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COLUMN: Julio Baptista, tactical jargon and the big idea – ‘Being a manager has nothing to do with being a player’

  /  autty

Interview conducted with Oddspedia

“The change from being a player to a manager, the two things have nothing to do with each other,” says Julio Baptista not sternly, but the 42-year-old former Real Madrid, Sevilla and Arsenal star posits it as a fact not an opinion.

“As a player, you’re thinking about your body, your physical shape, how to perform best on the pitch, and trying to give your best.”

The Brazilian has spent much of the past five years removed from the glitz and glamour that characterised the peak of his career, working with Real Valladolid’s youth teams for two years, before a two-year stint at their B team, or Promesas side.

Even as a coach though, he graduated from a coaching course that saw him cross paths – again – with Xavi Hernandez, Raul Gonzalez, Xabi Alonso and Victor Valdes. Baptista says that getting an education in coaching is key, as you wonder about the size of imposter complex their instructors must have been grappling with.

“The education is the most important part. When you stop being a player, you learn how to be a manager through education. Then another of the most important parts is communicating, what you want to express, what you want your players to interpret from you.”

“The number one thing as a manager is that people understand what you’re telling them. Then there are other things, the tactics, the spaces, which these days is already integrated into the player at this point. If a team comes at you with a high block, a medium block or defends in a low block, how will your team be in that situation, and how do you want them to be in that situation. You learn with time, these are the most important things, and the things that you want people to know about you as a manager.”

One of most obvious changes since Baptista was bursting through defences himself is the language around football. In the past two decades, conversations have gone from animalistic metaphors and wingers being tricky or skilful to press-resistant pivots and high-block scholars. Naturally, there are those who sneer at the buzzwords, or the use of terminology that at times seeks solely to garnish the speaker with an extra degree of sophistication, but the sleaker studios and two decades of growth in the tailoring business are shorthand for a greater interest in the inner workings of the game.

Baptista says the tactics and the spaces come pre-packed into the players these days, but having worked with some as young as sixteen, the use of these terms within the game remains something of an unknown. Are coaches asking for the half-space to be flooded, are they describing relationism and the positional game to teenagers as philosophical theories? For Baptista, it’s about increasing your ability to alter things during the game.

“Players of a certain level, they understand. So what we try to do is ensure that everything we tell the player is in terminology that is easy to understand. But then there are things like ‘to come out and divide’ [lines, salir y dividir], or if you have to hold the opponent in place, that’s what you have to do. The players understand and if they don’t they will usually ask – dividing means finding a pass between two opponents, and fijar means to go towards them and ensure they stay in the same spot.”

“All of the terminology you give them, they end up understanding, and when it comes to communicating during a game, then it’s much easier. As a player, if they have to come out with the ball and drive forward, above all a centre-back for example, then they know exactly what to do when I’m giving instructions from the bench. The covering runs, reducing space, all of these things are things that are natural, and you end up with a much healthier and richer communication in terms of content, and that aids the team during the game.”

During his time at Real Madrid, Baptista arrived with Guti, Ronaldo Nazario, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham in the side, and by the time he returned from a loan at Arsenal, only local boy Guti was left, transitioning away from the Galactico era when it had reached either its zenith – or nadir.

The only major trophy Los Blancos won with Baptista was the 2008 Liga title under Bernd Schuster, and while it did contain Raul Gonzalez, Ruud van Nistlerooy and Wesley Sneijder – they were not short of star power – they also had the likes of Mahamadou Diarra, Royston Drenthe, Gabriel Heinze and Fernando Gago playing important roles, a more workman-like team.

When Baptista speaks of his time there though, which was a ‘dream for every player’, he recalls with buttery warmth the list of Galacticos that he played with, rather than the Dutch revolution, which also included Arjen Robben. So where does he fall on the scale of Carlo Ancelotti to Pep Guardiola, the former having re-opened his school of thought after it was declared derelict just three years ago?

“The most important thing for a player is confidence, above all else. I discovered during my career, when a player is confident, they dare to things that not even they feel capable of, or believe they can. That confidence is what you acquire in training sessions, because you can make mistakes there.”

In the past, he has explained that if you can convince great talents to work, then you will win much more often. The long route to victory flows through one idea, and it’s purpose is to ensure the player doesn’t err at the fork in the road.

“Even if they aren’t necessarily comfortable doing something, [you have to] ensure that they know it’s the best thing for the team. As a player, I worked out that the over-arching idea was that. When a player understands that if the team plays in this way, then they have a much better chance of winning, the player will do it.”

Baptista himself stood out for his power, pace and ability to blow a hole in the defence, and says he has plenty of Spanish in his interpretation of the game. But he is still Brazilian. Perusing though Baptista’s highlights, strictly for research purposes, one or two overhead kicks and a couple of floating lobs remind of that.

“We have to encourage their creativity. If as coaches we limit at every moment what a player has to do, we will be creating machines and uglier football,” he told Diario AS in 2022. Maybe you want 11 to buy into the idea, but it’s the two or three that the game has to revolve around all the same.

“Often, when a player does not feel comfortable, in a game where they are under a lot of pressure, they look for the best players, the ones whose role it is to have the ball, to create passing lanes, to change the direction of play, and so that’s what the [overall] idea is for.”

Perhaps, we should just stop trying to put managers in categories so we can understand them better. Finally, it’d be incorrect not to ask, a return to Real Madrid? It’ll be hard work that takes him back.

“I don’t know if the Real Madrid job will be an option some day, if what I do is work, day in, day out, hard. If I become a great manager, it’s a career that takes time, and the right projects, and I hope in the next project, to be able to show bit by bit the work behind it, and that people appreciate that work.”

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