José Bordalás: The Roman, Ready To Conquer?
Written by Ruairidh Barlow
José Bordalás was asked four questions on the grass of the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez amongst a backdrop of non-descript noise; players singing, kids wandering and anonymous, joyous shouts. Three times he included the word “suffer” and three times the phrase “hard work” in his responses, as he basked in the glory of promotion with Getafe. Which very much embodies the man behind the miracle at Getafe.
Winner of the 2018/19 Miguel Muñoz award for the best manager in Spain, his rise feels rapid, having only appeared on most people’s radar in recent seasons. But it’s been a long, 27-year odyssey from the depths of Spain’s regional divisions up to this point for Bordalás. After four brilliant years at Getafe, surely it’s only a matter of time before a big club poaches him.
The illusion of his rapid rise is further substantiated by his appearance: invariably dressed in a slim-fitted suit, wearing thin glasses and a beard so neat it almost looks like a costume prop. He resembles a sleek, up-market restauranteur in his mid-thirties far more than a 56-year-old football manager. Not a hair out of place, the appearance is instructive of his team – organised and considered down to the last detail. There’s something a bit different about Bordalás, but that’s not to say he isn’t a hardened veteran of management.
After missing out on promotion with Alcoyano, Elche and Alcorcón, all via the play-offs, ‘El Romano’ [the Roman] must have thought his luck had finally changed when he guided Alavés to the Primera División. Only he was dismissed immediately afterwards. Not deterred, he would take the reins at Getafe a few months after, leading them all the way from second-bottom of Segunda to third-place and another play-off victory.
Since then he’s gone from strength to strength in LaLiga, finishing eighth twice and fifth once. In each campaign he’s never been further than three points from European qualification. The season they finished fifth, Getafe were just two points shy of the holy grail, the Champions League. Far outperforming Getafe’s modest budget (the twelfth-highest spend on wages in LaLiga), it’s somewhat surprising that Bordalás hasn’t been snapped up by a larger fish.
“Maybe it was the year to make the jump,” Bordalás admitted in August, after confirming he would be staying this season. “I am at home, happy and satisfied with my president,” he assured. Getafe have gone toe-to-toe with many of the big sides. Unafraid of pressing, hassling and harrying the entirety of the league, Bordalás has drawn plenty of plaudits. But never had the chance to make that jump, it seems.
Big jobs have come and gone, without mention of his name. Even the larger opportunities a step below the title race passed him by. Villarreal and Betis have both changed manager in the last two summers, one of them twice.
“It’s normal for people to be fighting over Bordalás,” stated Alvaro Benito on Onda Cero in April last season. It sounded almost conclusive, as if it were only a matter of time before he was gone. Onda Cero had also reported in January that Sevilla were in contact and rumours spread that Valencia were interested this summer before Javi Gracía was appointed. It begs the question, why didn’t any of these opportunities come to fruition?
Given his consistent achievement over the last four years, it is hard to look beyond the abrasive style of his teams in the search for answers. Although, at least outwardly, Barcelona represents a complete divergence in style from his brand at Getafe, theoretically none of Valencia, Sevilla or Betis have a commitment to a specific way of playing. Yet it feels as if this must have played a part in his lack of suitors – for lack of other possibilities.
“Bordalás’ issue will be his reputation. Teams like Getafe don’t mind playing unattractive football if it makes them successful, but the next step up to a bigger club is where they demand to be easy on the eye as well,” warned Sam Leveridge, who has witnessed it all from close quarters in Madrid.
Certainly the aesthetic football team has become a more mainstream desire for fans and owners alike over the last decade. Also based in Madrid, Euan McTear doubts Bordalás would subscribe to that mentality:
“When you consider the fact that Bordalás has been so full of praise for Atlético and for Simeone over the years, I don't think he is of the opinion that a bigger club needs to necessarily play better football. I think if he were at a bigger club then he would stick with the battling and defence-first style we've seen him employ at Getafe and at Alavés before that.”
Famously, Bordalás has had a robust defence and he’s been similarly steadfast about Getafe’s style. Last season he gave an explosive press conference where he accused his Osasuna counterpart, Jagoba Arrasate, of hypocrisy, after remarks about Getafe’s attempts to break up the game. There is no doubt that his sides present a physical confrontation for the opponent. “[Opponents] know they are going to have a hard time, that they are going to suffer,” insists Santi Segurola, editor of sports paper Mundo Deportivo. Whatever Bordalás says, tactical fouling has been honed into an artform for the azulones.
Steely and uncompromising, the pressure exerted on opponents is essential in forcing mistakes and without that edge, doubtless they wouldn’t be as effective. “We didn’t have an identity, we didn’t know if we wanted to play short passes and have possession or play long passes and look to win aerial duels, but now we know what we want. After just three games, a 0-0 [opening game] and then three clean sheets, we knew our identity had changed,” described Getafe fan Fran Iborra about the transformation which started in the second division.
It isn’t just sitting on the edge of the box and hoping for a set-piece goal either. A well-drilled defensive line regularly sits 10-20 yards removed from the edge of their box, constricting the game into a small portion of the pitch. Nipping in, forcing the heavy touch, when they get the ball it is one, two, three touches maximum. The transition is immediate and blue shirts flood forward to facilitate this, in an attack based on ensuring the defender is running towards his own goal.
Where perhaps Bordalás does have a point is that Getafe certainly seem to receive more criticism for their trademarks than others. The squeeze they put on opponents is not dissimilar to that which is so common in Germany and has become lauded across Europe. However, when packaged by Jürgen Klopp as ‘Gegenpressing’ the reaction is different. Getafe’s tactical fouling is masterful – but it’s a proficiency just as present in Pep Guardiola’s teams as it is in those coached by Pepe Bordalás.
The most valuable trait he shares with those managers, the one without which his system would collapse, is his prowess in man-management. Coaches are typically cast as purely a motivator or a tactician but the ability to convince players of your ideas is by far the most decisive factor. Without every player fully committing to the collective philosophy, maximising a team’s potential is a futile business. Nobody can doubt that Bordalás has achieved that.
His temper too has probably contributed to the perception of his side as aggressive. There have been pointed exchanges with and barbed comments towards both Quique Setién while at Real Betis and Marcelino at Valencia, so it’s no surprise his players responded to those words in kind. The heated outbursts over the years have been numerous. It comes with the territory of conveying and inspiring such an extreme intensity amongst his players. To attribute all of these conniptions to a loss of control though, seems... incongruous.
If his attire is that scrupulous, logically he would be a person who considers his words. “Managers should be good psychologists,” he told MARCA. The press conferences might be explosive but they almost certainly serve a purpose. A team which treads on the line of admissible physicality benefits as much from a more tolerant referee as Barcelona do from a more severe one. Unsurprisingly, match officials have been on the receiving end of some fiery tirades in the press too.
And in that sense, there is a touch of José Mourinho about Bordalás. Famed for instilling a siege mentality across Europe’s top clubs, it is equally well acknowledged these days that behind closed doors, the Portuguese is a different animal to the one the world sees. Content to play the cantankerous, persecuted, common man of LaLiga, Bordalás is always intense but “in private the boss has a great sense of humour. We laugh a lot,” Jorge Molina revealed to MARCA, allowing us a glimpse past the bravado.
Of course, managing Getafe is a far different challenge to that of a larger team, where expectations weigh heavy. Victories become a necessity and a plan to break down teams like Getafe is equally an imperative. In Mourinho and Simeone he has two examples. Their teams are defined by their work off the ball and have achieved extraordinary success. On the other hand, both have struggled to replicate their best work in recent years, particularly when burdened with the role of favourites.
Whether Bordalás would be able or willing to impose a different style remains to be seen. The man from Alicante has always protested that he adapts to his tools – like any good manager. Whether he could markedly depart from such a strong identity is a doubtful. “If he did have to play more expansive football then I don't think it'd be a success because that's not who he is. That's not what got him here,” continues McTear. After four years, if he had wanted to tinker with the composition of the squad, there was ample opportunity.
The conflict between image and results will inevitably be at the core of the debate for any future job opportunities that might come his way. When Bordalás’ footballing nemesis Setién was appointed Barcelona manager, his image and consequently his employability was probably influenced by his very public admiration of Cruyff.
Intelligent, intense and diligent, Bordalás has the ability to succeed on a bigger stage. Asking him to play free-flowing, possession football is taking a step into the unknown though. In the scenario where a sporting director is desperate, needing to deliver success at all costs, there is no better choice in Spanish football.
Where he could really thrive, exceed the imagination, is at a club which doesn’t mind playing the villain. Where upsetting a few people is deliberate strategy rather than an inevitable consequence. In that setting, there is no telling what ‘the Roman’ could conquer.
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