Tito Vilanova was forced to step down as manager of FC Barcelona after a tragic relapse of his throat cancer. The entire football family is united in their support of him as he prepares to fight the most important battle of his life, again. While everyone is praying for the man who won a record equalling La Liga title scoring 100 points, the club directors have swiftly gone about appointing the new man in charge. Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino will almost certainly be unveiled as the next Barcelona manager by the end of this week. Umm.. Who?
Most people hadn’t heard about him, myself included, before he was linked to the Catalan giants, but now that we have, it makes perfect sense. What better way to maintain continuity than to move from Tito to Tata to triumph, with tenets true to tiki -taka?! (See what I did there?). Various articles which might have otherwise gathered dust somewhere in the annals of the world wide web have been dug up and devoured by thousands of researchers, journalists, and fans alike, to find out just who this new heir to the throne is. The long and short of it is this – Martino is a Newell’s legend, with more than 500 appearances for the club. He played and learned his trade under Marcelo Bielsa. Last season he led them to the Torneo Final championship and his team played attacking, high intensity football. A Bielsista he is, but a fundamentalist like his mentor, he is not. Before Newell’s he was in charge of the Paraguay national team who were quite pragmatic in their approach while on their way to the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup and finals of the 2011 Copa America.
Verticalidad and High Pressing – The Alignment
Two key tenets that have become the hallmark of Tata’s teams are veticality in possession and high pressure out of it. His most recent Newell’s team was setup so that every time a player had the ball, he would have at least 3 vertical passing options available to him. They build play from the back with swift passing and have an obsession with the ball that will not be alien to the players or followers of Barcelona. This means Sergio Busqets will likely take up an even greater role along with possibly Gerard Pique, in initiating attacks. Ability on the ball is one thing, but it is wasted without movement off the ball. Martino demands this from all his players, once again, not dissimilar to Pep Guardiola’s philosophy of ball retention.
Off the ball, the team holds a high line and tries to regain possession as close to the opposition goal as possible. While this was a key feature of the Catalans’ success previously, the level of pressing had dropped off considerably under Tito Vilanova. This resulted in the defense being exposed to a far higher pressure than in previous years, exposing their weakness in the area. Martino’s task will be to re-invigorate the team and how Xavi will cope with this increased work load remains to be seen.
Unlike Bielsa, Martino is willing to change his system to maximize the strengths of his players, but much like his mentor’s, his teams are in danger of being exhausted by the intensity that is demanded of them. At Barcelona, he will have one of the most talented squads in the world but also one of the smallest (in more ways than one) at his disposal and he will need to deepen the squad while using rotation to keep them fresh. The sale of Thiago in light of this seems like an even worse decision. But that’s a discussion for another day.
No prior European experience – The Risk
The one conclusion everybody is eager to jump to is that he will be a failure because he hasn’t ‘proven himself’ in Europe. He hasn’t managed a club in Europe and certainly hasn’t dealt with the kind of worldwide exposure that comes with being the manager of such an illustrious and successful club.
Rewind to the summer of 2008. Pep Guardiola was named manager of this very club, without any prior experience in coaching at the top level, not just in Europe but anywhere. Andre Villas Boas was supposedly the best thing since sliced bread when he was presented at Stamford Bridge. He left six months later with his reputation in tatters. Vicente del Bosque had only managed Real Madrid B before taking charge of the senior team and leading them to Champions League success. The other front runner for the Barcelona job was Luis Enrique. A club legend, and a fairly logical choice from the point of view of continuity, with him having led Barcelona B to third place in the Spanish second tier. His spell in charge of Roma however, was far from successful and he has only recently got back into coaching having signed a contract with Celta Vigo six weeks ago. Yet, many believe he would have been a better choice. Because a third place in La Segunda is more impressive than an Argentine League title, or a runners-up medal at the Copa America, or 14 years in management as opposed to 4.
The point is this. Appointing a new manager, any manager comes with its share of risks. Its always a gamble, and whether it will pay off or not is anybody’s guess. What is important though, is that the decision is made for the right reasons. In the present, you can only make a decision based on what you know, and what we know is, Tata Martino is a proper football man. He has the acumen to win titles, and his philosophy is in line with what the club envisage. To dismiss him without consideration merely for the fact that his achievements came in an arena we don’t pay attention to, is myopic.
Rosell’s Legacy begins here – The Politics
In the weeks before the unfortunate announcement of Tito’s relapse, there had been an ugly war brewing between Sandro Rosell and Pep Guardiola. Accusations were made and denied, and all this was the backdrop for Thiago Alcantara’s tranfer to Bayern Munich. The incumbent president hasn’t done much to enhance his reputation since winning the elections but has seemed to be hell bent on tarnishing Joan Laporta’s legacy. Barca enjoyed one of their most glorious periods under his stewardship, and Rosell has used various tactics to undermine those achievements. Tito Vilanova was by extension, a part of that regime. Now, finally, Tata Martino will be identified as Rosell’s major contribution to the club’s future. In that light, it should follow that the new manager gets the full support of the board financially and otherwise.
The financial results of the club have been released only a few hours ago and the official club statement is that the transfer of Neymar has not affected the available budget for this summer. That’s €50 million available to the new man, hopefully to sign a centre-back among others. Along with Neymar this team will be distinctly different from its predecessor in a way that no team over the last 5 years has been. A lot had been made of the importance of continuity when Guardiola left, and Tito was welcomed by the team and fans with open arms. The style of play stayed true to the basic ‘Cruyff-ian’ principles while incorporating subtle changes within the system. That was part of the reason Luis Enrique was such a favorite among fans and media to be next in line. However, last season probably showed that Barcelona may need to reinvent themselves in order remain at the top of European football. There was a sense that continuity might not be the best thing for the club at this point in time, and this is something that works itself beautifully into the narrative of Rosell wanting to leave his mark as President on the history of the club.
It may be for an ulterior motive, but Sandro Rosell and the club hierarchy should get behind Martino right from the beginning. The Argentine will not care, at least initially. He is getting ready to confront the biggest challenge of his professional life. Taking over at one of the biggest clubs in the world is intimidating enough, but having to do it half-way into preseason will mean he can use all the help he can get.
Good luck Tata, and welcome to Barcelona!