By Nick Dorrington
When Gerardo Martino announced in March that he intended to leave Newell’s Old Boys at the end of the season and seek out opportunities in Europe, he could hardly have imagined that four months later he would be announced as the new coach of Barcelona. June job offers from Malaga and Real Sociedad had been put to one side as he concentrated on steering Newell’s Old Boys through the Copa Libertadores and any realistic hope of migrating to Europe ahead of the 2013-14 season appeared to have vanished.
The manner in which the position became available would certainly not have been Martino’s choice, but with Tito Vilanova forced to resign to concentrate on his battle against throat cancer and Martino free from any constraints after watching his Newell’s side lose out to Atletico Mineiro in the Libertadores semifinals, the pieces fell neatly into place. Martino now finds himself thrust into the Camp Nou limelight in his first coaching position outside South America.
It is a move that makes sense for both parties. The Newell’s side that Martino led to the recent Torneo Final title played attacking, possession-based football with plenty of movement and incision in the final third. Out of possession they pressed aggressively, preventing opponents time and space on the ball. Aligned in a 4-3-3 with a fluid forward three, they were by far the most attractive side in Argentina over the course of the 2012-13 season.
Martino appears well placed to continue Barca’s gradual shift towards a more vertical style which utilises possession as a vehicle for attack rather than mere control that Vilanova initiated last season. Martino’s intention is for the player in possession to always have at least three forward passing options, an aim that is achieved through constant, varied movement in the final third–onrushing full-backs, midfielders moving between the lines and forwards switching positions.
It is highly unlikely that the static horizontal passing that has at times accompanied rigid defensive performances from opponents in recent seasons will be replicated under Martino. His constant desire for verticality plays to the strengths of Cesc Fabregas, who, with Xavi slowing down, could, if he elects to stay, receive more playing time and a more central role next season.
Martino played under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s in the early nineties, but despite the clear ideological similarities, the characterisation of Martino as a devout Bielsista is wide of the mark. He has spoken of the strong influence his first three coaches at Newell’s – Juan Carlos Montes, Jorge Solari and José Yudica – had on his approach, and while Bielsa remains dogmatically welded to his philosophy, Martino is not above pragmatism when necessary.
Off the pitch, Barcelona have secured a coach whose easy-going, polite manner is likely to win him many friends in the Spanish press, friends who could prove vital if there are any slip ups in the early weeks of the season. Refreshingly honest and often self-deprecating, he refused to take credit for leading Santa Fe to victory in his first match in charge in 2005, asking the assembled journalists: “How can I take the credit when I have only just arrived?”
His strong communication skills also translate to the training pitch, where he is renowned for his ability to foster strong team spirit and keep even the marginal members of his squad involved and interested. At Newell’s he leaned on a strong local core – seven of the Newell’s team who lost to Atletico Mineiro in the Libertadores semi-final were born in the club’s home province of Santa Fe or the neighbouring Entre Rios – to emphasise the importance of the club to the community and engender a culture of mutual sacrifice.
Martino will have a fellow Rosarian alongside him at Barcelona in the form of Lionel Messi, whose public and private support is reported to have played a role in the club’s decision. Martino was the favourite player of Messi’s father, Jorge, but although factions of the Spanish media are sure to package Martino’s appointment as the opening shot in an imagined battle for supremacy between Messi and new signing Neymar, it is hard to imagine Martino as anyone’s puppet.
The one question mark, of course, is whether a coach without any previous experience outside his home continent can adapt to the demands of one of the highest profile positions in world football. Yet while Martino does not have a background in Europe, he does (unlike Luis Enrique, his closest competitor for the position) have a history of success, with four league titles in Paraguay and one in Argentina to his credit.
He also did fantastic work with the Paraguayan national team. Taking over in 2006, his side stormed through the qualification process for the 2010 World Cup, defeating Brazil and recording a first ever official victory over Argentina on route to becoming the first South American team to qualify.
The attempted murder of Salvador Cabañas in a Mexico City bar robbed Martino of the link that held together the offensive and defensive portions of his side, but Paraguay still took their qualifying momentum into the World Cup and gave Spain a run for their money in the quarter final. The dying embers of that side battled their way through to the final of the 2011 Copa America, where they lost to Uruguay.
Most recently, at Newell’s, Martino turned a side who were struggling against relegation into league champions. They began the 2012/13 season level with Independiente in the last two relegation spots in Argentina’s promedio system, where the points gained over the last three seasons are averaged out on a per game basis. They shared an average of 1.184 points per game. By the end of the season, having recorded the best overall points total, Newell’s average had jumped to 1.439 points per game, while Independiente were relegated on an average of 1.132.
Wherever Martino has gone he has made a difference. He may not be a household name to those outside of South American football, but he has the necessary tactical wherewithal and communication skills to prove himself on the world stage. Given time, what at the moment appears a choice based more on circumstance than considered thought could well turn out to be an excellent long-term appointment.