The making of Guardiola in Mexico

It’s fair to say that Pep Guardiola has always done things a little differently. From playing his full-backs as auxiliary midfielders to quitting a cushy job as Nou Camp messiah for the chance to expand his horizons abroad, the Man City boss is truly one of football’s mavericks – and it was the same during his time on the pitch.

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Having brought the curtain down on his Barcelona playing career at the age of 30 (with plenty left in the tank, it should be noted: Fergie was still trying to bring him to United some four years later), the Catalan metronome enjoyed a brief spell in Italy before leaving Europe behind for one last hurrah. First, he played in Qatar – which made sense, financially at least – and then latterly, Mexico.

His decision to play in Central America was less to do with lining his pockets than it was the opportunity to learn the ropes in preparation for his coaching career (which well-known student of the game Pep had never let stray far from his mind – even when he was a young up-and-coming player).

Dorados – the modest, relegation-threatened team with which he spent one season between 2005 and 2006 – were enticing for a couple of reasons. First, and most significantly, it was that they were coached by Juan Manuel Lillo, whose name, admittedly, means less in wider football fan discourse than it does among 1997 Borussia Dortmund away kit-wearing hipsters – but bear with us.

“He already had a coach’s mentality.”

Lillo on Pep

A young Pep had been impressed with Lillo’s well-drilled, albeit lowly, teams during La Liga encounters in the 1990s, and saw his fellow countryman as the man to help kick-start his coaching endeavours (high praise indeed, given that Guardiola the player had already worked alongside the likes of Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson, Louis van Gaal and translator Jose Mourinho at Barca).

At surface level, Lillo’s CV is not particularly impressive, apart from the distinction of managing in the top flight before his 30th birthday. Otherwise, the highlight was a spell at Almeria in 2010 (which ended, ironically, with an 8-0 defeat at the hands of his student’s all-conquering Barca side). Instead, it was his style and, importantly, ability to impose a single footballing identity across the team, that appealed to Pep.

Another factor that may have influenced Pep’s decision to plump for Mexico is, simply, the element of the unknown. By diving head first into a league with which you are completely unfamiliar (even by the standards of the Euro-centric football media, the Mexican league receives a pitiful amount of coverage) Pep challenged himself to assimilate to his new surroundings.

Scouting, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of, opponents you’ve never seen play before – without any preconceptions – is surely a great way to test someone’s footballing nous (go ahead and try it with your friend who claims to watch the Belgium under-17s fifth division).

“I think highly of him and I’m very grateful to him, because he was very generous and passed his knowledge on to me.”

Pep on Lillo

The City manager himself has spoken fondly of his brief time at Dorados, hinting that it helped him lay the groundwork for the sort of detail-obsessed, philosophy-oriented coaching career he would later embark on. In reality, it’s impossible to measure how much truth there is to that, but what’s absolutely clear is that the long-term approach he took towards management has paid dividends.

Simply, Pep was humble enough to recognise that his name was no guarantee of success in the dug-out – something many aspiring managers would do well to remember.

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