whom we had three spectacular years at Valencia. In that time, we won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup.
Rafa left me a tactical base from which I could develop my profile as a coach: a solid team in defence, aggressive in the press and with speed on the counter-attack. On top of that, the profound dedication of the coach, both in their day-to-day work and in the management of the group.
With Rafa I learnt many things, from what a coach’s eyes can see to what they can’t. At Valencia, he was a pioneer in analysis. I remember he installed eight cameras in the Paterna training complex. You couldn’t escape. If you didn’t give your maximum every day, he would see it. He was also big on taking care of the player, from nutrition to managing their time off.
With Rafa, too, we discovered what is now known as rotation. “It’s better to play 40 games at a maximum level than 60 in which, at times, you’re not playing your best,” he would tell us.
But it’s not just about copying what I learned from Rafa Benítez, or indeed any other coaches. I also want my teams to have my ideas.
"weeks before my arrival, elche had been relegated because of financial debts. it was a rollercoaster of emotions"
The first club where I was able to start putting them into practice was Valencia. I decided to start at youth level. I think there is no better training process for a coach, and I was very lucky that Valencia gave me the opportunity to coach their Juvenil A team. It was a great training challenge in terms of putting my concepts in order, forming my own methods and growing little by little.
After two years at Valencia, the opportunity arose at Elche, a club regarded as elite. That was already a different step as a coach. I was entering another dimension: professional football. Expectations and results. These are the two things impressed upon you as soon as you arrive. And that, in the end, is what keeps you in the job or not.
For me, it was a great experience. It gave me an opportunity to make my debut as a coach in professional football in a year of extreme difficulty. Weeks before my arrival, the team had been relegated from La Liga because of financial debts. So, during pre-season, because of the sanctions, it was not known what division the team would be in. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.
When it was decided that we were going to be in the second division, I only had five professional players signed to the team. The rest was then made up of players who came in 10 days before the start of the season. Luckily, I think my background as a player helped me to manage that situation with them. It wasn’t that long ago that I had been on the same side as them – with other problems, but still a player. I could empathise with them about what they were going through.
The players are the most important thing. They are the ones who make the difference, the ones who give you the solutions. In short, the ones who help you achieve your goal of winning.
Despite going through that situation, we had a season in which we were close to the playoffs for promotion to Primera. I think 57 points in my first year as coach was a good record. I think it met those expectations I spoke of.
"it was the first time i realised that a difficult situation is not going to improve just because you are there"
But I decided not to continue. The circumstances at the club made me think that we had to look for another option.
That led me to experience a situation that, to that point, had been unknown to me. I was waiting for a team to call me. The Elche experience had been good, though, and that made me optimistic about a second chance – but it doesn’t take away all the doubts.
Through the same person with whom I arrived at Elche – Ramón Planes – I signed for Rayo Vallecano in November 2016.
The experience was negative in terms of results, but very important in terms of learning. For any coach, everything is simple when the dynamic is positive. It is from the difficulties that you learn the most.
It was the most complicated situation I have experienced so far. The club had been relegated from the first division, with a lot of internal problems. There was a dressing room of veterans with very high expectations, but the results on the pitch said the opposite.
The majority of the squad had spent four years in Primera, but going down to Segunda with a squad like that is complex. The second division is a very demanding competition, very physical. You have to have a great mentality and hunger, but the team was not able to achieve the expected level.
"when i start working with a team, i don't think about what i can do in a year or six months. i think about the long term"
It is important to face that moment with great composure, because when you sign with a team you are convinced that your work is going to get through to the dressing room. You believe that you are going to get the players to follow you. Despite that, results didn’t come.
It was the first time I realised that a difficult situation is not necessarily going to improve just because you are there. Success depends on so many other factors.
After leaving Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Gijón called me. Another team that had been relegated from La Liga the previous season – but this time with an added twist. I was starting in the middle of the season.
But it didn’t cause me any problems.
When I start working with a team, I don’t think about what I can do in a year or six months. I think about what I can do in the long term, to grow with the club.
In contrast to Rayo Vallecano, we found a group of committed players. Then we tried to organise them, to give them a clear idea of the level of the division. The team followed us, and we were able to go from mid-table, almost 20 points behind leaders Huesca, to being top with four games to go.
"how many coaches have not been sacked at some point? this is a part of our environment"
However, the team could not secure promotion in that final stretch. I think we paid for the tremendous effort we had made during the second half of the season, closing the gap on our rivals. That led to a very emotional last few metres, in which we were unlucky not to win a game that would have enabled us to fight for automatic promotion. Then, in the playoffs, we ran out of gas.
The following season, up to seven of the team’s first-choice players left. One of the negatives of not getting promoted was not having enough depth on the bench.
Far from creating dramatic scenarios, though, I think you have to handle situations in a natural way. You have to adapt to the club’s decisions, including when they think you shouldn’t continue. You may not agree, but it’s something you have to accept sooner or later.
After all, how many coaches have not been sacked at some point? This is a part of our environment.
Looking back, maybe in those early stages, I could have made other decisions. Teams with simpler objectives or, at least, less complex situations.
But that was not part of my plan.
I like challenges.
Author: The Coaches' Voice