If you were to know how much belief Sergio Lobera imposes on his FC Goa team, look no further than their Indian Super League opener against Chennaiyin FC on Wednesday. Ahmed Jahouh, perhaps, their most indispensable player was missing due to suspension. Edu Bedia and Hugo Boumous – two creative players – were out injured.
But there were no hassles. The Spaniard fielded just three foreigners in his starting eleven with a bench consisting of an all-Indian roster, four which were players from their development side.
Up against the two-time winners and one of the most experienced teams, they dished out a superlative performance even with a depleted squad, picking up from where they left off after reaching the ISL final last season.
Lobera may not have delivered the elusive ISL title Goa fans have been yearning for but he has earned their trust through the brand of football he has imposed over the last two years. With ruthless endeavour, attacking flair and free-flowing style, the Gaurs have been the most entertaining side in the ISL and arguably, in Indian football.
Since taking over from Zico in 2017, Lobera has led the club to two consecutive playoff finishes, where they have also scored the most goals in each edition.
Despite last season’s final heartache to Bengaluru FC in extra-time, the Spaniard compensated for the loss by guiding the side to the Super Cup in April – the first title for the club in their five-year existence. Lobera, though, isn’t a man who gauges success by trophies.
“For me, success is to keep evolving and getting better as a team,” he told Scroll.in just before the start of the season.
Trusting the process
The first season that Lobera arrived in the ISL, he persisted with his possession-based and attacking style even though results didn’t come his way. There were doubts raised about his philosophy, a stark contrast to the counter-attacking style that he inherited from Zico, but he still went about his business despite their tendency to be shaky in defence.
That changed during the 2018-’19 season, where Lobera did not compromise on his attacking approach while bringing about tightness at the back. They kept the joint-highest clean sheets in the league (8) alongside Mumbai City FC and NorthEast United.
The former Las Palmas manager believes it will be hard to improve the defensive statistics from last season but has set sights on achieving history with the club.
“Our objective is to win two trophies in the same season, which no one has done. But the most important thing is to maintain the continuity in the way we play, our hard work and the belief in the team. It is not possible to compare last season with this season because the level of other teams has increased,” he said.
Without a star-studded foreign contingent, Lobera has identified and brooded a strong Indian roster who possess the character to keep the ball and take risks. This year, the club has six overseas players, one less than the allotted cap of seven.
“Having one foreigner short this year leaves a good opportunity for an Indian player to claim his spot and maybe in the future, we can have more (Indian) players starting,” he claimed.
Since the time he took charge, Lobera has always stressed on the need to develop the quality Indian players and he has been successful at that. At present, four FC Goa players are part of the national team, two have been recent additions – Mandar Rao Dessai and Brandon Fernandes. However, the 40-year-old reveals the most difficult part of his stint in India has been convincing players to believe in his style.
“It is very important for me as a coach to maintain honesty and make the players believe in our style. Sometimes when one player commits an individual mistake and if you don’t give them that confidence as coach, he won’t continue in the same way,” he explained.
“If I ask goalkeeper, centre-backs to build play (from the back) and if they commit a mistake it is easy for them to not repeat the same thing and resort to playing long balls. But when the players commit a mistake it is because they try to play in my style and this is the most difficult thing – winning the players’ belief over the individual situations,” he added.
The Barcelona way
A student of the Barcelona school of thought, Lobera learnt from Tito Vilanova, Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal and Charles Rexach while he was part of the coaching staff at the Blaugrana club. Other big names such as Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Jordi Cruyff worked as interns under him while pursuing their coaching license in Spain. His philosophy was shaped by the ideas he imbibed from different coaches.
“I try and study different people with different mindsets. I learn a lot watching different training, matches, coaches and notice everything in detail. When I speak football with different people and tell them I like (Jose) Mourinho and Guardiola, people will find it impossible (to like them both). But both are good at two different things,” he stressed.
Lobera’s style is pleasing to the eye but not easy to implement. Many of his counterparts have failed to deliver results with the tiki-taka style, the essence of which is down to creativity and giving players freedom to express themselves.
“Football is all about balance but the ultimate thing about football is maximising the creativity,” he explained.
“As defenders, it is possible for the team to react automatically to situations. But when you attack it is important to work in order, find different solutions but it all depends on how players use their creativity. As a coach I try and give them confidence on the pitch because one player in one moment can one change a match with his creativity,” he continued.
Lobera enters his third season at FC Goa, who are touted favourites for the ISL trophy alongside the defending champions Bengaluru FC.
For now, it may be too early to talk about the title but Lobera is clear about the legacy he wants to leave: “When I leave Goa, everyone can speak about the football we played. What brings me joy is when people enjoy the full ninety minutes rather than just celebrating the three points at the final result. The best trophy for me is when people in India speak about our style and want to watch us play more. For others, trophies may be the objective but the right way to win is by displaying entertaining football,” he concluded.