Earlier this week a colorful anecdote came to light about one particular time Diego Simeone and Gerardo Martino met on the pitch. To be specific, Simeone admitted a quarter century later to getting Martino sent off.
I have an anecdote with [Tata] from my second or third professional match where there’s an encounter in the midfield, Calabria is the ref, where he reacts and I simulate a bit and Martino ends up getting red carded….Newell’s had a great team…ten minutes later I get a red card when Calabria compensates.
This anecdote of the men as players would prove instructive to their first meeting on the bench. Both are clearly extraordinary leaders of men, both on and off the pitch. But who won a match that was arguably more Argentine than Spanish? A match of two halves that ended in a draw and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each?
Tacticians versus Motivators
Starting in the mid 1970s, specifically after the insufficient tactical preparation of Argentina’s squad in 1974, Argentina’s coaches were typecast into two opposing camps. On the one side you had the classic motivators who looked to get the best out of their players, and on the opposite end you had the tacticians who took a more philosophical approach to teamwork as opposed to individual talent. A classic example of a tactical coach is Cesar Luis Menotti, who famously left Diego Maradona out of his squad in 1978. The modern example is clearly Marcelo Bielsa. A classic example of a motivator was Alfio Basile, who left no star behind in his stints as Argentina coach. The modern example is the great man manager Jose Pekerman.
It can roughly be said that Simeone falls closer to the motivators and Martino closer to the tacticians. But in reality Simeone has great tactical nous after having thrived when he played for the great tacticians Passarella, Bielsa, and Sven Goran Eriksson. Similarly, Martino is a great man manager after adapting to the highly physical and less tactical and technical Paraguayan national team. Yet one can’t help but think this was at play in their first match.
First half – Simeone
This was a great test for Barcelona, because Simeone in particular knows how to play against them. This was more of an Argentine than a Spanish league match, where the team with a disadvantage plays on the mental weakness of the team with the advantage and on the fallibility of the ref who -going back to Simeone’s quote- is often thought to compensate for calls favoring one team or the other. If Mourinho was the master of doing this off the pitch, Simeone is the master at doing it on the pitch. Whereas Mou had difficulty controlling himself and his enforcers during matches that included bodily assaults, fingers in eyes, plenty of red cards and incessant complaints about the ref, Simeone’s talisman/rabble-rouser Diego Costa brought on a shower of yellow cards around him but managed to escape getting booked himself.
Many who don’t understand Simeone’s genius as a player may look down on this, but you have to respect an otherwise affable man who plays and coaches with a knife between his teeth. This is why he is possibly the most challenging coach Martino will have to face this season. Tactically, Atletico allowed Barça to win the ball back several times, only to press quickly again to regain it for the counter which scored early and threatened often. Simeone won the first half 1-0, but also won the mental battle on the pitch through a mixture of excellent motivation and correct tactics.
Second half – Martino
Going into the second half, Martino had a host of problems. Alba had been taken out of the game mentally, Messi had been taken out physically, and Atletico Madrid looked closer to going up 2-0 than Barça had looked to drawing the match. I had tweeted before the match that Neymar should be left on the bench, because Simeone would seek to provoke the Brazilian the same way his proxy Diego Costa had a similarly easy target in Alba. Indeed, in 30 minutes, Neymar got a petulant yellow. Credit must be given to Martino for recognizing that Barça’s 3-man midfield was being outworked by Atletico’s 5-man midfield and that an in-form Cesc was necessary to regain control of the match before introducing Neymar for the struggling Pedro.
Had Neymar been introduced at the wrong point of this game, it would have given Simeone’s men the upper hand. Instead, Martino waited until his side gained control and composure and played the 21 year-old at the perfect time for him to make the difference Barcelona needed to get back into the game. Each of Martino’s substitutions was well-timed for what he needed, while each of Simeone’s was ineffectual and unable to wrest back the control he’d enjoyed in the first half. Martino won the second half 0-1, but also got an invaluable away goal through a mixture of tactical know-how and the kind of restraint that characterizes him as an excellent man-manager.
90 minutes to go
The best thing about this tie is that it was only the first of two matches. Both coaches walked a very fine line here, with the edge going to Martino for being able to turn this game around. Whether or not they realized it, fans who tuned into this match got a classic lesson in Argentine football, where the push and pull of the game is as dynamic and variable as the players, coaches, and strategies on display. Next week we get round 2. I feel sorry for the refs and the faint of heart, but could it come any sooner?
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