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Digging Deeper: Tata Martino bleeds red and black

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Hopefully those colors will represent Newell’s Old Boys AND Atlanta in Tata’s heart

“A mí me corre sangre roja y negra”
To me, my blood runs red and black”

Luckily for Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United has the red and black in common with his beloved Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. Much has been made of Martino’s short stint managing Newell’s from 2012-2013 where he won a league championship, however Martino’s journey began there in the youth academy at ten years old in 1972.

He made his debut in the Argentine first division at 17-years-old in 1980. Martino played over 500 games for Newell’s during his 16 year professional career that also saw him play in Spain, Chile, and Ecuador. He was named Newell’s all-time greatest player in a poll of the club’s supporters and one of the stands in their stadium is named after him.

It is said often that Martino was the idol of Jorge Messi, Lionel’s father.

As a player, Martino was a creative midfielder known for not running much. It was not until Marcelo Bielsa took the reins as the manager of Newell’s that Martino truly reached his peak as a player. He became a complete player under Bielsa, which sparked a great deal more in the years to come. His success under Bielsa led to a move to Spain and his only appearance with the Argentine national team in 1991.

Bielsa planted quite a few seeds during his time at Newell’s, it was the beginning of his coaching tree. Martino and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino are the most high profile members of those Newell’s teams who went into coaching, but there are others around the world. Another player who went on to coach from that group, Fernando Gamboa, said that Bielsa would assign the team homework. They had to study their upcoming opponents and prepare scouting reports. Tata was able to learn through his time with Bielsa, combining those lessons with his personal experience.

After his successful run with the Paraguayan national team from 2007-2011, Martino turned down a lucrative offer to manage Colombia’s national team to return to his treasured Newell’s. The club was near relegation and it was Martino who saved it from the brink of disaster.

Upon his return to Newell’s, Martino said, “Ahora he cumplido dos objetivos personales que me permitiría no ser más entrenador sin ningún tipo de problemas.” He had fulfilled two personal goals (managing in the World Cup and now managing Newell’s), and Martino said that he could now work without any problems.

Burdened with a small budget, he had to make the best of what he could pull together. Martino ended up with a mix of players from the Newell’s academy (like Maxi Urruti who is now at FC Dallas) and some veterans who no one else wanted. Maxi Rodriguez was one of those players who weren’t fancied at the time, but played a key role in implementing Martino’s system.

Ignacio Scocco is another one of those players returning to the club, like Rodriguez, to help save it. Never an out and out striker, Martino was able to utilize him in a way where he was top scorer in the league and earn a call-up to the Argentine national team.

This group came together to go from the edge of a relegation disaster to the pinnacle of winning a league championship. On top of his work getting Paraguay to a 2010 World Cup quarterfinal appearance and near upset of eventual champions Spain, it was his managerial time at Newell’s that propelled Martino to the heights of managing Barcelona and Argentina.

One of the biggest strengths of Martino is his ability to adapt to his surroundings and to his roster on hand. Paraguay played more defensive due to a lack of goal scorers, Newell’s pressed in a unique way to match his squad, while Barcelona built on the tiki-taka system already established and added other necessary elements that have now paid off for Luis Enrique.

At Newell’s, his small roster struggled late in the summer of 2013 while playing in the league and in Copa Libertadores. His pressing style, while bringing the team success, was wearing out his players. Martino’s pragmatism kicked in and he adjusted how the team trained and how they played to preserve the players’ energy levels. His changes helped the club win their sixth title and cement his legacy to the club’s supporters.

Martino once said, “I don't know if Argentina is ready to remember a team that does not win (a title), here you have to win." That intense pressure was felt at Barcelona as well, where his 21 match unbeaten streak to start the season was forgotten quickly when his Blaugranes did not win a major trophy. Two runners-up finishes at the Copa America with Argentina were seen as a failure. It is to be expected that the different sort of expectations in Atlanta were appealing after those two jobs.

One of those expectations is to help develop young talent and build a club atmosphere from scratch here in Atlanta. His background at Newell’s again comes into play. Newell’s Old Boys is a leader in youth development in Argentina, having won the most national youth tournaments and producing scores of players for the national team. Legends like Valdano, Batistuta, and Messi got their start at Newell’s.

Even the name of the club signifies the priority it has placed on developing young talent. The club was founded by Claudio Newell, who honored his father Isaac by calling it Newell’s Old Boys. Isaac founded the Anglo-Argentine Commercial School in Rosario, and Old Boys is a term to refer to graduates. Isaac’s passion for education is embedded into the club’s ethos, which today emerges in its commitment to developing young players.

Coming from a soccer home like Newell’s to build a new club in Atlanta, it is hoped that Tata Martino can call on these elements of his experience to add to his legacy. Martino brings a mix of soccer theory, pragmatism, and commitment to teaching to his new home. If we can look back in a few years to say that Martino has Atlanta United looking like Newell’s Old Boys, that should be considered a great compliment.

We hope that Martino’s blood runs red and black (and now gold) for years to come.