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Pep Munoz exclusive: Coaching Grimaldo & Adama at Barcelona; working with super pro Fellaini in China

Pep Munoz is a coach who likes a challenge and is never afraid to take a job in a country many coaches would not even consider. His career so far has taken him from Barcelona's academy to China and Cambodia where he is currently manager of Preach Khan Reach Svay Rieng Football Club.

Despite not being the easiest team name to pronounce, Munoz has made life there look easy this season. After 28 games in the Cambodian Premier League, Svay Rieng have won 23 games, drawn two and lost twice and are already the league champions.

In the earlier days of Munoz's coaching career, he had the opportunity to coach Barcelona's youth team at the famous 'La Masia'. During that period, he coached players who now play in the top divisions of Europe – quite the experience. And in China he coached the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Graziano Pelle at a time the Chinese Super League was on the rise. All in all, it is a career worth talking about and that is exactly what Munoz did when he sat down with TribalFootball recently for a wide-ranging interview.

What would you say was the best experience of your career and the most difficult one?

"Well, it's difficult to choose one. I have perfect memories from my years in FC Barcelona, especially when we won the first edition of the UEFA Youth League in 2014. I would also add the season with Shandong Luneng (2019) coaching great players like Fellaini, Graziano Pelle, and Chinese top players. Players that I also coached in the Chinese National Team. [I had] good memories from those days. Especially in games against Japan or Saudi Arabia.

"On difficult moments, I would say the relegation from second division with Barcelona B and the cup final we lost with Shandong Luneng against Shanghai Shenghua in 2019. One more difficult day to forget was the defeat against Vietnam with China in the World Cup qualifiers to Qatar 2022."

Who are some of the best players you have coached in your career?

"So many talented players in Barcelona as you can imagine, players like Grimaldo, Adama Traore, Patric Gabarron, Munir El Haddadi and other players that are playing in the first or second division in Europe. In China, Pelle and Fellaini were super professional and powerful players, and I would like to add also the talent of Hao Junmin, and the strength of Zhang Linpeng and Zhu Zhenjie."

How was your time at Barcelona in general, can you tell us more about what it was like working for such a big club?

"Well in Barcelona you always had to win titles playing our game style and of course developing young players for the first team.

"Those processes are experiences that the coaches enjoy but also there are some moments, especially when you are competing in strong leagues with young players, that the players need time to adapt to the competition, and when you are not winning on those times as a coach you have to show your confidence in the game style and keep the clear idea that you are developing players for the future."

What have you made of a player you coached in the past Alex Grimaldo and his incredible season at Bayer Leverkusen?

"Grimaldo is a pure talent. Super offensive player but also fast and strong to recover positions and defend with intensity. His left foot is fantastic. He had these abilities when he was 15 years old and year by year he improved and developed them.

"This season he is scoring goals, and his offensive contribution has been brilliant. Of course, he could play in any of the top clubs in Europe, but I think he has found the right place and the right coach in Leverkusen."

You also coached Alen Halilovic at Barcelona, there was a lot of expectation around him and what he might achieve in his career, but he failed to live up to those expectations. As someone who knows him from his youth days, what have you made of his career?

"Well, at the time in Barcelona he was so young, and everybody talked about his talent and his future. He dealt with the pressure, and he showed the quality that he has. When you finish your time in a big club like Barca it is never easy to adapt to a new situation and to choose the best option to keep learning and improving.

"In most of the clubs the style and the methodology are so different to Barca, so it is a big challenge for the young players after a few days under Barca's umbrella to go out and take to real football life.

"I used to say that the football career for the young Barça players begins when they leave the club."

Three more players you coached at Barcelona were Patric, Adama Traore and Munir. What is your assessment of all three of those players?

"Being a professional player in top leagues after you've [spent] a lot of years [at] Barca's Academy is more complicated. These three players have shown since they were young a huge competitive sense a part of the quality that we know they had.

"Patric is a warrior. Super competitive. He can play in different positions, and he always plays well. Aggressive, smart, and clever in possession.

"Adama is the fastest player I've ever coached. He has improved a lot his skills during his career, and he can adapt to different structures and styles.

"Munir is full of talent, he reads the game situations very well. Lots of quality with his left foot and smart in the box."

What are your thoughts on the current situation of Chinese football?

"I have good memories of that short period. At that moment post covid in the world, China was still struggling with the pandemic, and the league was being played in a normal format. Teams were in hotels, and they only went out to play games. When we got the players in the national team, they were tired. They wanted to give their best, but it was difficult to push them, especially when you go to play against teams that you know are better than you.

"Despite those obstacles, we had good results with Saudi Arabia (1-1) and with Japan (2-0 loss). Teams that a few months later beat Argentina and Germany in the World Cup. I had the chance to prepare those games from a tactical perspective according to the guidance of the Head Coach, Li Xiaopeng.

"It was an amazing experience. Nowadays the level of the league in China has dropped but is still competitive. The national team had some internal problems with the management and now they are starting a new era. They need patience and confidence."

In 2024 you are the manager of Svay Rieng in Cambodia. How is your time there going?

"Amazing. I'm happy here. The club has a good structure and I'm working in a very good environment and conditions. Same as If I were in Europe. The team is leading the league, and we also reached the cup final. The level of the league is much better than I thought before. And it seems it will grow fast."

As someone who knows Barcelona well, what do you make of the current side?

"Like all the top clubs in the world, Barca needs to always win. Now the club is trying to build something but without the pressure of winning trophies. They have a lot of young players that should play for Barca B and because of the financial problems, and injuries, they have to be part of the first team squad.

"That's good for the future but not for the immediate results. So, it needs patience. Barça is a club that always works under pressure because you have to win games, but you also have to play well."

How much hope do you hold for Spain at the Euros next month, can they win it?

"Spain has a young team. A new generation of players and a team under construction. There are a few teams in a similar situation so I think it will be a funny tournament without favourites.

"Spain has to go game by game, winning confidence and experience. If that happens and players like Pedri and other injured players come into the competition in a good form, they will have a chance for sure."

And what of your own future?

"Well, right now I'm focused on finishing this season and trying to win the cup with Svay Rieng. It's been a long time without trophies for the club. I extended my contract one more season and for the future let's see.

"I will look for challenges that can bring me to the next level of experience. Leagues like Japan, China, or United Emirates are interesting to me and of course, I would like to be close to Spain."

- adapted by Harry Dunnett

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Xhulio Zeneli


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