Interview with Gerard Zaragoza: 'Carles Cuadrat and I Like to Control Everything on the Pitch'
"Oi, motte (baldy)! Sit down," came the cries from the away end in Bengaluru FC's first Indian Super League game at the Kanteerava Stadium against defending champions Chennaiyin FC.
Chennaiyin fans had taken umbrage when Bengaluru's assistant coach Gerard Zaragoza had stepped out of his technical area to argue with the fourth official over a questionable decision. When the visiting team's staff protested, he simply commanded them to return to their dugout.
Those cries from the away section were soon drowned out by the West Block fans chanting: "Zaragoza! Zaragoza!"
"I love the kind of supporters that we have," he says with a grin. "They really help us win games. They are our twelfth man. For us they are perfect!
"I love their support. My wife probably loves it more than me. It only means the fans like what we are doing and that is always good. I hope they continue supporting us."
Contrary to popular belief, Gerard Zaragoza is not actually from Zaragoza. "I'm from Catalunya, near Barcelona. A lot of people ask me if I'm from Zaragoza but that's just my surname; a family name."
So if he's from Catalunya, which club does he support? "I support Barcelona but I also worked at Espanyol."
Zaragoza is a UEFA Pro Licensed coach who had previously worked in Qatar under Michael Laudrup at Al Rayyan. "He is a gentleman, a great player in the '90s. He won the [League] Cup in England (with Swansea City), reached the final in Spain (with Getafe)... He's a very good coach and I learned a lot from him. I learned to humanise the players."
Once Albert Roca had decided to move on and Carles Cuadrat was promoted from assistant to head coach, he got in touch with Zaragoza to be his assistant.
"Last summer I had finished my contract in Qatar and Carles called me. We met two or three times in Barcelona and, finally, we arrived at a good agreement and here I am."
And he wasn't unfamiliar with the club before he joined. "I knew about Bengaluru from a few seasons ago when they were in the AFC Champions League qualifying playoffs. They didn't qualify but that's how I first knew about them.
"Then Roca and Carles came here; they are friends from Catalunya. Carles loves this city, he loves this club and it was easy to talk to him about Bengaluru because he said a lot of good things about the club. I also spoke to Roca during pre-season and all he had to say about India and Bengaluru was amazing."
Having coached in Spain, Georgia, and Qatar, what was his first impression of Indian football?
"I expected a different kind of football. Normally, people outside India don't say it is a big league. But when you are here you can see that they have a lot of good players - not just foreign players but Indian players too like Sunil [Chhetri] and Udanta [Singh]. I think it's a very good league for those who enjoy football."
"I think the ISL has very good foreign players and when you have that the league will improve. We also have very good tactical coaches. They are not big names but young coaches like [Sergio] Lobera, [Josep] Gombau, and Carles know how to play good football."
Carles Cuadrat shot to fame last season thanks to his clever set-pieces which helped the Blues whenever they were in a spot of bother. With Zaragoza taking over his duties, he explained what his role at the club is.
"My first mission is to assist Carles in everything he does. Then I have two clear roles; one is to do with training sessions. Carles and I know the kind of football we want to play and I prepare the exercises for the tactical aspects.
"My other role is the tactical analysis of the clubs we play against - what they did before against other teams and what they can do against us during the game. Carles and I work a lot with videos for set-pieces and other tactical aspects."
"My principal work is to work with videos and show the players what the other teams can do. We do video [analysis] in almost every training session. If we have five sessions in a week, maybe one day we don't do video but one video of 10 minutes will cover everything."
With games coming thick and fast now (Bengaluru play a game every four days until mid-December), does he have enough time for video sessions?
"I have time but I have less time to sleep and less time for my wife," he says with a laugh. "But this is our job and we love our job. We must prepare the players and we must prepare for the next game and it's important to work."
Zaragoza's first impression of the current squad came in pre-season. He was with them in Spain when the Blues played four games, including friendlies against Barcelona B and Villarreal B.
"Carles and I are coaches who like to control everything on the pitch," he explains. "Not only with the ball and keeping possession but also recovering the ball and then attack. We had a very long pre-season because of the AFC Cup and we had a lot of time to prepare everything.
"Then we played big clubs like Villarreal B and Barcelona B and they beat us. But that prepared us for the season. For example, against Barcelona B Udanta came up against Marc Cucurella - he is the player who made three key passes for Eibar against Real Madrid [in their recent 3-0 win in LaLiga]."
"Playing against such teams and players improves our players. Losing in pre-season wasn't important for us, winning now was."
Indeed, Bengaluru FC are top of the league with two games in hand and the Blues are the only undefeated side in the league. There were hiccups against ATK and Delhi Dynamos but they overcame their troubles at half-time to secure all three points. How did they turn things around in the second half?
"We trust our players. We talk normally to them [at half-time]. We tell them to relax and tell them that the chances will come. They already know about set-pieces, tactical aspects, and what we can do. We don't need to tell them anything special. In the end, it's the three points that matter."
As a coach, what does Zaragoza expect most from his players? "Be professional," he says. "They are good players with good qualities."
"For us, it's amazing to see the best player in India Sunil Chhetri working hard in defence like a 20-year-old. Some people say Udanta is not playing well in attack but he's working hard in defence. If they are professional players we cannot demand too much more."
It is the secret behind Bengaluru's unbeaten run, according to Zaragoza. "We have the best players in the league - foreigners and Indians. When you have the best players, it is easy to win. We work hard and the players work like animals - that makes it easy for us."
It's not only the senior team that is playing well. Bengaluru FC's reserves won the Puttaiah Memorial Cup and Zaragoza says their players are already training with the senior squad.
"I think they are working very well. The first stage of the academy training is in Bellary where we went for pre-season. We saw that they are doing a very good job there. Then we have [Naushad] Moosa who is working with the 'B' team and he's doing a very good job too.
"We're happy because five or six 'B' team players are training with us every day and sometimes they are in the squad for games. The other day Gursimrat Singh played a few minutes (against Delhi Dynamos) and even Semboi Haokip is doing a very good job."
"Squad rotation will be very important now," he explains. With six games spread across 20 days coupled with injuries and suspensions, the Blues need the entire squad to step up.
"In the last few games, we didn't have Miku, Erik Paartalu, and Dimas Delgado. The others have stepped up and they work hard on the tactical aspects and set-pieces and we're quite happy.
"When you have a squad of around 20 players and they can all play, for the coach that's perfect."
Having nearly reached the halfway stage of the season, the ISL table tells us a story about teams in form and those in danger of missing out on a spot in the top four. Who will finish in the top four?
"It's difficult to say but I think FC Goa will be there for sure and NorthEast United is working hard. Among the other teams, I like how Jamshedpur FC is playing while ATK and Mumbai City also have a chance for the other three spots because one will be for us."
Before the season, Cuadrat had said that team dynamics was very important in having a successful season. How does the staff work on that?
"We are coaches that control everything on the pitch during games. To do that we have to work out everything during training sessions.
"To train like this, the players must understand us, they must trust us and we should trust them. That is 100% important and the result is visible during the games."
Bengaluru FC host Pune City on 30 November at the Kanteerava Stadium.