What were your first impressions about the Indian Super League?
I really like the league. To be honest, I was familiar even when I didn’t work here. I was familiar because I had a lot of friends who worked here, either as coach or player. When I decided to come to India, the feeling was positive.
Have you been watching the ISL at home?
Yes, I’ve watched pretty much all the games.
Were you surprised that you were sacked after just 11 matches?
I was really surprised, wasn’t expecting that. At the beginning (with the club), we spoke about a long-term project, something special. We had a really good start. We were rebuilding. In any campaign, there will be ups and downs in terms of results, but more important is that the team keeps improving. That was clearly happening. We had an identity; a team that was well organised, we knew how to defend and how to attack. The biggest concern was losing a key player, Kwesi Appiah, to a bad injury. We created many chances in all the games, but lacked the finishing. It’s clear what can happen once you have a replacement in place. (Deshorn) Brown has scored three goals in the first three games. That means a lot in football.
When you were sacked, NorthEast had not won in seven matches and lost three of the four games in-between. Could the sacking be justified because the team was slipping down?
At that moment, we were in seventh position, three or four points away from playoffs. There were a lot of games still to be played. With the lowest budget in the league, we were in the top four. We were doing a good job under tough circumstances. In my opinion, we were unlucky in some games. We deserved to win more.
There was some criticism of the team’s style of play. A bit defensive, playing on the counter and, at times, even happy with just a point.
We were never happy with a point. We always wanted to win. That was our intention. In my last game in charge, against Bengaluru, we were the better side, but missed that quality upfront. So many chances. Our style was never defensive.
How would you describe the style?
You can look at the team now. It’s the same team, same tactics, same formation. Is this team playing out from the back, like tiki-taka? A team always plays to its strengths. Considering that we had 12 players from the second division (I-League) last year and knowing you have three weeks to prepare with zero national team players, we had to be clear about how we attack, how we defend and then progress through the campaign. The owners wanted to have a long-term project with me. We were building accordingly. In the beginning, there was a need to start with a, b and c. Then d, e and f. It’s a process. We wanted to have a team that never gives up. Wanted a team that fights. You know, no matter what’s the score, you would be proud of this team. We were united. This team would give everything and that’s what they did from day one until my last day.
But the results were not going your way…
These things happen. You don’t always get the result you want. Against Bengaluru, we were the better side. Against Jamshedpur, our first loss, we missed a penalty and lost (1-0). Against Odisha, we had 18 or 20 attempts, a record that time. We were never defensive. We were absolutely an offensive team. One missing component for many games was (Federico) Gallego. He is a playmaker and makes the difference. If you don’t have Gallego, you will always miss that extra spark. You cannot make someone else play like Gallego because it takes years, and coaches don’t have that luxury.
While announcing the sacking, NorthEast said the there was a contrast in the team’s current tactics and the club’s philosophy and vision. What was the vision?
Good question. But I think the club has to answer. I don’t get it, still.
Are you surprised with how NorthEast players have reacted since your sacking? They won three games in a row and drew the other game.
Not at all surprised with the results. The team is doing the same that we were doing. When you have a striker, you gain full power. You have a fully-fit Gallego. You have a team that knows how to play. The hardest work is during pre-season and the first few games. Everyone has to know each other, they have to work. Now it’s the easiest thing. This is a good time to be at a project like this when everything has been set up.
Did you feel you were losing the dressing room?
Never. Never did I see a player not doing enough. Everyone wanted to do well. Everyone gave their best. Never for a second did I feel someone was not interested. That was not the problem. The issue was you have 28 players and with just two (pre-season) friendlies, with the characteristics of the league, some players won’t have a chance. They will only get a few minutes and that is not enough to prove themselves. I was sad because I think they deserved a chance. But, how can you give it a chance?
What next for you?
To be honest, the reaction from those weeks without being a coach has been really positive. I’ve got a few calls already, offering me a project as the head coach. To be honest, I am not in any rush. I prefer to pick the best one. This needs to be a serious project, a place that they want to have a team that competes for everything.
Will you return to India if there is a good project?
India is one of the places that I got really happy with the work we were doing. The only regret is that they didn’t have enough time to finish where this team belongs. I believe we could have reached the playoffs. The league is getting better. I like the professionalism. India is a place I would love to return.