Taking up the reins of the Argentina national side does not seem to have changed Gerardo Martino. On footballing matters, El Tata’s discourse reflects the same level of conviction he has had since the start of his career and maintained through spells with the Paraguayan national team and La Liga giants Barcelona.
Indeed, the 52-year-old supremo dotted his conversation with FIFA.com with references to his footballing “ideas”, taking for granted that, by this stage, everyone should be familiar with what they are: playing from the back; prioritising possession; pressing high; and, above all else, never ceding the initiative.
On a personal note too, that conviction in his own beliefs shines through, Martino insisting that taking La Albiceleste helm has not prevented him doing the things he enjoys: such as going to the cinema or dining out with friends. Nor does he have any problems in his native Rosario, home to the white-hot rivalry between Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys, despite having shone at the latter as a player and coach. “My career and my conduct means that even Central fans respect me,” he said, with a tinge of pride.
And though he insisted that he enjoys interviews “when there’s plenty of football talk”, the experienced strategist did not hold back when speaking about more personal issues, nor when asked to compare the Barcelona and Argentina dressing rooms, or when quizzed about the numerous weighty challenges on the immediate horizon.
FIFA.com: Gerardo, how do you handle the level of exposure that comes with being Argentina coach?
Gerardo Martino: It’s an issue that’s related to the role you do, but it also depends on the lifestyle you lead. The way I live my life means that there’s not much of a change between being a regular guy and the national-team coach. I’ve always lived a quiet, low-profile life and, though I’m well aware of the level of exposure that comes with the job, in that sense I don’t need to change too much.
Over the course of the eight months you’ve been in the role, have you had a sense of why it took such a toll on your predecessors? Nobody has managed a full four-year cycle in the job since Marcelo Bielsa.
It’s a gruelling job that carries a significant and unique burden, but I don’t see that [coaches’ lack of longevity in role] as a widespread issue. As a general rule, Argentina coaches have brought their work to completion, some over eight years, some in four. There have been hardly any who’ve been in charge for less than that, with the exception of recent coaches, which were for isolated reasons. Everyone has every right to decide how far they can or can’t go, whether they have the energy or not, or if they need to stop and when’s the time. When you feel that you don’t have all the strength you need to carry on, it’s much more honest to step aside.
The footballing journey we want to travel on is different to the one taken under the previous regime. There’s a lot to do because the style of play is so different.
You were quite self-critical after your time at Barcelona ended, something you do not often see in the coaching realm. Are you like that in all aspects of your life?
I try to be self-critical in everything. After that it comes down to the conclusion drawn from the self-criticism, but I’m not prepared to sweep things under the rug if I turn out to have handled things wrongly in any area of my life. The difference with Barça is that I made the comments publicly. Others might do the same [i.e. be self-critical], but prefer to keep it quiet.
One of the lessons you have taken from your Barcelona experience is “having learned to live with star names”. Can you draw comparisons between life in the Azulgrana dressing room and the Argentina one?
They are similar in terms of the players’ qualities, but the conditions are different. Argentinian players see joining up with the national team as special and nothing will stop them coming, even if they know that they won’t play. They take decisions on board because they’re rubbing shoulders with people of the same ability and because, more than anything else, [national] pride comes first. At a club like Barcelona, the difference is that the intervals [between matches] are short and the coach ends up having to reveal his hand quickly in front of the squad, because the different kind of opponents you face also have an impact. So, when you make rotations so that everyone feels comfortable and stays motivated, that all goes to pot when the first big game comes along. That’s where players say to themselves, ‘This is the reality: rotation is all well and good but for important games this’ll be the team’. And that sticks with them in the latter stages of each competition [when they say]: ‘From what I saw on matchday ten when we played Real Madrid, I know I won’t be playing in the big games.’
You’ve coached low-profile teams with small squads, a Paraguay national side in a state of transition and a star-laden Barcelona. Which is the biggest challenge: having an abundance of players to juggle or making do with a small squad?
From every viewpoint, you’ve more chance of creating a winning dynamic when you’ve an abundance of players. It has its difficulties too, but it’s clearly easier to handle. When you’re short of players, you don’t have any alternative options – you can’t use what you don’t have. In the other case it’s about management, keeping the whole squad’s morale up, making them see that they’re all important and they’ll all be involved. Being short of players is terrible, but in terms of gaining recognition, once you’ve instilled a way of playing and a commitment to your ideas, the success you have is much more noticeable than in those teams packed with star names.
How can you improve an Argentina squad that reached the FIFA World Cup™ Final?
In principle, the bar’s set very high for us. That [finishing runners-up at Brazil 2014] was a very significant achievement which makes you duty-bound to perform well at upcoming competitions. However, it’s also true that the footballing journey we want to travel on is different to the one taken under the previous regime. There’s a lot to do because the style of play is so different that we obviously need to work on implementing our ideas. And that’s even with a good number of players who, with a different approach, achieved a major feat. It’s very interesting to see the transformation and evolution of the team as it moves closer to our way of playing.
Turning to the subject of set pieces. When you’re working with your team, what part do you feel they have to play?
They’re very important, but they don’t take precedence over knowing how you’re going to play. I’ve not seen any teams that don’t click at all but win through set pieces. When you have a team that manages to gel, dead-ball situations are an added extra that require some attention. I distance myself from those who think that a coach’s job purely and exclusively revolves around putting in a good cross, corner or throw-in. That’s just one way of showing the work you’ve put in.
Over the next 18 months Argentina will be involved in two Copa Americas, the start of Russia 2018 qualifying and the Olympic Football Tournament Rio de Janeiro 2016. Given how high the bar has been set, does the fact all these challenges will come thick and fast make things more difficult?
Whether the games are spread out or close together, us coaches are generally judged on our results, and getting them is always necessary – even more so in Argentina. What would be enjoyable would be getting good results via a playing philosophy that’s been understood, followed through, that we’re all committed to and which we enjoy, and beating our opponents that way. The good thing about these competitions coming one after the other is that we’re going to get much more stable and continuous contact with the players, and that’ll be a great advantage when it comes to instilling my ideas.