Mexico’s search for a full-time manager has seemingly ended in Atlanta, with multiple reports stating Atlanta United manager Tata Martino is set to become the El Tri boss as soon as the Major League Soccer team’s season is done.
Martino’s professional playing career was mostly with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. From 1980 until 1995, Martino played almost 400 games, with short stints with Tenerife in Brazil and Lanús in Buenos Aires interspersed in the early 1990’s. Jamie Ralph of the unofficial Newell’s Old Boys - English twitter account remember Martino during his playing days in Argentina, telling FMF State of Mind “Tata was a creative midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa for NOB in the 90’s, so while he is not the second coming of El Loco, he has taken many of his ideas and developed them into his own system.”
After winding up his playing career with Barcelona SC in Ecuador, Martino took a series of coaching jobs before getting his first international job managing Paraguay from 2007 to 2011. In 2012 he’d return to Rosario to manage Newell’s, who had fallen on hard times. Ralph went on to say “In late 2011, he was appointed as Head Coach at NOB and having previously finished 18th, he brought them the title in 2013 - their 6th title and first since 2004. His team scored 40 goals in 18 matches, more than any other team.”
Martino would leave Newell’s to go to Spain to coach Barcelona in 2013. Gill Clark of Barca Blaugranes told FMF State of Mind reminded us that Martino “only managed one season before leaving. He came in at a tough time with Tito Vilanova having to stand down because of his health, and Tata arrived and won nothing – we lost the league to Atletico on the last day of the season & were beaten by Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. Having said that the team did get off to a brilliant start,” as the club were undefeated going into November under Martino’s guidance.
But it wouldn’t last. “Probably what really did for him,” Clark continued “was the style of play. It was different, the fans didn’t like it and it wasn’t successful. Rather than the possession-based play they’re known for, under Tata they often let the opponents have the ball and tried to hit them on the counter. They also played some pretty direct stuff at times which a lot of supporters hate. He also had a bit of bad luck with injuries over the season. Lionel Messi and Carles Puyol were both out for periods and Victor Valdes missed the end of the season after doing his ACL.”
Rob Usry of Atlanta United blog Dirty South Soccer, has covered Martino since he became Atlanta’s first (and so far only) manager in 2016. Usry told FMF State of Mind ”Atlanta United and Tata Martino were a perfect match. The club’s leadership set a goal of implementing an attacking and exciting style and Martino fulfilled that with ease. The team became the most attack-minded in MLS from the outset with their high pressing style of play.”
Martino had learned much from his old coach. “Like Bielsa,” Ralph said, Tata “favoured a high-intensity, attacking game characterised by pressing, especially when it comes to forcing opponent teams into mistakes in their own half (he used zonal marking, instead of man).” He wasn’t a clone of his mentor however. “Unlike Bielsa, he used a 4-3-3 formation with the DM position a focal point (Diego Mateo). They kept the ball on the ground with sharp accurate passing and full-backs who were accustomed to speeding up both wings. Newell’s used a high-line (with offside trap) which helped keep teams in their own half, again, forcing them into an error allowing Newell’s to quickly break for goal.“
Martino hasn’t remained stuck to a particular system since leaving Newell’s. Usry said “The interesting and most surprising thing about Martino’s tenure in Atlanta has been his ability and willingness to adapt to his roster and competition.” Usry continued “It soon became apparent that the all-out press would only get so far in MLS, especially on the road. Eventually he evolved a more pragmatic side and the team began getting much-needed results on the road. That willingness to adapt earned the team a playoff spot (in 2017). That adaptability has continued into year two with a more possession oriented style of play, whether it’s playing a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2, that has led to the team being one of the best in the league.”
Like most good managers, Martino isn’t just a tactician. “In terms of player development,” Ralph said “he was able to change the fortunes of players who were seen as ‘finished’. For example, both Maxi Rodriguez and Gabriel Heinze were convinced to return to Newell’s and were key to the title win. He favours a blend of experienced players and young talents. He brought back Ignacio Scocco, who had been drifting around leagues in Europe and the Middle East and his goals were vital to the campaign. He was able to get the most of out players, without doubt.”
Ralph added “The one thing that is important to note, especially in the case of Mexico, is that he is seen as a coach who adapts to situations rather than someone who is a disciple of one system (as mentor Marcelo Bielsa is). I can’t really comment on his time at Paraguay, prior to Newell’s, but it’s known he favoured a defensive game there, very different to his system at Newell’s.”
The ability to adapt and change is a valuable trait in a manager, however too much of a good thing can ruin it. “He also wasn’t afraid of rotating which didn’t seem to go down well with some of the players like Xavi and Iniesta,” Clark said. “I remember Iniesta saying he was surprised to be taken off when Barcelona went out of the Champions League against Atletico - which is not really like him, so he must’ve been annoyed. He also took Xavi out and messed around with the midfield at times so yeah might be an issue.”
Former Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio was criticized for his rotaciones, and while that may have been part of his downfall at Barcelona he has not continued on that path in Atlanta. I asked Usry about this being an issue in Atlanta and he said “Not at all. If everyone’s fit he usually sticks with what works. However recently we’ve gotten too healthy and he hasn’t really decided on a first choice team yet. He’s usually consistent when he can be.”
Clark pointed out that Martino’s lineup with Newell’s Old Boys was rather static, with “10 players play(ing) in nearly 78% of the games.”
Another area of concern with Martino is his ability to deal with a hostile press. About this, Clark said “I think he found it tough to deal with the press at Barcelona and he really struggled to cope with the constant media scrutiny that surrounds the club.” Clark concedes that “the job may just have been too big for him, (and) the pressure certainly got to him. But then it was a bonkers season. The club was charged over the Neymar transfer, the president Sandro Rosell resigned, et cetera.”
Usry built on this, saying “One of the main reasons Tata came to Atlanta and MLS was to escape the massive pressure that comes with managing the likes of Argentina and Barcelona. He’s been nothing but a treat when interacting with the media. It will be really interesting to see how he handles the increased scrutiny that comes with the El Tri position.”
A source in Argentina said however ”Tata’s relationship with the media at Newell’s was good. He has a lot of experience dealing with the press and does not feel pressured by journalists. Barcelona and Argentina are two teams that come under huge scrutiny from the media so as a former manager of both, he knows how to manage expectations from the press.”
If Martino becomes the next Mexico manager, navigating the press and the ghosts of managers past. He’ll need to draw on all of that experience to lead El Tri on its path to the 2022 World Cup.