Abfútbol: We recently heard you say that “when you choose this career path, you can never know where fortune will take you”. That is the price, or reward, that a coach must be prepared to face, in this case in China.
Gregorio Manzano: Indeed, that is the latest destination in this long journey. My choice to become a professional coach has led me to travel all over Spain, and this first experience abroad has taken me to China, where I am having a completely different experience to what I was used to.
What made you choose this Asian adventure?
G.M.: Firstly, getting to know another kind of football. I’ve worked for 14 years in the Spanish League and, even though all the motivation is still intact when I pick up a new team, this great chance came up. There had been a similar possibility three years ago with a different club, but that was not the right choice for me at that moment; something held me back. This time, I had a meeting with Beijing Guoan’s directors in Madrid where they explained their project and the way the club operated. I was captivated and they showed me that it was possible to take the team to a higher level, as we have done this season.
Nowadays, it seems that Spanish coaches have decided to leave the country in search of new experiences; we have entered the market. Is this a consequence of the National Team’s success in recent years?
G.M.: Logically, I think there is a direct relationship with the recognition of the “Spain” brand in football which has come from the success that our National Team has enjoyed in recent years. They have become a reference all over the world, not only at the level of sporting success, but also in terms of playing style. Everyone out there is looking at what we do, not just coaches but also those players who have now entered the international market.
A few days ago you received the Best Coach award from the Chinese Super League. What did you feel at that moment?
G.M.: A great personal satisfaction, but even though the award is given to an individual, it is a “shared” personal satisfaction, because a coach is the apex of pyramid of many people working together. A football team includes the technical team, physicians, auxiliary staff, the players… that is why I consider this as a recognition of the good work that EVERYONE has put in throughout the year. At a personal level, it makes me extremely proud that a Spaniard who has just arrived in the Chinese Super League for the first time has won this award.
When we look at your track record as a coach we see that from the time you started in 1983 in a regional team, you haven’t stopped coaching at any time. How on Earth does one manage to do that, in the complicated world of football?
G.M.: I would divide that career into two phases, the amateur stage and the professional one. From the time I began, coaching Santisteban in 1983, there was a first phase that ended at Talavera CF, the first experience where I combined my teaching job (secondary school professor) with the world of football, and it was after arriving at CD Toledo that I stopped teaching to dedicate myself to professional football in the second stage. I have been coaching for over 30 years and I must say that in all those years there have been some better seasons and some worse ones. But, overall, I think that lasting for so long in this profession, especially in the elite and particularly in Spain, means that the balance is positive. There have been more successes than failures, and that is why so many clubs have trusted my work and have given me the opportunity to coach their teams, which has made me feel very proud. Nowadays, things are going quite well in this new experience abroad and that fills me with new eagerness and motivation each day. This job has some great, fulfilling moments, and also some times which are not that good, but a coach must look to the future, stay positive and think that his work today will be better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. That is what I am doing right at this moment; this next season in China is going to be even better than the first one.
What don’t we know of the current Gregorio Manzano?
G.M.: Well, there are plenty of things that the public doesn’t know because they only have access to the coach, not the person. For obvious reasons, coaches move among a very small circle of people throughout a season and fans only have access to us through the media, television, newspapers and radio, but they don’t have access to my real life. If they did, they would realise that I am a man with very normal, everyday habits. I arrived to the world of football in a very humble manner, with a regional team, and although I have come quite far since then I always remember my origins, which were very simple, very normal. Nowadays in China I have started a website in which I tell some stories about my professional and personal lives so that everyone can get to know me a little bit better.
Have you changed a lot from the time you started coaching small teams until becoming an established professional?
G.M.: Yes, I have changed, but that evolution is natural in every aspect of life, not just in personal or professional terms. Logically, when you’re coaching an amateur team as I did in the beginning, you get players who arrive at different times because they work in a construction site or a factory or in a farm… I remember preparing personalised training schedules so that each of them could enjoy their passion for football. Nowadays, things have changed a lot and I no longer coach by myself, I have a technical staff working with me. Professional football has other variables and components that are completely different and also the coaching methods have changed, so we must keep updating ourselves constantly; it’s part of a modern coach’s job.
Does it bother you that people know you as the “psychologist” coach?
G.M.: Not really, but there was a time when it was a novelty to have a coach among the elite with a psychologist’s knowledge and education, so some believed that the whole coaching technique was based on hypnotising the players, or something like that. My psychology studies have helped me a lot in the crucial aspect of understanding my players’ hearts. I believe that when a coach can touch the heart of a player, then he can really get the best out of him. This has been one of the main tools I have used, because I believe in it, but of course there is much more to my job. That was a novelty at the time, especially when I came to coach in Madrid, but over time it has become just another part of my coaching toolbox.
With such a long career, surely you will have lived some good and bad times. Can you give us an example?
G.M.: There are some, of course, especially when a project is not concluded, when you cannot apply the ideas with which you started a job. Any time when a project is cut short because of negative results is never particularly nice, but later, when one has had time to digest it and analyse it (“what happened?”), that is the step that allows you to grow. For me the worst moment was when we were unable to save RD Mallorca from relegation, even though that season I was not involved in the team planning, because that is the team that I have coached the most in the First Division, over 200 matches, and where I have experienced some fantastic and beautiful stories, including winning the Copa del Rey. I remember they called me in March, and even though there were very few matches left in the season, we still had a chance on the last day. That in itself was quite an achievement, but unfortunately we couldn’t avoid relegation. I think that was the toughest moment of my career as a coach.
How would you like your teams to be described?
G.M.: As teams with a good footballing taste, who treat the ball well and are known or remembered for playing attractive football. That has always been one of my principles from the moment I started in this world; I have always focused more on the stands than on the pitch. Let me explain: I understand that we are professionals who rely heavily on results, because they will determine whether we carry on or not, but I always think about the spectators watching from the stands. They have paid their money for a ticket, so they expect to see a good show and they want to see attractive football. That is why, from the time I first started to coach, my objective has been for my teams to win by playing better football than the opposition. I think my career reflects that, my teams have had a strong personality and have been balanced in defence and attack. I always try to make those concepts very clear when I coach, but above all, the main idea is to be an offensive team, to try to win each match.
Do you have a specific game system or playing model?
G.M.: It depends, models change depending on the country, the weather, etc. We cannot apply a short passing game in northern countries, for example. Most systems were invented a long time ago, and each coach chooses his based on the players that are currently in the team, or if he has the opportunity to sign new players, he will try to get those who are better suited to the system he wants to implement. For me, these are two different concepts, each coach will emphasise the system to follow depending on his own conception of the game.
Sometimes, we see some very young players who reach the elite very early and then suddenly disappear. What should the coach try to do to support those players and give them time to mature?
G.M.: It depends; sometimes players can be successful at a young age but then when it comes to making the transition to the professional world, many kids are unable to cope. Quite often, there is no apparent explanation for this. Therefore, coaches or scouts may place big hopes on a player, but until they can see him competing with more experienced players, in a different competition, with other variables, they cannot be sure that the kid will be able to handle all the necessary variables to become a professional player. That is why I believe that it is not up to the coach, but I am sure that if a coach sees good qualities in a kid then he will give him an opportunity. I could give you quite a few examples of players who made it and just as many of others who didn’t.
Everyone agrees that a coach must be a good manager of people; players, technical staff, executives, media… what are the keys to doing this successfully?
G.M.: As we were saying earlier, nowadays, football has grown enormously and has acquired a new dimension, so in many cases coaches have to manage every single aspect of a club, and that means that not only do you have to work with the players, but you also have to handle marketing events, sponsors, team retreats, traveling arrangements… The coach has to make sure that all those departments are adapted to the First Team’s work, rather than the opposite. The coach needs to bear in mind that the players are the only workers who will be on the pitch, so if they are not successful, if the team doesn’t do well, everything else won’t matter.
If you had to pick the biggest mistake that a coach can make, what would it be?
G.M.: In my opinion, it would vanity. I believe that a vain coach cannot manage a group successfully. A coach should be humble, reasonable and, above all, fair in every decision that he makes, which are many every day, every week and every match.
What is never missing from your coaching sessions?
G.M.: An analysis of everyday situations and matches; I think they are very important. I always make sure that my players know what I think. I like to ask players to find solutions to problems, both in training and during matches. I prefer players who think by themselves, so instead of giving them answers I pose questions and let them seek solutions. I believe that, unless things have been worked on during training, a coach can do very little during a match. During a match you can encounter different problems and situations and you can’t ask for a timeout to tell players what to do, so they have to figure things out by themselves.
In the time you have been there, have you noticed big differences between Asian and European football? Can you give us some examples?
G.M.: Well, they think differently in many aspects. Even though the competition is quite similar, at least in China there is a great respect and sportsmanship. For example, I am often surprised when a player goes down for whatever reason and the ball is sent out straight away. Another example is that players always shake hands before a match, as a sign of fair play. Also, players and coaches never talk about referees in the media; unsporting behaviour in post-match press conferences is punishable. These are some details that have struck me.
What does a coach need in order to make it to the top?
G.M.: Plenty of motivation and eagerness; that should be the starting point for any aspiring coach, or at least for humble coaches who start from the lowest categories, like I did. But that’s just the starting point, afterwards you will have to learn little by little (often figuring things out by yourself), and you must also try to teach new things to your team. This should be a constant process; you can always correct new aspects and grow day by day. For example, after coaching for 30 years, when we first arrived in China, I remember meeting with the physical coach to design new sessions and telling him “we should try so and so, because it’s something that comes up during matches”. We always try to keep innovating, it helps to keep the coaching flame alive, and the day that fire goes out this journey will have come to an end. But for now it’s burning strong and we carry on, always seeking the best for our team.
THE ABFUTBOL TEST
One coach who inspired you, either active or retired.
Juan José Villalonga
Favourite team from all times, Country or Club.
Real Madrid’s “Quinta del Buitre”
Favourite player, retired
Cruyff and Maradona
Active player you like
Cristiano and Messi
The name of the wind
Gone with the wind
Famous saying or quote
“Man is a wonderful creature; he doesn’t ask to be born, doesn’t know how to live, but doesn’t want to die” (Facundo Cabral)
Describe yourself in three words
Simple, humble and generous
A character you admire outside the world of football
An image from football that has impressed you, from any time.
Given the times I lived, Maradona’s goal in Mexico made a big impression
If you could coach the best team in history, who would you pick?
I would have Maier in goal, Cafú and Roberto Carlos as right and left backs, Beckenbauer and Baresi in centre defence, Mauro Silva as defensive midfielder with Zidane and Cruyff playing in front of him, and then Pele, Ronaldo and Di Stefano as strikers.