New Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino's tactics fit Barca's style
All events depend, to an extent, on chance, on a thousand, a million circumstances coinciding. It may be that Gerardo Martino is ousted from Barcelona at the end of the season having finished second in the league and having failed to take them to a seventh successive Champions League semi-final and his appointment will be seen as a regrettable short-term move necessitated by the dreadful news that Tito Vilanova requires further treatment for cancer. Or it may be that he achieves glory, a new dynasty is begun, and the world looks on the turbulent events of this summer and reflects on what a peculiar business appointing a manager can be.
"I don't believe in luck, but in certain cases, luck, or fate, has to be on your side," said Juan Manuel Llop, who was a teammate of Martino's in the great Newell's Old Boys side that won the Clausura and reached the final of the Copa Libertadores under Marcello Bielsa in 1992. "Look at Martino. If Barcelona had had to replace Vilanova a year ago, he wouldn't have been appointed. If Newell's had advanced to the Copa Libertadores final, he wouldn't have been on [vacation] and probably wouldn't have been willing to talk to other club and therefore he wouldn't have been appointed. But it happened."
It may be debatable whether anybody would have actually refused to talk to Barcelona, even if they had been about to lead the club they'd always supported into a Libertadores final, but the general point is a sound one. A year ago, Martino was a coach who had won four league titles in Paraguay and led the Paraguay national side to the quarterfinal of the World Cup and the final of the Copa America with a string of grindingly negative displays. After a year at Newell's, though, his attacking principles have re-emerged -- it scored 40 goals in 19 games in winning the Clausura. That was vital to him getting the job at Camp Nou, for it is by philosophy more than by past record that Barcelona appoints its coaches.
"I'm convinced that he's going to be successful," said Llop. "But it's also important to know why he's been appointed. And this is what makes the difference. Most of the clubs just look at results and they decide to set up a new project with a successful coach. Successful in the last year, or in the last few months. But you need to go deeper if you want to make a serious choice. In Argentina, it's one patch over another: there's no project. And Martino, at Newell's, started something serious. The differences were suddenly visible."
Having played under Bielsa, having been the creative and emotional hub of that '92 side, Martino shares the key tenets of the Barcelona model: pressing, ball-retention, fluidity. And yet logical as his appointment was, it still came as a shock. "I was as surprised as he was," said Llop. "As his assistants and relatives were. But Barcelona is the place where any manager in the world dreams of being. It's a place reserved just for the chosen ones. And the surprise in this case is that that normally means managers that have had a career in Europe. The surprise in this case is that Martino hadn't coached in Europe yet. But at the same time I ask myself: why not? Because he has a philosophy that is very similar to Barcelona's. And that's very important, especially for that club with such firm principles."
"He has an excellent squad and, more importantly, the players have all given public support to his arrival. If that happens also in the dressing-room, the manager will be able to work easily. I'm sure that it will be a continuation of the process that [Pep] Guardiola started. There won't be a tactical revolution or players having to assume completely new ideas."
Yet his time with Paraguay showed that Martino could be pragmatic. Robbed of his one real creative presence when Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico City, he didn't try to force players to play in a way unsuitable for them, accepting that the only way for them to progress was by closing matches down. "He's sharp at understanding the kind of players he has and the best kind of football he can play with them," said Llop. "With Paraguay, it was one style. With Newell's, his best bet was to play another type of football, close to Barcelona's way of playing in terms of ball possession and attacking, and here it will be the same. It's how he understood football as a player: neat passing, always thinking of the opposition goal. You need the players to do it. Paraguay didn't have them, and as a manager, you must bring out the best of your footballers."
What he has shown, though, is that he can organize a defense and that means that, particularly in the later rounds of the Champions League, Martino's Barca may take a rather more dogged approach than other recent incarnations.