Underachievers to contenders: La Masia’s Sergio Lobera transforms Mumbai City

A swift move into the opponent’s box, the attacker brought down, penalty. The wheels had started to turn in favour of Mumbai City FC, after an opening-round loss. Now, early in the campaign, against East Bengal, they were poised to score their second of the match. But among the players that had so far worked well together, the question of who will take the spot-kick posed a potential rift.

Hugo Boumous, a talented Frenchman who was judged the best player of the Indian Super League (ISL) last year, had won the penalty and was keen on taking it. But English striker Adam Le Fondre was the team’s designated penalty taker. An on-pitch argument was on the horizon. But a single word from the sidelines by manager Sergio Lobera settled the debate.

“Adam!” was the message that rang loud through the empty GMC Stadium in Bambolim. At once Boumous stepped aside and Le Fondre slotted home the team’s second in a 3-0 win.

The single-word command is testimony to Lobera’s style.

He’s a quiet analyst, speaking only when needed – in practice or on game day. But whatever he says is heard. After all, Mumbai City’s new coach has a stellar reputation that precedes him.

For the past three seasons of India’s marquee football league, he guided FC Goa to a second-place finish in the ISL in 2019, and the Super Cup title later that year. He’d set his team up to display a gripping, possession-based attacking style of play that made the club one of the most attractive teams to watch. But after setting the groundwork for the team to become the first Indian club to qualify for the Asian Champions League, Lobera was curiously axed.

What that did do for the Spaniard though, was open the door for him to City Football Group’s (owners of Manchester City and the Mumbai club) latest acquisition. Since the first season of the ISL in 2014, Mumbai have been rated as perennial underachievers. But now, they have a 43-year-old manager who has spent most of his life coaching. And midway through the season, he’s already made the table-topping Mumbai City outfit the team to beat.

Sergio Lobera during a training session with Mumbai City players. (ISL)

Born in Zaragoza in North-eastern Spain, Lobera was never away from the sport, so he says. Remarkably though, instead of striving to become a footballer, he set on a path to become a coach while still a teenager.

“I loved to play football. But I loved to teach as well,” he says. “I became the youngest licensed coach in Spain when I was 21. But I had actually started training to become a coach when I was 14. The good thing for me was I had a lot of time to train and to become a coach. When you’re a player and you’ve finished your career, if you want to become a coach you have to start training for it and maybe you don’t have enough time to do it. That’s what has worked for me.”

By 1997, he was roped in by Barcelona to coach at their famed La Masia academy – what he calls the “big opportunity in (his) career.”

He saw the early developments of players like Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi. And later he’d be a senior coach to then apprentice Pep Guardiola – who now heads Manchester City in the Premier League – and was assistant coach to the late Tito Vilanova in the first team in 2012. He never saw himself become head coach of the Spanish heavyweights, however.

“After eight years at Barcelona (over multiple stints), I decided I wanted to leave,” he says. “I wanted some new experiences which I could get in new circumstances, at a new club in a different place. That was the way I knew I could grow as a coach. I needed new challenges and maybe get out of my comfort zone, which is where I was at Barcelona. So I had to make that decision.”

READ | Mumbai City, ISL and City Football Group: A tale of many cities

Moving away from Spain brought him in contact with Boumous, during their time at Moroccan club Moghreb Tetouan. The 25-year-old Frenchman would later follow the Spaniard to FC Goa, and now is one of the mainstays in the Mumbai midfield.

“When I first met (Lobera), I noticed the professionalism and the interesting style of play he wanted, based on possession and attack,” Boumous says.

“His strongest quality is his management of the squad. He knows how to handle all the players and make them responsible even if they aren’t playing. On the other hand, he gives the players a lot of freedom on the pitch and gives them the confidence to express their quality. The results speak for him since he’s here in India. He had a good bunch of players, Indian or foreigner, but he knew how to make them improve and how to find a good balance.”

Lobera has found that equilibrium at Mumbai City. After nine matches, the team has scored 16 goals – more than any other team – and conceded just four – one more than ATK Mohun Bagan.

Mumbai, who have impressed in bits in the previous seasons, look like genuine contenders this season and Lobera seems to be the missing piece in the puzzle for the franchise. It was evident on Tuesday, when Mumbai took on 2019 champions Bengaluru, a team Lobera had lost to four times and one just once in the previous five clashes.

But his new team romped home to a commanding 3-1 win: a statement of intent by a team brimming with confidence under a coach who has transformed them.