Up-And-Coming Coaches: Diego Forlán
Written by Matt Clark
It is no surprise that Diego Forlán has been voted by you into our top five players-turned-coaches, and his fledgling coaching career is sure to generate a lot of interest.
Forlán was born into a footballing family; his father and grandfather were both successful professionals. With that in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking that his progress in the game was ‘in the genes’ and therefore a simple formality. However, Forlán’s path was anything but inevitable, and tragedy was the trigger for him to change course.
Forlán’s original passion was tennis, but it was the car crash that seriously injured his sister which made him re-evaluate. He reasoned that, with medical bills mounting, football would be a more profitable profession to pursue for him and his family. Consequently, Forlán began his footballing career, one which took him to nine countries and several major honours. He really made his name in Spain when he became a goalscoring machine, winning the Pichichi trophy twice, with different clubs: once each with Villarreal and Atlético Madrid.
He is the only player to achieve this feat in the 21st century. And he did it when LaLiga was blessed with goalscorers, from Samuel Eto’o to David Villa to Leo Messi. His international career was also a proud one; he won the Copa America in 2011 and was the first Uruguayan to reach 100 caps.
Retiring in 2019 after brief stints in Asia, Forlán has quickly turned his attention to coaching, and in December last year, he was appointed as the new head coach of Peñarol. This is a romantic appointment for him, given that he started his youth career there, his boyhood club. Forlán was beaming with pride at his introductory press conference: “To have my first experience in a traditional club at the highest level like Peñarol is more than I dreamed of. When you play, you notice if you like football itself. It isn’t only about playing. I enjoy it, I like it, I analyse it, I see it.”
This gives us a clue into his wider thinking about the game and how he will coach. He suggests that he will have a holistic approach to his methods, drawing on tactics but also the unquantifiable elements of the game; how it makes you feel, how players live through their football. This alone would be reason enough to want to follow his coaching career closely, but there is plenty more.
Forlán’s story and his playing days tell us a lot about the kind of person he is, and what sort of attributes he takes into coaching. After experiencing tragedy in his youth, he had many sporting setbacks along the way too.
Trial rejection at Nancy was followed by being labelled “Forlán the flop” and “Diego Forlorn” by critics during his time at Manchester United. Many would have thrown in the towel at various points. But not Forlán. From the moment he made the decision to devote his life to football, he has persevered and ultimately triumphed. He has been a dedicated professional who has worked hard to climb to the heights he reached. Talent alone was not necessarily enough. As our very own Euan McTear (@emctear) wrote in an article for These Football Times, hard graft was very much integral to his success: “his greatness is largely derived from his attitude and desire to better himself”. It is these traits of perseverance, dedication and picking himself up when he got knocked down that will stand him in good stead for the future.
This can-do attitude and hard work ethos also endeared him to fans of almost all his clubs. Even at Manchester United where he struggled to make a consistent impact, his tenacious efforts did not go unnoticed. With the national team, he went even further, uniting the country with the national team as they qualified for the 2010 World Cup. In our Forlán podcast, David Kraakman (@UruguayanHeroes) explained how Forlán was a leader for the team during that time. He told us how he thrived in big moments under pressure and was an inspiration for the fans of La Celeste. As we all know, winning over supporters and keeping them happy are some of the hardest things for coaches, especially those new to the scene. But Forlán benefits from having that connection, and being widely adored by fans, so he has some credit already in the bank.
Football writer Gary Thacker (@All_Blue_Daze) is more cautious about Forlán’s potential. “The simple fact is that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches. Perhaps even Rembrandt would have made a lousy art teacher!” he told La Liga Lowdown. It is true - for every Pep Guardiola, there is a Gary Neville. Thacker explains that many of the most successful coaches of recent times were far from household names as players, from Sir Alex Ferguson to José Mourinho. One of his reservations is knowing the difficulty in being able to transfer something which star players found natural but does not come so easily to others. He asks “how do you teach lesser players to perform as you did?” This could be a source of frustration which could impact Forlán’s chances of success.
Another aspect of Forlán’s career which may heavily influence his transition to coaching is the breadth of talent and experience he has been able to learn from. Over his 21-year career, he has played under multiple coaches with a vast spectrum of philosophies and characteristics – César Luis Menotti, Sir Alex Ferguson, Manuel Pellegrini, Óscar Tabárez, and, briefly, Gian Piero Gasperini, to name just a few. This broad range of voices means that Forlán’s footballing education has been shaped by an abundance of influences and inspirations. In this regard, Thacker likens Forlán to other modern coaches at the nascent stages of their careers, like Mikel Arteta or Frank Lampard, who played under some of the brightest and best coaches of the era. Given the rich teachings they enjoyed before making their way up to the elite level, there are clearly parallels to be drawn with Forlán.
Similarly, Forlán himself acknowledged that his globe-trotting career has helped him make the transition from player to coach. “Having travelled all over the world taught me a lot. How every country lives football…how the cultural side affects the working tactics of different teams…there are some things you have to realise that won’t be the same. For me that’s an advantage,” he explained.
It seems reasonable that having more experiences in football – from different coaches and styles to different countries and cultures – can only be advantageous in your development as a coach. Forlán thinks so. Taking a personally-selected combination of elements from different countries and combining them can help form that multi-faceted, holistic approach.
Forlán’s assistant at Peñarol is someone he knows well and trusts implicitly – his father Pablo, who also played for the club. This appears a wise appointment, as it helps to give authority and credibility to Forlán, but could also be susceptible to family fallouts! Peñarol’s season started in February, but as with the rest of the world, the season came to a shuddering halt in March with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Forlán only has five competitive games on his record: a win, a draw and a defeat in the league, and also a win and a defeat in the Copa Libertadores group stage.
Nothing is guaranteed in football, least of all in coaching, so no-one can say for sure how well Forlán will do as a coach. It is too soon to come to any conclusions, and there will be some tough lessons ahead, but he is willing to face those challenges and learn from any mistakes. Based on his experiences and his characteristics, he will surely put in the required hard work and dedication needed to get results. If Forlán wants it enough and has enough support, he will make himself into a successful coach.
Diego Forlán was the subject of his own podcast recently, so be sure to check that out for the story of his playing career
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