As far as Gerardo Martino is concerned, coaching is something you do in shorts and boots, not a suit and tie. The newly appointed Barcelona coach likes to get his work done on the training ground, doing what he does best: sizing up the resources at his disposal and making the most of them.
That has been his hallmark ever since he took up coaching in 1998 in Arrecifes, a small Argentinian city where motorsport, not football, is king. Though a player of some repute in his homeland, he was determined to start his coaching career at the bottom and work his way up gradually. Fifteen years and eight teams later he is set to take over at a club that sets the standard when it comes to style and elegance.
There is no one who has sought to emulate that standard quite as faithfully as Martino, a pragmatic coach who is passionately devoted to a particular way of playing the game.
“There are teams you love because of the way they play and the way they are, and there are others who play good football but you don’t necessarily like,” Martino said a few months ago. “And that’s the way it is with Barcelona and Real Madrid. You end up falling in love with Barcelona.”
Nicknamed Tata when he was a boy, Martino came up through the youth ranks at Newell’s Old Boys, the Rosario club where he nurtured his love of cultured, attacking football. Starting out as a central midfielder, he then took up a more advanced position just behind the strikers, becoming so proficient in the role that the Newell’s faithful likened him to a certain Michel Platini, his gifts also earning him the adulation of one Jorge Messi, the father of Lionel.
In Bielsa we trust
It was in Rosario that he also absorbed the teachings of Marcelo Bielsa, with whom he shares the same affinity for wearing tracksuits, the same studious, some would say obsessive, approach to the game and the same desire to get his message across clearly. And like his role model, Martino is also a firm believer in the value of pressing high up the pitch.
He once said: “I like the comparison. I’ve always been an admirer of his, ever since he started coaching, which was just about the same time as my playing career was winding down.”
Unlike the former Chile and Athletic Bilbao coach, however, Martino is a pragmatist, a man not averse to adapting his approach and beliefs to the circumstances. During his spells with Libertad and Cerro Porteno – the Paraguayan clubs where he made his name between 2002 and 2007 – he tailored his personal convictions to the more physical and direct style of his players, a policy he also pursued when in charge of the Paraguay national team.
“I don’t like to see teams who’ve got the resources but don’t attack,” he explained. “I won’t judge sides who don’t have the resources, though. You’ll never see my teams sit deep. They play as far from their goal as possible.”
Settling for a less enterprising style of play than the one to which he was accustomed at Newell’s, he guided Los Guaraníes to the last eight at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, their best ever performance in the world finals. Uncharacteristically wearing a suit and tie, he looked on as his side fell to Spain, a game that Xavi Hernandez later admitted was La Roja’s stiffest test of the whole tournament. A year later he steered La Albirroja to the runners-up spot at the Copa America in Argentina.
In his nine years in Paraguay he never learned guaraní, the native language that is spoken along with Spanish and is often used by the country’s footballers. Martino knew full well the players spoke about him on occasion, though it never bothered him. He preferred not to listen, content to let the players have their space – another belief of his.
A springboard to the top
In 2012 he turned down the chance to coach Colombia, preferring instead to return to Newell’s. Bringing the likes of Maxi Rodriguez and Gabriel Heinze to the club, he set about restoring its old identity, similar to Barcelona’s in terms of playing style and also based on homegrown players.
Introducing aspects of the possession-based game that proved so successful for Pep Guardiola’s Barça, he enjoyed some notable successes and some unexpected setbacks, transforming Newell’s from relegation candidates to 2013 Torneo Final league title winners and Copa Libertadores semi-finalists.
It was partly those achievements but mostly his beliefs that have prompted Barcelona to put their faith in him.
“He’s a coach who doesn’t leave anything to chance,” Heinze said, who is well acquainted with Spanish football after his spells with Valladolid and Real Madrid. “He is one-hundred-per cent dedicated to possession football and he’s the perfect coach for the club.”
Echoing that view, Andres Iniesta said: “I think he’ll fit in with our philosophy.”
“When you see Iniesta and Xavi, and you hear them talk and the stories they tell when they’ve won something, you can’t help but love them even more,” Martino once said. “It’s no wonder that they keep on winning.”
Now 50, Tata has been given the opportunity of a lifetime. His brief? To make sure that Iniesta, Xavi and Co maintain their winning habit.