AS Monaco, 2019-2020
Half an hour before the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, I got a call that would change my life forever.
It was Joan Barbarà, the Barcelona assistant coach and a long-time friend of mine.
“Robert, we are going to need a new analyst at Barça B,” he said. “You will probably get a call from Luis Enrique tomorrow.”
That’s exactly what happened. We spoke on the phone for 20 minutes, and there was no need for any further interview.
A few days later, Albert Valentín, who was working alongside sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, called me to a meeting at which everything went smoothly. We spoke about the possibility of my being hired, and four days later I received an offer.
At the time, I was working for a bank. Everybody said to me: “What are you doing? How are you going to leave a secure job for something that is not at all secure?”
But it was clear to my wife and I that football was my passion, and that we had to take the risk, so I asked for a leave of absence without my job being kept open. With hindsight, it was a risk that could have ended with me on the street, with a mortgage and no income. But knowing how everything has turned out, we are both happy with the decision we made.
“I had to learn by reading the manual – there was no other alternative”
Until that point, I had been developing as a coach at a more modest level of football in Catalonia. When you go to Barcelona, you enter a totally different universe.
The idea at Barça B was to try to replicate the structure of the first team, where Pep Guardiola was manager and Carles Planchart was in charge of the analysis department.
There were two analysts at Barcelona B: Isidre Ramón Madir and me. The division of work was clear – Isidre carried out the analysis of our own team, and I had to analyse the opposition. That changed during the season, however – I switched to analysing our team, and Isidre did the opponents.
While doing that job, I got the Sportscode programme for the first time. Now, it is one of the pieces of analysis software most widely used by teams, but at the time it was something totally new. The first team worked with different software.
The club gave it to me. “Experiment with it.” I was almost like a guinea pig.
I had to learn by reading the manual – there was no other alternative. We started to work with it, and it became really useful. Before, I was taking eight hours to analyse a match; now that dropped to just two hours. It gave me the flexibility to analyse a lot more matches and build up a lot more information.
“Italy is a country where, most of the time, teams prefer to counter rather than create”
In 2014, I returned to Barcelona – this time to the first team, and as an assistant manager to Luis Enrique. From my role, we decided to develop an analytical structure featuring four people: three to analyse our opponents, and a fourth to analyse our own team.
In the end, though, analysing such talented players is cheating a bit.
Because they are the talent. They are football, and often they go way beyond normal standards. You can give them a message, and tell them what structures we are going to put in place on the pitch, but almost always they surprise you. They would create scenarios you were not even capable of seeing in the video afterwards. It was amazing!
Before returning to Barcelona, I had already had the experience of working with Luis Enrique at Celta de Vigo and before that at Roma (above) – the first time we had worked together at a top-flight team.
In Italy, we found ourselves in a very tactical country. A league where, most of the time, teams prefer to counter rather than create.
We wanted to introduce a style based on possession, to be creative. However, each week you would realise that opponents did different things to counteract your new creation. It was very interesting, a pretty cool experience, because it demanded a lot of you every day.
But this is not exactly the kind of football I like.
I like to think more about creating. Being a protagonist of the game, and then being able to destroy – but destroying as part of my own creation, not just thinking about what others will do.
True, in football, unexpected situations arise in matches – and as a coach you have to manage and adapt to them. But you must always begin with the principles of play you believe in.
That’s what we did with the Spanish national team. The first two matches as an interim coach, and from June 2019 officially in charge.
Above all, I have to thank the players for their behaviour. They made it easy. They knew all the staff and, in that sense, they knew what to expect. We spoke about it clearly at the first team talk.
“‘You are the national manager. People need to get to know you’”
“From this point on, I am stepping up from assistant manager to manager,” I told them. “I will have to make decisions, but we will continue in the way we have always worked. Ideas come from us all. We talk about everything.”
From then on, I was myself. I tried to develop new scenarios – new ideas that, up to that point, we hadn’t put into practice. For example, for the three-man midfield to hold their positions more, to keep a more fixed shape, to occupy spaces a little bit differently – but always following the broad principles we had kept to that point.
Beyond the dressing room, however, it was different.
Life changes a lot when you become the manager. When I took the job, one of the first things I asked for was to do as little media as possible, out of respect for the situation – but it was something that the federation asked me to do.
“You are the national manager. People need to get to know you.”
That's what they asked, and that’s what I did.
“In Spain, we are used to qualifying for big tournaments almost as an obligation”
Until that stage of my career, the media side of things had been non-existent for me – but it went on to play an important role. In a way, I had to introduce myself to people – say who I was, because they didn’t know me.
You start to live with all of that. People recognise you in the street, you have to get used to making decisions you are not used to, you are in the media giving interviews. It was all new for me, but I tried to manage, as always, by being my natural self.
On the pitch, my passion had become reality. Imagine being able to start your journey as manager of your national team, with the level of players we had access to.
It was something amazing that I tried to enjoy to the full. Obviously, it also came with responsibility – to qualify for the next Euros.
Often, we take it for granted that it is easy to qualify for a big tournament. In Spain, we are used to doing it almost as an obligation, but playing football is becoming more and more difficult.
“When I left the national team, I tried to isolate myself – I didn’t listen to anything or read the press”
National teams prepare, everybody has videos, everybody has information – but I think we were able to develop really successfully. The results and the way we played are there for everyone to see – it’s something I am very proud of.
In October 2019, we went to Norway and Sweden to play two difficult matches, back-to-back. Against Norway we almost had it, but they equalised in the last minute and our chance for qualification after that game was gone.
In Sweden, it was the other way round. Rodrigo’s goal in the last minute, which meant we advanced, created a huge explosion joy (below). Not just because of all the responsibility I had been given, but also because of those who had expressed doubts about me and my preparation.
That helped me prove to myself that I was ready to manage any team. If you coach the Spanish national football team, you can coach any team. The best players are there.
It also showed that I could handle the responsibility of being the one who takes the final decisions. The person who leads a group of human beings. Not just the players, but the whole staff.
“I wanted to manage teams at the highest level, and I wanted to fight for titles”
When I left the national team, the initial impact was tough for me to go through. I tried to isolate myself from it with my family. I didn’t listen to anything, and I didn’t read the press because of what was published. All the lies that were told about me.
At the same time, right from that first week I started to get offers. Not directly, but indirectly.
They would talk to my agents, who at the time were helping me to wind up my time with the national team. They started to get calls and different proposals. People were asking about me. I told myself: “I can’t have done that badly, if I am already getting offers.”
After 10 days, I started to think about the future. The first thing was to build a team of staff, because at that point I was on my own.
I started to call people I thought would adapt to my way of working, and from that built the technical staff who are with me at Monaco.
I also set up a routine for work based on watching matches from the different European leagues. Italian, French, English and Spanish – the leagues that motivated me the most.
I would also watch the odd match from other continents, in line with the offers that were coming in. South America, China, Africa, the United States. I wanted to collect all that information and be ready, in case an option opened up that fitted with what I wanted.
“To be a coach is to be a person, to treat people as they deserve to be treated”
Then the Monaco call came.
Their vice-president, Oleg Petrov (below), came looking for me. We had a meeting where I explained to him what my project was and what my goals were.
I wanted to manage teams at the highest level, like Monaco, and I wanted to fight for titles.
There was a confluence of aims there, almost like an infatuation. We saw things the same way.
The club believed in my abilities, and for me it was a proposal that fitted with what I wanted.
It would allow me to carry on in Europe, which was one of my main goals. Plus, Monaco is a team that wants to fight for the French championship, with the intention of taking part in the Champions League. Ultimately, after my time with the national team, it was a challenge that appealed to me and went perfectly with my aspirations as a coach.
I’m aware that I’m living the dream of many coaches. Especially those, like me, who were not fortunate enough to be professional players.
On that subject, I’ve always held the same belief. True, being a player gives you an advantage. You know the dressing room, the competition, the players – but it’s not an insurmountable advantage for anybody who wants to be a coach.
Ultimately, to be a coach is to be a person. To treat people as they deserve to be treated – with respect, courtesy and while accepting football’s internal codes.
I learned that in the 10 years I spent working professionally with different teams, where I was able to help Luis Enrique and later Juan Carlos Unzué in a second spell at Celta de Vigo.
When I was named national team manager, a lot of those coaches who had never been players wrote to me and wished me luck. In a way, they expected me to be the person, at least in Spain, who would open up that path.
I honestly think that the level of coaches in Spain is sky-high. The only thing they need is confidence, and a chance.
A chance that, fortunately, I had.
Author: Tony Hodson