Ever since leaving Leeds United in 2018, I had had the desire to be in charge of a national team. As soon as I heard about the opportunity to coach Panama, I didn’t hesitate.
I wanted to try something different from working in a club. Coaching a club is more concrete, with a defined group of players. It’s a day-to-day job, where you prepare every week to compete at the weekend.
Coaching a national team is different. For one, there is a wider range of players.
When I made my presentation to the Panamanian Football Federation, I analysed 63 footballers who could potentially be eligible for selection. I wanted to know which players I could count on as we set out on the road to the next World Cup.
I had lived in Panama when I was a child. It was curious that, more than 40 years later, fate would bring me back to the country once again. But that motivated me: it was a place with which I was familiar and had great emotional ties.
I had done my coaching badges on a course with many former footballers, including Mauricio Pochettino. At that time, I wasn’t sure what I would do as a coach – but I knew I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass me by. Football opens doors for you, and I knew this was something that could be an option for me in the future.
After graduating, I enjoyed a number of very enriching experiences. I worked with Victor Muñoz as his first assistant at FC Neuchâtel Xamax in Switzerland. Then, I joined Luis Milla (below) at Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates. As I carried out my duties with these teams, I became more and more attracted to the possibility of becoming a head coach.
When I finished at Al-Jazira, I was offered the chance to coach the team representing the AFE (Spanish Footballers’ Association). This is the team for Spanish footballers who are out of contract. It’s a very special situation, because as a coach you don’t have any type of pressure.
"i signed for barcelona when i was 18, and met a coach who was like a second father to me"
You find yourself with lads who give their all at every moment, with a great desire to do well. They know that their future is at stake.
We trained to play friendlies that were very important to the players, because sporting directors who could sign them were regularly in attendance. But it was also important for me, as a way of starting to take my first steps as a first-team coach.
It was an experience I will never forget, but it also helped take me where I am now.
At AFE, I had Xavi Roca as my assistant coach. Soon after, Xavi became sporting director of AEK Larnaca in Cyprus, and took me on as head coach. I arrived there in 2014, with the idea of playing with a 4-3-3. This was the formation I felt most comfortable with, because of my time at Barcelona.
I signed for Barça when I was 18, and there I met a great coach who was like a second father to me. That was Quique Costas, who had the same philosophy as Johan Cruyff and took great care of us as young players. He gave me a lot of advice and taught me a lot.
In Cyprus, we signed a lot of Spanish players. We knew their level and what they could offer us. With those players, it was easier to implement the system that led us to have two very good, historic seasons – in both, we fought for the title with Apoel.
In football, many ideas and models co-exist. I prefer to play one way, but I know that the game is also about variability – and it’s also clear to me that you have to sign versatile players who can play in different positions or adapt to different systems.
"I knew we couldn't play in a 4-3-3 because we didn't have anyone to play as the six"
In those two years with AEK Larnaca, I was named coach of the year by both the league and the federation. Then came the offer from Apoel Nicosia to take the job for the 2016/17 season.
They hired me to play a 4-3-3 shape, just like I had at AEK, but to achieve that we needed to sign certain type of players.
We did pre-season in Poland, and in our first friendly we played with a 4-3-3. After the match, I knew we couldn’t play like that. We hadn’t managed to recruit anybody to play as the six, in front of the defence, so we changed the system to play with a double pivot.
That is the great challenge for a coach: to understand that what you want must also go hand in hand with the players you have. As a coach I am clear about what I want – but if I can’t do it, I need to adapt.
After we had won the league with Apoel, Victor Orta, the Leeds United sporting director, contacted my agent to tell him I was a candidate to manage the English club. When I was playing in the Bundesliga with Bochum, Victor interviewed me for a radio programme in Spain. As a thank you, I sent him a signed shirt. Years later, he was thinking of me to coach a historic club like Leeds.
I prepared for my interview and went to Milan to meet Andrea Radrizzani, the Leeds owner. The next day, they confirmed that I had been chosen.
Leeds is a great club with a spectacular fanbase. There were stadiums in which our supporters were louder than the home fans.
"at leeds, i wanted to implement my philosophy: to control the game and have the ball"
When you are signed by any team, you realise that the sporting directors have information on everything you have been doing – both good and bad.
Victor had noticed me because of the way I had approached several matches at Apoel, and because we had knocked Athletic Bilbao out of the Europa League. We lost the first game 3-2 at San Mamés, and then won 2-0 in Nicosia. It was a real feat to eliminate a team such as Athletic.
I arrived at Leeds with the idea of imposing my philosophy: to try to control the game, to have possession of the ball, and to create chances by building up superiorities in different areas of the pitch. When I analysed the team, I realised that they were used to a more direct game. I also saw that, when they attacked in that way, they weren’t getting players up to compete for second balls.
We had Pablo Hernández (above), who is a very intelligent player with great technique, and whose football is more related to having the ball.
That’s why I thought we could attack but with more control of the game. We went unbeaten through the early games, and gave everyone a very positive feeling. There was even talk of renewing and improving my contract.
The good start increased the pressure on us to achieve promotion, without taking into account that, at that time, we had the 12th-biggest budget in the Championship. This prevented us from having players who could make a difference.
We had a lot of ups and downs. After that good start, we went on a bad run of six defeats in seven league games. Then we won five in six.
"we recruited based on big data, and brought in players above the level their price tag indicated"
It was a shame that we couldn’t find consistency, because in several of those defeats we deserved to win. When I was sacked, we were in 10th place, just seven points off the playoff places. It left me with a bitter taste that they hadn’t let me finish the season.
I was convinced that we could have changed the trend of results, but these are decisions taken by the president and we have to accept that. I closed that chapter without wanting to get involved in media disputes, which are never pleasant.
After that spell came the possibility of managing in Belgium, at Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. It was a club with a lot of history, a great track record and the ambition to be big again.
The club is owned by Tony Bloom (above), who also owns Brighton. His experience of using Big Data and analytics meant he had a lot of information about teams, players and coaches – and the plan was for the team to make it to the top flight within two or three years.
We recruited based on Big Data. In fact, when I asked the president of the club why I was chosen, he replied that I improved all the teams and players I had managed.
Players were brought in who were above the level their price tag indicated. This meant that, if everything went well, the club could sell those players for higher prices than they had paid.
Working with Big Data was very interesting. When we signed Casper Nielsen for a very low price, his rating was at the level of a Premier League player. It was only a matter of time before he showed his full potential; he was a key player because of his commitment on the pitch, his quality and his communication.
"i've talked a lot with roberto martínez – the work he has done in belgium will endure"
The biggest problem I had was the language, because in Belgium they don’t speak much English. I speak Danish, Spanish, German and English, but I don’t speak much French. I had to rely on one of my assistants, Karel Geraerts, who was very professional and a former player. He was my translator and confidante during my time at the club.
I was in Belgium when Covid-19 appeared. The situation meant I had to return to Spain during a time of great uncertainty.
We worked with the players via video conferences. We even gave them video clips to analyse their own matches, and then I would sit down with them and go through all their actions. I wanted to know their opinion of what they thought of each situation – whether they had done well or badly. Some of them even got stationary bikes at home, so that they could stay active.
Getting to Panama was also complicated by the pandemic. The country was totally paralysed. After the isolation period we went to Penonomé, in a residential area, to start training in a bubble.
That was my first contact with the Panama national team. The players had been locked up at home for five months without training.
In Penonomé, I dedicated myself to analysing the level of the players. I also had to make decisions on generational changes, depending on what was best for the team. However, it was very positive because I was able to interact with the players.
"my dream has always been to reach the world cup – this is my challenge with panama"
Panamanian footballers are physically strong, technically fit and athletic, but they lack some grassroots footballing knowledge. This is also one of my challenges with the national team: to develop players.
I have had the pleasure of talking a lot with Roberto Martínez (above) on that subject. He initiated a restructuring process in Belgian football that has been wonderful, and been involved in the design of the sports city of the Belgian Federation. He has also contributed to the construction of a monitoring system for all players in amateur football, through an internal TV channel that the federation runs. The work he has done there will endure.
I accepted the challenge to go to Panama precisely because of the potential for improvement. We have improved many aspects already, and I'm proud of that, but there is still a long way to go. There are basic things that need to be improved, both sporting and non-sporting. This is based on money, effort and will. What can’t be bought, we can give in knowledge. We must have the ambition to invest in sport.
Coaching Panama is the biggest challenge of my career as a manager. When I did the final interview with the executive committee, I told them that, in addition to having my own style, I wanted to help change football in the country. I wanted to implement a methodology that would go from the senior national team to the lower categories. To this point, the pandemic has not allowed us to do the work we would have liked to do.
I was also motivated by trying to unite the country around the national team, so that the fans would once again have that connection with the team.
The most important thing as a coach is to put your idea of the game into practice, and for the players to understand it and feel comfortable with it. If players have the belief, they will be capable of anything. That’s why now they dare to be proactive and to have possession. Above all, they feel comfortable, supported and confident.
Having achieved my desire to coach a national team, my dream has always been to reach a World Cup.
This is my challenge with Panama.
Author: The Coaches' Voice