NUNO Espirito Santo has a different-sounding name, has led a different kind of life and his playing career was far from that of the average Joe Pro.
He spent his first six years as a barefoot boy on a paradise beach, raised on the tiny African island of Principe. His village was six houses, a road, then the ocean. His days there involved simply a ball, his friend, the sands.
From there, he flipped to an adolescence in urban Portugal. He left home at 16. He played in Guimaraes, La Coruna, Oporto, Moscow and then Oporto again; as a manager he has meandered from Rio Ave to Valencia to Porto to Wolves.
He speaks five languages and his son studies theoretical physics in Manchester. If all that’s not different enough, consider the alternative view he forged of his sport while on the pitch. He was a goalkeeper and goalkeepers stand on the edges of games, the only position where you are as much an observer as a participant in the play but not only that – for most of his career he was a No2 keeper, the guy who is always part of the dressing room but almost never the team.
He very quickly realised that meant his role within squads had to be as much social as technical and he made it his business to help motivate and train his teammates – making him from an early stage part player, part coach.
All of those elements seem to have contributed to a manager with an original way of doing things – and human being with a worldview of his own. Nuno has counterintuitive ideas about football – for instance, while most managers want a squad as big as possible he thinks the key is having the smallest-possible one. And then there are circles. Small circles and big circles. The circles we work in, think in and live in. As with squads, conventional coaching wisdom says its best to widen them – but Nuno thinks small is beautiful.
To explain. Most managers – modern ones at least – love grand strategies. They plan training schedules weeks or even months in advance, disciples of periodisation. They line up transfer targets several windows ahead and they look at what opponents are doing, what the press are saying, ahead in the fixture list towards maybe the Christmas programme, the run-in, the next big derby. They love rotation. They speak about needing cover in case of injuries, suspensions and loss of form. They wonder what their next job might be and how to get it; they aspire to have philosophies and legacies.
Not Nuno. Maybe it was that boyhood on a beach. Perhaps his richly-varied life has made him readier to roll with the punches of change. Whatever; in his mind too many people fret about tomorrow instead of dealing with today, they worry about pitfalls and possibilities rather than just the practical old here and now.
Or, as he puts it, people mentally draw big, grand circles when they should try and keep within limited, manageable ones.
It is a wisdom that he takes not just into how he runs his football teams but how he lives his life. This cropped up during the course of two fascinating hours spent with him at Wolves’ training ground for a piece in The Sunday Times. What led into the subject was Nuno talking about his son: exceptionally bright, he said, but also exceptionally impractical.
Nuno is trying to teach him to live in a more ordered way. “Instead of creating big circles, let’s create a small circle of one day, I tell him.” So every evening they talk through what his son has on over the next 24 hours, the minutiae, the basic stuff, the humdrum tasks. Get that done, speak again tomorrow – is the approach. He thinks it’s working.
“We live in big circles: what are we going to do next week?” Nuno explained, speaking more generally. “Your wife is calling: let’s travel because the ticket is cheaper if we book one month before. So we start living in big circles.” We look ahead. We plan that holiday. We begin to worry: how will we pay for it, what will we do there, what are the logistics?
“And I think that every time I speak, especially with my teammates, everyone is living in big circles. Planning, planning. Can we do that?” Nuno continued.
“This week we’re going to play Espanyol, then we’re playing Tottenham. But should I plan for Tottenham? If I start planning the game of Tottenham maybe I will not put this player into the (Espanyol) game. But what if that player gets injured?
“Why not have the philosophy everyone in your squad is important, everyone can play? So let’s just focus on the game. And let’s focus on this next training session. Let’s prepare it. And this way you start creating your routines.
“I’m trying to live my life in small circles and I believe the players are not totally on the same page but they are getting there. They are happier guys. They produce more. Because they only focus on what’s important.”
He gave an example. “Small things. If a guy is having a massage, but he’s on his phone, he is not having a massage. He is not. It’s impossible. It’s the same as (being on the phone and) driving.
“If someone is taking care of your body and he is touching your leg, ‘where is the pain?’ You must focus, tell the guy: no, not there, the pain is there.
“So it is about your mind. If you don’t create your moments (around) the details, it is impossible.”
Small circles – I guess Nuno’s version of mindfulness. I guess his return to the beach.
Small circles – I’m trying them. Lockdown demands them anyway.
Jonathan Northcroft is The Sunday Times football correspondent and a founder member of Opening Up Cricket