Gerardo Martino is not what comes to mind when anyone envisions an FC Barcelona manager.
He doesn't have long-standing ties to the club like Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. He didn't win a European Cup before joining Barcelona like Louis van Gaal. He's not a legendary player like Frank Rijkaard. He's very well-accomplished as a player and a manager, but he's hardly a legend in either capacity, nor is the 50-year-old one of the top up-and-coming young managers in the game.
For those who don't know, Martino has spent his entire career in South America. He was a legendary player for Newell's Old Boys, though he was only good enough to get a single cap for Argentina. He first found big success in 2002, when he won the first of four Paraguayan league titles. That led to his appointment as manager of Paraguay, who he led to a World Cup and a Copa America final. He took over at the helm of Newell's in 2012 and has guided the club to an Argentinian title and a Copa Libertadores semifinal appearance.
Martino is a very good coach with a very good resume, but there are a dozen coaches with similar resumes who probably would have jumped at the chance to become the new Barcelona manager. There are a handful of managers with more impressive resumes, like the now unemployed Guus Hiddink, who would have loved to take the job as well. But the speed with which Sandro Rosell named Martino to the position -- meaning he's not Barcelona's backup plan -- and his recent success have Cules willing to wait and see what Martino has to offer before rushing to judgment on his appointment.
Barcelona fans aren't likely to notice a big difference in their team right away, but it's coming eventually. Bayern Munich's 7-0 aggregate thrashing of the Blaugrana was the most obvious indicator yet that Barcelona can't remain dogmatic in their approach to the game, and that they need to be able to change some things about the way they play as football changes around them. There's no better manager to guide a gradual change from what Barcelona do now to a more aggressive, but still pretty and possession-based style of football than Martino.
Let's rewind to last season's Champions League, which was an unmitigated disaster by Barcelona's standards. Their semifinal was the first one in five years where Barcelona entered their tie as an underdog. They were beaten in the semifinals by Manchester United in 2008, but that was before the reign of Pep Guardiola and back when Lionel Messi was simply an excellent player, not clearly one of the two best players on earth.
Barcelona were knocked out in the semifinals in 2010 and 2012, too, but those were clear upsets. Those Inter Milan and Chelsea teams were obviously excellent -- both went on to win the Champions League after downing Barca -- but neither was expected to beat the Blaugrana. They had clearly weaker sides, but executed their tactics perfectly while catching a few lucky breaks.
Then came last season. By the time the Champions League semifinal rolled around, their aura of invincibility had been shattered. AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain had come close to beating them, with Milan pulling off a convincing first leg victory in the Round of 16 before falling apart at Camp Nou. Real Madrid, who underperformed all season, knocked them out of the Copa del Rey.
Enter Bayern Munich, who had been steamrolling the Bundesliga all season. They switched off in a loss to Arsenal in the second leg of their Round of 16 tie, but appeared to learn their lesson and put together a complete and dominant 180 minutes against Juventus in a 4-0 aggregate victory. Bayern were expected to progress, but no one expected them to embarrass Barcelona like they did. Even with Lionel Messi and the defense hobbled, the Blaugrana should have put up a fight. They never looked like they had a chance.
Barcelona were prepared to go forward with Tito Vilanova, who looked like he was learning on the job and growing as a coach until he had to turn over the reigns to Jordi Roura while he received treatment for cancer. Unfortunately, Vilanova has been unable to get completely healthy and had to be replaced.
Assistant 'Rubi' Joan Francesc Ferrer, who guided Girona to a surprise fourth-place finish in the Segunda last season, was rumored to be taking over on an interim basis. Barcelona were also linked to Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, former Athletic Bilbao manager Marcelo Bielsa and current Celta Vigo manager Luis Enrique, their former B-team coach. With no disrespect intended to Vilanova, it's telling that Barcelona opted to go in a completely different direction with Martino.
Even though Martino's hiring signals a potential change in philosophy at the Camp Nou, there's nothing ugly or negative about the way Newell's Old Boys side played during the last year. They use an entertaining, fluid and very attack-minded 4-3-3 formation, not terribly dissimilar to Barcelona's. The biggest tactical and stylistic difference between Newell's and Barcelona, however, is physicality and tenacity. Newell's simply has more aggressive and, in many cases, bigger players than Barcelona.
Martino's Newell's team didn't always play that way. Early in Martino's reign at the club, his club played a style that was something between the way they played this spring and the very direct and defensive way that his Paraguay sides played. He did an excellent job of easing his team into the way he wanted them to play, both through making changes in his tactics over time and acquiring some new players when possible.
The difference between the way Barcelona plays and the way his Paraguay teams played is even more dramatic. He had a team full of big and athletic players, especially at center forward, while his players were not terribly gifted technically compared to their competition in South America. At one point, the rigidity, directness and physical nature of the way Paraguay played resembled Tony Pulis' Stoke City sides. It was the antithesis of tiki-taka. It was the kind of stuff that Xavi says ruins football.
It's likely that Rosell, Andoni Zubizarreta and other decision-makers at Barcelona saw that as a positive, not a drawback. Martino is never going to turn Barcelona into Paraguay or Stoke, but he knows what it's like on the other side. That style of football isn't a foreign concept to him, and he certainly doesn't think it's disgusting. He's a former playmaking midfielder who played for Bielsa and turned Newell's into one of the most entertaining sides in the world, but he's not set in his ways or unaware of other ways to play.
For at least the first half of next season, Martino's Barcelona isn't going to look a lot different than Vilanova or Guardiola's Barcelona. The changes will come gradually as Martino gets more comfortable in European football, Neymar is phased in, Xavi is phased out and new players are brought in. If Martino is successful and Barcelona doesn't quit on him quickly, expect Barcelona to look a lot like last year's Bayern and Borussia Dortmund sides, with perhaps a bit less direct play, in a couple of years.
No one's position is safe in a high-pressure environment like Barcelona, but a club of their size doesn't bring in a manager with Martino's non-existent European experience unless they're on the exact same page with him philosophically. He's going to have every chance to succeed at the club and he should get some breathing room if they fail to capture a trophy in his first season, so long as the season isn't a complete disaster.
Rosell and Zubi appear to be attempting to turn a tragedy into an opportunity to retool Barcelona to ensure continued success in an era of fitter and faster footballers. They should be applauded for it, especially when it would have been very easy to stick with the status quo.
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