On the past and present rivalry between Martino and Simeone

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

Simeone as a player for Velez Image: wikipedia

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

Martino as a player for Newell’s  Image: wikipedia

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?

Be sure to follow @3manDefense on Twitter for discussion, stats, stream of consciousness, and general information. I am working on ideas for a new bimonthly column in September to promote discussion and #footballdebate of issues in this #WorldCupYear. Thanks for reading!


Genetically testing Barcelona: the Dutch and Argentine DNA of the Blaugrana

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

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, be...

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, before Netherlands x Argentina in 1974 FIFA WC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Holland in 1974. They did not switch positions as often as they say, but they did defend in the attacking half and introduced modern tactics quickly copied the world over.

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

Gracias Bielsa

Gracias Bielsa (Photo credit: javier_araneda_v)

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 3-3-1-3 for Argentina. A side built to seamlessly transition between attack and defense.

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.

Present day

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.

On Florentino Perez and @Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract negotiation

Photo: Lars Aronsson via Wikipedia

While the Spanish season may have ended with Barcelona winning the league, el Clasico with Real Madrid remains front page news. For all the criticism leveled at Florentino Perez and his penchant for expensive Galactico sides that don’t win much and chew through the world’s best coaches, the man remains without equal in the back room.

El Clasico in the back room

His late season bid for Neymar was never really about getting the player, who Perez arguably could not get and certainly did not need. It was all about making Barcelona pay much more than they wanted to for him and forcing them to sell stars and possibly forgo a big name defensive signing. Barcelona have indeed spent Galactico money thus far mostly unsuccessfully in their quest for the perfect partner for Messi, leaving them exposed in other areas of the pitch, which is exactly what Florentino wants.

But Perez may have opened up a new and very costly problem for himself with this victory. The recent publication of Real Madrid’s offer to attempt to lure Neymar away from signing with Barcelona showed they were offering the Brazilian talent an unprecedented 70% ownership of his image rights. Cristiano only gets 60% and he wants a significant raise. What’s more, Barcelona gave Neymar 100%, and that’s what Cristiano wants, along with a net salary between €18-20M before bonuses.

The recent Forbes report showed that Cristiano made €33.5M last season, €17.5 from salary and bonus, €16 from endorsements of which he contractually takes home 60%, or €9.6M (and the team gets 40%, or €6.4M.). So Cristiano takes home €27.1M.
Messi made €29.45M, €15.1 from salary and bonus, and €14.35 from endorsements of which he contractually takes home 100%. So Messi takes home €29.45M.

The fact that Cristiano’s demands are a problem for Real Madrid is seen in their offer to him. €14M net salary and negotiation of image rights. Because of the expiration of the Beckham rule, increasing Cristiano Ronaldo’s net salary to €14M will represent a 58% increase for the club before bonuses. This is because his current €10M salary is taxed at 24% while his €14M salary would be taxed at 52%. He costs Madrid €12.4 in salary now, but would cost €21.28 in salary with their current offer. If they choose to offer him the 70% they offered Neymar they would lose another €1.6M, to say nothing of 100%.

While Real Madrid famously have a lot of money, all of this goes a long way towards explaining their caution in agreeing a contract termination with Mourinho (as firing him would have cost them millions), their desperation to sell Kaká to finance Cristiano’s raise, and gives a balanced perspective on their search for a new trainer while also seeking to include players in deals in exchange for smaller transfer fees. Florentino’s job is not easy, but in this situation in particular he’s certainly the best man for the job.



Gundogan vs. Martinez, a key tactical battle at Wembley

CL Final probable formations

While international finals between familiar league rivals can be pretty dour, the recent history between these sides has been one of mixed domination. Borussia Dortmund had won five straight before Bayern won and drew two in the last four meetings. The stage is set for an interesting tactical contest between Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich.

Both sides advanced because of the their tactical versatility. They each changed their normal style to face the unique challenges thrown at them by tactically uncompromising opponents and advanced with surprising ease. While there will be several battles on the pitch, the most interesting could turn out to be the one between the 8’s, with Ilkay Gundogan and Javi Martinez battling it out for midfield domination.

Heynckes looked closely at where opponents succeeded against Barcelona and one of the key players in the semifinal was Javi Martinez, who man-marked countryman Andres Iniesta out of the tie. If the Bayern Munich manager was watching the second leg of the quarterfinal between Malaga and Borussia Dortmund, he’ll see Pellegrini effectively man-marked Gundogan out of the match and so effectively shut down the Dortmund midfield that it took a heroic extra-time effort for them to advance. While many anticipate Muller to press Gundogan, Martinez is the clear choice to man-mark because of his superior defensive ability.

Klopp’s strategy will be hampered by the unfortunate injury to talisman Mario Götze. Borussia’s 10 did a fantastic number on Xabi Alonso in the semifinal, and whether Großkreutz will be able to replace him may be key to Dortmund’s success in the final. If Martinez is shadowing Gundogan, Großkreutz may see more freedom in the middle. A smart move by Klopp would be to drop Lewandowski himself to pressure Martinez and Schweinsteiger the way Simeone used Falcao in a counterattacking effort against Real Madrid in last week’s Copa del Rey final.

Against anyone else, both sides essentially play the same strategy: high pressure and dynamic midfield play looking for a targetman. The battle of the 8’s is one to watch, both defensively and offensively, as the one with more impact on the game may well decide the winner. What will be interesting in Saturday’s final at Wembley is if one or both sides attempts to neutralize the other. We could see a change in the normal script, with unheralded heroes stepping up in key duels with a championship winning performance.


How we went from el clasico to der klassiker in eight days

At the beginning of last week, the odds were pointing at an all-Spanish final in the Champions League. After the draw I wrote about how the German sides should counter what were the Spanish sides that were favored to beat them. And counter they did. Here’s how they did it.

Bayern 7 – Barcelona 0

Such a one-sided number can be used to refer to domination of shots, corner kicks, fouls, etc. But unfortunately for Barcelona, they were outscored by seven goals. The only major offensive stat that Barcelona dominated over both legs was possession, with 63% and 57% in the first and second matches respectively.

This was no different a strategy than that which I had suggested.

Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

Bayern took full advantage of Barcelona’s conspicuously absent high-pressure, and used their skillful midfielders not to dominate the match but rather to pressure and counterattack with the kind of danger everyone from Celtic to Celta has done this season. Rather than taking the side head on, Heynckes allowed a Barcelona diminished by injuries and an apparent lack of tactical nous to sputter, stall, and fall flat. And the German sides’ goals rained in from there.

Klopp 4 – Mourinho 0

While the first tie saw the use of a familiar tactic against Barcelona, the second showdown of the tournament between Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp and Madrid’s Jose Mourinho was just as interesting as the first. Back in the first round I had commented (before this blog’s existence) that Klopp out-Mourinho’d Mourinho by playing the same lightning fast counterattacking strategy that saw Madrid set records last season. A lot had happened between the ties, Madrid had found form and were odds-on favorites to win the tournament. But the matches here were played in the exact same fashion.

Dortmund again gave the ball to a Madrid side that would rather counter, and were slightly out-possessed by an opponent that looked as uncomfortable attacking as defending. The first leg was characterized by two periods of concentrated attacking pressure by Dortmund that led to Lewandowski scoring a hat-trick in the first ten minutes of each half. Dortmund pressured high and interrupted Madrid’s buildup, man marking Alonso while Gundogan (who had been man marked by Pellegrini) was allowed free reign to dominate the midfield, shifting the momentum in their favor. Down low, Dortmund cut out passing lanes and largely avoided danger.

The second leg saw Mourinho field a more adventurous midfield with the reintroduction of Di Maria allowing Modric and Ozil to play in their most fruitful positions. But despite an initial lapse in concentration from Dortmund, Madrid missed four clear chances in the first half before Dortmund again shut them down. Switching to a fabled three-man defense and scoring two late goals was not enough to overturn a three goal deficit and make up for another 180 minutes where Klopp out-foxed Mourinho.

Der Klassiker

I realize this is not the name of the of the rivalry between Borussia and Bayern, but in light of the two best teams in the tournament beating the odds and preventing el clasico in the final, I think we are poised for a classic game. A lot has been said about the end of respective eras, as much for Barcelona where I don’t think it applies, to Real Madrid as Mourinho all but confirmed his imminent exit, to Borussia who appear about to raided in the transfer market. But I’ll save these thoughts for future posts in anticipation of the delightful final in a few weeks.


What exactly is failing in Barcelona’s defense?

After the 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, many asserted that this is the end of an era for Barcelona. This was not unlike similar assertions after the 0-2 in Milan (which was sandwiched by losses to Real Madrid). The side’s back line has looked terribly exposed on several occasions this season leading to questions about the form and health of the respective back liners and fueling talks of eras and endless transfer speculations. But one needs to ask a different question when considering the future of Barcelona’s defense: Are the problems due to personnel or tactics? Is it about who defends or how they do so?

The Personnel

The failure to meet the expectation of signing a new high-profile center back is arguably one of the main factors in the back line being looked at with a microscope this season. Here are simplified echoes of common criticisms currently thrown at Barcelona’s defensive players.

Alves – going through a rough patch, poor form.

Pique – poor form.

Puyol – too old.

Mascherano and Song – not defenders.

Bartra and Montoya – inexperience.

The idea is that a summer signing of a big name central defender will stop the line from leaking goals. While I agree that it is a good idea to bolster the options for the position, I don’t think it can be looked at without a rigorous tactical analysis.

The tactics

Barcelona's high-line defense

Barcelona’s high-line defense

What Pep achieved in his final season as Barcelona’s coach was the purest form of his attacking and defending philosophy. By playing a defensive midfielder in the back line, Barcelona admitted that they want to defend in that part of the pitch. As in Total Football everyone attacks and everyone defends, but most of the defending is done high up the pitch, smothering the opponents midfield creativity and chances to play dangerously close to your goal. The result was, for the third straight season, Barcelona had the best defensive record in La Liga.

This season, Tito Vilanova’s first, has seen them fall to third best defensively with largely the same personnel. Barcelona have already given up more goals than they did last season, but despite still giving up only a goal per game in the league (and being on the verge of winning it), it has been the manner of their defending and the concession of embarrassing goals that has led to the soul-searching we currently see.

The main problem has been the relaxation of the relentless high pressure defense we saw under Pep. The first main consequence of this is that the defensive line has a whole pitch, as opposed to a half pitch, to cover. This essentially means that the side are more frequently counterattacked, leading to the kind of last-gasp defending that leaves them looking exposed. Busquets, who debuted and came to prominence under Pep, is a genius at reading plays and intercepting passes in the compressed spaces of the opponents half, but lacks the pace to cover the added ground he has to make up when his defense retreats and the ball is often simply played around him. The same can be said of Pique and increasingly Puyol’s lack of pace.

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

The second consequence of not defending high up the pitch, is that it quite simply leads to their having to defend in their half more often. This exposes Barcelona’s weakness in the air, their difficulty defending set-pieces, and the limitations of using defensive midfielders in the back line. Mascherano’s skills at reading, tracking, and intercepting attacking plays are all but lost here and the Argentine often looks nervous as the last line of defense in front of Victor Valdes.

The Solution?

Tito Vilanova basically needs to make up his mind tactically.  He is playing a side built to defend high that is failing to do so. The brilliant performance in the second leg against Milan, where he played a nominally three-man defensive line, worked because the players defended high up the pitch with a tenacity we have not seen enough of this season. The intangible statistic of who is “controlling the game” when Barcelona plays comes from who is defending better. When Barcelona are out-defended by their opponents, their possession is rendered all but useless and their opponents control the game without the ball. When they out-defend their opponents, they keep the ball and their opponents on the back foot and control the game with the ball.

Tito must get Barcelona to once again defend high up the pitch, to defend at the first-gasp rather than the last one. Or he should build a defense more suited to transitional and deep-lying defensive play. A tall center back, and arguably a tall attacker that can come off the bench and defend corners and set pieces, may help the side deal with being pressured in their box. Moving Mascherano back into the midfield to play a double pivot with Busquets, the latter winning the ball high, and the former covering transitions is another option. As is going for a three-man defense, to force his players to win the ball back quickly.

If I could suggest the winning formula, I wouldn’t be here, but I will say that Vilanova has the players to succeed right now. And while new personnel may help, how Vilanova uses them is the most important factor in deciding who Barcelona should buy. This hardly seems the end of an era, but whether this defensive nightmare is a half-season hiccup, or a long-term liability is in the balance next season, starting with the summer transfer window.


How to ironically avoid an all-Spanish final in the Champions League

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr







As we begin the highly anticipated semifinal round of the Champions League, we see one of the great ironies afforded to us by the beautiful game. The best strategy to beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same. How can it be that the two sides, despite playing such contrasting styles, are essentially interchangeable for their German opponents?

Let’s go over how to beat each team, starting with Real Madrid. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid play a counterattacking game. They absorb pressure very well and transition from defense to attack as quickly as any side in the history of the game. But, for all their strength going forward, their weakness is that they are uncomfortable on the ball and can be effectively countered with their own strategy. In their meetings in the first round late last year, Dortmund, a side otherwise known for keeping possession and applying sustained pressure in their opponents half, outmaneuvered Mourinho by giving his side the ball. The results of being handily out-possessed over two matches was that they won 2-1 in Dortmund, and due to a last-minute game-tying goal were unlucky not to win in Madrid.

In the knockout stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were nearly successful while playing this way, while Galatasaray gave Madrid too much space in the first leg and squandered what could have been a great home win in Istanbul. The strategy of giving Madrid the ball has been applied domestically by several teams in La Liga in this campaign, and has led to Madrid only winning about two-thirds of their games, losing pace very early in the season to their bitter rivals Barcelona.

Barcelona are the tactical opposites of Mourinho’s Madrid. They are almost too comfortable on the ball, and will seek to attack and dominate possession even when they are winning and whether or not they are playing well. One of the fascinating tactical battles of the season was seen in the second leg of the quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG. Ancelotti’s men needed a goal from the first minute of the match, so they sat back and let Barcelona attack, hoping to open up space on the counter. It worked as they were by far the more dangerous side and eventually went up 1-0. Amazingly, after Barcelona scored the 1-1 that would put them through, PSG once again sat back and Barcelona still attacked despite not needing a goal and risking the tie if they conceded. In the end they went through very uncomfortably against a tough team that gave them the ball.

The difference with Madrid is that virtually every side plays Barcelona this way, so they rely on their prodigious offensive talents to win games. Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

So there it is. Two sides that could not play more different football, but need to be played with exactly the same strategy. With each of the first legs being played on German soil, the home teams have the chance to impose their strategy, but neither will want to go into Spain needing a win after having conceded away goals. The odds point to an all-Spanish final, but whether it happens, and in particular how easy it is for it to happen will depend on how the German sides approach the matches.

The German Spanish rivalry that many missed in Euro 2012 has a chance of being played out here as well, albeit with interesting caveats like the Germans who are key players for Madrid, and the Spanish tinge Bayern will likely get next season through Pep Guardiola. How would Bayern play if Pep were already at the helm?