When it comes to Argentine managers, it always comes back to Marcelo Bielsa, doesn’t it?
Atlanta United’s newly appointed Manager, Gerardo "Tata" Martino, is yet another in what is now a long line of successful Bielsa-influenced managers around the world. But what does that mean? What is so magical about Bielsa’s philosophy or tactical style that is able to produce talented coaches like Martino, Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham), Jorge Sampaoli (Chile) and Eduardo Berizzo (Celta)?
I’m not going to dive too deep into Bielsa, because neither you or I will make it out alive. All you need to know is that Bielsa teaches an ultra-aggressive form of soccer that is fluid, fast in transition and exploits space through the width of the team shape.
Bielsa introduced the world to his unique 3-3-1-3 shape years ago. But as the sport has evolved over time, so have Bielsa’s tactical nuances. However, his philosophy will never evolve – play an entertaining brand of soccer that scores as many goals as possible. This is what inspires the coaches like Tata Martino who follow in his footsteps.
Every Bielsa "disciple" has their own take on how to best achieve this philosophy, and Martino is no different. In fact, I’d argue that Martino’s tactics are the most dissimilar to Bielsa’s of the coaches previously mentioned. Take a look at the basic shape of Newell’s Old Boys during Martino’s stint there during the 2012-13 season.
The thing that might seem the most surprising about the team shape you see here is that it’s pretty narrow. In a more traditional style, the wingers will stay as wide as possible, but Martino (and other Bielsians) prefer to play them closer to the striker so they can link up in the box.
Moving deeper, the midfield three operate the style of the game. I’d guess that one of those players will be his captain, or at least a veteran player he can trust. This trio is responsible for controlling the pace of the game and providing proper support to either the back line or the forwards when needed. They need to be tactically intelligent because they need to give the team it’s fluidity while remaining defensively sound.
The back four is much of what you’d see in a modern back line. Center backs that are comfortable moving the ball around the back, and athletic fullbacks who are defenders first, but also offer width high up the field when the team is in possession.
Here’s an adjusted team shape, with my personal interpretation of the roles. You can start to see where some of our current signings might fit into this scheme, but particularly with the strike partnership of Kenwyne Jones and Tito Villalba. Newell’s OB 12-13 season featured a tactic that was surprisingly direct. (Sidenote: The word "direct" is often associated with basic/ugly soccer, but that’s not what I mean. When I say "direct" I mean that the general buildup is fast and directly toward goal.) Of course, with Villalba’s speed and ability to beat defenders in 1v1 situations, he could surely fill in as the other winger who runs the wide channel.
The midfield three tends to be more reserved than overly aggressive going forward. The deepest of the three will likely drop between the CBs from time to time, especially when trying to play the ball out of the back. The "tempo" player will play relatively deep as well. The attacking midfielder will have license to go forward. He’s a player who will make late runs into the attack and stay around on the edge of the area when the ball goes into the box. At times, the shape will look more like a 4-2-3-1.
Now that we’ve described the general shape of the team and the specific roles, how does it actually work? I think the easiest way to illustrate the tactic is to compare it to a current, well known style. Obviously I’ve talked about Bielsa ad nausem in this piece, but interestingly, the tactic Martino implemented at Newell’s OB was most reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp’s current Liverpool side.
Klopp is famous for using a defensive style known as "counterpressing." At it’s core, this system is built around directness, and waiting for the most opportune time to take the ball. Bielsa would argue that a team needs to try to win the ball back as soon as possible after losing it (an idea Pep Guardiola takes to an extreme), but Klopp (and Martino) have shown that you can be MORE effective offensively if you are a bit more reserved and compact without the ball. Watch here as Newell’s allow San Lorenzen to build out of the back until they enter the middle 3rd of the pitch. Once the ball reaches a certain area, the press is triggered, and Newell’s is able to pounce on a sloppy backpass. It may seem lucky, but without the press by ALL of the front four, this goal doesn’t happen.
Attacks flourish when defenders are caught out of position. This can happen in two ways:
1. Team A’s fluidity and quick ball movement confuses Team B and they lose track of markers.
2. Team B wins the ball while Team A is trying to be creative, leaving Team A out of position.
At Newell’s Martino was largely a proponent of #2, which is more conducive to the framework of MLS. Not only does option #1 require a team full of highly-technical players, but it also requires more running, especially from the striker, specifically. Kenwyne Jones is on the wrong side of 30, so Martino would be wise to implement a system like he used at Newell’s to remain compact without the ball.
In a public release following his appointment, AUFC Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said of Martino, "Gerardo's teams have always been organized and have displayed a fast and fluid style that aligns with how we intend to play."