Martino's turbulent tenure at Barcelona reaches a dignified end
MAY 18, 2014 9:26a ET
Gerardo Martino’s exit as Barcelona coach strangely fit with his underwhelming 10 months at the club -- it was dignified, respectful, but showed no sign of the strong personality or leadership style which are really required to be a successful manager at the Camp Nou club.
“I want to communicate that I have agreed with the club to end my time as Barcelona coach,” Martino said in the Camp Nou press room about an hour after his side had missed out on the La Liga title after drawing 1-1 against Atletico Madrid in a game they needed to win to take the trophy. “We did not achieve the objectives the club is used to, and has done year after year. We tried until the end, with a lot of humility, but we met a rival better than us.”
This idea of second-place, second choice was not new to Martino. The Argentine was not a unanimous choice to take over last July, when Tito Vilanova surprisingly had to step away from the club due to his deepening health problems. Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was thought to favor moving for Luis Enrique, even though the ex-blaugrana midfielder and former Barca B boss had just taken over at Celta Vigo. But then president Rosell took personal charge and used his own contacts in South America - including calling the president of Paraguay Horacio Cartes -- to bring Martino to the Camp Nou.
The deck was also stacked against the new boss right from the start. The team had ended the 2012-13 season looking exhausted and in need of strengthening, particularly in deep midfield and central defense. But instead Rosell and his directors pushed through an expensive move for Brazilian starlet Neymar.
That Neymar deal soon became even more controversial, with a court case launched into potential financial irregularities in the contracts, and Rosell surprising everyone by resigning in January. On the pitch Martino also had to deal with regular injuries. Messi and Neymar both missed large chunks of the season, while his best defender [Gerard Pique] and first team goalkeeper [Victor Valdes] were also absent when their team really needed them most through the final stages.
Meanwhile sniping continued -- from both fans and pundits -- that Martino just did not really understand the philosophy of the club. Devotees of the "tiki-taka" legacy handed down by previous coaches such as Johan Cruyff and Josep Guardiola were outraged when the new boss ordered his players to hit more long diagonal passes, and appeared not to trust fully in previous on-pitch marquee midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Much of the criticism was unfair -- such as when the Catalan press had a go at Martino’s Barca for losing the possession and passing statistics in a September game at Rayo Vallecano. Even though Barca won the game 4-0, and were then top of the table with a 100 percent record.
Martino did deserve some of the stick which came his way however -- particularly when the team began to struggle away from home after Christmas. Barca looked both tactically clueless and lacking in motivation during painful defeats at Real Sociedad, Valladolid and Granada over recent months. Most obvious was how Diego Simeone’s Atletico both out-thought and out-fought Martino’s Barca during the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. Most painful was how Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid outclassed their Catalan opponents during the Copa del Rey final defeat a few weeks later.
The writing was on the wall for Martino from that game. When Barca appeared to have thrown away their Liga chances by drawing 2-2 with Getafe a fortnight ago, the club appeared to immediately set up a public meeting between Zubizarreta and Luis Enrique the following day, so that fans could see they were already working towards next season’s plan. Recent weeks also brought increasing leaks from the dressing-room to the local media - including a particular cutting piece just last Thursday in El Pais which had senior players criticizing the methods of Martino and his assistants as outmoded.
But to his great credit the departing boss remained dignified and loyal right to the end, praising the fans, directors and players who had turned against him.
“It has been enormous pride for us to coach this club, we admired the players from outside, and then admired them from inside, and will keep doing so again in what will for sure be successful years for them,” he said in his farewell address. This was a nice sentiment - but not really the words of someone who had the force of personality to take on players -- such as Messi and Xavi -- who have underperformed badly through recent months.
While there has not yet been any official confirmation, Luis Enrique is now expected to be confirmed as the new coach early next week. The Asturian is a more abrasive character than Martino and unlike his predecessor will now have backing from both the board and the fans to oversee a proper shake-up in the Camp Nou dressing-room. He also knows the blaugrana faith inside-out, and comes with ready-made "morbo" rivalry with Madrid given how he left the Santiago Bernabeu club to join Barca when a player back in the mid-1990s.
Martino's one season at the Camp Nou is unlikely to remembered in any such emotional ways. He remains a nice guy, but this was the wrong job for him.