From Barca to Panama: How Thomas Christiansen has brought Cruyff’s ideology to CONCACAF

Thomas Christiansen is, by at least one measure, one of the best managers in the world.

In 2023, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) included Christiansen in a long list of nominees for the best national team manager, an award that eventually went to Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni. The recognition may seem minor, but it’s not the sort of list on which you see Panama mentioned. In a way, it was proof that Christiansen’s methods are paying dividends with the CONCACAF up-and-comers, which he will lead into a Nations League semifinal against Mexico on Thursday.

That isn’t the only mark of high expectations Christiansen carries with him. The Danish manager, who moved to Spain as a teenager, has been marketed as a former Barcelona player who had trained under Johan Cruyff, the Dutch master of progressive tactics who spearheaded their ‘Dream Team’ era, winning four La Liga titles in a row between 1991-1994.

As revered as Cruyff is, his philosophies are not always the easiest to implement. But with the Canaleros, Christiansen has molded the Panamanian side into the region’s newest darlings.


Head coach Jaime Lozano tasked with reinvigorating Mexico’s mentality, and he knows it

“We want to come and compete and display the form we’ve had over the last few years,” Christiansen told reporters in Dallas about the matchup with a regional power in Mexico — a rematch of last summer’s Gold Cup final which Panama lost 1-0.

For Christiansen, the Nations League is one more step forward towards his main objective with Panama. Christiansen was a surprise hire in 2020 after stints with Leeds United and Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium and, after failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, rumors spread that he was considering resigning from his role. The story spread on social media, which prompted the Panama Football Federation president Manuel Arias to accuse “certain individuals” of inventing stories in search of likes. Christiansen believed that there was an intent to “destabilize” the national team.

A coach spontaneously resigning wouldn’t have surprised anyone in the topsy-turvy world of CONCACAF. But for Christiansen the reason to remain loyal to Panama is simple.

“Because I want Panama to qualify for the (2026) World Cup,” he said. “That was the challenge that I gave myself when I signed.”

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Panama lost to Mexico in last year’s Gold Cup final (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Panama’s lone participation at a World Cup came in 2018. They lost all three matches — to Belgium, England and Tunisia — by a combined score of 11-2. Qualification for the next World Cup will be significantly more manageable, thanks to the expanded field of 48 teams and the fact that Mexico, Canada and the U.S. all qualify automatically as co-hosts and won’t be participating in qualifiers.

Without the region’s heavyweights, Panama will be a favorite to earn an automatic bid.

“It would’ve been perfect had we qualified in 2022, but the main objective was the 2026 World Cup,” Christiansen said. “There will be many tournaments and opportunities to coexist with the players before 2026, many challenges, wonderful moments and not-so-great moments that we’ll have to overcome and manage in order to be successful.”

Thursday’s Nations League semifinal will serve as preparation for Panama’s road to 2026, and also for a more immediate challenge; Panama will also participate in this summer’s Copa America as one of six CONCACAF invited nations.

Panama routed Costa Rica 6-1 on aggregate in the Nations League quarterfinals to secure their spot, and were drawn into Group C along with the U.S., Uruguay and Bolivia.

The challenge now is for Panama to progress from a possible spoiler to a dark horse capable of making a run.

Christiansen has gradually given Panama a tactical identity: a ball-dominant team that incorporates positional play from a 3-4-3 formation. Panama is a more confident team with clear tactical ideas, which has allowed them to level the playing field in CONCACAF.

“We want to dominate and control matches and take the game where we want it,” Christiansen said. “It’s difficult because individually we aren’t better than a lot of teams. But collectively, if each player understands their role and their importance and responsibilities to the team, we can compete.”

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Panama qualified for the Nations League handily over Costa Rica (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

That said, this Panama team is still a work in progress. Christiansen was well aware of the challenges he’d face when he took the job, but things have improved in at least one tangible way: in 2023 the federation unveiled a newly-renovated training center that serves as the home for its national teams.

“Having a high-performance training center is a very important step,” Christiansen said. “The players need a place like that to work in. It would send a message to the country and to the government that those types of facilities are needed in a country where the heat can be inhumane. If we’re going to place demands on the players, we have to give them the right working conditions.”

Christiansen also realized that the talent pool in Panama had potential but the players needed direction and structure. As Christiansen put it, he started from scratch, seeking to create habits among his players that would translate to smarter decisions and better movement on match day.

“There was plenty to improve, but that part of the process has been positive,” Christiansen said. “You can ask a player to do something, but if he doesn’t understand why he’s supposed to do it, he’ll only do it the first time because it’s a recent instruction. But if he understands it, he’ll find the reasons why I’ve told him to do it, and that will allow him to find solutions on his own. A player on the ball has to have three or four passing options. If he doesn’t have that, then his teammates aren’t offering him those solutions. That’s a problem and that’s what we work to correct. It’s all part of an analytical process.”

Christiansen won a league title in Cyprus with APOEL in 2016-17, then guided them to the last-16 of the Europa League knockout round for the first time in the club’s history. He was hired as Leeds United manager in 2017, but was sacked eight months later after a stretch of poor results.

“It was an incredible experience, both positively and negatively,” Christiansen said. “I’ve learned and grown from the bad experiences as both a person and a coach, especially in regards to decision-making and managing a team or a group of players. Knowing how to approach those situations has allowed me to grow significantly.”

Christiansen knows that international football leaves coaches with little time to incorporate complicated tactics. But in Panama, Christiansen has been given an opportunity to revolutionize the national team on his terms.

“Imagine how advanced and how different (Cruyff) saw football,” Christiansen said. “With time and with all that knowledge, you understand what he was looking for. That’s the type of methodology that we want to implement with Panama. We know that this is going to be a long process. There will be good and bad moments. Right now, we’re enjoying the good moments.”

(Top photo: John Duran/Getty Images)

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