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Early on 9 October, 2006, Pep Guardiola woke up in a small hotel in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. He was accompanied by David Trueba, the Spanish film director, and as they made their way to breakfast he warned his friend that they would be joined by a young Argentinian man who had been in touch and shown an inveterate interest in his playing career. Such was the detail in the emails that Guardiola had received from the young man that the Catalan was wary, and so he agreed with Trueba that should his company become tiresome then they would leave with feigned haste.
The young man was called Matías Manna. He was a tall, skinny 23-year-old who was delighted to be meeting the man who had shaped his passion for the football purveyed by Cruyffian sides. Guardiola had agreed to meet with him after Manna sent links to his blog, entitled Paradigma Guardiola, in which he regularly posted articles and videos which detailed and analysed the thoughts and convictions demonstrated by Guardiola’s playing career.
Over breakfast, Manna showed his analytical graphics of Barcelona games that he had taken from televised fixtures, and he soon had both Guardiola and Trueba transfixed by his passion and intrigue. They didn’t leave, they stayed; they listened. “If anyone embodied the enjoyment given by Guardiola’s Barcelona, then it was Matías at that breakfast table in Palermo,” Trueba later wrote.
It was a time when Greece and Italy had enjoyed success at international level through direct, 4-4-2 football and Manna, despite his youth, was convinced that behind a central figure in the systems of Cruyff and Van Gaal hid the soul of a coach who could breathe new life into the Total Football way.
Ever since Spanish football began to be broadcast in Argentina at the time of the Dream Team in the early 1990s, Manna was captivated by Barcelona. The kit, the stadium, the players. Guardiola. His mother, an English teacher, travelled to Madrid and was told by a football shirt seller, “Have this one, Madame. They play better.” And with that, Manna was the owner of a shirt with Guardiola’s iconic no. 4 on the back, which only fuelled the allure of the Camp Nou outfit.
Manna had captained his local side Bochofilo Bachazo de San Vicente, who played in the equivalent of the National League in Argentina, and looked to shape his game on Guardiola. “I was very skinny,” he recalls. “I didn’t run more than the others, I didn’t strike the ball hard, I didn’t head the ball. I did what he (Pep) did. It was all about having a feel for the game.”
‘What he did’ was an imitation of the footage he watched of Guardiola and from newspaper cuttings found on the internet, which had recently arrived in his native San Vicente – a city of 20,000 in the Santa Fe region of Argentina. Manna was successful at school and looked to further his education by enrolling at Rosario International University when his playing career subsided. He studied social communication before pursuing a post-graduate in digital communications, and going on to become a lecturer – all while maintaining the blog that he set up in its final form in 2006.
“I started the blog as a model of the philosophy of a playing style that was in disuse,” he explains. “The intention of the blog was to defend a style of play that was being killed off. I wanted to exhibit the football ideas that Guardiola expressed, at that time as a player. I’m an admirer of the playing style that Barcelona have expressed over the past 30 years. Guardiola expressed them like no one else the playing ideas and convictions of the school set up by Cruyff.
“There were few visitors to start with, but it was a stable group. It seemed to me that there were certain people, especially friends of Guardiola, people in his circle, who read it. I didn’t use it as a communication medium to earn money, that didn’t interest me. I preferred it being a tool for study and analysis. I like to write and I used videos too which allowed the blog to become more stable. It was a means to exhibit my two obsessions: training methods and game analysis and the relationship between them. These are the two things that I like thinking about.”
Manna’s interest in Guardiola’s methods only heightened through his blog posts while at University, and he jumped at the chance to undertake a Catalan language course to gain further access to local press covering Barcelona. It was through the Catalan publication, Regió7, that he read a rare personal interview that Guardiola had granted, and Manna contacted the author to ask for a way of contacting Guardiola to direct him towards Paradigma Guardiola. The journalist granted Manna’s request and he was soon in possession of Guardiola’s phone number.
With word of Guardiola being on the verge of moving to the Argentinian league, Manna plucked up the courage to call him. “Guardiola was close to going to Banfield in Argentina in 2005 and he was in contact with their president,” he says. “I called him, but there was no answer. I left him a message on the answer machine. I rang him on a Sunday from my parents’ house in San Vicente. Then, during the week, I rang him again. He’d already seen Paradigma and he thanked me. Then, in 2006, he invited me to his hotel in Buenos Aires.
“When I met him and David Trueba, I gifted Guardiola a few books, 4 or 5 books, I can’t remember how many exactly, but one of these books was a book about Marcelo Bielsa. We were in a bar and Guardiola took the books. The one that he liked the most, obviously, was the one about Bielsa and he started reading it. At one point he went upstairs, I stayed with David, and he came back to that bar having already read a chapter of it.”
The following day, conveniently, Guardiola had arranged to meet with Bielsa, having been advised by Juan Román Riquelme that the Argentinian coach was the mind to tap into when embarking on a coaching career. What was supposed to be a morning’s conversation turned into the 11-hour discussion famed for its impact on Guardiola’s coaching career.
“Guardiola sent me a message after their conversation and said, ‘I’ve just been with the person who knows the most about football’. I’d returned to Rosario on the Monday night and he said we’d see each other again the following night, but we couldn’t in the end because their chat went on for so long.”
But there would be more to come for Manna, with the Bielsa biography proving to be one of the most useful gifts he may ever give.
“I knew a friend of Bielsa’s by chance and about two months after that he took me to his office to see how he works,” he says. “That person wanted me to see what he did. When I arrived, Bielsa started talking about what he did and he realised that I’d given Guardiola the book about him. Then I started with him as an analyst when he took over at Chile and I was 23. Bielsa had me doing tests and analysis which allowed me to grow and I met lots of people through it. I went to the World Cup as a member of his team in 2010 where I met one of Sampaoli’s assistants who recruited me to work for Chile again.”
All the while, Manna remained in contact with Guardiola, who personally invited him to take in how the Barcelona machine was run in 2010. “We stayed in contact,” he says. “He told me a lot of things during his time in charge of Barcelona B. We sent each other emails and he told me how he felt coaching the players and how they were. I watched the games on the internet. It was on my birthday when he was presented as the manager of the first team and he announced that Ronaldinho and Deco would be leaving. He sent me birthday wishes, so it was good things like that.”
After the World Cup in South Aftica, Bielsa left his position with the Chile national team to become Athletic Bilbao manager, which left Manna to navigate his way into a coaching job. His blog was still up and running, and was growing in prevalence when Guardiola took over at the Camp Nou, with around 4,000 unique visitors per day when Barcelona were playing. In 2012, he published a book of the same name, for which Trueba wrote the foreward. Such was the quality of the analysis that he published, teams including Porto contacted him to say that they had used his material to tactically educate their youth teams.
Manna took his coaching badges with the Argentine Football Association and soon found work with former Fulham player Facundo Sava, under whom he was a coach as well as an analyst, at Unión de Santa Fe and San Martín de San Juan in the Argentine Primera División. It was while working with Sava that Manna was able to further integrate his university education with his football career, through his involvement in the Sandball project which looked to revolutionise the practice and effectiveness of team talks.
“It was an idea that I was linked with at Unión de Santa Fe and the idea came from wanting team talks to improve,” he says. “We wanted to change the way that it was just the coach talking and the player listening. We wanted to allow more interaction, and we achieved that through using various platforms that I’d seen in my degree programme. We changed how it was done traditionally, in a class. The manager giving instructions always felt like a class as the coach is explaining things. The worst thing that can happen in a class – and I know this from teaching at a university – is that the teacher speaks too much. You’ve got to have interaction throughout and it was a form of creating that interaction.
“Team talks between managers and players was a field of intervention for communicators. Where I’ve been I’ve always tried to help in this area. It seems very important to me, from an educational perspective, that the coach can communicate his ideas in a correct way and that the players can participate in the community of ideas that is a football club. I think that my education has helped me to contribute in a football environment.”
The programme, which incorporates a FIFA-style controller, allows players to demonstrate their instructions on a computer screen and was an instant success and was one of a number of factors that drew Jorge Sampaoli to his services when the current Argentina manager took over at the Chile national side in 2014. After disappointment at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Manna, alongside Sampaoli’s assistant Juanma Lillo, was instrumental in overseeing a cultural shift that brought great reward in winning the 2015 Copa America.
“Jorge gives me confidence,” he says of Sampaoli. “The analyst isn’t a separate element of the coaching staff, we believe in teamwork, collaboration and cooperation. We’re an important aid for the players and I think that the best coaches are those who improve the qualities of the players, and Sampaoli gets the full potential out of the players on a match day. What we managed to do with Chile was renowned; how we won, the way, the style of play. I hold fond memories of what we did at the Copa America. On a personal level it was a very rich experience. I think that that team embodied the ideas on the management team.”
Their success on the international stage saw Sevilla come calling when Unai Emery left for Paris Saint-Germain, and there were whispers of Guardiola courting Manna’s assistance when he took over at Manchester City in the same summer. But Manna plays what would appear to be a dream move for him down as speculation. “That was published in Chile because I mentioned a player to Manchester City,” he said. “Sampaoli offered me an important role in the coaching staff that no other coach had been offered. I had an understanding with him. I like working with him and have known him for a long time.” Would Manna like to work with Guardiola in the future, though? “No, I don’t think so. I thought about it but now I don’t think I’d like to. Yes, it was a dream. It would be for anyone in the world to work with an intelligent person like him. But it’s not my objective, I’m now targeting other things.”
There was a seamless transition for Sampaoli’s staff from the international scene to domestic football, and Sevilla’s league form saw them challenge at the top of La Liga until a disastrous run of games in March saw them fall by the wayside. Manna was a favourite among the players, with Gabriel Mercado – the Argentina right-back – describing him as “a genius”. Despite his struggles at the end of his tenure at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, Argentina came calling for Sampaoli and it was a straightforward decision for Manna to follow him. “I hope that Argentina can start playing the football that is ours again. I think Argentina can start doing that with Messi and I hope that Sampaoli will bring back the Argentinian football identity.”
One of the chapters in Paradigma Guardiola explores “Could Guardiola provoke a structural change to reorganise the Argentine footballing identity?”. It seems as though Manna himself is doing that now.