Before the start of the pre-season tours, Cules were greeted with the devastating news of their manager Tito Vilanova’s yet another cancer relapse, after suffering a relapse through the 2012-13 season that forced him to leverage his duties to his understudy Jordi Roura, Vilanova finally gave up the hugely demanding job for good.
Thus, began Barcelona’s quest to find an able replacement. Some big names were thrown in the mix for the hot seat that included the likes of former Barcelona B, and Roma’s ex-manager Luis Enrique, Swansea’s Michael Laudrup, Ajax legend Frank de Boer, and even the much travelled Dutch maestro Guus Hiddink, whose resignation from Anzhi Makhachkala (during the time the Russian club began their great purge to balance books) coincided with Tito’s departure.
Three days after Vilanova’sresignation, Barcelona had made its selection – Gerardo Martino. To many the name was unheard of; no one had expected a relative unknown to be given one of the most difficult jobs in World football. But, Barcelona had done their research. Martino affectionately called Tata might have been an unknown quantity for the casual watchers, was one of the revered names in South American football for both his playing as well as managerial career.
Tata had a massively successful playing career with one of the biggest clubs in Argentina – Newell’s Old Boys as a midfielder. Over three different spells at the club he had made around 500 appearances. The club named Martino the greatest player in their history. Lionel Messi had played in the youth divisions of the Rosario based club, before they became unable to pay for his growth hormone deficiency that saw his father, Jorge Messi take him to Barcelona. Jorge counts Tata as his favourite player.
Soon after hanging his boots in 1997, Tata made his foray into the World of football management. His biggest successes came while in charge of Paraguay, taking over the national team in 2006, he guided them to the world cup finals in South Africa, 2010. They gave the eventual champions, Spain a big scare in the quarter finals before bowing out on penalties after 120 minutes of absorbing football. They went out but had their reputations enhanced, especially their manager. Ayear later he guided them to the Copa America final which they lost to Uruguay. After his Paraguayan sojourn he went back home, where he guided an underwhelming and out of depth Newell’s Old Boys to a remarkable league title in 2013.
In footballing philosophy terms Tata comes from Marcelo Bielsa’s school of thought, another Newell’s Old Boys legend who named their stadium in his honour. Bielsa is regarded as the master tactician who perfected the high pressing and short passing version of aesthetically pleasing football. It’s worth a mention that Guardiola, who borrows so heavily form Bielsa’s methods, before taking over Barcelona’s command had an eleven hour long asado (just short of Jung’s first meeting with Freud) with the eccentric Argentine. Tata, a devotee himself, having played under Bielsa and being his captain knew his methods inside out. Clearly, Barcelona management forever in search of promoting from within to ensure continuity had done their research and appointed a man wedded to the idea of playing the beautiful game the way Blaugrana demand – the beautiful way.
By the winter break Tata has led the Catalan giants in 27 matches in all competitions, the report card reads 21 wins, 4 draws, and only 2 defeats, scoring 73 goals and conceding 18 in the process. After 17 league games his team sits atop the Liga table with 46 points, closely chased by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid who are behind only on goal difference.The Argentine has delivered his first trophy, no less when they defeated the feisty Atletico in the Spanish Super Cup over the two legs. Most significantly his men won the first Classico and are five points ahead of Real Madrid.
It’s a remarkable result for the new manager who prior to this job had never managed outside of South America. Critics had remarked that he will suffer in the rigors of the uber competitive Europe in general and Champions league in particular. But he passed the test with flying colours, topping the Champions league group. Tata had to deal with several challenges along the way, small squad getting even smaller courtesy injuries, and highly demanding press and fans, among others.
Martino was given a team still deficient in the areas that should have been strengthened in the earlier seasons itself. Barcelona’s perennial refusal to buy a quality centre back that made life difficult not just in the 2012-13 season but also Pep’s farewell season, was expected to bite them again. But Marc Bartra’s fantastic performances have somewhat hidden the barren cupboard that is Barcelona dugout in the centre-back department. Carles Puyol who spent almost the complete first half of the season out injured, looks a shadow of the player he once was, if murmurs coming out of Camp Nou are to be believed he is hanging his boots at the end of the current season. Mascherano too was out injured for four weeks after an unfortunate collision with Sergio Busquets, in the match against Real Sociedad. Barcelona’s full backs as well suffered long term injury layoffs but their vacancy were ably filled in by Adriano on the left and La Masia graduate Martin Montoya on the right.
Most troublesome injury has been the one suffered by team’s lynchpin Lionel Messi. Blaugrana have been lucky (if we may call it so) that Messi’s injury came at a time when Champions League qualification was virtually assured and relatively easy teams were to be dealt with in the league. Messi is expected to be fit and lead the line by the time team makes its most difficult trip so far to Atletico’s stomping ground, Vicente Calderon. A battle that will decide who will become the forthright leader in their quest for the league title.
Big money arrival Neymar, who cost a staggering 57 million Euros, was panned by the naysayers, and was criticised as a Youtube highlights player, a player who will crumble in the face of Europe’s physical defenders, and what not has completely justified his price especially with his match winning performance against the arch rivals Real Madrid where he set up Alexis’ beautiful goal as well as scored one himself. His performance completely overshadowed Real’s World record signing, Gareth Bale. The way Tata handled his smooth transition into the side deserves credit. He initially gave him substitute appearances before easing him into the side, the player capable of contributing so much, was initially sent to patrol the left flank, he is now being given more responsibility and freedom especially in Messi’s absence.
His performance also has had the tangential effect of lifting the performances of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez in face of increased competition for a place in the team. Both have been in scintillating form contributing with goals and assist, Pedro managed 7 goals in the league last term and has already notched up 10 so far, while Alexis has already equaled his tally from last season of 8 goals. Scoring aside their constant running, pressing and movements to create space have been much better than the previous term.
Having to deal with a side that is not getting any younger and with the decline of the midfielder maestro Xavi, has rendered Tata’s task difficult, Iniesta too took time to gradually find his feet. With Thiago Alcantara’s sale to Bayern Munich, Barcelona’s midfield was left short of options, they were not helped by Jonathon dos Santos’ injury which ruled him out for the season. Song and youth product Sergi Roberto have done their bit when called into action. But in terms of the quality on the pitch Song is not the same as Busquets. Sergi Roberto, steeped in tiki-taka has impressed with his distribution though he is yet to show Thiago’s vision and range of passing. Xavi speaks very highly of him and in time he has the potential to become a distributor par excellence a la Xavi.
Victor Valdes, was arguably Barcelona’s most important player, he saved Catalan’s the blushes multiple times, till he suffered his own injury, a mistake prone Pinto took charge under the post in his absence. Barcelona will have to find an able replacement now that Valdes has refused any chance of him staying at the club.
If Martino’s performance is analysed through all these problems he had to face, his performance appears even more pleasing.
For the demanding Camp Nou faithful, just winning is never sufficient. They want to win whilst playing beautifully. They demand an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. A game based on keeping possession and short passing. The brand of football that Rinus Michels and subsequently Johan Crujiff championed. The style that Pep Guardiola perfected in his four years at the helm of the Catalan giants.
They demand the same brand of football no matter who the manager. And Martino is no different; he was brought in to continue the tradition. A football romantic he may be but he is not averse to the pragmatic if the situation calls for it. His Paraguayan team at the Copa America was a prime example of it, his team played attractive football in the group stages but when the going got tough in the quarter final against Brazil they didn’t shy away from playing a physical game; they eventually shut them 0-0, and won on penalties. They did the same in the semi-final against Venezuela before disposing them off in the penalty shootout.
He didn’t hesitate in moving away from the ideals of tiki-taka that the Blaugrana hold so dear if the situation demanded it. He introduced more verticality to Barcelona’s game. His goalkeeper is not shy of booting it long, his players are not afraid of playing the ball forward even at the expense of losing it, or even shooting from distance, in Guardiola’s time these tactics were not much appreciated as he instructed his players not to lose the ball and thus handed over the initiative to the opposition. Gerard Pique showed his support to the new manager’s tactics by declaring that the team under previous regimes had become “slaves to tiki-taka“, clearly endorsing the new found freedom. Cesc Fabregas who thrives more while playing vertical passes than lateral has understandably got more starts then he did during Pep’s last or Tito’s lone season. He too endorsed the new system by declaring “When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.”
But surely, with more verticality comes a greater possibility of losing the ball. The unthinkable happened when after an unprecedented 5 years and 317 games, Barcelona lost possession battle to their opponents Rayo Vallecano, even though the result was a 4-0 in favour of Barca but for the Camp Nou faithful lesser possession was a sign of a changing system, perhaps rightly so.
Football aside the team went through several tumults with Lionel Messi being charged with tax fraud, Iniesta’s initial refusal to sign a new deal due to the club having let go off the long-serving physio Emili Ricart, club director Javier Faus’ unwarranted comments about Messi which led to the shy genius’s public denigration of the club director, Victor Valdes’ reluctance to stay which is attributed to the alleged mistreatment by club management. Eric Abidal, who was promised a contract if he made a comeback from his long injury layoff to be then refused one, was very poorly dealt with. Abidal was a favourite in the dressing room and the way he was ushered out left a sour taste in the mouth. It left many to question the club’s ideal of being “Mesque un club”. All these hint toward a discord between Rossell’s management and the players. It’s remarkable how the team has stayed united and rallied together to stay table toppers amidst the turmoil.
All in all it has been a roller coaster ride for the Barca fans, with wins on the pitch but problems off it. Tata’s team has done well so far and should do even better in the second half with almost the entire squad back to full fitness post the winter break. If the first half is taken as a prelude then signs are that the league title race will go down to the wire. For a club of Barcelona’s stature anything short of a semi-final in Europe is considered a failure. To ensure the team manages at least that basic objective Martino has to first overcome the challenge posed by Pellegrini’s mighty Manchester City. The season holds a lot of promise for the Cules, like them we all can’t wait to see how the rest of the journey unfolds.