December 23, 2014
Argentine tacticians are stars of the cup
For the Herald
The World Cup has started in efficient, if not particularly scintillating fashion for the tens of thousands of Argentines who made the trip north to Brazil. Inspired by two Lionel Messi wonder-goals, the Albiceleste have reached maximum points and qualified for the second-round without causing too many raised eyebrows, and much more will be expected of the side coached by Alejandro Sabella as the tournament rolls on.
If by some disastrous occurrence Argentina had been eliminated after the two opening games (just ask England fans, it is all-too plausible), fans still in Brazil and wondering who to follow would not have had to look too far. Two of the surprise sides so far in the 2014 World Cup are directed by Argentines, and they are looking very strong indeed.
Chile, under the direction of Rosario native Jorge Sampaoli, and a Colombia team led by José Pekerman — whom you may remember on the bench managing the brilliant Argentina squad of 2006 — have both started the competition in great shape. A fantastic 2-0 win over Spain kicked the current champions out of competition while confirming Sampaoli’s players a spot in the last-16.
“We demonstrated the strengths of this national team,” an elated Sampaoli told reporters following the historic clash. But the former Universidad de Chile coach was not getting ahead of himself — falling back on classic football cliché, he added that his adopted nation had to continue “One step at a time.” Some sporting truisms really do transcend borders.
Colombia, meanwhile, took down Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan in successive matches to also qualify, with a perfect nine-point record in Group C. It is a fantastic achievement, especially considering that the two sides were in danger of not even qualifying for the World Cup when their trainers took charge.
Forget Paul the Octopus or any other lucky charm or superstition. Having an Argentine on the bench appears the best way to guarantee success at this World Cup — out of the eight games Sabella, Sampaoli and Pekerman have disputed in Brazil, all but one has ended in victory for the criollo coaches.
Sebastián García, Goal.com’s managing editor for Latin America, told the Herald that he attributes the current success of Argentine trainers to a generational shift, as old traditions in the dressing-room have succumbed to a more professional management approach.
“We have seen in Argentina a clear decline of the old school of charismatic managers or football coaches. For a long time, these experienced men have dominated the scene. Without any interest in tactics or the evolution of the game, they have been in and out of the national team and the main clubs in Argentina,” García explains.
“The arrival of a new school of managers, younger, more open-minded and not so intoxicated with the traditional dressing room codes from the 60s and 70s, they have changed the mentality of their colleagues and successors.”
Sampaoli took control of the Roja following the failure of compatriot Claudio Borghi to replicate the success of yet another Argentine, the infamous Marcelo Bielsa. A committed disciple of the Bielsa approach, the new man on the bench adopted “El Loco’s” two key tenets of coaching: non-stop pressure on the pitch, and unbending discipline off it. After a number of scandals during Borghi’s short stint, the results were clear; Chile won five of their last seven games to march to the World Cup, where they are now being feted as a “Golden Generation” for the nation.
García highlights the “Bielsa effect” on Sampaoli and other young Argentine coaches.
“His influence has spread among colleagues and the new generation of coaches now know they can’t get very far without taking in all the necessary preparation to face the challenges of the modern game and of dealing with a younger generation of players,” he affirms.
Similar plaudits are now bestowed on Colombia, but before Pekerman the country also lingered outside of the top-five qualifying slots for Brazil 2014. The Argentine inspired a togetherness and loyalty among the squad which was missing under predecessor Leonel Álvarez, and a run of eight wins, two draws and just three defeats took the Cafeteros to second place overall behind Argentina.
Pekerman could see he had a fantastically-talented team, with the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez all starring in Europe. But the side had a tendency to slack off in matches while on top, as could be seen in a painful 2-1 reverse at home to Argentina when Álvarez’s team had led comfortably at half time. The new coach’s response was to instil a new focus and intensity on the pitch; now, when the team goes ahead, they will continue the search for a second or third, killing the game off instead of coasting to the end.
Pekerman himself has no fear of making the tough decisions and defending them. Not only did he cut injured Falcao from the final Colombia World Cup squad, he also convened a press conference alongside the Monaco star and the other players left out in order to best explain his decision to reporters.
It is a golden time to be an Argentine football coach. The Liga decider over in Spain was fought between two local boys, Átletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone and Gerardo Martino of Barcelona. Over in Valencia, José Antonio Pizzi took over a moribund Che side and led them to the brink of Europa League glory, while Mauricio Pochettino’s fine work at Southampton earned him a Premier League switch to Tottenham Hotspur — the spiritual home, of course, of former Albiceleste international Ossie Ardiles.
For Sam Kelly, a freelance writer who covers Argentina for ESPN.com and also hosts local football podcast Hand of Pod, one man has been vital in promoting his compatriots overseas.
“Marcelo Bielsa’s influence on the current generation of Argentine managers can’t be underestimated — his philosophy and way of approaching the game has resulted in a school which, perhaps paradoxically, has gained more traction outside Argentina than inside,” he explains.
“Regardless of style, I think Argentine bosses are in vogue at the moment because the local league’s constant impatience with managers means younger managers get a chance at some point during the reshuffle — and the talented ones, for whatever reason, seem to have the strength of personality to force their way into the old boys club that dominates. It’s not bad conditioning, either. Atlético famously chew up managers and spit them out, but Simeone’s managed at Racing, Estudiantes and the pressure cooker of River Plate,” Kelly adds, emphasizing that coaches in Argentina are used to fighting for results in the most adverse situations.
This represents a giant step forward for a nation that is more used to exporting players rather than thinkers. Argentine coaches are not exactly unheard of on the other side of the Atlantic. Inter Milan’s brilliant team of the 1960s was directed by Buenos Aires native Helenio Herrera — although having left the country at the age of four the Argentine effect on his career was perhaps minimal — who became synonymous with Catenaccio, that ultra-defensive style of football containment which is as Italian as pizza and Lambretta.
The following decade, meanwhile, saw Juan Carlos Lorenzo take Átletico to the European Cup final where, in common with Simeone nearly 40 years later, he would go down to a late goal. And who could forget World Cup winner César Luis Menotti’s spell at Barcelona during the 1980s, when he teamed up with a young Diego Maradona to shake and scandalize conservative Catalunya with the pair’s antics on and off the field?
But the above are largely exceptions to the rule, great personalities who, Herrera aside, failed to make a great impact on European football. The current generation in Europe is young, hungry, and with ample playing experience on both sides of the Atlantic.
That fusion of old world and new, of fierce discipline and creative freedom, of industry, work-rate and the innate talent that can only be developed on make-shift neighbourhood pitches (known as potreros), makes the likes of Sampaoli, Simeone, Pizzi and Pochettino great prospects as coaches for years to come.