Meet the man who inspires Guardiola and thinks soccer should be 10 vs. 10
GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Former Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe is hoping to visit Manchester in the near future -- when the English weather improves! -- on a pilgrimage of sorts to talk to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
La Volpe currently analyzes games and creates videos on current tactics and historic teams from his base in Guadalajara and while he's never met Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach has named La Volpe as an influence on his coaching career on a number of occasions.
What Guardiola has stated he specifically admires in La Volpe's approach to the game is the way his teams play the ball out from the defense to start attacks.
In England, the insistence on playing out from the back was an aspect of City's game that was fiercely criticized and perhaps not widely understood when Guardiola first joined, before their displays in the current campaign blew away most skeptics. La Volpe, who won the 1978 World Cup with Argentina, managed Mexico in the 2006 World Cup and his most high-profile match was El Tri memorably taking the game to Argentina in the Round of 16. A Maxi Rodriguez volley in extra-time would break Mexican hearts but La Volpe's side took the plaudits, even in defeat, and one of those voices was Guardiola, who had just finished playing and was preparing for management.
"[La Volpe] obligates [his teams] to play out from the back, which means players and the ball advance together at the same time," wrote Guardiola in El Pais back in 2006. "If only one [player] does it, there is no reward, no value. They have to do it together, like couples do when they go out together."
Playing with three center-backs, Mexico pushed the wing-backs up into midfield and the three central defenders moved up as a unit, shifting the ball between them as the opponents -- most of whom played with two strikers -- and looking for the pass into midfield. These days, the tendency is for the holding midfielder to drop to make a line of three and for the full-backs to charge forward, but the principle is the same.
Guardiola already knew about La Volpe from his time playing in Mexico for Dorados de Sinaloa in early 2006 under the influential Juan Manuel Lillo, but seeing it on the big stage obviously made an impression.
"The Mexicans, playing their defenders in this way, know the risk they run," continued Guardiola. "A lost possession from where they play the ball out from could be terrible. But not only do they know it, everyone knows it. That's why everyone evades doing the same as the Mexicans. The world chooses one way, the Mexicans another. Some start plays, others play out [from the back]."
The same sentiment could've been attributed to Guardiola's first culture-changing season at City.
For La Volpe, the 2006 World Cup turned out to be the peak of his managerial career. Following the tournament there were stints at Boca Juniors in his native Argentina, at a host of Mexican clubs and even the Costa Rica national team, but the football-obsessed 66-year-old never made it to Europe to challenge himself against the very best.
In an hour-long conversation in a Guadalajara cafe, ESPN FC sat down with La Volpe to discuss his perception of just what Guardiola saw in his Mexico team, the importance of playing out from the back, the role of the goalkeeper in the modern game, his thoughts on Man City's blistering form and more.
(Editor's note: This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. It has also been edited for brevity and clarity)
ESPN FC: Why do you think Guardiola picked up on the way the 2006 Mexico team played?
Ricardo La Volpe: Because playing out from the back isn't the goalkeeper giving it to the center-back and the center-back passing it just for the sake of it. The job is to get the ball into midfield with numeric superiority, with a man spare. And if you don't have a man spare in the middle of the field after playing out, it's because the opponent left you man-on-man further forward.
Why is it like couples going out? Because those two center-backs are partners against the No. 9. If the No. 9 wants to close one off we go back to the other side, but I repeat that being the protagonist means dominating the ball in defense with the center-backs. It's not a midfielder coming to get it because what we want is to turn the center-back into a midfielder and then the midfielder generates the numeric difference (in the center).
ESPN FC: How do you train playing out from the back? Repetition?
RLV: Every day we'd do 10-15 salidas on the right, 10-15 on the left. It depends on the intelligence and control of the players, plus the talent they have, but it's also about instilling confidence in the players. And if the opponent gifts you a one-on-one [up front], you need to know how to break the lines up top. For example, in the game that Manchester City lost against Liverpool [Jan. 14], City committed the error of always trying to play out the back and not playing it longer up top.
If [the opposition] is applying that kind of pressing [like Liverpool did] it is surely because they have left you man-on-man up front. If the salida isn't clear, you can't take a risk, it's unnecessary. You have to go longer and pressurize to win the rebounds.
ESPN FC: Ederson's performances have been praised. How important is the role of the goalkeeper in playing out from the back?
RLV: [The goalkeeper] has to know how to play with the ball at his feet and know how to receive it from both the left and right. If they receive the ball from the left, it's more likely that there is pressing and a striker will approach. A lot of times, goalkeepers stop the ball again to change it to the other foot, which makes it easy to press. A bad pass from a defender means the goalkeeper will be under pressure, but you have to work on it because if you don't test the goalkeeper in training, come game-time the goalkeeper won't know what to do. A lot of times now when the central defenders open up [towards the wings], the goalkeeper is left like a libero as if in a defensive line of three.
ESPN FC: Would you describe Man City's system as a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 like some do in England?
RLV: I'd say it is a 4-1-4-1 when the two wide players are more midfielders and a 4-3-3 when they are more attacking players. Playing with Neymar or [Angel] Di Maria is not the same. With Neymar, it's a guarantee that he'll win seven out of 10 duels with the full-back and Di Maria won't. If you play [David] Silva, I'd say it is more of a 4-1-4-1 and if you put [Leroy] Sane, who is aggressively attacking, it's more of a 4-3-3.
ESPN FC: Are there any other teams that you particularly like the way they play out from the back?
RLV: In my opinion, it's a lie that many teams play out from the back. Why is it a lie? The center-back gives the ball to the midfielder, so I'd say to the center-back, 'You gave the ball to the midfielder?... what did you achieve?' I need the centre-back to go out and make a difference, to generate a two-on-one.
ESPN FC: I've also heard you respect Jose Mourinho, who obviously has very different ideas to Guardiola?
RLV: Having a balance in a team is important. To defend like [Carlos Salvador] Bilardo, to know how to defend like Mourinho and to attack like Guardiola or [Cesar Luis] Menotti... It's a balance and that' why I respect [Diego] Simeone and Mourinho's ideology a lot. But if you ask what I like, I like how Bayern [Munich] plays, how Manchester [City] plays and I liked how Real Madrid played in a 4-3-3 with [Zinedine] Zidane.
I don't see that Atletico [Madrid] is admired throughout the world, nor Manchester United today. Even people who know little about football would prefer Manchester City, and Manchester United is bigger. I like these differences because [Guardiola] left an imprint at Barcelona, a history.
[La Volpe mentions Louis van Gaal's Ajax, Arrigo Sacchi's Milan and Real Madrid's "La Quinta del Buitre" as examples of teams that have left a legacy.] They left an imprint, something different than the rest. Many teams play well, but there are some that are on a higher level, that are remembered by everyone.
ESPN FC: You have advocated for a rule change to reduce each team to 10 players. Can you expand on that idea?
RLV: I'd like you to send this to FIFA to analyze. Today the physical side of football is overpowering the technical side. In the 1978 World Cup, the top player for distance covered was Osvaldo Ardiles; the No. 8 covered 7.8 or eight kilometers. Now they [can] cover 14 kilometers.
What would one less player mean? I think that if we play with one less player, there will be more space and with more space we'd give more time to the tactician, the technical player, the player with creativity that can receive and have a tenth of a second to think. Now when that player receives the ball, the opposition is on top of him. The only way of helping those players shine is by giving them a little more time. How do you give him time? With space. How do you make more space? Play with one player less.
FIFA has to pay attention to this; football has to be more eye-catching. If we want more 0-0 draws and to bore people, that's fine because the physical side is already terrible, you can see it. I'd like to know if players that I saw in my era that shone they could play with the pressure and pressing that exist today.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.