Spain’s youngest ever La Liga manager, accredited with the revolution of the 4-2-3-1 and a man Pep Guardiola himself calls ‘my maestro’. Juan Manuel ‘Juanma’ Lillo is a Basque born coach and a football romanticist whose ideas have transformed the face of the modern game. From futsal to management to philosophy, this is his story.
Hailing from the northern town of Tolosa, Spain, Lillo spent his formative years playing futsal to a decent standard and although never making it as a professional footballer, this modified version of the sport taught him a great deal. He believes it is here where he first started to understand football in respects its natural fluidity, and how the beautiful game should be played.
“My head and feet could never agree, but I already felt like a coach”
Juanma’s coaching career began at the tender age of 16 working with Amaroz KE and just four years later he took the reins of hometown club Tolosa CF, then in the fourth tier of Spanish football. Having impressed in the league with his intelligent and progressive coaching style, Lillo eventually worked his way up to manager of UD Salamanca in 1992. At this point, the Basque youth had become the country’s youngest ever manager to attain a national coaching badge.
Success didn’t stop there for Juanma, who was intent on perfecting football in its purest form. He staunchly advocated a sparsely used 4-2-3-1 formation which brought Salamanca great success over a 4-year stint in charge, the pinnacle of which was reached upon their promotion to La Liga in 1995. This achievement would bring about yet another personal landmark for Lillo as he became the youngest manager ever in Spain’s top flight.
Unbeknownst to Juanma at the time, this would unfortunately be the height of his managerial career. He was dismissed by Salamanca the next year with the club sitting four points inside the relegation zone much to the perturbation of their fans. Despite this, it would be an event at Lillo’s next employers Real Oviedo that would ensure his legacy. After watching his side bested 4-2 at the Camp Nou by Barcelona there would be a knock at his door.
In walked a fresh-faced Josep Guardiola. The Catalan may have just captained his side to victory over Oviedo but Pep was in awe of the coach’s tactics. The two men chatted for hours, deconstructing the very essence of football and formed an unbreakable friendship. It was Juanma who Pep credits as one of his greatest mentors and taught him about positional play, a game model used by Guardiola at every club he’s managed since.
Lillo is not a man to reminisce too much but if there was one moment he may look back on as a ‘what if’ then it would be in 2003 when, as part of Lluis Bassat’s presidential candidacy for the Blaugrana, he almost became manager of F.C Barcelona. Should Bassat have won, there was an agreement in place for Guardiola to become the club’s new director of football and his main job, to select a new manager. For Pep there was no doubt in his mind this would be Juanma, however, Juan Laporta would go on to win the election and shortly after named Frank Rijkaard as the club’s new successor.
As fate would have it Guardiola’s and Lillo’s paths would cross again, this time in Mexico. With Pep ready to hang up his boots he confessed he must play under the tutelage of Juanma before his retirement. The pair spent six months together whilst Guardiola undertook his coaching badges, Lillo would later declare Pep as ‘the greatest central midfielder of all time.’
Ironically the first time the two would meet in management it would coast Juanma his job at Almería. His side was demolished 8-0 by Pep’s Barcelona but the result and subsequent sacking would not dampen their adoration for one another with the coaches remaining in contact to this day. Guardiola often still seeks his advice.
Currently, Lillo is the assistant coach of Sevilla having forged a partnership with one Jorge Sampaoli since teaming up with the Chilean to coach his country’s national side. He is widely renowned as more of a footballing philosopher these days with his insight into the beautiful game being one of true uniqueness. A coach, a teacher, a mentor.
“Whoever knows only football doesn’t even know anything about football.”