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Juanma Lillo: Pep Guardiola's mentor and the most influential coach you've never heard of

Juanma Lillo is currently assistant coach at Manchester City
Juanma Lillo is currently assistant coach at Manchester City
Aditya Deka
Modified 12 Oct 2020, 20:10 IST

Juan Manuel Lillo, more commonly known as Juanma Lillo, might be the most influential coach that most football fans have never heard of. The man whom Pep Guardiola considers his mentor has influenced a host of other managers and players, including the likes of Jorge Sampaoli and Andres Iniesta.

Lillo started his managerial career at the tender age of seventeen with his home town club Amaroz Ke. He then worked his way through a host of lower-league sides. By guiding Salamanca up to the first division from the third tier, he became the youngest coach in La Liga’s history at just twenty-nine.

However, Lillo’s stay at most clubs was brief, and not successful in terms of results. He has won only a third of his matches throughout his career as a manager.

He first caught Guardiola's eye when his Real Oviedo side lost 4-2 against the mighty Barcelona. Pep, then as a player, was so inspired by the way Lillo’s side played that he later went to Oviedo’s dressing room to have a chat with him. That was the start of their two-decade-long relationship.

Pep, during the later stages of his playing career, even joined Mexican side Dorados Sinaloa, then managed by Lillo, just to learn from him. The story has that he even took a notebook to the training sessions to jot down Lillo’s methods and tactics. The apprentice, however, triumphed over his master on November 20th 2010, when Guardiola’s Barcelona hammered Lillo’s Almeria 8-0, which eventually led to his sacking.

Lillo with Guardiola
Lillo with Guardiola

Juanma Lillo's 'unsuccesful', but influential career

Lillo was never afraid to further his horizons in the football world, and he found himself managing Colombian side Millonarios in 2014. It was during his time at Colombia that he caught the eye of then Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli. He convinced Lillo to join his team and become his assistant. The duo went on to win two back-to-back Copa Americas while playing beautiful football. They were then hired by Sevilla, where they enjoyed a fairly successful time at the Andalusian club.

Lillo’s approach to football and managing is focused on the players. For him, the sport belongs to the players, and he has played down the significance of the manager. Football should be made simple and not overcomplicated. He sees players as individual beings, rather than parts of a machine.

The much-travelled Uruguayan striker Sebastian Abrew even drew parallels between his former manager Lillo and Marcelo Bielsa. “For Pep to say Juanma is the best speaks volumes about his work. Lillo is another Bielsa case. They get called failures for not winning by those who look at the result, and not the style of play,” Abrew said.


Lillo, in his over three-decade-long coaching career, has also managed in Japan at Vissel Kobe. He was last managing Chinese side Qingdao Huanghai just before the COVID outbreak.

Statistically, Lillo has not been a successful coach. If scrutinised only based on results, he has been a failure. But should coaches be judged only by their results, which are more visible to the outsider? Or is it time for us to look beyond results and try to understand the intangible aspects that a coach brings to the table? It’s no fluke that one of the brightest minds in modern football, Pep Guardiola, saw something in Lillo’s management that he didn’t see in others.

Now reunited with Pep at City as his right-hand man, Lillo brings a wealth of experience and expertise to City’s bench. Like Guardiola, he believes in playing beautiful, free-flowing passing football. An enigma to most of the football world, Lillo can be a major force on City’s bench to lead the team to further success in the coming seasons.            

Published 12 Oct 2020, 20:10 IST
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