Startup Atlanta United hires a big-time coach


When you’ve taken Newell’s Old Boys to La Bombonera (Spanish for “chocolate box”) to face Boca Juniors; when you’ve managed Paraguay in a World Cup quarterfinal against champion-to-be Spain; when you’ve ventured into the Bernabeu with Barcelona for an El Clasico against Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid; when you’ve seen your Argentina side go to penalties against Chile two years running in the Copa America final …

When you’ve done all that — and Gerardo “Tata” Martino has — you won’t be nettled when Arthur Blank makes his first ostentatious appearance on your touchline. You’ve had tougher bosses, been in tougher leagues, worked bigger games. A goodly segment of your new constituency mightn’t know this, but you’re a big deal.

Martino has managed Barca, the best club side of the era, and Lionel Messi, no worse than the third-best player ever. He was charged with the perilous task of managing the national team of his native Argentina, one of five countries to win multiple World Cups. Unless Atlanta United FC can persuade Messi to join his old coach, Tata is the best hire this nascent franchise is apt to make.

It’s good because of his background — in the soccer world, which is essentially the entire world, Tata has gravitas — but also because of his tactics. At Newell’s of Rosario, Martino was an attacking central midfielder for Marcelo Bielsa, whose most famous alignment was 3-3-3-1. I wrote that formation on my notepad Wednesday and showed it to Martino, asking, “Is this yours?” He took my pen and wrote “4-3-3,” which is Bielsa with a tweak.

(Martino doesn’t speak much English but has promised he’ll learn by January, when At-U convenes for training. As it happens, Mrs. Martino is an English teacher.)

Jonathan Wilson, the most erudite soccer analyst writing in English, has written: “Since the back four spread from Brazil in the late 1950s and early ’60s, no South American has had such an influence on how the world played as Bielsa.” Google “Bielsa coaching tree” and you’ll find Martino lumped with Mauricio Pochettino, once a Newell’s teammate and now of Tottenham Hotspur, and even Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who’s the best in the world.

Because Spain and Barcelona won a slew of championships with mostly the same men playing a style known as “tiki-taka” — zillions of short passes — and because Guardiola rose to prominence managing Barca, he’s often seen as a “tiki-taka” manager. He’s not. He’s a High Press guy, making him a Bielsa acolyte. It’s akin to a basketball press: A team tries to take the ball from an opponent in its own half and fast-break like crazy.

“Fast and fluid” is how At-U President Darren Eales spoke of Martino’s style of football, and that figures to play well in this market. Beyond this market, it already has.

It’s true that Martino’s Argentina never won the Copa America — Messi missed a penalty this July — and his season at Barca ended with Atletico Madrid winning La Liga and ousting his team in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. (Under the Argentine Diego Simeone, Atletico employs the soak-up-pressure-and-counter-attack method, the counterpoint to High Press.) But when last did a man of such eminence cast his lot with an expansion team? Casey Stengel with the 1962 Mets?

OK, so that didn’t go so well. This should fare better. There’s a difference between finishing second and having Marv Throneberry play first base.

There was an international feel to Wednesday’s introductory briefing, with Eales pronouncing the word “patently” in his British way — rhyming it with “blatantly” — and Martino making most of his remarks in Spanish. The first question he took in that language: How’d you lose so much weight?

“Absoluto secreto,” Martino said, laughing. Translation not needed.


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