Like a lepra messiah…

Writing in The Guardian’s Sport Blog recently, Jonathan Wilson explored the influence Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa (and his methods) has had on the modern game. Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid and editor of quarterly football magazine The Blizzard, suggests that in recent years football ‘has gone through a process of Bielsafication’.

While Bielsa confronts training ground site managers in the Basque Country, back in his hometown of Rosario one of his former players is spearheading a bielsaissance in the stadium bearing El Loco’s name. The club is Argentine primera side Newell’s Old Boys, and the former player is Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

Martino, who turned 50 last Tuesday, returned to La Lepra this year for the first time since leaving in 1996. Since then he has made a successful transition from playing to management, and encountered great success in Paraguay, winning several league titles with Libertad and Cerro Porteño before taking over the national side in 2007.

Following the dismissal of head coach Diego Cagna, it was rumoured Newell’s were trying to bring back Marcelo Bielsa as his replacement. Of course, this never came to pass, but in Tata Martino they certainly got the next best thing.

If Marcelo Bielsa is Newell’s Old Boys’ all-time idol on the touchline, Martino is their all-time idol on the pitch. Throughout Bielsa’s three-year spell in charge of La Lepra, Martino was his trusted No.8 and together they have a special place in Newell’s hearts.

And it is clear that the apprentice paid very close attention to the master. At Newell’s, Martino has assembled a typically bielsista side, one that shares El Loco’s ideals and uses several of his techniques.

What is so refreshing is the coach and squad are totally committed to ‘the idea’ of their football, instead of obsessing over results or league position. Before a crucial away match against Boca Juniors this month, Martino dismissed the pressure of the occasion, saying: “You have to be consistent, we have played all of our matches with the same intention (…) if that results in us moving up the table a bit, so be it, but our idea is always the same.”

The combination of their attitude, playing style, and the narrative surrounding Martino’s return, makes this Newell’s side a welcome breath of fresh air amid the polluted cloud that is Argentine domestic football.

The shapes they are a-changin’…

It is Newell’s disciplined transitions that make them so difficult to beat. They defend in numbers, they attack in numbers.

While most sides in their division attack with three or four players at a time, Martino orders his men to pour forward when in possession. With forward bursts from the full-backs and central-midfielders, it is not uncommon for Newell’s to have six or seven players attacking the opponent’s penalty area. Predictably, this creates more 2 on 1 opportunities in dangerous areas, and more often than not this leads to goals.

The situation is much the same on the other side of the ball. The whole team retreats when Newell’s lose possession, leaving only centre-forward Ignácio Scocco in their opponent’s territory. With so many bodies defending against teams that are reluctant to bring players forward to attack, it is hardly surprising that Newell’s have one of the best defensive records of the league – they conceded only six goals in their first fifteen matches this season.

Successfully employing a tactic like this requires good stamina and crucially, it requires a huge amount of tactical discipline.

The animation on the left represents how Newell’s shape changes during their transitions. The basic formation is 4-1-4-1, but as you can see it retreats into a 5-4-1 in defence, with defensive midfielder Hernán Villalba dropping back between the centre-backs.

In attacking phases, the wide midfielders bomb forward to become wingers, and the shape resembles a 4-3-3, with plenty of support from the full-backs and Bernardi and Pérez in midfield.

Newell’s display military precision when shifting from one shape to the next, rarely is there a player caught out of position. It is clear that they have trained extremely hard at holding their shape.

Under pressure

Of course, Newell’s could not be a genuine bielsista team without an intense pressing game. When not in possession, their objective is to recover the ball as quickly as possible, and in favourable areas.

The players press in packs – a classic Bielsa tactic – and try to force their opponents into making errors. This has proved to be particularly effective in the Argentine domestic game, as the tempo of matches tends to be slower and players are accustomed to having more time on the ball to make decisions. When players are pressed and have less thinking time, the decisions they do make are usually the wrong ones.

In Martino’s Newell’s, the majority of the pressing is carried out in the middle of the field by their line of four midfielders. They try to strangle their opponent’s space and win the ball back before any attacking moves can be put together.

As they press so high up the field, when they do reclaim possession they pose an immediate attacking threat. It is not uncommon to see Newell’s steal the ball from an opposing defender, and immediately find themselves in an advantageous 5 on 4 situation.

The only way is vertical, baby!

While many regard the defining characteristic of ‘the Bielsa Method’ to be the constant pressing and dogged closing down described above, the true cornerstone of El Loco’s philosophy is something he calls verticalidad.

Verticalidad, or verticality, is a style of football that involves bringing the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. Unlike the ‘vertical’ route one style that prevails at many clubs across South America, verticality is when the ball is brought forward through swift short passing combinations.

Bielsa’s mantra, repeated several times by Martino, is that ‘the man in possession should always have at least three vertical passing options’. To achieve this, attacking moves at Newell’s always start with Hernán Villalba, the defensive midfielder who drops back to defence. With four midfielders in front of him and an advancing full-back on either side, Villalba always has plenty of forward options to initiate play.

It is hardly a surprise that Martino preaches verticality to his players, as he himself was a crucial part of Marcelo Bielsa’s most fundamentally vertical team – the 1991 championship winning Newell’s Old Boys.

Their shape was a 3-4-3, and comprised three diamonds with Martino at the tip of the midfield quartet. This was a really radical (and risky) system, geared towards relentless attack and always offering multiple passing options to the player in possession.

Old Boys run out of steam

Though they have lost only one of their 17 matches in the torneo inicial, it is looking increasingly likely that Newell’s will fall short and fail to clinch the title.

Despite leading the pack for several months, Newell’s form has dipped and they have failed to win in their last five matches. Their once healthy lead at the top has been devoured by their rivals, and they now sit in third place, five points behind leaders Vélez Sarsfield and three behind second placed Lanús (who have suffered four defeats apiece).

There are several credible hypotheses for this slump in results. Perhaps the most accurate is that the squad are completely exhausted. Martino’s strategy of intense pressing and drastic transitions requires a physical commitment nearing superhuman levels, and as the end of the tournament approaches, the tired legs are beginning to appear.

In their recent match against All Boys, no fewer than four Newell’s players had to leave the match with injuries. La Lepra slumped to a 2-1 defeat – their first reversal of the season.

Another theory is that Newell’s lack a ‘plan B’. When protecting a lead or chasing a goal, Martino rarely makes any tactical variations, instead he opts to make like-for-like substitutions to try and freshen things up. This is often perceived as a serious problem, especially when facing the league’s more defensively organised sides.

The idea of a ‘plan B’ is one that is not compatible with the Bielsa Method. Bielsa believes that a successful system does not need a plan B, and that if any alternative plan proves to be effective, then it should be used as the principal system. This goes back to the fundamental bielsista idea that sometimes the better team just does not win. The better team should not in turn abandon their original approach for the sake of one result, as their results will remain positive in the long run.

Time to say ta-ta to Tata?

The pressing question surrounds Martino’s future. With his contract at Newell’s due to expire at the end of the year, not a day goes by without him being linked to a move away from Rosario.

Boca Juniors has been mentioned; los Xeneizes are looking to get rid of their coach Julio César Falcioni. However, the more ‘realistic’ move was to take over the Chilean national team, following once again in Bielsa’s footsteps.

When Universidad de Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli was announced as the man appointed by the Chilean FA to replace the outgoing Cláudio Borghi, Newell’s fans hoped that the speculation would calm down. Not a chance. The day after Sampaoli was announced as the new manager of La Roja, Martino was already being tipped to fill his vacancy at La U. Martino has remained predictably tight-lipped about his future, stating that once his contract runs out he will explore his options (of which includes a possible extension at Newell’s).

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27 thoughts on “Like a lepra messiah…”

  1. Excellent stuff Euan – always enjoy anything appreciative of Tata, I’m proud to say I was there when he cried (Paraguay vs Japan in 2010).

    The way you describe his use of Hernan Villalba now is very similar to how he used Nestor Ortigoza during the Copa America with Paraguay. The idea of running out of steam is very common theme under Tata too (obviously accentuated in short tournaments) as he suffered in both the World Cup and Copa America knockout stages with a record of zero goals in six games over three tournaments!!

    Of course some people mistakenly labelled him ‘negative’ or ‘anti-football’ but they weren’t looking past the cold stats – the problem is when you are tired winning the ball higher up the pitch becomes harder as you can’t get to the opposition’s defenders quick enough – and if that is your best form of attack then naturally goals will suffer. It doesn’t affect your defending quite as much because getting back into shape to defend is less exhausting than closing down full backs! Hence a record of three 0-0 draws in international knockout games (and three penalty shootout victories to boot!).

    1. Excellent explanation there Ralph. I completely agree about Paraguay under Martino, misunderstood by many.

      Your comparison between Villalba and Ortigoza is apt, but Nestor has a far better passing range, Villalba is a little simpler in his distribution.

      The image of Tata and his assistants crying after that Japan game was such a great moment. I remember it vividly!

  2. what you describe is a vivid description of us (Paraguay, although I am an English really) at the WC, with Haedo running himself into the ground. It also vividly reminds me of Bielsa’s exploits at Old Trafford last season where the appearance of overlapping players or wingers, wingers and more wingers as attacking options was such a phenomena, we’ve often discussed this at length with Ralph (see comment above), and we’re pretty certain this has influenced Fergie’s way of playing this season.

    What you point out about a lack of Plan B was particularly true for Bielsa in the 2002 WCQ campaign where Argentina’s record against everyone aside from the half decent teams Brazil and Paraguay was played 14, won 12 drew 2, including a 3-3 at 12,500 feet La Paz and the 1-1 in Montevideo which qualified Uruguay and where he screamed himself to distraction while his team played the ball around their own penalty area for the last half an hour giving the home side the point they needed to qualify. However, against Paraguay and Brazil he only managed one win in four and at the WC we all know he came unstuck against England and Sweden who simply positioned themselves man to man on the Argies and smothered them out of the game.

    Finally, I think there is another reason why Newell’s have fallen off apart from running out of steam, it’s called pressure.

    Great article mate

    1. Yes, although Bielsa’s views on ‘plan Bs’ sound so poetic and utopian, they aren’t very practical. Especially in short tournaments, where one of these matches when ‘the better team just doesn’t win’ can spell elimination.

      Oddly enough, his approach is well suited to league play, but when you couple that with his ultra-high intensity playing style that exhausts his players, it’s a bit counter-intuitive.

      I also agree to an extent about Newell’s struggling under the pressure, they certainly prefer to be out of the spotlight.

      Thanks for your comment!

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