Pep Guardiola has undoubtedly played underneath some of the cream of football's managerial crop. Having learnt his trade at La Masia under the famed tutelage of Carles Rexach, his talent was spotted at an early age by Johann Cruyff, who groomed him for the key and highly complex pivote role at the core of his tactical plans - one Guardiola excelled in. It was in this role he became the heart of the famed 'Dream Team' side, the likes of which I'm sure, until the last few years, many Barcelona fans feared they'd never see again. With the national side, Javier Clemente and Jose Antonio Camacho trained him over a 9 year spell; while in Italy he took instructions from the likes of Fabio Capello and formed a close bond with his coach at Brescia - the legendary Carlo Mazzone.
But above all these great coaches, there is one that Pep counts among the best he has ever encountered, the man he has called "my maestro", and it is peculiarly one he spent only six months with in the Mexican league - Juan Manuel Lillo. Indeed, Barcelona fans and all followers of the beautiful game owe this journeyman coach with a modest record an ever-growing debt of gratitude.
A rarity in the modern game, Lillo played indoor fulsal to a decent standard but never actually set foot on a pitch at the professional level, admitting "my head and feet could never agree, but I already felt like a coach". That feeling clearly burned strongly the young Lillo, as he took his first coaching job aged just 16, and by 20 was making footholds in the fourth division with his hometown side - Tolosa CF. Becoming Spain's youngest qualified coach, he studied the game intently, drawing up his own ideas of how to play. The 4-2-3-1 formation he advocated and, as some claim, invented has since borne fruit for those who followed Lillo's style - the likes of former Valencia boss Rafael Benitez, who used the tactic to devastating effect on his way to double La Liga and UEFA Cup success with Los Che and in the Premier League with Liverpool.
It was with this formation that Lillo won double promotion with UD Salamanca and many admirers, managing in the top flight by age 29. One of those admirers knocked on his door after a visit to the Camp Nou during his next job, with Real Oviedo - it was Guardiola, the man whom Lillo definitively counts as "the greatest central midfielder of all time"; and in the bowels of the famous Catalan stadium, the relationship between the two men blossomed. Pep spoke of his admiration for the football played by Lillo's sides after helping hand Oviedo a 4-2 defeat, exchanging contact details and a desire to talk football.
The friendship with the currently unemployed Basque became so strong that Pep confessed he "could not retire without playing on a team coached by him", and so followed Lillo to Mexico for a short spell at Dorados while he gained his coaching credentials. While this only lasted a controversial 6 months before Guardiola retired for good and Lillo resigned after making allegations of corruption and match fixing; it represented a long-awaited footballing marriage for two of the sport's finest brains.
However, for all his tactical impact, Lillo is as much known for his philosophical quotes as he is for a managerial career that, it must be said, has been pretty much downhill since his early success. With evidence such as "Messi is the systemic and contextual paradigm. We are all in the context and the context is in us. Leo Messi is the best evidence", it isn't hard to see why.
It is also clear that Lillo had a massive influence over Pep's managerial and tactical development. "Pep and I are intent on the same thing - gaining superiority from position" 'Juanma' explains, "What use is good play between the lines if it does not take out opponents?" One gets the sense Lillo would give anything to work with a Xavi or an Iniesta before his career draws to a close. His favoured five man midfield allowed his sides to freely retain possession - something Lillo places a huge level of importance upon, and which must have resonated with Guardiola when they talked tactics and of which the Barca man is now football's most famous proponent.
Without hearing from him specifically, it is hard to declare the extent to which Guardiola followed his mentor's advice when he began his now famous career on the bench in 2007 with Barcelona B, but it is not just on the pitch where parallels can be drawn. Lillo placing great emphasis on the importance of "treating the group (of players) as people from Monday to Saturday, and treating Sunday as the players do" certainly carries hallmarks of Guardiola's close relationship with his stars on a personal level, as well as the deep concentration and passion he brings to every game, kicking imaginary balls on the touchline. Clearly Pep has learnt a lot from his 'maestro', so it was a very cruel twist of fate that it was at the hands of Guardiola and a devastating 8-0 defeat to Barca that Lillo lost his most recent job in football, as Almeria's manager. It is a sad state of affairs that a man who has given so much to football is now considering minor roles in places like India and El Salvador.
As well as their manager and that thrashing, Lillo also carries association with the Blaugrana as part of one of the biggest 'What if?' scenarios in football's recent years. In 2003, as part of his candidacy for the Barcelona club presidency eventually won by Juan Laporta, advertising tycoon and Spanish Apprentice presentar Lluis Bassat had the agreement of Pep Guardiola that the midfielder would retire from playing to take up the Sporting Director post at the club if he won the elections. As part of the role, Pep would get to chose the new manager, and in his mind there was only one man for the job - Juanma Lillo. It is very difficult to say how different things would have been if Lillo had taken charge instead of Frank Rjikaard, but Pep going into the boardroom may have stopped him from ever considering the managerial route.
What is certain, though, is that Lillo has had a massive influence on the Barcelona of today without ever actually having a role within the club. So the next time you hear someone waxing lyrical about Pep Guardiola, and Cruyff's impact in making today's Barcelona one of the best sides in history, give a mention to Juan Manuel Lillo, the oft forgotten 'maestro' who has played a massive role in shaping his great friend into one of the greatest managers the Camp Nou has ever seen.
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