100 Days of Tata Martino: Barcelona Tactics, Tiki Taka, Possession, and El Clasico

David Ramos

In his first 100 days as coach, Gerardo Martino is trying to find a balance between old concepts and new concepts. First, we take a look at the tactical side of the Argentine manager.

Barcelona kept more possession than their opponents for 316 matches. That streak encompassed the entire reigns of Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, as well as some of Frank Rijkaard's time.

That number also includes 7 matches with Gerardo Martino, the current coach, in charge. But his eighth match, an away trip to Rayo Vallecano, ended the run. Barcelona finished the game with a "measly" 48%. They still won, 4-0.

Martino has been in charge for just over 100 days now at Barcelona, where he's made a big jump from his former home in the Argentine league coaching Newell's Old Boys.

He is not a former Barcelona player like Guardiola or Vilanova, nor a product of AFC Ajax, a team Barcelona shares a special link with, like Rijkaard. His blood is not Catalan, nor is his brain Dutch like Barca's spiritual forefathers.

Of the last 14 Barcelona managers, only 2 previous to Martino held neither Spanish nor Dutch citizenship. One, the Serb Radomir Antic, was only in charge for a few months.

He is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who shaped Guardiola.  He is famously from the same city as Lionel Messi. But that's really the extent of his lineage. If Guardiola sculpted Barcelona into his image; Martino fit his edges to Barca's pre-existing mold.

As a manager, Martino is adaptable. He knows and understands the importance of pressing and possession. But he's not an ideologue. Already, Vilanova was a bit more practical than Guardiola, who himself was just a tad less idealistic than Bielsa. Martino is the most willing to change of all.

His CV proves it. As manager of Paraguay, Martino played "ugly", defensive football, often in a reactive 4-4-2 formation. It's hard to picture Guardiola or Bielsa doing the same. But Martino got the results. And 4-0 away is another result he won't mind too much.

Martino has attempted to introduce "verticalidad" to the Barcelona template, a Bielsa trademark Guardiola didn't copy as feverishly. In practice, it amounts to directness in attack in contrast to the the "tiki taka" style, based around short, patient passing, that has defined FCB for years.

Why change a template that produced title after title? Last season, Barcelona endured a heavy defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and celebrated a brilliant La Liga title, taken in record form. It's this duality that is at the soul of Barcelona tactics at the moment.

"We exaggerated our style maybe until a point where we were slaves of it," Gerard Pique said. To some, this was heresy.

Pique tried to soften the blow the next day, saying his comments were taken out of context. "We had become very predictable. We cannot change our style of play -- it has been good for us, and we will always have it, although in recent years teams have known how we play."

Martino has stressed he's not there to bring change, rather help the players "rediscover" their winning ways. He insists the team should learn new options, but keep the old ones too.

So far, it's a little bit of a mixed bag still. The players are adjusting to the right moments of when to switch gears: when to slow the pace as they're used to and when to put the foot on the gas.

And yet Martino's results keep coming. He's yet to lose a game and won some silverware already.

The problem with Barcelona before has been one of familiarity. Opponents are no longer shocked to be starved of the ball, they expect it. They resist natural urges, instead they follow a tailored-made gameplan.

One such situation is how the goalkeeper plays the ball. Goalkeepers are used to booting the ball long, and opposition midfielders and forwards know to back off and challenge for the ball around midfield. It's pointless to press a defender a few yards from the goalkick if the ball will sail over his head.

Barcelona, more than any other team, insist on their goalkeepers playing short passes. The opposition is fully aware and will press the defenders, leaving fewer numbers in the middle of the pitch.

Now, Victor Valdes could attempt a longer pass and bypass the press, which would be an effective counter. That is exactly what Martino had him do against Rayo.

But the team is not set up that way. The midfielders are short and no one is used to playing, or receiving these types of passes much. Most of Valdes's long balls went to the other team - according to WhoScored, he was 1/21 in terms of accuracy.

However, if it can be fine-tuned, it would be a very effective tool. It would actually open up the short passing option again. Opposition players would think twice about squeezing up on the Barcelona defensive line, worried about a long vertical ball bypassing them.

Then the short pass would set up the long pass. It would keep the opponent off-balance, uneasy, unsure. It sounds like a perfect strategy, but will it be implemented successfully? That is a microcosm of where Martino's regime may rise or fall.

This is at least starting to happen. Against Real Madrid, Valdes played 17 long balls, with 3 finding their target. A rousing success, hardly, but an improvement. And if nothing else, it eased Madrid's early wave of pressure. Andres Iniesta did lose the ball once close to his own penalty box, but Valdes was there to save the one-on-one chance.

His biggest triumph as a Barcelona tactician, without a doubt, is that 2-1 win against Real Madrid. Real Madrid had enjoyed a good run of results in direct duels, even though in silverware they were barren last year.

Los Blancos effectively clogged the central zones in which Lionel Messi and Iniesta thrive. And once they got the ball, they blazed past Barcelona's defenders. As Barcelona became more and more obssessed with possession, Madrid became more obsessed with the best way to defeat the style.

Last season, Real Madrid were comfortable not having the ball. They relished the other team coming at them so they could break with pace on the counter. Too much, maybe. They became so good at not having the ball, they forgot how to play with it. Madrid, despite their sheer quality, look a little lost against extremely disciplined sides.

For El Clasico, Madrid's coach. Carlo Ancelotti played to his strengths. He selected Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Angel Di Maria in his front three. Pace, pace, and more pace. To defend the central zone, he picked a CB duo of Raphael Varane and Pepe, with Sergio Ramos in midfield. Strength, strength, strength.

Martino recognized this and again, it was about adaptability. He put Messi on the right wing to give him space, away from the dam Ancelotti set up, shifting Cesc Fabregas into the "false 9" spot. It was a bold move - Fabregas had received criticism for his performances in the center, and some had alleged that Messi would throw a fit if he was asked to play away from the center.

If Messi was unhappy, he did not show it. Rather, despite being limited in fitness, he fought for every ball - leading all players in tackles with five. It also happened to open up space on the left for Neymar, who scored the first goal.

On the other hand, Messi stationed deep on the right made Marcelo hold off, giving Dani Alves "only" Ronaldo to worry about. Martino flipped Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano's usual sides, putting the Argentine on the right side of the pitch to chase Ronaldo. The Portuguese star was mostly neutralized, though he came close once.

A report in the Spanish paper El Confidencial said that Ancelotti urged his Spanish players to use their contacts with Barcelona players via the national team to relay information about Martino's starting lineup. Regardless if the story is true, the lineup was in the media at least since the day before the match. But Ancelotti did not believe it or in any case did not adapt.

After going down, the Italian did finally react, bringing on Karim Benzema and Asier Illarramendi to revert to a more familiar formation. To Ancelotti's credit, Madrid was back on top in terms of the pattern of play after the switch.

Martino's substitutions were just as smart. First, he replaced the visibly tired Cesc Fabregas with Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez had been criticized for his lack of scoring before, but his stunning goal to double Barca's advantage silenced all critics.

Second, he brought on Alex Song - again, not a player who necessarily inspires confidence. But Song helped close up the shop, along with Pedro Rodriguez who came on very late, enough for Barca to endure and win the match 2-1.

Barcelona were superior, if not by a great margin. And Martino, the chameleon, made the difference.

Martino talks about rediscovering old concepts. Maybe one concept he wants the team to remember from the Guardiola golden years is more philosophical than tangible.

Guardiola's style of play became a myth as much as it became a fact, but he, himself, will always maintain he set up Barcelona a certain way only because it was most likely to produce a victory.

He was not somehow "above" playing a combative midfielder such as Seydou Keita in addition to Sergio Busquets, or preferring a tall, physical left-back like Eric Abidal. Nonethless, his style was revolutionary, yes, but that revolution was necessary because the old processes weren't working at the moment.

History will judge Martino's reign in terms of trophies won, but in his first 100 days, the complaint box is mostly empty. Inevitably, Martino will lose a match while in charge of Barca. But it hasn't happened yet.

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