Outside of the sphere

For today’s post, I would like to briefly digress from South American football and instead talk about the appointment of Gerardo “Tata” Martino as the new head coach of Barcelona. Since the Argentinian was first linked with the vacancy, I have been inundated with questions about his character, his style and his philosophy. It seems that he is something of an unknown quantity outside of South America.

Before reading today’s post, I suggest reading this article that I wrote in November of last year, which explains Martino’s footballing ideology in great detail, and Jonathan Wilson’s piece for The Guardian yesterday, which goes deeper into Tata’s history and career.

The main question mark over Gerardo Martino surrounds his approach to the game and how that will translate to the tiki-taka style of Barcelona. Many will remember his time in charge of the Paraguayan national team, or more recently his Newell’s Old Boys side that was crowned Argentinian champions this year. Anyone who saw both of these teams would tell you they played a very distinct style of football.

Martino’s best attribute is his ability to build a strong team out of the players at his disposal. When in charge of Paraguay, he was stuck with an ageing generation without much young talent coming through, so he did what he could and formed a solid, no-nonsense side, geared towards getting results.

At Barcelona, he will have some of the greatest players in the world available to him, so his true footballing philosophy should shine through, as it did at Newell’s.

Martino’s approach to the game has its roots in bielsismo (he was the playmaker in Marcelo Bielsa’s famous 1991 Newell’s team), but with a pragmatic twist and some differences. For example, Tata’s teams mark zonally, which goes against Bielsa’s preference for man marking.

With Martino at the helm, Barcelona should not act any differently without the ball as they have done under Guardiola and Villanova. When he took charge in 2008, Pep Guardiola (himself a bielsista coach) implemented a very similar pressing system to Martino’s.

Where we may see a change however, is when Barcelona have possession. While Guardiola’s approach was to keep the ball, slow down the tempo and toy with the opposition before unleashing lightning-fast breaks into space, Martino follows the three pillars, if you will, of bielsismo: pressing, verticalidad y intensidad.

Barcelona’s “death by possession” style which we have become used to may be a thing of the past. Expect Barça to be more intense and direct under Martino.

As far as individual roles are concerned, Tata is a firm believer in attacking full-backs, but only when they are also able to track back and provide defensive cover. He also likes to have a deep, central player who can initiate attacking moves from the back. For Paraguay, he had the barrel-chested Nestor Ortigoza, while at Newell’s he had Raúl Villalba and when he left, the responsibility was passed to Santiago Vergini, a centre-back.

With Sergio Busquets un-droppable in defensive midfield, it is likely that Martino will again look to a centre-back to fill this deep playmaker role, and there are few technical defenders better than Gerard Piqué.

tata-barcelonaThe question remains of what to do with Xavi Hernández. Tata Martino’s 4-3-3 system requires the central midfielders to make darting forward runs and offer a penalty box threat (Andrés Iniesta) and Xavi – a living, breathing monument to tiki-taka – may struggle to find his place in such a role. At 33 years old, his fitness is questionable, but even when at his physical peak Xavi’s style was never about making forward bursts or scoring goals, instead it is about rhythmic, flawless passing and setting the tempo for the whole team.

It is difficult to tell while watching from afar, but Barcelona appear to have made a solid decision in appointing Tata Martino. He may never have managed in Europe before, but he arrives with a winning pedigree and more managerial experience than Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola or Tito Villanova had when taking the same job.

However outstanding they may be, Barcelona looks like a team in need of a dash of fresh perspective and thinking, so bringing in Martino, someone outside of the Barça “sphere”, strikes me as a good move.

Learn from your mistakes

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Cuca failed in his approach to Atlético-MG’s semi-final first leg away to Newell’s Old Boys. He instructed his team to play deeper than usual, abandoning their usual attacking style and shape in an attempt to stymie their opponent’s effectiveness. Their attempt failed and Atlético lost 2-0.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes. Cuca is not yet an excellent coach.

In last night’s first leg in Asunción, once again Atlético forsook their usual game-plan to try and hinder their opponents, and once again they lost 2-0.

Their downfall last night against Olimpia was in their insistence on man marking. Cuca’s Atlético always mark their opponents individually, which is often frowned upon at the top level but can be effective when one team has a clear technical advantage.

So far in this year’s Copa Libertadores, Atlético have faced teams that play variants of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which suit Atlético’s marking style. The full-backs deal with the wide midfielders or attackers and vice-versa, while the central players each have an opponent to watch over. However, against Olimpia’s staggered 3-4-1-2 shape, Atlético ran into some problems.

olimpia galo

Without a full-back to play against, Cuca moved speedy winger Luan into a central role to cover Olimpia’s Wilson Pittoni, which changed Atlético´s overall shape into a rough 4-4-2 diamond. Left-back Richarlyson was assigned to mark Alejandro Silva, who despite originating in a wide position, constantly cut inside and took Richarlyson with him.

On the other flank, Atlético’s Marcos Rocha was given a huge job, marking Olimpia wing-back Nelson Benítez whilst also being on hand to cover the runs of Matías Giménez and Fredy Bareiro whenever they broke past their markers. As a result, Marcos Rocha rarely crossed the half-way line.

As if being forced to play an entirely different wasn’t enough, Atlético’s man-marking also resulted in Olimpia’s first goal. In the build-up, Alejandro Silva comes deep away from his marker and receives the ball close to Luan, who tries to retrieve possession from him. Instead of covering Luan, Richarlyson moves infield to mark Pittoni, who Luan has abandoned, opening space for Silva to run into. Diego Tardelli tries to close him down, but realising he is leaving his own man in space he hesitates to make a tackle. Réver, the only “spare man” in Atlético’s system, is then slow to get to Silva, allowing the Olimpia midfielder to score.

If that was difficult to follow, this video may help:

Persisting with a man marking system and abandoning their usual style of play was a mistake by Cuca, but the popular media will probably focus more on another one of his decisions last night: substituting Ronaldinho after 65 minutes.

Cuca was completely right to take off Ronaldinho. Thanks to a wonderful marking job by Eduardo Aranda (like Newell’s Diego Mateo in the semi-final), Gaúcho barely saw the ball. After his departure, Atlético started to create more and although they eventually conceded a second goal, they improved significantly.

Once again, Atlético will have to do it the hard way and come back from 2-0 down if they want to win their first Copa Libertadores trophy. They will be without Marcos Rocha after he picked up a third yellow card, and as the match will be played at the Mineirão, they will not be able to count on the “Independência” factor.

Coming back from this result will be a much tougher test than the semi-final. But that’s not to say it is impossible.

É Galo na final

Apologies for not updating the blog yesterday, with the unprecedented amount of stoppages and a penalty shootout to boot, Wednesday evening’s semi-final sapped me of all energy. After the final whistle, when I would usually be writing, I was sleeping off a heavy Copa Libertadores comedown. For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend Idelber Avelar’s wonderful account over at Impedimento.

In the end, Atlético-MG overcame the odds and a two-goal deficit to eliminate Newell’s Old Boys on penalties in one of the most gripping and tense football matches in recent memory.

Whoever said that ‘penalty shootouts are a lottery’ has no idea what they are talking about. Hours of study and practice go into penalty kicks, while the mental strength and emotional state of the takers also plays a huge part. There is nothing random about it. Atlético goalkeeper Víctor made another penalty save at a crucial moment, and if Galo do go on and win the trophy, he will rightly be remembered as the hero.

Image: UOL

Spare a thought for Newell’s however, who were unlucky not to go through. The Argentinians were superior throughout the first leg, and they were the better team in the second half on Wednesday, at least until the power failure. Head coach Gerardo Martino now leaves the club after two good years in charge, saying he will take an “indefinite rest”. He deserves it.

Coming at such a critical moment in the tie (with 15 minutes remaining in the second half of the second leg) the floodlight failure could have helped or hindered either of the two sides. In the end, it helped Atlético.

With his team struggling to create any chances against a very well-organised Newell’s defence, Atlético coach Cuca used the pause to alter their offensive tactics. He ordered right-back Marcos Rocha to push forward more (he barely crossed the half-way line over the two legs, due to the threat of Newell’s left-winger Maxi Rodríguez) and brought on unpopular forwards Guilherme and Alecsandro in place of fan favourites Diego Tardelli and Bernard.

It’s impossible to know exactly how decisive his changes were (even though Guilherme scored the vital second goal), but Cuca has to be commended for taking the risk.

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Conmebol has announced that the second leg of the final will be played at the Mineirão, instead of the Estádio Independência, Atlético’s current stadium of choice. This is due to the competition’s rule that the final must be played at a venue with a capacity of over 40,000 people. The Independência holds just over 23,000.

The rule is clear, but Conmebol also announced that the first leg will be played in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, which holds only 36,000. With any luck, both teams will be allowed to play their respective home legs at their preferred stadiums, and Conmebol can do away with this pointless regulation. However, this is Conmebol we are talking about…

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With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss against Bahia, São Paulo completed a run of four consecutive defeats at the Estádio Morumbi – for the first time in their 77 year history. But I thought that the problem was meant to be Ney Franco?

With Muricy unavailable due to his high salary demands, club president Juvenal Juvêncio has brought back another former coach in Paulo Autuori. While the old man at the end of the corridor remains in control, it is difficult to see how things can change.

Galo and Newell’s

The dream looked to be in doubt, but Olimpia held on in Bogotá, withstanding wave after wave of Santa Fe attacks, and have qualified for their seventh Copa Libertadores final. Tonight, they will find out their opponents, as Atlético-MG go toe-to-toe with Newell’s Old Boys in the match we’ve all been waiting for.

Considering the gap in quality between the domestic leagues of Brazil and Argentina, Atlético are the stronger team and were made favourites to qualify before the first leg. However they find themselves in real trouble and trail their Argentinian adversaries 2-0 on aggregate.

Clearly, Atlético have a huge task ahead of them. But at least they have a clear objective: they must do what they do best and attack. In the first leg in Rosario, Atlético head coach Cuca decided upon a contained, defensive approach – they played poorly and conceded twice. Tonight, however, they have no choice.

Atlético can take heart in their home advantage. They have now gone an unbelievable 52 matches without losing at home, partly due to the atmosphere created at the Estádio Independência. The cramped, high stands in the 23,000-seater ground in Belo Horizonte can generate quite an intimidating noise.

However, the last time Atlético played in the Copa Libertadores at the Independência – the quarter-final against Tijuana – they were less than convincing. The match has been remembered for goalkeeper Víctor’s heroic last-minute penalty save, so it has been easy to forget that Galo were second best for most of the game against an organised Tijuana side. Newell’s Old Boys are an even tougher prospect.

The main concern for Atlético is conceding an away goal. Because of the 0-2 aggregate score, a Newell’s goal this evening would force Atlético to score four times in order to qualify.

That said, it looks like Newell’s will be content to stand off, play deep and pick their moments on the counterattack. In my opinion, this approach would be a mistake. Newell’s can move the ball from defence to attack quicker than most teams, but they struggle to consistently create good chances. Were they more adept in playing the final pass, perhaps the first leg would have ended 4 or 5-0, instead of just two.

If Newell’s were to look to take advantage of spaces left by Atlético and have sustained spells of pressure, I believe they will score. If they sit back and wait for three or four counterattacks to present themselves, chances are they will draw a blank.

Overcoming a two-goal deficit is not beyond Atlético, especially if their attacking quartet plays to their abilities. The pressure will be enormous though, and they need to remain mentally strong if they are to have any chance of winning.

Going back to Olimpia, it would be easy to say that tonight’s match will decide the trophy, as both Atlético and Newell’s are stronger sides than Olimpia. But the Paraguayans are an intelligent, resolute side with a clever head coach, and they could certainly spring a surprise. Furthermore, Olimpia have done this before. Known as the “Rey de Copas”, they are three-time champions of the Copa Libertadores, with their most recent triumph coming in 2002. For Atletico or Newell’s, there will be the added pressure of a potential first Libertadores.

Stick to what you know

In yesterday’s blog, I pointed out that Atlético-MG could cause Newell’s Old Boys some serious problems if they were “willing to open up in search of an away goal”. They weren’t.

Newell’s looked vulnerable in defence. Full-backs Casco and Cáceres left too much space behind them, centre-backs Heinze and Vergini made mistakes every time they were put under pressure and even Nahuel Guzmán, the goalkeeper, had some unconvincing moments. Fortunately for them, Atlético failed to capitalise on any of these weaknesses. Apart from one spurned opportunity from Bernard in the first half, Newell’s were comfortable throughout and earned a 2-0 lead to take into the second leg.

Atlético’s downfall was their over cautiousness. As expected, they adopted a more withdrawn approach and instead of their usual fluid 4-2-3-1 system, Cuca arranged his side in a rigid 4-4-1-1. The back four stayed excessively deep – even usually ultra-attacking right-back Marcos Rocha – and wingers Bernard and Diego Tardelli played defensive roles, tasked with marking their opposing full-back.

Cuca’s thought process was understandable for the most part: Newell’s break quickly and when they do, they play the ball directly to the excellent Ignácio Scocco in attack. (While the quality of Argentinian domestic football is patchy, Scocco is a Champions League-level centre-forward and Cuca knows it.) By keeping the back line planted and close to the penalty area, Cuca hoped to reduce Scocco’s space whenever possible.

The problem is that Atlético do not have the squad to successfully play a deep, contained tactical system. When Galo don’t have possession, Ronaldinho Gaúcho becomes a passenger. The same can be said for Bernard and Diego Tardelli, while Marcos Rocha is easily found out when he is asked to defend.

Newell’s, constantly invited to attack their Brazilian visitors, eventually found gaps and scored their goals. If it wasn’t for Victor in the Atlético goal, the tie would already be over. As it stands, Galo will need a huge performance at the Independência to have any chance of making the final.

Cuca has built a wonderful team at Atlético, capable of playing captivating and effective football. However he has not grasped how to properly organise a defensive system. He has been struggling with this for years, so perhaps he never will get it. Perhaps he should stick to what he knows best.

Note: I realise that this post could have been enhanced with visual aids of some sort, however I have recently bought a new laptop and as of yet do not have my old diagram templates. I will see to that soon!

Note 2: If you want to read more about Newell’s Old Boys and their playing style, check out this analysis that I did of them a while back. Still relevant.

The correct approach

After a three-week break for the Confederations Cup, the Copa Libertadores got back up and running last night with Olimpia’s spirited 2-0 home win against Independiente Santa Fe.

Credit must go to Olimpia coach Ever Almeida, as it was his tactical approach to the match that allowed the Paraguayans to remain on the front foot throughout. Almeida arranged his side in a 3-5-2 formation which annulled Santa Fe on several fronts. Firstly, Olimpia had an extra centre-back to protect against the Colombians’ rapid forward duo of Jefferson Cuero and Wilder Medina. The system also allowed them to play three men in central midfield to compete with Santa Fe’s own midfield trio, which is notoriously physical. Finally, against the narrow 4-3-1-2 shape favoured by Santa Fe, Olimpia’s wing-backs were allowed to operate with vast spaces in front of them, ideal for attacking the flanks and delivering crosses into the penalty area.

Santa Fe paid the price for procrastination and in failing to make changes in the second half they allowed Olimpia to stay in control of the game and ultimately score their two goals. It was naïve of them to remain with three forwards, especially when 1-0 down. It may have cost them a place in the final.

The other semi-final kicks off this evening, as Newell’s Old Boys host Atlético-MG in Rosario. Currently Newell’s are by far and away the best side in Argentina, but the gap in quality is so large between the domestic leagues of Argentina and Brazil, that it is Atlético who must be considered as favourites to reach the final.

Both sides play a similar style of football: direct, high tempo and with plenty of pressure on the ball. The main difference between them is that Atlético favour long, sweeping balls to their quick forwards, while Newell’s prefer to play short, fast, vertical passing moves.

Away from home and without either of their first-choice centre-backs (Leonardo Silva is injured and Réver suspended), I expect Atlético to adopt a more withdrawn approach than usual. With a more static defence, they can position themselves deeper in their own half and use Ronaldinho’s vision and technique to release Bernard and Diego Tardelli in the attacking third.

Though most of the attention is being placed on the central players of each side, this match may well be won on the flanks.

For Atlético, Marcos Rocha pushes so high from right-back that he often acts as an extra attacker. If the Brazilians are willing to open up in search of an away goal, they may be able to create something on that wing. Newell’s left-back Milton Casco is not the best marker, and their left-sided centre-back, former Argentina international Gabriel Heinze, has poor lateral movement and does not cover well. If Atlético can create some 2 vs. 1 situations on the right, they could cause their hosts real problems.

While all this is going on, the first leg of the Recopa Sul-Americana will be played between São Paulo and Corinthians, at the Morumbi. The Recopa is South America’s answer to the Super Cup, but as the two major continental tournaments (the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana) are played at different times of the year, I’ve never understood the relevance of this particular trophy.

For what it’s worth, it will be interesting to see how Corinthians function without Paulinho, who has sealed his transfer to Tottenham. There were similar discussions after the departures of Jucilei and Elias, but Paulinho will be more difficult to replace. He has been the heartbeat of Tite’s Corinthians team for so long now, and they may require a significant amount of time to adjust to his absence.

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. Continue reading Like a lepra messiah…