This may seem a bit odd given Manchester City’s massive contingent, but Pep Guardiola felt his inner circle was just too small last year.
Mikel Arteta had left earlier in the season. City knew he was destined to leave for a managerial job at some point, but losing him in December was a bit of a problem.
Arteta had been an exemplary assistant manager. City was more than a touch miffed by the way Arsenal approached him and made their way to Arteta’s home in Didsbury to hold long nighttime talks hours after the two sides faced off at Emirates Stadium.
But Guardiola couldn’t get in his way.
Juanma Lillo was the man Pep Guardiola finally decided he needed within his ranks
The town clerk knew that replacing his loyal lieutenant would be one of the greatest assets to his office. The club did not rush before settling on Juanma Lillo, who had led Qingdao Huanghai to the Chinese Super League. He was back home in Madrid when City called.
The players did not know who Lillo was upon arrival. He had coached on four continents with very few triumphs and had no command of English.
Existing relationships were in his favor, however, particularly with Guardiola mesmerized by Lillo’s Real Oviedo when they played against Barcelona in 1996.
Guardiola asked to speak to the manager afterwards, their friendship was strengthened that night as they talked for hours. Guardiola later went to Mexico to play for Dorados Sinaloa under Lillo – six months of mentorship in the art of coaching and preparation.
After being friends for many years, Guardiola and Lillo City have led to the title this season
The pair stayed close. Lillo traveled the world for various jobs, Guardiola was all consumed by Barca, Bayern Munich and now City.
Crucially, Lillo also knew sporting director Txiki Begiristain and two prominent city coaches, Xabi Mancisidor and Lorenzo Buenaventura. For the purposes of Guardiola’s inner circle, it fitted perfectly.
He offered Guardiola alternative tactical thinking to spring up on, and the new man, an experienced figure with four decades of coaching on his resume, certainly made a big impact.
He noticed problems during Project Restart, which ended in the Lisbon catastrophe – the infamous defeat to Lyon and the surprise three-man defense – but really came into its own by Christmas. Lillo has his disagreements with Guardiola, but City Football Academy’s offices are quieter for the 55-year-old’s presence.
In this sense, there are important differences from Arteta, who, although an excellent communicator and a strong sounding board for the manager, has a similar temperament behind the scenes to Guardiola.
This more impulsive nature was attributed to Arteta’s age and a desire to progress quickly. The older Lillo is described as calm and patient.
Guardiola knew he needed to find a replacement for Mikel Arteta, who was his trusted adviser
“He’s the voice to calm Pep,” a source said. “A perfect, deep voice behind Pep, you know? The other side of Pep. ‘
No one from Guardiola has ever suggested that much, but perhaps this is why City went back to basics in December, when chips were low and performance stagnated.
In previous seasons, that string of poor results might have led to a radical shift in tactics, but when City were at the bottom, Lillo Guardiola promised that the season would turn and that rivals would undoubtedly lose games.
They did, City won all of theirs and now they could end the campaign with a historic treble.
Tactically, Lillo is known for embracing a 4-2-3-1 formation years before it was fashionable and an obsession with probability-based position play. Essentially making attackers stay in front of the ball in unexpected places. That philosophy sounds familiar.
He may be a deep thinker away from the field, but he’s spent a bundle of energy on it and his influence on the players, especially the Latin speakers, is growing.
Guardiola has insisted that the veteran Lillo’s knowledge of the game is ‘overwhelming’
Joao Cancelo took advantage of this and learned how best to rob from the fullback, while Lillo often caught the team by surprise before the games. But it is when advising the manager that his true genius radiates. This is the role he seems best suited to helping the club’s figurehead.
While some former players have spoken glowingly about his abilities – in much the same way as Marcelo Bielsa’s – it is as an assistant that Lillo seems to be at home.
Jorge Sampaoli, for example, maps a failure to push the Argentine FA hard enough to name Lillo as No. 2 as its biggest mistake for their ill-fated 2018 World Cup.
“Juanma’s knowledge of the game is overwhelming,” said Guardiola. “He sees things that few people in the world, including me, can see.
‘He’s a friend of mine from a long time ago, finally we can work together. It was a dream and is now a dream come true. ‘