Mumbai City FC winning the ISL Shield was about being strong mentally: Coach Sergio Lobera
- In this chat with Hindustan Times, Lobera talks about overcoming the challenges of this unique season and why he doesn’t want to put a limit on how far this Mumbai team can go.
It ought to have been two in two for Sergio Lobera. The Spanish coach was sacked by FC Goa before the end of last season after leading them to the top of the Indian Super League (ISL) charts. Goa kept their top spot, but Lobera couldn’t get his hands on the League Winners Shield.
He did that on Sunday. Taking charge of a rebranded Mumbai City FC, backed by the financial and technical might of the City Football Group that owns Manchester City, Lobera weaved his magic in a new-look squad—the core was imported from his successful FC Goa outfit. Dominating the league stage for the major part, Mumbai ended No. 1, sealed the AFC Champions League spot and now have their sights on a maiden ISL trophy.
In this chat with Hindustan Times, Lobera talks about overcoming the challenges of this unique season and why he doesn’t want to put a limit on how far this Mumbai team can go.
You'd spoken about topping the league from the start of the season…
We are very happy. The first target is a bigger achievement for us. We knew the challenges from the beginning and are happy to achieve this important milestone for our fans and the Mumbai City family. I’m very proud of my players. It required them to have a strong mentality, be ambitious and positive. That was very important to achieve this, because during the season there were good moments but also difficult situations that we needed to solve. We deserve this achievement. I told the boys, “I am very proud of you, not just because you are very good players but also amazing people”.
Was it extra satisfying to hold the League Winners Shield, given that you were not able to with FC Goa last season?
Yes, it was a special feeling. This was my second Shield in a way, and to finally be able to stand on the podium with it this time, it was very satisfying. Everyone at Mumbai City and the City Football Group (CFG) created the best environment for me as coach to try and make this a winning team. So personally, I’m living in a very good moment.
You were named Mumbai City coach in October but given the uncertainty due to the pandemic, when did you start putting the squad together?
A few months before the season we started working on the team, the squad, the different options. We didn’t know exactly when the season would start, how the format would be, etc. But we did a lot of work with the CFG and Mumbai City officials. We could finally build a very good squad, which I was very happy with. I’ve said this from the beginning, not just now when we have won something. This is a gift for our efforts. But it is not over. Hopefully by next week we will have one trophy more.
It’s one thing to have the financial resources to form the best team, but quite another to get the best out of it as a unit, isn’t it?
The psychological situation was very important. This season, especially, was not just about tactical, technical or physical aspects. It was about being strong mentally, living together as a family. It’s not easy to live more than five months in a bubble. When you’re playing for something important, it’s maybe easier. So this showed we are a strong team on and off the pitch. If you want to win trophies, you need both.
You mentioned at the start of the season about lack of time. How was it getting the new-look squad to gell quickly while also imbibing your style of play?
It was a big challenge because every day things changed. We had three days before our first game to work with a full squad. There were problems with visas, foreign players, quarantines. We had injuries due to the short pre-season. This is an amazing season for me because when you can grow more in difficult circumstances, it feels better. We looked at these things not as problems, but as challenges. If your mentality is that you have problems, then it’s not positive. As a coach, this was a good experience for me to try to grow in a different situation, not just think tactics. When we look back, we can have good memories of this.
Talking of growing as coach, is it fair to say Lobera is no longer a coach who always wants his team to score one more than his opponents, like it was with FC Goa in your first season? The Mumbai City defence probably looked as good as the attack…
I want to play attacking football, something that our fans can enjoy. As a coach, there’s always room for improvement, and balance is the most important thing in football. We have done a very good job in getting that balance between attack and defence. We need to play attacking football, try to score a lot of goals, try to play beautiful football. But to also achieve nine clean sheets—those are important numbers. When you are taking risks, when you’re playing open, it’s not easy. So I’m very happy with our performance as a defensive unit too.
You were running away with the top spot until the stutter last month where you had just one win in six games. Were you at all feeling the pressure?
The most important thing was the belief in ourselves. Always. Even in the bad moments. If we were an amazing team for a long time, it’s not possible for it to change in two days. Maybe sometimes it’s better to close the doors and only hear ourselves. Because when people are speaking about you, in football everything changes in seconds, minutes, hours or one game. What you need to do is analyse. When we’re winning, we’re doing some things bad, and when we’re losing, maybe we’re doing some things well. So you need to send that message across to the players with positivity—sure, we need to improve a lot of things, but also know that we’re doing a lot of things very well. The situation can change, and it’s only in our hands.
When you have two quality foreign strikers in Adam Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche but are forced to rotate them often in the starting XI, how difficult can it be to get that positive message across to them?
People always ask me about the problem of choosing between these very good players in my squad. But it’s an amazing problem; I think every coach will want this problem. It’s very important to understand that the first objective is the collective objective, and after that is the individual objective. The most difficult job as a coach is to manage individual targets with the collective targets. But this is my job. And I love my job. People speak about the job of coach being to pick the first XI, tactics, etc. No. I believe the most important thing at this high level is to manage the emotions well, strike a balance between individual and collective targets. Sometimes it’s not easy as a coach to tell a player, “we’re going for another option and you’re not playing”. But we not only had very good players but also very good people in this group.
Bipin Singh has had a very good season and is also part of the national team probables for the first time. What are the areas of his game you have made him work on?
When I arrive here, it’s not only about winning trophies or playing beautiful football. It’s about improving the level of Indian players. I’m here with this mentality—in Goa and now with Mumbai City. I’m very happy with some of our players going to the national team. This means they are doing a very good job. I have a lot of belief in the level of Indian players.
Speaking of Indian players, what did you see in Pranjal Bhumij—he got only 29 minutes last term—to start him in the must-win match against ATK Mohun Bagan?
Working with them every day, I know not only how they are as players, but I also know their mentality and if they’re ready to play in difficult and crucial games. You need to pick the best moment for the players, because if you want to run before you walk, maybe it’s dangerous for some players. So as a coach it’s important to know when is the best moment to give them an opportunity to show their abilities and qualities.
How far can Mumbai City go with its quality and your leadership in the long term?
I don’t like to put limits. We need to continue working with ambition. If before the start of the season people spoke about the possibility of Mumbai City winning the Shield and being in a position to win the trophy, maybe some people had their doubts, no? It’s better to speak on the pitch. It’s better to speak while playing football, and not just with words.
What are the key areas Mumbai City must work on to be ready for the AFC Champions League next year?
My focus is on the first leg of the (ISL) semi-final; now is not the moment to think about anything else. The most important thing is to win two important games in a short time and try and reach the final. After that, we will have a lot of time to think about the next steps of the Mumbai City journey.