In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, former Spain head coach Robert Moreno explains what it was like to ‘train’ Lionel Messi, reveals what he thinks makes Pep Guardiola so good, and discusses his favourite teams in Europe – including two in the Championship…
It is over a year now since Robert Moreno left his role as the head coach of Granada. At 45, his career is ahead of him. But for someone whose coaching journey began at the age of 14, that is a long time to be out of the game – and he is feeling it.
“I try to make the most of this time with my two children because they know when Dad has to work it will be different,” Moreno tells Sky Sports. “But even now, I take my kids to school and then I come back to the house and start analysing the videos.
“I started as a video analyst so, for me, it is impossible to work without video.” It is impossible too, it seems, not to work. “It is not easy when football is almost your life,” he adds. “I met my wife through football. It is not my job. It is my passion.”
Moreno was Luis Enrique’s assistant when Barcelona won the Champions League in 2015 and followed him to the Spain national job in 2018. When Luis Enrique left that role for personal reasons, Moreno took over for 10 unbeaten matches, winning eight.
The controversial breakdown of their relationship upon his return brought intense and unwanted scrutiny, setting Moreno on a different path.
He is understandably guarded on the matter and the topic remains off limits. The situation feels particularly unfortunate given that Moreno worked so hard to reach the top of his profession. With the conversation focused on football, he is engaging company.
“I realised early that I did not have the ability to play professionally so I started training little kids. At 16, I tried to get the UEFA B Licence but the rules said that I had to wait until I was 18. I began studying for the Pro Licence soon after that and got it at 25 years old.
“I was always thinking about how I could improve without being a professional player. I found the solution in two ways. I read a lot of football books and I also read books about other subjects because football is about human relationships, about communication.
“And also I combined that with using new technology. Nobody was using it at that time and it was the future. I am talking about 1995 when I first started to record my team in Catalunya with the help of my girlfriend – now wife – and my family. I started early.”
To go from there to training Lionel Messi must have been extraordinary. Not that he would describe it as training Messi.
“We worked together,” says Moreno, laughing.
“I did not train him. He was there and I was there.”
Allow him to explain.
“You train the rest of the players around him. You train them to be an option or a solution for him because he is going to be the one who is analysing the weaknesses of the opponent and trying to make the most of every situation in which he has with the ball.
“He was with the team during the sessions. He watched. He did not say anything. He does not need to analyse what the opponent is going to do because it is the opponent that has to be worried about what he has to do. He is always the smartest player on the pitch.
“It was incredible to see him in everyday training situations. If you consider that he was awesome during matches, he was awesome during training sessions. He wanted to win, always. He wanted to be champion again and again.
“Working with him was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I will tell my grandchildren that I was with Messi. Even now, my son says to me, ‘You trained Messi?’ For him, it is incredible.” But what did Moreno learn from the experience?
“What I learned from him is that football is not a science,” he adds.
“As a coach, you can be selfish. You want to see your ideas on the pitch. But when you have a player like Messi, you need to take a step back and let him play because my mind is not capable of coming up with what his mind will create. It is an art.
“What the best players in the world do is impossible to explain. Ask Xavi or Andres Iniesta why they have done something and they do not know. But you did it? ‘Yes,’ they say, ‘but I do not know why. I was on the pitch, this felt like the best solution so I did it.’
“Sometimes your job is to give lots of information. But at the top level, you are not there to teach them everything. You are there to put them together to make the most of the team that you have. Sometimes that means you need to shut up and let them play.
“This is the big difference with these players. Lesser players need your help. These players let you know that you are there because they need someone to sit on the bench and pick the team. But this is a small group of players. Not all players are like this.”
It helps to explain why his ideas about the game have become fluid with time. A native of Catalunya, it is perhaps no surprise that Pep Guardiola remains a reference. But he admires Guardiola’s rarely discussed flexibility as well as his much vaunted principles.
He has seen an evolution in Guardiola’s approach at Manchester City. “You need to change because if you do something regularly then opponents analyse you and find a way to stop you. That is one of the best things about Guardiola,” explains Moreno.
“When Barcelona started to build up from the goalkeeper in 2008, nobody else did it so nobody had the capacity to press this build-up in a good way. Now, after 15 years, everyone can press high and try to recover the ball close to your goal. So you have to evolve.
“People have criticised Pep for using Erling Haaland with direct balls but for me it is smart. If you have the other team pressing high in your own half and you have space behind, why not use it? The evolution is to control these two situations, to build without risk.
“There are statistics that show that only one per cent of attacks starting with the goalkeeper arrive at the opposition goal but eight per cent of those attacks end in a counter-attack against you. The challenge is to control these situations well to avoid them.
“Overall, a coach has to control four things: leadership, scouting, tactics and methodology. These four things are the job. Methodology because you can have a great idea but if you cannot find a way to explain it then the players cannot deliver it on the pitch.”
Moreno is a student of the game. When asked where he looks for inspiration, he names teams from across Europe. Napoli, of course. Braga, he says, are doing incredible things. The project at Stade Reims is intriguing. Villarreal and Real Sociedad are examples.
In England, he looks beyond Guardiola and the Premier League.
“Sunderland and Swansea in the Championship. Sunderland did not win promotion and Swansea was a rollercoaster but I love the way they play. Luton do not play the style that I prefer but I admire them for achieving their goals with their own way.”
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England is on his radar. He mentions Portugal too having already worked in Spain, Italy and also in France during his time as the head coach of Monaco. He speaks all of those languages, having worked to develop his English through his work for LaLiga TV.
“I wanted to improve my communication with the media,” he explains.
“And if you have passion for this sport, you need to go to England. It is the way the fans live the matches, even in the Championship. The level of the Championship is one of the best in Europe. They can fight with teams in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.
“These are the countries that I want to be ready to go to but England is the next step, I think. I want a job next season. I want to live those feelings again. You just need the right project that gives both you and the club what they need. Let us see what happens.”