As Gerardo ‘El Tata’ Martino is set to debut as coach of Barcelona, two wonderful and mutually beneficial traditions of world football are tied together. On the European side, the legacy of the Dutch Total Football legend Johan Cruyff as player, founder of La Masia, and later as a highly successful coach. On the South American side, the greatest Barcelona set up by Pep Guardiola was a stylistic mimicry of the Argentine tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa, who has for two decades as a coach espoused a modern variant of Total Football known for its relentless attacking play.
The last few years have undeniably seen a Bielsa-fication of world football, as the European establishment increasingly recognizes that his high-octane style fits in with the increasingly athletic game. No side typifies Bielsa’s style more than Barcelona, and the appointment of his understudy and legendary captain Martino brings the influence full circle. Here’s an analysis of how it all works.
Historic Dutch roots: Total football
Books have been written and movies have been made about Total Football, but most choose to concentrate on the positional interchangeability of the versatile players. While this aspect of the side lends theoretical weight, it was in practice a standard 4-3-3 with occasional positional shifts not unlike those we see today. The real meat and potatoes of Total Football’s revolution came in the tactical innovations that made the Dutch unplayable for antiquated sides like the three South American giants, all of whom fell in one-sided contests to the Dutch side in the World Cup held in West Germany in 1974.
The most important tenets of Total Football were that the team both attacked and defended with ten players, placed emphasis on winning the ball back while still in the attacking half, used a high-line defense that exploited the offside trap rule, and managed space on the pitch through use of cross-field balls and crowding strategic areas. Up until the World Cup Mexico 1970, football was played as a much more back and forth game, with attacks ending in a cross or shot followed by a retreat to defensive positions, allowing the opposing side to build an attack. The Dutch, through superior tactics, suffocated their opponents and usually won easily by dictating the play and monopolizing the offensive chances.
Dutch legacy: La Masía
The idea of bringing Holland coach Rinus Michels and his talisman Johan Cruyff to Barcelona was to bring Total Football to the Camp Nou. At risk of oversimplifying: it did not work. But upon leaving, Cruyff himself suggested that in order for Barcelona to ensure long term success, that they should start a youth system modeled after that of Ajax. This way a crop of homegrown players could be brought up together to play with the style that the club was looking for, but was too difficult to implement in the short term. This was how La Masía came to be. Cruyff would return a decade later and reign over the first great Barcelona “Dream Team” but only one of his star players came from the side’s fledgeling academy: Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola.
Recent Argentine roots: Guardiola invokes Marcelo Bielsa
Before taking on the job of Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola famously flew to Rosario to talk shop with the man he calls his greatest inspiration as a coach. Marcelo Bielsa is an obsessive tactician and an intellectual philosopher of the sport. Though most choose to define ‘El Loco’ by his eccentric methods and mannerisms. The main gist of Bielsa’s game lies in the relentless attacking attitudes of his sides, which are built for constant fluid movement both on and off the ball. His time at the helm of Argentina saw him build a similarly unplayable side to the Dutch in the 1970s; one that comprehensively dominated possession while playing every side they faced in the same fashion, as did Pep’s Barcelona a decade later.
Bielsa’s as of yet unnamed style of football can be considered a modern variant on Total Football through its use of all-out attacking and defending, high-pressure in the attacking half, and the use of versatile players to fill attacking and defensive roles in an extraordinarily fast, vertical, and physically demanding style. The three-man defense he played at the turn of the century gave this blog its name, and the influence he had on Guardiola’s Barcelona can largely be seen as the student becoming the master. Before coming to prominence as the inspiration for Guardiola’s record setting Barcelona and his incredible debut season at Athletic Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa was a cult hero in Argentina, Chile, and for students of the tactical game. He is now gaining the recognition he deserves as a luminary of football.
Barcelona are what they are today because of their commitment to a long-term plan for success. The creation of La Masía 35 years ago came to fruition when its first great product coached a team full of its products and won every trophy they competed for. This is what prompts what can be thought of as hubris or pomposity by members in insisting for in-house management, but they are not ready for that and credit must be given to the board for recognizing that they needed to bring in someone from the Bielsa school.
If Guardiola was Cruyff’s disciple, Barcelona have appointed Bielsa’s disciple in Tata Martino, and it couldn’t make more sense in terms of continuity of style and continued commitment to long-term success. Martino’s debut on the bench is today, and there should be no doubts that the world will be watching to see how he does this season.
- Barcelona appoint Martino as successor to Vilanova (guardian.co.uk)
- Exclusive video: FC Barcelona – The Secret Behind La Masia (fieldoo.com)
- Explaining Gerardo Martino’s tactics and the future of Barcelona (playupsports.wordpress.com)