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From Galicia To Granada: The Making Of Diego Martínez

Written by Matt Clark

“Hijos de un misma barro”: This phrase, literally meaning ‘children of the same clay’, or ‘guys made of the same stuff’, was the central message of Granada’s emotive video celebrating 100 games with Diego Martínez in charge of the Andalusian club.

This metaphor perfectly and evocatively encapsulates the symbiotic fit between coach and club. Granada and Martínez are the perfect match. Humble but proud of his own identity, he represents the qualities, values and ethos of the club. Nobody can doubt the success he has brought to Granada. But how did he get here, and what makes him so special?

Humble beginnings and Monchi’s bet

Yet to turn 40, Diego Martínez is the youngest coach in LaLiga, but now commands the respect of all his peers. has been on the benches in some form for 15 years. Born in Vigo, he played in the youth teams at Celta, but quickly realised his calling was not on the pitch, but on the touchlines.

He started his coaching journey by moving to Andalusia and taking on various roles at lower-league clubs such as CD Imperio de Albolote, Arenas de Armilla and Motril CF. Simultaneously he was studying for a degree in sports science, where he met his granadina wife. By late 2009 he had caught the attention of Monchi, Sevilla’s transfer guru and director of football. He liked what he saw in Martínez and is rarely wrong in such matters of judgement.

Initially installed with Sevilla’s C-team, then the youth team, Martínez was eventually incorporated into Unai Emery’s backroom staff. He was an integral piece behind the scenes as Sevilla won the 2014 Europa League in Turin, their third triumph in this competition. Martínez values the time spent learning from Emery: “Unai is very important to me, I spent a season-and-a-half with him and he gave me a lot of confidence and gave me the possibility of living in a first-class dressing room and winning that title in Turin” he told Diario de Sevilla.

From there he was given the reins at Sevilla Atlético, the B-team, playing in the third tier of Spanish football. In his second season in charge, Martínez took a squad containing a young David Soria and Carlos Fernández to Segunda and into professional football. He subsequently managed to keep them up the following season, showing his adaptability.

In a recent interview with UEFA’s Europa League Magazine show, he revealed the benefits these various roles had provided for him: “The fact that I went through not only different divisions but different roles as a coach and member of the technical staff…that gives you a very enriching overall view”. It’s evident that Martínez has internalised this holistic approach and continues to endorse that style of coaching.

Martínez has never forgotten the faith shown by Monchi in him to give him that break, telling Diario de Sevilla: “The figure of Monchi emerges as a key in my career. If I'm in the First Division it has a lot to do with his gamble on me”. Hindsight is wonderful, but who would argue that Martínez could end up being one of Monchi’s best ever discoveries?

Going solo in Pamplona

Having left Sevilla Atlético stable in Segunda, he was offered the opportunity to lead a professional club in his own right for the first time. He took the bold decision to further his career by moving back north, trying his luck in Pamplona with Osasuna.

Rojillo fan and La Liga Lowdown contributor Ignasi Torné (@groundhopperbcn) remembers that season with Martínez at the helm at El Sadar, but admits it was not the best fit. “Martínez gained experience to survive in the hell of the Spanish Segunda División by training Osasuna. Despite being the second-best team playing away…not being strong at El Sadar was his Achilles heel”.

Ignasi adds that this connection between the fans and the team was never fully forged: “To be Osasuna’s coach, the first rule to understand and assimilate is that you need to be strong at home, one of the historic strengths of the club”. Furthermore, after increased spending from the board, “Osasuna invested even more money than when in Primera”, so narrowly missing out on the play-offs was seen as a disappointment at the time. Ignasi also lamented the failure to blood more young players from the famous Tajonar academy, which all adds up to a broadly negative assessment of Martínez’s time at the club.

Another chance in Andalusia

“Today he is an idol of the fans, people who break their hands applauding a team that is not afraid of anything. And who believe at face value what Diego Martínez says” - José Manuel García, El Confidencial.

After that season in Pamplona, Martínez was back in Andalucía and appointed as head coach of Granada. Fan and La Liga Lowdown contributor Heath Chesters (@HeathGCF) admitted that many fans were initially sceptical: “there were maybe some doubts about his time with Osasuna. Like Granada, they had failed to bounce back up to the Primera at the first attempt”. As for Heath himself, he was undecided, but was looking for the positives: “Personally, I thought it was a bold move by Granada, appointing such a young coach. Likewise, it was also in keeping with their aim at the time of bringing in people with local experience”.

Asked about that promotion season, which took observers by surprise, common themes emerge such as unity, solidarity, hard work and commitment to building a collective identity. Heath elaborates: “Right from the offset, it quickly became clear that Diego Martínez wanted his team to establish a clear identity on and off the pitch, which isn't something any Granada team has really had in recent years. The core of that identity was (and still is) hard work and effort, which is what the fans wanted to see most of all. When that hard work and effort was clear to see in matches, regardless of results, that quickly forged a strong rapport between the team (players and staff) and the fans”. It may seem basic to speak about hard work but when the basics of football are not adhered to, there is no foundation on which to build.

A draw at Mallorca sealed their automatic promotion (ironically along with Osasuna), and the granadinista dream of returning to LaLiga was a reality. Most pundits had them going straight back down, and Heath was realistic, but with a hint of optimism: “Any Granada fan would be lying, if they said they hoped for anything more than aiming for survival that first season back in LaLiga. That said, given what I'd seen of the unity and collective effort in Segunda, I really did believe that would translate well in LaLiga”.

Life in LaLiga

Granada’s first game was a barn-storming affair against Villarreal. One of the highest-scoring of the season, the 4-4 draw was many people’s first look at Granada. It was unlike the typical Martínez match, but he was pragmatic enough to know that there were positive signs, telling Diario de Sevilla: “We know what we do. We played with personality and conviction and it was a good show”. From there they went from strength to strength, beating defending champions Barcelona at Nuevo Los Cármenes on a momentous night, and hitting the top of the table after having played 10 matches. Heath cites their philosophy as the cornerstone for their success: “A phenomenal level of self-belief. They would always approach games with humility as the underdogs, yet without any fear whatsoever”.

Into the second half of the season, relegation was no longer a danger, and they had a run at the Copa del Rey. Reaching the semi-finals, they were moments away from beating Athletic Club in the second leg. They didn’t let this or the enforced break de-rail them. When the season restarted, Granada climbed the table and got themselves into the European conversation. Heath attributes this to their by-now-default grittiness: “Granada were one of the teams that were best able to cope with the ‘new normal’ in football. This club and this team are accustomed to adversity, therefore they could adapt better”. The impossible dream was realised when they thrashed Athletic Club 4-0 on the final day of the season and sealed European qualification for the first time in the club’s history.

Martínez had taken Granada from the Segunda to the Europa League in just two seasons, and as such is almost immortal in the eyes of the fans. “Considering this club was in the fourth tier of Spanish football just 15 years ago, qualifying for Europe is a remarkable achievement. Doing so in their first season back in LaLiga, as you can imagine, fans have already been calling for a statue of Diego outside the stadium!” exclaims Heath.

Character and tactical approach

Martínez displays a voracious appetite to continue learning and developing new ideas. Commentator and freelance TV producer Tim Lee (@timjollylee) recently spent time at length with Martínez, interviewing and filming for UEFA. He selects three key characteristics which make him stand out: “attention to detail, humility and intensity. He’s a manager that leaves nothing to chance”. He’s personable and has time for everyone. “This creates an atmosphere of tranquillity for the players” Tim adds, “they know that they have a support network around them working around the clock to make sure conditions are optimum for a top-quality performance”.

His methods are player-centric, they are always the protagonists, and Martínez plays down his own influence. “Diego does not see himself as the star, nor does he see individual players as the stars: he wants to create a club where the only thing that matters is ‘the team’ … you need to harness a spirit of sacrifice, of shared motivation, of compassion,” Tim explained.

Tim goes further and posits that his personality helps drive the club in the right direction. “He’s able to connect with people on a human level, and that’s fundamental”. His intensity is another standout quality for Tim: “There’s no substitute for hard work and Diego puts in the hours behind the scenes … his work ethic enables him to make large demands of his players: that they give everything in training and in matches. Effectively, Diego’s intensity is infectious”. This was reinforced when Tim watched him in action: “Having seen him on the sidelines, I expected him to be very serious, which he was. But he combined that seriousness with a sense of humour, a warmth and openness”. In terms of the traits, Martínez ticks all the boxes. Everyone who has spoken about him personally has been glowing: a genuinely lovely man.

There is nothing superficial about Martínez: what you see is what you get. Players buy into that honesty. Take Roberto Soldado, for example, only a few years his junior, but effusive in his praise for the methods of the young coach. He spoke of the squad’s total and unequivocal commitment to the methods of the technical staff. “They’ve totally transformed things”, he told the Europa League Magazine show, “they’ve revolutionised the internal workings, and the club’s growth is largely down to Martínez and the belief the dressing room has in his work”. Given that Soldado has worked with numerous elite coaches throughout his career, such as Unai Emery, Ernesto Valverde and Mauricio Pochettino, it is evident that this acclaim is both genuine and merited.

As Soldado eluded to, age does not matter because Martínez is able to convince players with his ideas and earn their respect and trust. He prides himself on hard work, effort and enthusiasm. In an interview with José Manuel García at El Confidencial, Martínez said: “We have good players, people who come from the clay and with a high degree of vindication … they can stand up to anyone and they are showing it. This is a team that believes in what it is doing; it is a TEAM in capital letters". Martínez also proclaimed “the ship has already set sail and whoever wants to climb already knows what we are". This emphasis on collaboration and motivation is fundamental to his way of working.

Tactically too, he is astute and versatile. He draws inspiration from a myriad of coaches, even from other sports. “I am very eclectic” he revealed to Diario de Sevilla. “I like things about many coaches, some strangers, even basketball or handball. It all has to do a lot with the type of players you have. You must find a way or an organisation to get the best of them”.

Tim agrees that Granada are tactically versatile, but acknowledges his key principles are “high physical fitness, well-organised team structure and use of width for attacking”. Heath concurs that Martínez’ eclectic nature can lead to unpredictability, which Granada regularly use to their advantage. “Diego and this team are capable of adapting to any circumstances, and any opponents. Whether it's tactical changes or squad rotations, adapting to suit whatever challenge is before them has become something of a speciality for this team. This team can play direct football when required, or keep the ball and knock it around. That makes Granada very difficult to predict, because they can switch styles and tactics in the midst of a game, given that Diego is really good at reading what's happening on the pitch”. With the board demonstrating their trust by investing in the squad, this project shows no signs of plateauing after two seasons. He has fresh clay to mould, and discovering how high the ceiling is for them is genuinely exhilarating to follow.

The future

There is an almost unspoken acceptance that all roads lead back to Seville. Martínez has made no secret of this, but he has plenty of time on his side. He explained his affection for the white half of Seville in an interview with Diario de Sevilla: “Sevilla has been and always will be special for me. I am a sevillista by adoption and I will always be. It is a club to which I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity it gave me to grow in professional football”. This affection is genuine and runs deep.

La Liga Lowdown’s man in Seville, Gregor Chappelle (@gregorchappelle), agrees that there is potential for a reunion: “I genuinely think he could be a serious candidate for the Sevilla job in the future. His list of achievements at Sevilla have meant that he’s fondly remembered by many at the club and Monchi thinks very highly of him.” Gregor adds that his work at Granada “won’t go unnoticed in Seville”, but with Julen Lopetegui in position, there is no rush. “Granada are the perfect club for him at the moment but the Sevilla job would be great move for him and a big step in his career,” Gregor says.

Perhaps then, the bright lights of Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán beckon in the long term, but the 39-year-old won’t allow himself to get carried away. That is not part of his character, nor will he let the future interfere with the present. He maintains the humility which has accompanied him throughout his life and knows what a special project he is leading at Granada. He has the support of his players, the fans, everyone associated with the club. Diego Martín3z is well on the way to being Granada’s greatest ever coach, and he isn’t finished yet.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or can't think of any christmas football puns - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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