The Portuguese coach has made a major impression in his first full year as Santos Laguna manager, and appears destined for big things in his career.
High praise, indeed.
Even so, a little-known European coach crossing the Atlantic to take over Santos Laguna was a radical gamble by both parties. The club could’ve simply dipped into the stock stable of Liga MX managers, while Caixinha could have continued making a name for himself in Portugal.
The decision raised eyebrows in the Mexican press about whether the young Portuguese coach could adapt to the intricacies of the Mexican game, with its split season, playoff system and unconventional practices such as the so-called “Gentlemen’s Pact.”
But the ambitious, well-spoken 42-year-old Portuguese manager has responded to his initial doubters in some style as he comes up to a complete year in charge of the club.
Los Guerreros reached the semifinal of the Clausura and the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in his first season in charge, and this time around Santos are second in the Liga MX and have only lost once in 13 games, leading to a quiet confidence from Caixinha that things are coming together at the right time as the business end of the Apertura approaches.
“The way we are reaching the last part of the tournament compared to the last one, I think we are better,” Caixinha told Goal recently, in fluent English. “We have to get to the playoffs with lots of confidence, quality of play and ambition. At this moment, the team is bringing all of these points together, so it’s a good situation.”
Caixinha says he was initially surprised by the quality and organization of the Mexican league and says one of the keys to his early success was forging an identity – it is a phrase he uses over and over – for his Santos Laguna side. A crucial component in that has been allowing room to maneuver and being flexible to his new and different working environment.
“It’s almost like creating a balance between your ideas on the way you want the team to play and the reality the club presents to you,” he said on the phone from Torreon. “Between those two points you work on a daily basis, but the players make the difference.”
Part of Caixinha and the Santos Laguna hierarchy’s identity and plan for the club is to promote youth, by giving the Under-20 and Under-17 players regular opportunities to train with the first team and implementing the tactical layout of the first team all the way down through the different youth sides.
The idea is that one day Santos Laguna can become a major exporter of young Mexican talent to Europe.
One early example of Caixinha’s willingness to turn to youth - “If they have the quality there is no problem playing them,” he says - is 20-year-old left-winger Alonso Escoboza, who the Portuguese coach has started regularly this season and who has just been called up to the Mexico squad for the first time.
Before coming to Mexico, Caixinha – a Portuguese-style bullfighter or forcado as a youth - managed Portuguese first division side Nacional, but he has previously worked in Greece, Romania and Saudia Arabia, as well as having stints observing training at clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Caixinha’s list of sports and soccer-related study indicate a shrewd and knowledgeable mind is at work as he continues what is still a fledgling coaching career.
It also doesn’t do any harm to have Mourinho as a valuable ally.
“I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we keep in contact, discussing our ideas about everything that surrounds the game – training sessions, match preparation, training control – I mean everything,” stressed Caixinha. “It’s good to have a friend like him because you know you can discuss your ideas, your opinions and (see) whether you are on the same wavelength with one of the top coaches in the world, ever.”
Choosing to come to Santos Laguna is a career decision Caixinha is clearly still enthralled by, explaining that he feels he is in “the right place at the right time,” but his long-term ambition is to return triumphantly to Europe and win titles.
“Football is for the moment and at the moment I want to win with Santos,” said the Portuguese coach. “Of course, I would like to return to Europe one day with a top level club and try to work and win many titles: Champions League, Europa League, the major leagues that you have in Europe.”
It’s a statement that would seem wildly unrealistic coming out of the mouth of most current Liga MX managers, but somehow doesn’t from Caixinha. That’s testament to his fine start and burgeoning reputation in Mexico.