In Argentina, Martino follows line of Bielsa disciples to success
He has a fluffy demi-mullet. He wears big, slightly academic glasses (although without a cord). He paces the technical area nervously during games (although without ensuring each perambulation takes 13 steps). Even without watching his side play, it's not hard to work out who Gerardo Martino's main influence as a coach is. Given he also preaches hard-pressing, ball-retention and verticality, it's obvious that Martino is another follower of Marcelo Bielsa.
The pair has always been close. When Bielsa led Newell's Old Boys to the apertura and overall championship in 1990-91 (in the days when the winners of apertura and clausura played off) and the apertura in 1991-92 (when they didn't), and reached the final of the 1992 Copa Libertadores, Martino was a key figure. Operating across the front of midfield, he was the side's main creator, but he was also the emotional hub.
"He is an exceptional player, of a different category, thinking in a way that at times isn't recognized," Bielsa said in November 1990. "I always say that he is the leader of the team, serene, calm when it is necessary. After defeats, he's the one the young players look to."
He is one of the great crop of Bielsista coaches making a huge impression across the world. The philosophy is intoxicating, summed by Bielsa as "permanent concentration, mobility, rotation and repentización." The last term is a difficult one to translate: in music it refers to playing a piece having never seen it before; in football it means some combination of extemporization and doing things quickly, repeatedly doing the unexpected. At its best it produces fast, attractive football, rooted in possession but insisting always on "verticalidad" -- moving directly toward goal, never holding possession for possession's sake.
It is also exhausting. "While the opponent has the ball," Bielsa said, "the whole team perform pressing, always trying to cut off the play as close as possible to the opponent's goal; when we get it, the whole team tries to play with dynamism and create the spaces for improvisation."
It's a style of play that can transform a team suddenly from also-rans into apparent world-beaters, but the physical and mental cost can be enormous. Athletic Bilbao, the team Bielsa took over at the beginning of last season, was by March playing extraordinary football; its demolition of Manchester United home and away in the Europa League was breathtaking. By May and the Europa League final, though, it was spent, and it lost limply to Atletico Madrid. The club still hasn't recovered.
Bielsa once commented that if football was played by robots, he would always win; as it is, he finds the fallibility of human players hard to deal with. It may be for that reason history will judge him a better theorist than coach. As coach of Chile, he effectively defined a national style. His work still reverberates. Last year, the outstanding team in South America was Universidad de Chile, which won the Copa Sudamericana and has lifted the last three championships under the avowedly Bielsista Jorge Sampaoli.
Before Pep Guardiola took the Barcelona job, he visited Bielsa and spent hours discussing his theories with him over an asado. Guardiola was perhaps never as fundamentalist as Bielsa, but the basic tenets were the same. If anything, Tito Vilanova, with his greater insistence on verticalidad, is even more of a Bielsista. Even the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Andre Villas-Boas, with whom there is no direct connection to Bielsa, seem to respect similar principles: pressing, rapid transitions, possession as a means of defense.
Bielsa, of course, is not the only coach to have espoused such a style; there are notable similarities, for instance, between his thinking and that of Louis van Gaal. But he is perhaps the most extreme and, at the moment, the most influential, not least because his theories are creating such a wave in South America.
Martino is back in Rosario, trying to repeat the success Bielsa had 20 years ago. He is downbeat about Argentinian football, calling it "hysterical" and "dirty" and lamenting the physicality of a game in which the result overshadows everything else.
"Aesthetics are despised," he said in an interview in
Martino's coaching career has been peripatetic: Newell's is his ninth club in 14 years, five of which were spent with the Paraguay national team. He won three Paraguayan titles across two spells at Libertad and led the national side to the final of last year's Copa America. His principles remain clear, and they are essentially those of Bielsa; he is not quite so radical, perhaps, but the influence is clear.
Newell's was 18th in the apertura last season, and sixth in the clausura. This season, though, it has been a revelation, playing purposeful, attractive football to take an early lead. Like so many Bielsa sides, the fear is that Martino's Newell's is running out of steam as the season winds up for its climax. Two weeks ago, Newell's led Arsenal de Sarandi 2-0 at halftime and seemed comfortable, but ended up clinging on for a 2-1 win. Last weekend, Newell's was up 1-0 at halftime at Godoy Cruz, which had had a man sent off, but ended up drawing 1-1. And, on Friday, Newell's couldn't break down a Quilmes side that hasn't won away this season and drew 0-0.
Martino blamed impatience, "playing to the rhythm of the people." as he put it, and perhaps in the first half there was some truth to that. In the second, though, Newell's just looked flat.
With Velez Sarsfield winning its last four games since losing to Newell's, Martino's side has gone from having a three-point lead to being a point behind with five games remaining. Even to be in the mix is some achievement, but the fear is, like so many Bielsista sides, Newell's will in the end find its style a fraction too demanding.