The ball was played into the forward, fast and to his feet. With two defenders close behind he controlled it, laid it back to a teammate and sprinted to the left in a long arc, beyond the man he had passed to. At the same time, the player who had begun the move in the first place was dashing to the right. Suddenly, it was three on two; swift and slick. Back into the middle the ball went, a clear chance, but the shot went flying back off the post with a loud satisfying thud. Over on the touchline, the manager looked to the sky and shouted.
"Five," he said. The Villarreal forward hit the deck and did five press-ups, punishment for the miss. And then it started all over again, faster and faster. A grin stretched across the culprit's face: He thought he'd gotten away with it, but not this time. Next time, he curled a gorgeous finish into the corner. There was a smattering of applause. To the west, the sun was dropping behind the mountains. By the time they finished, it was getting dark, goalposts deserted as they headed off laughing. Even at the professional level, there's a touch of the kids' kick-about that never gets lost.
These are good days for Villarreal, time to celebrate. The night before, Marcos Senna had been in town for his testimonial at the Madrigal. Robert Pires came too. So did Javi Venta. After training, the squad headed out for dinner together. That same morning, Thursday, coach Marcelino Garcia Toral renewed his contract with the club. At the end of the session, Marcelino appeared in the media room with club president Fernando Roig to announce the news, a huge smile stretched across his face.
"Only my wife really knows," he says, "but in terms of coming home satisfied more often than not, this is the most I have enjoyed a club."
A year ago, Villarreal were struggling in the Second Division. Roig says that relegation actually did them good; it was the chance to restructure, to get things right, to appreciate what they have. Now they're back in the first division and the Madrigal is packed. The team is playing brilliantly. At the weekend, they drew with Atletico -- the first team to really have Diego Simeone's side on the ropes. When they played Real Madrid, 20 British journalists were flown in to write about Gareth Bale's debut; they flew out raving about Villarreal.
"That was a game to be proud of," Marcelino says as he sits in an office explaining his approach before the afternoon session. "If a player, a single player, doubles the entire budget of Villarreal, well, we're proud of that. That's great." Great, but a bit sad, too? Shouldn't clubs aspire to more? "Sad?" he replies. "That's just how it is. Sad? For me, sadness is a catastrophe like Philippines. This is football: We have to ask why it got to this [with Madrid and Barcelona dominating], but that's not a coach's job. Our job is to train the players. This is the route we're on."
So far, it is proving a successful route. Newly promoted Villarreal currently sit fourth in La Liga and much of it, says club captain Bruno, is down to Marcelino. When the coach arrived last season the side were tenth after 22 games. They lost just two of the 21 league games they played under him last year and were promoted in second place, back into the first division. Habits were changed, and so was the playing style: there's an aggression, a speed and clarity, about them that was not there before.
"When we arrived, we kept some of the things that we thought they were doing well," Marcelino explains. "But the reality is that if you take over midway through a season, it's because something isn't going right. When a team is well-organised, when the players are disciplined and committed, it works, it flows. And if objectives are realistic, the coach and his team will get results. And in a situation like that a new coach doesn't get called in."
When Villarreal called Marcelino, it was the third time they had tried to sign the man who once took Racing Santander to a historic UEFA Cup place in 2007-08 and had taken Recreativo de Huelva to promotion and an impressive eighth place in 2005-06 and 2006-07. The impact was immediate. But so often we talk about the product of the work; what of the work itself?
"It starts with the idea that football is collective," Marcelino says. "The hardest thing is to build a squad: A good squad is not the one that has lots of good players in it; a good squad is one where you have players who are compatible. The fullback has to be able to play with the winger on that same side. All the players have to identify with the play. If you have really good players but individual ones, if you don't have those nexus on the pitch, it won't work. Benzema united Bale and Ronaldo; Iniesta and Xavi make Messi better. Zlatan was a brilliant player, but it didn't work with Messi.
"We want to implicate the players in the defensive and offensive work of the team. All of them. They all have to feel like participants and the way you play is conditioned by a basic fact: who has the ball and knowing what to do depending on which team is in possession and where. When we have it, the player has to have multiple options to pass. And when the opposition has it, we have to, between us all, get it back as soon as possible. From there we have to develop an idea of how we want to play."
"After every game, we carry out an analysis to see what we did well and what we did badly. That analysis takes you to the next stage to "treat" the "illness" you have. Then you apply that to the group. And there you depend on the receptiveness of the group. You also have to be realistic about what you ask of them, though. About what they can do and what you can ask them to do."
"We can demand from the player everything we work on; what we don't work on we can't demand from them. A talented player can do something we've never done in training but he can never be obliged to do that. We also can't show him on a chalk board and then assume that he can do it. We can't oblige a player to offer up a solution that we haven't worked on with him. You have to do it. It's not enough just to tell the player. If we work on how to counterattack, say, we can then ask them to attack that way. We show him the movements, the mechanisms."
Sometimes the lesson is not explicit. It's an international week, so there's no game on Sunday and the previous night was about celebration. Marcelino calls the evening session "ludico," all about enjoyment: three 'pitches' are marked out, the players moving from one to the next, playing different games on each. But the movements played out are not coincidental: repetition, practical application. Drills are drills even when they are not drilled into players.
Part of the success has been physical. "There are tests every single day: weight, body mass," Bruno says. "There are things that we can't do. We looked after ourselves anyway, but there's greater control now." Walk past a burger bar and keep on walking? "That's for sure," he smiles. Throughout the squad players have lost weight; Villarreal are quicker, more aggressive than ever before. The club's control of players' physical condition is more advanced than many of their first division opponents. And that has really stood out.
"But," Marcelino warns, "the physical side of it quantifies what we do; it does not dictate it. Football is the basis, not the other way round. You start from an idea of how you want to play and then the physical work fits that. But we do X amount of work and X sessions depending on that; the intensity and volume is controlled and monitored. The preparador fisico and I have been together for 10 years, and we work on the basis of microcycles, on-going throughout the season."
Marcelino laughs. "I haven't a clue about the physical side of it! You'd have to ask him! He provides the analysis and the details and we work from that to prevent injury and maintain their condition. If a player is at risk, we adapt. Every single player has the same tests, every day. That too has to start from a clear set of parameters: you have to establish the right weight and fat index. I don't have a clue, honestly: They tell me. From there, we establish the framework and build a training programme to reach those exact figures that we have established as the optimum."
Few players reflect that better than Bruno and Cani: both are extremely talented, but they're transformed in terms of dynamism and energy. Proof that you can change players?
"No," Marcelino says.
There's a long pause. "No," he says again. "But you can hide their defects and increase their virtues. And it's not [only] about their physical condition. Two years ago Villarreal had more players like Cani or Bruno. Now, sure, it's a problem if they get injured, but we don't have players who are like them. Instead, we have others who can complement them. It's like Gio: there's no point in having another player like him; it's better to have players who fit with him, who help him do what he does rather than do what he does themselves.
"So, given Cani and Bruno's responsibility, commitment, humility and identification with the club, we have been able to build something that works for the team. They have facilitators alongside them now."
It is tempting to see a psychological element to the improvement too. Again, Marcelino though gives the idea short shrift. "No," he says, with a dismissiveness that's striking. Why not? Not even on an intangible level? "I think that those people who base their coaching on the mental side of the game..." he says, pausing, "... well, it's not real. What is real is the need to generate mechanisms within which players can play well and to help players be in the best possible condition to exploit their virtues. It's good to be able to convince a player, but if you have a united group with respect for each other and for their profession, a group that is receptive to information ... well, if they do all that, the mental part is sorted."
And if a player doesn't have that respect? "You try to get him into the group ... but if there is a group with five or six of them, things will go badly and the coach will be on the street. That happens. Every year, in every country in the world."
Marcelino gets up to prepare the session, leaving the office and heading for the dressing room. As he goes out the door, he smiles: "look" he says, "if you have good players and they're disciplined, you're fine. If not..." the good news is that he has them. As the Villarreal manager says a few hours later when his renewal is formally announced before the media: "these are the best players I've worked with."