For a compartment of life that many of us consider escapism — or at the very least, Where We Go To Be Happy — sports is suffocated by discussion of right and wrong. How businesses should and should not be run. How humans should and should not act. How gameplay should and should not look and feel.
Rightly or wrongly, soccer does this tango better than just about any other sport. And within soccer, nobody does it better than Paco Jemez.
Following Sunday’s dreadful 5-1 loss to Las Palmas, Jemez, manager of Granada, showed his hand in an unprecedented way.
“I was Las Palmas’s best player,” Jemez said in a post-match interview. “I can’t blame the lads. I got a lot of things wrong; I committed almost every error you can think of.”
Jemez continued: “I understand that the team is my responsibility. When a manager gets things so wrong, you really expose your team and your players.”
“The club has to think about whether I’m the right man for the job and whether I should continue.”
There it is, right there at the end. When, if ever, have we seen a newly hired manager — just two matches into a three-year-deal, in fact — not only take such unbridled responsibility for a loss, but also use it to publicly question his own hiring? I’m sure Marcelo Bielsa has done something in the way of WTF many times in his career, but anything quite like this? I’m not so sure.
So what is Jemez actually saying here. To be sure, it’s an admission that could scream of many things. It could simply illustrate a beaten coach looking for a way out. It could be the tack of a cunning mind-gamer exercising some reverse psychology in attempts to protect his players. Or it could be — and I personally believe this is it — the genuine catharsis of a wholly unique sportsman playing out right before our eyes and ears. No pretension, no nonsense. Just the truth.
Know that Jemez is an obsessive. Not so much obsessive in the Jorge Sampaoli way, as I wrote about last week; that’s chessboard obsessiveness. Rather, in addition to caring about tactics, Jemez acutely subscribes to an aesthetic ideal, too. One that carries with it endearment, as well as some baggage. Jemez, perhaps more than any single football coach, believes in playing “the right way.”
At his Granada unveiling back in June, the Spaniard firmly laid out his methodology: “As a coach, my main objective is to give the people something to enjoy, for them to see good football, and the project is something more long-term that at the end we can be fighting for things that until now haven’t been possible.”
Jemez didn’t let his presentation end without an ever-illuminating kicker: “I can’t promise results.”
Now, Jemez’s “right way” might not be identical to, say, Arsene Wenger’s, but it’s certainly in the same zipcode. Like the Frenchman, Jemez believes attacking football is The Way, The Truth, and The Light. His teams pass and pass and pass, sometimes to record-breaking lengths.
The objective — like the game itself — is to score, but only in the most proper manner. In ways that Wenger’s never had to, however, Jemez is willing to die on the shield of that objective. It happened in May, in fact, when Rayo Vallecano — the team Jemez had built his reputation with — were finally relegated to Spain’s Segunda.
There’s an interview in Dennis Bergkamp’s autobiography, Stillness and Speed (co-written by David Winner and Jaap Visser), where late Dutch legend Johan Cruyff describes ideal soccer as “throwing the opposition into chaos.”
“That’s football,” Cruyff states. “If you get past your man, you throw the opposition into chaos. Creating a one-man advantage using positional play has that same effect. If you don’t get past your man, if you don’t get that extra man advantage, then the opposition stays organized and nothing happens.”
From a strategic angle, this is also how Jemez approaches the game. However, the flipside to the coin Cruyff is detailing — the risky part — is when, either by chance or human error, the ball doesn’t accompany the player beyond their defender.
This is where the purveyors of offensiveness throw themselves into chaos and become sitting ducks for the counterattack. It happens often to Jemez’s teams, which is why if you take a look at a list of Rayo results from recent years, you’ll see a lush variety of scorelines, from 1-5s, to some 1-6s, and even a Merengue-induced 2-10. Sunday’s visit to the Canary Islands was just the latest drubbing, even if it did feel especially brutal.
With the Estadio de Gran Canaria being an already difficult away-day, Jemez’s Nazaries were always going to have to be ultra-concise and careful with their implementation if they hoped to leave with all three points. It just so happened that, on this day, Quique Setien’s men-in-yellow were supercharged by the beaming island sun.
From the referee’s first whistle, Las Palmas were all over Granada, forcing defenders into half-hearted commitments, thieving the ball at-will, and pelting Memo Ochoa’s goalmouth with glee like it was a rusty abandoned metal factory. Nabil El Zhar opened the scoring for the hosts just 23 minutes in. The fiery pressing and ball-winning that Jemez typically champions was instead being seized by the home side. Relying on Granada’s clockwork sloppiness with the ball, Las Palmas simply and effectively took Jemez’s dogmas and proceeded to shove them down his throat.
Although Granada were able to pull level just before the half through Jeremie Boga, the equalizer proved vain. Kevin-Prince notched the winner five minutes into the second-half. Then El Zhar sealed his brace. Then Momo got one. Then Sergio Araujo grabbed a final one just before the official could call mercy. Las Palmas, 5; Granada 1.
Here’s an extended GIF of Las Palmas reversing the chaos on Granada:
Defender pensando en atacar. La UD Las Palmas tras robo. Quique Setién es un entrenador increíble. pic.twitter.com/pBaJJH92GE
— Alberto Egea (@esttoper) August 29, 2016
Still, this high risk/high reward philosophy that Jemez upholds is largely why his Rayo sides were able to fight off relegation for the first three years of his tenure there. Despite consistently finishing with poor goal-differentials, Paco’s Franjirrojos — consisting of green loanees and rag-tag bargain-binners — were able to score enough goals on enough matchdays to lift enough points from the field. That’s the benefit of wielding an undying desire to win — in the scope of a relegation scrap, three points is a lot more than one.
Consider a 2015 interview Jemez did with Bleacher Report, where he insists, “I don’t think that [playing defensively] would benefit us in any way.”
“Sometimes it goes wrong, but the fact that we’re a small team doesn’t mean we have to play like one. We try to play like a big, important team, and it’s going very well for us.” Appropriately, the always candid Spaniard ends the same interview proclaiming, “I know nothing.”
Like with his Rayo teams, Jemez trains his new players to focus on their opponent’s goal; to pass-and-move towards it with explicit fervor. But Jemez also understands that this process is ultimately flawed — as all are — and he accepts it. Here’s the key, though: He doesn’t allow those flaws to rule over him. Yes, he recognizes that, if in pursuit of offensive glory you forget the fact that the game of football actually consists of two goals, then you’re pretty much screwed. But he’s also seen, first-hand, on numerous occasions, his bands of riff-raff play like Colossi and succeed. It’s sort of like that Springsteen line: “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.” At this point, Paco’s simply seen too much to doubt.
This is what’s inherently refreshing about a sports figure like Jemez. Because of his downright rejection of the notion of stonewalling, conceding, or even drawing a football match, you know what you’re getting when you enter a transaction with him. Above all, there will be attacking soccer to dizzying degrees. But what exactly does that mean?
Well, that’s the beauty of it. It could mean anything. It could mean a 5-0 win. It could mean a 0-5 defeat. It does to the audience what it does to the opposition, and often to itself. It throws us into chaos.