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.