Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino was not a household name until rumours popped up about Barcelona pursuing him as a managerial candidate. By the time he signed that contract, discussions and points were thrown across the room on how Martino will set up his new team.
Mentored by Marcelo Bielsa, Martino is a bielsista. And while he may not replicate the exact philosophy of his mentor, Martino adapts to the prevailing situation, unlike that of El Loco. He also prefers zonal trapping instead of man-marking.
Their philosophies are built on possession, which Martino picked up during his playing days at Newell’s Old Boys, whose manager then was a budding Bielsa.
Before following in the footsteps of Bielsa and taking over at Newell’s last year (and leading them to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores), Martino managed the Paraguayan national team from 2006-2011, leading them to the quarters of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Martino demands a 100% from every player in his team. They have to constantly be on the move, press their opponents and work hard. The principles of total football that were coined by the great Rinus Michels are important, as the team both attacks and defends as a cohesive unit.
This brings up the question of Newell’s high-line, which needed to be quiet high for the team to always act as a well-oiled system. Without a high-line and an offside trap, the whole team couldn’t move together. If a high-line isn’t maintained properly, the opposition could exploit the open space.
With Newell’s, Martino employed a 4-1-4-1, which was as good as the 4-3-3 which Barcelona usually use. With a high-line they could play a disciplined offside trap with minimal risk. The proximity between the defensive midfielder and the centre-backs wasn’t too high. This reduced the risk of a fast counter-attack when the full-backs were at the opposite end.
Moreover, Martino believes that transition can be a huge factor in deciding games. A system that allows a smooth transition of defence to attack and attack to defence is required to bring out the best of dominating possession.
The defensive midfielder played the most important role in this side. He orchestrated the transition by connecting the defence with the attack, providing cover for overlapping full-backs and was pivotal in forming those little triangles to keep possession.
The white dotted lines portray his field of view. This was where he most likely slots a perfect pass. Diego Mateo played quite a number of games in this position for Newell’s, and was well versed with what Martino wanted him to do.
During every attack, the full-backs pushed up, the wingers cut inside, the midfielders pushed towards the final third, with the defensive midfielder dropping back, while the striker waited for that killer through ball. There are many differences between this attacking transition to that of Barcelona.
One is that Pep Guardiola employed a strategy that slowed down the tempo and let the players pass the other team to ‘death’. With the opposition finding it hard to focus, the players would suddenly break and score.
Martino is different. He is more focused on a direct play between the midfielders, attackers and the full-backs. He will want his players to dominate possession, but without any compulsion of dominating in the number of successful passes.
Another characteristic to note is that players under Martino usually avoided playing the ball in the air; they preferred playing it on the ground. They were also extremely good from dead-ball situations. Almost the same as the one Guardiola deployed with his Barcelona side, thanks to both of their bielsista roots.
In the 2010 World Cup, Martino’s side were efficient in winning the ball back by pressing high. This helped them to a draw with Italy. They however lost to Spain with a respectable score line of 1-0, having missed a penalty with the score nil-nil.
Their philosophy in winning the ball back revolved around making the pitch as small as possible. This was only possible if players closed down their opponents at every given occasion while also trying to maintain their rigid structure.
This obviously requires a lot of energy, as one is pressurising your opponent into making a silly mistake and giving the ball away. It goes without saying that fatigue is higher than usual in a side managed by Martino (or Bielsa). This further reveals a clear cut rotation system, which could find its way into the Barcelona set-up.
Exhaustion is natural in every set-up created by Martino and he has tried his best to adapt to it. However, notable incidents where exhaustion has been a problem include the game against Velez, with former club Newell’s Old Boys, and the game between Uruguay and Paraguay.
The same can said for Bielsa, whose players were brushed aside in both the finals Athletico Bilbao reached. Rotation will be a very important factor in Barcelona’s road to silverware next season. Moreover, out of all the teams Martino has managed, Barcelona have one of the thinnest squads.
If it wasn’t clear already, Barcelona are riddled with problems in defence. While they do need reinforcements, they also need to adapt to their new coach’s tactics.
In defence, Carles Puyol and Gerad Pique should take up the centre-back slots when fit. The full-backs will do what they always do best and get forward as fast as possible. The only little difference is that they will have to defend. As Bielsa once said, “If the players can’t or won’t work, I just find some new players”.
Their timing of getting back to defend was all out of place last season, but their roles will primarily remain the same. Martino might actually look into bringing another centre-back, with Puyol not getting any younger and Pique not as fast as he was.
Javier Mascherano isn’t your natural centre-back and Marc Bartra is rather inexperienced. Adding another centre-back to the roster will breathe new life into the Catalan defence.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will play a key role, like always. The work of a defensive midfielder is terribly underrated, and he will be pivotal in every transition. There are other options as well, with Pique and Mascherano being talked about as options. Pique being a defender with good technical ability, might just fit in too. And then there is forgotten man Alex Song, an understudy of sorts.
Andres Iniesta and Xavi will play further up, but Iniesta will be forced into making runs on the left. His presence in the middle is necessary to keep a strong hold of possession. The same goes for Xavi, who might have to make room for Cesc Fabregas, if he stays.
Upfront, Lionel Messi’s place in the team remains untouched. He will be pivotal in creating intricate moves between the midfielders and the front three, but he will also have to drop back a little deeper.
On the right, Pedro (or Alexis Sanchez), will play the role of the ‘fake’ winger – typical of Guardiola’s teachings – and cut in on every possible occasion as the full-back overlaps.
Then there is eccentric new signing, Neymar, who will have to learn to pass the ball more. He too will look to cut in on every other occasion. But he will also need to be part of the defensive unit, especially over the left flank when Jordi Alba goes on one of his marauding runs. Neymar has never covered for anyone in his career, and now would be a good time to start.
In all, Barcelona could not have found anyone better. Though there are a few concerns over his managerial experience in Europe, Martino brings what Guardiola brought to the table, and that is tiki-taka. Only this time, it will be with a slight twist.