“You know what we’re like,” Jagoba Arrasate says. It’s evening and the Osasuna manager is back at Tajonar, their historic training ground on the edge of Pamplona in northern Spain. On Saturday night, his side welcome Barcelona to their home, El Sadar, and there is a lot to do.
When he was a kid, Arrasate’s favourite player was Roberto Lopez Ufarte, “the little devil” who scored over 100 goals for Real Sociedad in the 1970s and 1980s; now, Arrasate has to prepare for a man, Lionel Messi, who fits that description better even than his boyhood idol. Probably, he says, the best player in history. And that means even more analysis for the 42-year-old coach who’s still officially a primary school teacher on leave from his day job.
A former striker who played in Spain’s regionalised, 80-team third tier, coaching is Arrasate’s passion even if he does sometimes wonder why.
“You enjoy it,” he says, “but sometimes, I think you suffer it more than you enjoy it. Every week, all week, endlessly turning things over in your head. An hour before the game, your stomach hurts. And you think ‘bloody hell, is all this really worth it?’ But then it ends and if you’ve won, you’re the happiest man in the world.”
That’s particularly true in a place like Pamplona, home to the annual Festival of San Fermin. But if they are to beat Barcelona this time, he and his team must do it alone. And that matters, maybe more here than anywhere else, as the past year has shown.
There’s something special about this part of the world and football here, about this Osasuna team, these fans: noisy, loyal and usually right on top of the players. Arrasate, born in the tiny Basque town of Berriatua, building a career in the mud of the lower leagues here, understood and embraced that. Built an identity around it, in fact.
One day, a huge billboard appeared in the city depicting Arrasate, his finger out like God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The fans who put it up insisted that this team was the creation of Jagoba. And it wasn’t just that he led them back to the Primera Division via the second-division title in 2018-19 and then, a top-half finish, or that they set a club record by going 31 games unbeaten at home; it was the way they did it.
Few teams have been explicitly built around a communion with their fans quite like Arrasate’s Osasuna, a footballing ideal inspired by their stadium, El Sadar.
“Binominal,” he calls it: the fans and team as one. This weekend, though, marks a year since the stadium — renovated for a centenary, Osasuna have been unable to celebrate with the people that make them special — last welcomed supporters through the gates. Since then it has stood empty, as silent as it is spectacular. Asked how it has been, Arrasate replies: “S—. Fans are the essence of everything.”
ESPN: In the case of Osasuna, the absence of fans has impacted on the football itself, hasn’t it?
Arrasate: I don’t know how you measure what every team has lost without fans, but you know what El Sadar is like, and what the new Sadar would have been like, with a higher capacity, even steeper, even more enclosed, even tighter, even better acoustics. This season we haven’t produced a single comeback, for example. Those are details, facts, that go beyond feelings or assumptions.
At El Sadar, there’s that feeling of living an emotional rollercoaster — the sense that with the fans there, we can do anything, we can come back from any deficit. It’s hard to measure, but there’s something that makes our players feel very powerful. And that’s missing this year.
There are all kinds of players: those who struggle to concentrate, or can’t get going, without fans because there’s just nothing there, and those who prefer to play without fans because they feel more at ease, calmer. But our DNA has always been fighting, battling, the struggle, and we’ve really felt the absence of the fans.
There’s something wild about the way you play, or there was. Like a team with the brakes cut. At El Sadar, noisy, intimidating, close to the pitch, it felt like that starts in the stands as much as on the pitch. Has that been lost?
A bit, yeah. We had a bad run at the start of the season [Osasuna won three of their first six games, only to go winless over the next 13] and that affects your confidence, too; you can’t be so fast, so dizzying, so direct. There was a moment when we had to try to find a balance, get points and settle. I think we’re better now and maybe we can cut loose again.
We’re a team of waves and charges. That has always been Osasuna’s identity: few touches, get the ball forward fast, lots of crosses, intense [football]. And the fans identified with that, there was kind of binomial thing happening, a sense of the fans and team coming together, depending on each other, a communion which made us stronger. And we lost that. We’ve lost that [frenetic] identity, partly because the fans have been absent and also because those results hit our confidence.
You say it’s intangible; can it be measured at all? Do the stats suggest that something has changed in pandemic football?
We’re seeing that we are doing fewer quick transitions than last season. Back then, we would rob the ball and run forward more than we are now: we were more direct, faster. In terms of distance covered, we’re actually running further, but last year we were one of the teams with the most high-intensity runs, the most sprints; this year, we’ve dropped in that regard. Maybe because of the profile of the players — we don’t have Pervis Estupinan [a defender who joined Villarreal in the summer], we’ve not had Chimy Avila [the forward tore his knee ligaments in September] — but I am sure that the lack of fans has something to do with that. Absolutely sure of that.
Football is different now?
Yes, yes. This season, we hardly had a preseason. Also, now we come to train, but they don’t even let us shower here [due to ongoing coronavirus measures]. The essence of what a player does — his routine — has been lost: train, gym work, videos, get together. That’s gone. The dressing room, the sanctuary of football, has been taken away.
You’re seeing more injuries, too, and a compressed fixture list. You end up having to “dose” your effort and not play so madly, which was our identity.
Is a team without a dressing room less of a team?
Yes: much, much less. The players change here in eight different dressing rooms, two or three players together. They’re in there for five minutes, then they go out and train. You lose that routine: coming here in the morning, seeing your teammates’ faces, chatting. “How was last night?”
Those small things — the essence of football, building a group — that’s all being lost. We’re lucky in that we have lots of homegrown players, which helps. But if you get changed with just one person alongside you and you don’t see the others in that context, you lose some of what a team is.
Football is the dressing room? It’s life, a group, a family. They had to take precautions because of the coronavirus, but the essence of the game has been taken away.
That footballing identity led to you being called Osasuna’s Jurgen Klopp…
Haha. It was Braulio, the club’s sporting director, who said that. I always followed Klopp at Mainz and Dortmund: I’ve always liked a style of football where you’re always attacking, a game of transitions and going for it, not just having the ball for the sake of it. That “rock n’ roll” football. And here we did something like that, so that’s where that phrase came from: Osasuna being like Liverpool.
With our fans at our ground, all the noise, sometimes it even felt real.
Liverpool have suffered post-pandemic, too. Is there some parallel there?
When you think of Liverpool, the first thing that comes to mind is the Kop, the fans, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” When you hear Manchester City, for example, that doesn’t come to mind.
There are teams that have that sense of history, tradition, identity, fans… as part of how they actually play, I mean. You feel it around the grounds: in the pubs [before and after matches], the atmosphere. All of that is football for me. Liverpool have that — so do some other teams. So maybe that affects them.
The footballing identity here is also “Basque.” Including Navarra, the Basque Country accounts for 3.6% of Spain’s territory, 6.2% of its population and 25% of its first division football teams. What is it about football here?
Everything that’s done here is for real, done with conviction. Things aren’t done for the sake of it. I think that’s to do with commitment, those values. And also the management of those clubs, of course: it’s not normal for Eibar to have been in [the Spanish first division] for so long. There’s an idea that’s shared.
Real Sociedad is the only Basque team that breaks from that identity a bit; they have a more positional play, more “modern,” keener to dominate possession. With Imanol [Alguacil, the Real Sociedad manager], there’s a different idea: more touch, technique. The others have kept that essence of Basque football, which I would link to British football.
Does that extend down to the lower leagues, too?
I played in Segunda B in the Basque group, and there was always the idea that it might not have the technical quality, though it’s very hard, very competitive.
You started there and played there, too. Now you’re in the top flight. Is the dressing room the same in primera as it was in segunda B? Is it harder to be “normal?”
I was lucky that at both Real Sociedad and Osasuna, 70% of the players are homegrown so they know the values of the club; they “vaccinate” the rest. At la Real, Carlos Vela was a superstar — Antoine Griezmann too — but the dominant “voice” of the team was Xabi Prieto, Mikel Gonzalez… and it’s the same here. The “voice” comes from [Osasuna midfielders] Oier Sanjurjo and Roberto Torres: captains, homegrown players, people who know what the club is, where it has come from, who know we’ve been through bad times too.
When you have people like them, so honorable, it’s easier for the rest to follow.
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Some clubs don’t …
It hasn’t happened to me, but talking to other coaches, that feeling of roots and identification, isn’t always there. And that’s difficult.
Is your job as much psychology as tactics?
Yes, but it’s everything. These days, a coach is judged even on his press conferences. Everyone is watching and judging, including players. Psychology is very important. To get the best out of players, you need to empathise with them. And I think the management of a dressing room is almost as important as methodology or tactics.
You mention the press conferences: that must become a pain? Put bluntly, there’s a lot of rubbish to deal with.
We’re exposed [to the media]; we talk at least twice a week. You prepare because what you say is important, how the message reaches people. And we’re a reflection of the team. Players watch and they see it, too: they can tell if you’re more up or more down, and that affects things. Sometimes, you have to change the tone of what you say. Communication matters. And it’s true that coaches would like to be asked about football more.
Some wouldn’t. Some won’t say anything at all.
Yes, that’s true, and I’m totally opposed to that. I watch press conferences and there are coaches who don’t want to give out clues, who hide things, who won’t engage. And I think “bloody hell, if we’re asked about play, now’s the time to talk about it, to explain things to the fans, to tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing.” If I was a fan, I would want to know.
Is there an element of being an actor in front of the media?
I don’t like that. I prefer to be spontaneous, real, natural: I think if you act or play a role, sooner or later you’re going to screw it up. Unless you’re a very, very good actor. Sometimes managers get looked at as if we’re grand strategists, and we’re not.
There’s a mythology built around managers…
Yes, I think so. If I’m going to play [a card game popular in Spain’s Basque region] mus or poker, I have to wear a certain face. But here?
You were a teacher…
I still am. in theory my leave from teaching was five years, although you can extend it. But it’s running out, eh!
Is it a cliche to say a dressing room is like a classroom?
No, there’s something in that. The difference is that in football, people come because they like it; at school, maybe not so much, hahaha. But to get the best out of a student, the player, you have to stimulate, provoke, empathise. So there are some similarities.
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Are there players who can’t be motivated?
The difficulty is that now we have big squads, partly because of COVID-19. Last Sunday, we had a session with the players who hadn’t played the night before and there were 13 players — and they’re not as happy as the rest. You need a bit of carrot and stick. Above all, you need to know them. You can’t treat them all the same. Some you have to press and provoke; some need affection. That’s our job.
It was always said that [Mexico star striker] Carlos Vela, for example, didn’t even like football. How do you motivate a player like that?
He didn’t like to watch football, but he did love to play. You adapt. There were players at la Real who would welcome more details — six or seven elements you would talk through with them. If you told Vela six or seven things, it would dilute the message. So you tell him two or three, find a way to reach him. Maybe you come up with a basketball example, because he loved the NBA. You find a way to engage with things that “touch” players.
Is there a player in your team now that you look at and think “he’ll be a coach?”
There are a few, but especially [Osasuna midfielder] Inigo Perez: he’s like a coach on the pitch. He analyses very well, he asks for reports and videos of opponents. He’s a coach in the making and will be a very good one. He was with [Marcelo] Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao, with Ernesto [Valverde, former Barcelona coach], and he has that curiosity. And our coach on the pitch, so to speak, is Oier.
When they say they’d like to coach, do you say “don’t do it?”
Hahaha! What I do say to them is: play for as long as you can. Coach after, perfect. But playing is the best bit. Going out there, enjoying it: that’s the most lovely thing in the world.
Coaching, on the other hand…
The worst thing for me is getting home after a defeat, a bad game with a long journey, and your wife and kids are there wanting to be with you. They’re so excited because you’ve been away from home for two days, and you don’t feel like doing anything. The fact that you can’t return that enthusiasm? That’s the worst thing.
The kids’ enthusiasm is what best gets you out of that. They don’t know what’s happened, they give you a kiss, they want to play, and there’s that innocence… But there is still always a “mourning” period after a defeat. Always. A day or two. It’s best to clear your head, but it’s hard after a game, you have that 24-hour or 48-hour “mourning.”
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Are your kids football fans? Do they understand what’s happening with you?
My eldest daughter is nine, the other two are five and one. So she understands on her level. She looks at the league table and because she’s so happy in Pamplona, with all the friends she has, she thinks: if we’re not in the bottom three, we’re staying here, so I’m happy. That’s how she relates to what the team is doing.
I don’t say anything to her about how the team is, but she’s aware of that. All she’s concerned about is not being in the “red zone.”
That’s a terrible pressure for you! Even your daughter’s happiness depends on your team not going down…
We don’t talk about it at home; we try not to make a drama of football. But at school, kids say things. They might even say “they’re going to sack your dad.” If we’re not in the relegation zone, she’s happy.
Are the fans nasty sometimes?
Maybe, but I can tell you that Osasuna’s fans are the opposite. We went 13 games without winning — a run like that is synonymous with a manager getting sacked, but all I felt from the fans and the club was support. It was as if they felt that the previous two years had been worth something, had built something; they weren’t going to give up because of a bad run.
Osasuna’s fans are different. And we’re better now.
At the other extreme are the eulogies. It must be weird to see yourself as God on a billboard.
I don’t much like that but if that’s because they’re happy with my job, then great. You have to maintain an emotional balance, in good times and bad.
And when you win, it’s all worthwhile?
That beer just after a game when you say “wow, lovely, how good was that?” That’s the best moment of the week.
And yet you talk about the suffering and that must be hard to handle. You’re only 42, but how much longer will you keep coaching?
Pfff, I don’t know. My mum always tells me to go back to teaching, have Saturday and Sunday free for the kids. I don’t know. It’s very stressful, it wears you down a lot, but it’s my passion.
I’m very happy in Pamplona and hopefully we can celebrate the centenary with survival and get some fans back for the final weeks of the season, or for the start of next year in the first division. That idea is our motor now, that’s what drives us.