Analysis on the new FC Barcelona coach and his philosophy

Gerardo Martino probably got the most attractive football job in the World earlier this week, but we don’t know his style and philosophy that well. Therefore, I have analyzed 6 of his recent games with Newell’s Old Boys and the Paraguay national team.

Focus is on the philosophy
The 6 games, I have watched and analyzed are Newell’s Old Boys (NOB) against Velez Sarsfield, Argentina Juniors, Union Santa Fe, and the Copa Libertadores (South American Champions League) final against Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro. When Martino was the head coach of Paraguay, I have watched two games from the 2010 World Cup against Italy and Slovakia. That’s the empirical basis for this analysis.

I have decided not to look at set pieces at all - neither offensive nor defensive. Furthermore, this analysis is not structured like a normal team/match analysis with regular headlines and areas to analyze. I have looked at the most spectacular areas and related these to the classic FC Barcelona-style.

10 running machines
In general it’s important to remember that a professional coach has a clear football philosophy, but it can change slightly from team to team depending on the material and the quality of the squad. So this analysis is only produced to analyze what we (probably) can expect from Martino as a FC Barcelona coach rather than show how NOB or Paraguay played under the 50-year old Argentinian coach.

It is obvious that Martino has been inspired by his former coach Marcelo Bielsa. In my coach education assignment 2 years ago, I did an analysis on Athletic Bilbao under Bielsa, and the patterns here are in some ways the same as under Martino in NOB and Paraguay.

I still remember Bielsa visiting Denmark for a game with Chile, and a football conference afterwards, where he showed some of his work and training methods. No mercy for the players at all. And as Bielsa said: “If the players can’t or won’t work, I just find some new players”.

The players under Martino work extremely hard as well. I saw some running machines and ‘wild animals’ trying to win the ball back and doing a full pitch defensive pressure. It was not that obvious with the Paraguay national team as it was with NOB. This was world class defensive interception work. As soon as they lose the ball, 5-6 players are sprinting, chasing and tackling to win the ball back. And often they won it back or scared/stressed the opponents to make mistakes as well. They look like players ready to kill to regain possession again. What a mentality!

So mentality and physically Martino has big demands for his teams. Everyone has to participate in the defensive work and often it starts as soon as the opponent goal keeper releases the ball short from a goal kick. In the Paraguay – Italy game from WC 2010, we see a 4-1-2-3 formation without the ball and the six players in front of the back four are pressuring Italy from their own box area.

This means that the back four is very high up the pitch, and often they play man-to-man. No support or no cover behind. And the back four is ready to ‘break the chain’ and go into pressure if the ball is played in their area. They don’t follow the classic defensive zone rules and stay together.

More direct than the classic Barcelona
Gerardo Martino will in the future have better players than ever before, so this might change his style, but in Paraguay and NOB, he plays more direct than we usually see FC Barcelona.
The building up phase is the same model as FC Barcelona with the two central defenders wide, the two full backs very high up the pitch and the (fake) wingers moving inside the pitch to win majority in the center of the pitch. If the opponents try to pressure the two central defenders, the balance player (position number 6) on the midfield moves down between the central defenders and they play 3:2.

The short passing style is not with the same patience or numbers of passes as FC Barcelona normally have done it in the recent years. Martino prefers to play more direct, hard pass through the middle on the ground to the central striker or play directly on the outside of the opponent’s organization to a full back, who can attack 1:1.

I counted that in almost 75 % of the building up phases, the teams under Martino play the ball up to the attackers using between 5-7 passes, so this is much lower than the FC Barcelona classic. The most common pass from the two central defenders or the balance midfielder (position number 6) is on the outside of the opponent’s organization to their left or right full back. This pass is used in 60 % of the times and is like a long cross over 30-40 meters, so the full backs is very important is this style and has to be individually skilled as he often is in 1:1 offensive situations. And if we think of FCB – Martino should be safe in this phase with Dani Alves and Jordi Alba as the full backs.

Movement and deep play on the last third
When the teams under Martino moves into the finishing zone – the last third – we see a lot of aggressive runs from the wingers, number 10 (position) and number 8 (position). Every time a player is facing the goal at the last third, the deep running starts to come again and again from the offensive players. The don’t look for classic crosses from the wingers, but play the ball on the ground and try to play a deep ball behind the back four or try to use 1-2 combination or other short combination play to create the chances.

One pattern, I analyzed several times in both the Paraguay and NOB games was the fantastic movement from the midfield players. They run and try to create free spaces all the time – always moving and changing positions. And often number 6 (position) and number 10 (position) are seeking areas in the same side as ball while number 8 stays in the other side, where he is free and can play deep on his second touch if he receives the ball. So they try to drack the opponent’s attention to the ball side and then play to the outside number 8 in the other side and from there they seek a finishing opportunity.

Transition and counter attacks
This is the area, where I’m most impressed by Martino’s teams. As mentioned earlier, the defensive awareness and aggressive ball chasing in the defensive transition is impressive. It’s like a button turning from off to on, because suddenly everyone is ready to win the ball back – no matter what.

If we look at the offensive transition – Martino likes it to be very direct and fast. I sat down with my watch and in most situations; NOB is seeking a finish 7-10 seconds after they win the ball. So Martino do like the direct counter play, no passes to the sides, just a straight pass as far up the pitch as possible. Also in this phase, the two full backs are really impressive. We see those sprinting 50-60 meters forward every time to split the opponent a part, and often they don’t get the ball which makes it mentally tough to do again and again. 5-6 players are often used in this phase and everything is with top speed.

The 1-0 goal for Paraguay in WC 2010 against Slovakia is the perfect example. Two passes forward after the ball is won, a deep run, perfect timing in the run and the pass - and a goal just 6 seconds after Paraguay win the ball.

Maybe a slightly new Barcelona-style
It will be very interesting to analyze and follow Martino’s work in FC Barcelona. No doubt that he will keep most of his philosophy and adjust it together with the fantastic quality of the players. Maybe we will see a more direct Barcelona-team playing with less passes and with even more focus on high pressure.

One thing is sure. The players in Barcelona have to be top fit to work as hard as Martino demands, because it’s 100 % energy and dedication in every phase for all 90 minutes.