They said it cost Barcelona the Champions League. On more than one occasion. It cost them La Liga title, too. In fact, it cost them every single one of those handful of games from which they’ve failed to emerge victorious.
Hyperbole aside, Pep Guardiola -- never content; forever seeking to evolve -- knew he needed one. So much so he spent a club-record €66 million (with make-weight Samuel Eto’o valued at €20m) to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the club in 2009. The Swede’s arrival didn’t go according to plan, however. And despite their unprecedented success in recent years, Barcelona have never quite found a Plan B.
New coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino may just be the man to provide a solution. While his appointment by the Spanish champions may well have come out of left field for many outside South America, the Rosario-born Argentine appears to be a perfect fit for the Catalans.
A Newell’s Old Boys legend who appeared more than 500 times for Lionel Messi’s boyhood club, the 50-year-old, whom Messi’s father Jorge lists as his favourite player, was said to be the World Player of the Year’s first choice to succeed Tito Vilanova, who was forced to step down to concentrate on his ongoing battle against cancer.
Like Pep and, by extension, Tito, Martino is also is an ardent student of Marcelo Bielsa, under whom he starred as an attacking midfielder during Newell’s most successful period as they lifted back-to-back league titles and came within a penalty shootout of the Copa Libertadores between 1990-92.
Tata’s Bielsan approach to his coaching career has proved fruitful, earning domestic titles in Paraguay and most recently back home with Newell’s last season. He returned to the club in 2012 with La Lepra having been dragged into the relegation dogfight at the bottom of Argentina’s three-year average promedios system.
Martino would have to fight for the title if they were to avoid the drop, and fight they did – narrowly missing out on the Inical as they finished runners-up to Velez before romping to the Final league title, scoring 40 goals in the process -- 12 more than anyone else -- thanks to a very Bielsan high-pressing, possession-based approach.
Once again a penalty shootout would stand between Newell’s and the Libertadores, however, as Martino’s men lost out to Ronaldinho’s Atletico Mineiro in the semi-finals last month; but that Martino had come so close to becoming the first coach in history to claim a league and Libertadores double since the advent of Argentina’s short-season format in 1990 speaks volumes of his achievements in Rosario.
Legend has it that as Pep Guardiola prepared for his first venture into coaching he spent eleven hours held up in Bielsa’s house discussing their respective footballing philosophies; it proved time well spent as Pep’s heavily Bielsa-influenced approach brought so much success in Catalonia.
Martino should fit right in at Barcelona and will likely make only minor tweaks to the team’s existing style of play. “Newell’s were very similar to Barcelona in terms of keeping the ball, rotation, passing, and defending,” said Martino’s fitness coach Elvio Paolorroso this week. “His teams must always look for a team-mate, even if that means making intermediate passes.”
Where the Argentine -- the fourth in Barca’s history to take his place on the bench after Helenio Herrera, Roque Olsen and Cesar Luis Menotti – could offer something different, however, stems from his successful time with the Paraguayan national team.
After finishing joint-second with, ironically, Bielsa’s Chile in Conmebol’s qualification marathon for World Cup 2010, Paraguay were dealt a tragic blow when star forward Salvador Cabanas was took a bullet to the head at a Mexican bar. He miraculously survived the attack, but his playing days at the top level were over.
The loss hit Martino and his side hard. While the human tragedy and the devastating emotional blow of the incident far outweighed its sporting ramifications, the loss of what was by far their most creative attacking threat left Martino needing a complete rethink.
With no link in midfield, a hole which Cristian Riveros was initially tasked with filling before his technical deficiencies made the system unworkable, a limited and aging side needed a change of tact.
Martino set about making his team rigid, compact and organised, prioritising the protection of their own goal over the pursuit for the opposition’s. With Dario Veron equally comfortable at full-back and in the middle, Paraguay would intermittently flick between a back four and a back three when required, packing the midfield, condensing space between their lines and utilising wing-play to cross for big Roque Sante Cruz or to find space in behind for the sprightly Nelson Valdez.
Paraguay would go on to make a World Cup quarter-final for the first time in the nation’s history, conceding just two goals in their five matches, before Martino dragged that had become the most lugubrious side on the continent all the way to the final of the Copa America the following year – doing so without winning a single game.
For all his successes, Martino proved something over a 12-month period in which Paraguay bored the neutrals and often enraged their opposition. He had shown another string to his bow. That he could adapt. That he was a coach who could step away from his roots when required.
Humble, studious, gregarious and Bielsan. Martino will likely be more of the same for Barca. Plan A will remain. But when the chips are down, it will be Tata’s ability to offer something different that will ultimately determine his legacy at the club. Everybody needs a plan b.
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