One thousand postcards from Montevideo: The story of Marcelo Gallardo’s first job as manager

All legends are born somewhere. By their very nature, they’re carried along by the people who hold them close to their hearts; growing as they jump from person to person, changing, evolving, becoming ever larger, ever stronger, until the deeds from where they began end up seeming almost a small part of a much grander whole. All legends, however, are born somewhere. For Marcelo Gallardo that place was some 200 kilometres away from the place he would call his footballing home.

Where it all began

A Uruguayan Muñeco

Few could argue that Gallardo has risen to become the best manager in South America, reviving a side that had lied largely dormant in the international stage since the early 2000s and in the process restoring the fanaticos millonarios pride in successive triumphs vs Superclásico rivals Boca Juniors. After River Plate’s darkest hour, the Gallardo era has been like a blindingly bright light, not only because of it’s extraordinary success, but also due to the manager’s capacity to learn, adapt, and improve.

With 11 titles in 6 years, Gallardo has become the most successful manager in River Plate’s history, 2 more than Ramón Díaz.

“Gallardo’s greatest virtue is the sensation he gives of being an honest person”, said a former player of his, “When a coach lies, you can tell. When he’s straightforward, you can tell. The players can see that”. That player, however, was not part of one of El Muñeco’s great River Plate teams, but rather former Inter Milan and Uruguay star Álvaro Recoba, who Gallardo managed in his first ever job as a coach. It seems then the package was there from the beginning.

The story of the Argentinian’s stint at Nacional begins some time before he was announced as Nacional manager, when he was a player at the Tricolor. Throughout a 6 month period on the sidelines due to an unlucky injury to the patellar ligament (during which he offered his salary back to the Nacional board) he became a reference for the club’s youngsters, as his display of professionalism in the recovery earned him the respect of the squad. “He taught me a lot inside the pitch, I had a lot of conversations with him”, says former Nacional youngster and current Orlando City player Mauricio Pereyra, “You could tell he was a manager inside on the field”.

A special opportunity

On Gallardo’s return, he quickly turned into a key piece for Juan Ramón Carrasco’s side after the title seemed to be slipping away. After that, Nacional never lost a match and was crowned that season, subsequently which Gallardo retired. His plan was to spend a few years at home, studying, travelling and enjoying his family and friends. That changed when he received a visit from Daniel Enríquez, a member of Nacional’s 1980 Libertadores and Intercontinental winning side and then sporting director of the club. The board had sacked Carrasco and wanted Gallardo as his replacement.

Even after the title win, Juan Ramón Carrasco’s stint at Nacional was uninspiring. The board sought to change that, appointing the player that had spurred that team back to life, Marcelo Gallardo.

They saw in him a very serious and capable man, who had earned the respect of the squad and the love of the fans. “You were with us, and you know what I am about to offer you”, Enríquez recalls saying to convince Gallardo, “It will be good for your career. Not every day an offer to manage Nacional will come up. You know we have a solid base, you won’t have to rebuild the team”.

Gallardo accepted, becoming Nacional manager, being introduced to the public on July 4th 2011. “The idea is to give the fans something of what thought out history has represented them: good football”, he said, “Great players have been here and you have to respect that and work accordingly”.

El Muñeco and el Chino

The decision to hire Gallardo was a risky one. The press and the public weren’t exactly on the same page as the board when it came to the Argentinian and things didn’t improve as the first signing of the season was announced: Álvaro “el Chino” Recoba. The former Uruguay international signed after a bittersweet year at youth club Danubio, looking for a much better ending to his illustrious career. At 36, however, there were doubts about his ability to perform.

Gallardo’s (and Recoba’s) debut came at a 3-3 draw with River Plate de Montevideo, and whereas a 75th minute goal to put Nacional ahead 3-2 dispelled some doubts over the Uruguayan, it wasn’t the best start for the rookie manager. It was a sign of things to come; after six matches, Nacional was in shaky form, with 4 draws and 2 wins. The darkest hour came after a defeat at the hands of last placed Bella Vista. Even being the first of the season, it brought serious doubts about Gallardo’s continuity at the helm of Nacional.

Recoba had arrived at Nacional as Gallardo’s replacement, a seasoned veteran to guide the team and inspire the youngsters. His fitness, however, had to be carefully managed.

“He who falls and doesn’t get back up just doesn’t want to. I want to get back up”, said Gallardo at the press conference after the match. The press wasn’t so sure he could, neither did the board, from whom Enríquez was getting angry messages. At half time of the Bella Vista defeat, he got a text asking him to “fire that porteño“. However, he stuck with his man; “I was responsible for his job”, he says, “And I defended him cause I saw how he worked, how his players respected him. Everyone did, and everyone told me what a fantastic job he was doing. In my opinion that always leads to success”.

However, Enríquez was also aware that the rookie manager needed some help. Unwilling to listen to Gallardo’s protests, he had a go at the players. Team leaders Recoba and Alexander “Cacique” Medina took the fall, but they wanted to, and had asked to do so. “The idea was that when the youngsters saw the big names under the hairdryer treatment, they’d look down and get to work”, says Enríquez. Luckily for Gallardo, he had inherited a mature squad willing to take one on the chin and carry on; the rant had the desired effect and Nacional won 7 of the remaining 8 matches, overcoming Peñarol with 3 matches remaining in a do or die Superclásico Uruguayo, and won the Apertura 2011.

A coaching crash course

Having also won the Overall Table, Nacional would go on to win the Campeonato Uruguayo in a Play Off vs the Clausura 2012 winners, Defensor Sporting. That match, a 1-0 win with a Recoba goal, would mark the end of the Gallardo era at Nacional. He himself would later admit that it was like an accelerated course of what he’d experience later on the bench.

The 2012 Campeonato Uruguayo was the first title of Gallardo’s career, and one won over a stint where he faced all the hardships and the glory of the trade of a professional football manager.

Some of his most famous traits, however, were there from the beginning. Once he noticed Recoba wasn’t himself, and discovered the 36yo wanted a bit more playing time. Gallardo agreed and sent him out on the starting eleven the following match. When Recoba had to be substituted after the first half with a strained muscle, he understood why Gallardo had been using him as a key substitute. Those man and squad management skills where instinctive to him. “Gallardo’s secrets are his professionalism, his determination, his intelligence and his leadership qualities”, says Enríquez.

Gallardo left Nacional with a record of 39 official matches managed, with 23 wins, 7 draws and 9 losses, for a 65% effectiveness. His sole score to settle was, ironically, the international competitions, however his time at the helm of the tricolor can be viewed as a success, not just because of the Campeonato Uruguayo title but also the development of Gonzalo Bueno, Renato César and Alexis Rolín, and the debuts of Darwin Torres and Gonzalo Vega.

The aftermath

After leaving Nacional, Gallardo used his time learning, exploring Europe to watch how the game’s elite worked. Thanks to Mario Yepes, who he knew from his time at PSG, he witnessed Allegri’s practice sessions at Milan. Later that year, he went to see then Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino work, and met with Mascherano and Messi. He also went to Madrid, to talk with Diego Simeone and his former River Plate teammate Germán Burgos.

After his stint with the Rouge et Blanc, with whom he won a Ligue 1, a Supercup and a Coupe de la Ligue, Gallardo had the contacts to watch how current boss Ranieri worked with his squad.

The following year, in April 2014, he travelled to Manchester with his assistants Matías Biscay and Hernán Buján and watched a draw between United and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. He also witnessed Pellegrini’s work at City, where he had a conversation with the chilean. Later, he went to France, and had greater access to the installations of AS Monaco (where he played between ’99 and ’03) to look at Claudio Ranieri’s work at the club. Little more than a month later, he was signed as River Plate’s manager.

The tactics

He who knows himself…

One of the trademarks of Gallardo’s time at Nacional was nearly constant rotation and experimentation. Sometimes as a result of injuries and suspensions, sometimes out of the necessity of a rookie manager to find his feet, there was a ceaseless tinkering with the team, in order to find the formula that yielded the greatest results.

Throughout his sole season at Nacional, Gallardo mostly rotated between a very defensive 4-4-2 and an offensive 4-3-3, both of which changed shape slightly when Recoba was subbed on to accommodate the midfield maestro. The 4-3-3 shifted to a 4-2-3-1 with a holding midfielder and a ball-carrier a la Ignacio Fernández. The 4-4-2, on the other hand, morphed into a 4-3-1-2 not too dissimilar to the 4-1-3-2 described by FM Grasshopper in his excellent piece on Gallardo’s River. Since that fantastic article covers many of the Gallardoball 4-4-2-ish, and since the 4-3-3 was the one I found the most footage on, that’s the tactic I’ll be looking into.

The Gallardo Nacional 4-3-3

When deployed in that shape, Nacional shared some characteristics with the modern 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 that so many teams around the world use. A holding midfielder was flanked by two, more mobile centre-mids, often called interiores in spanish, while up top the sole striker would be a reference for the build up.

The wingers, depending on who was on each wing, looked to stretch play and offer avenues for progressing the ball. Viudez, almost a staple on the right, ran wide and aggressively, while on the left one of Bueno, Sánchez or Porta offered a more associative option.

1) The usual lineup for a 4-3-3 under Gallardo. 2) Boghossian uses his height advantage to win the ball while Cabrera attacks the space generated, much like Recoba did. 3) Cabrera runs into space, exploiting the gaps in the defense. 4) The intense pressing of Gallardo’s Nacional; not very orderly but effective.

As per the limitations of the squad, not much build-up from the back was done, often looking for a long ball to take advantage of either Medina, Porta or particularly Boghossian height and strenght. Neither full-back was particularly imaginative nor adventurous, instead offering a solid back 4 to support the greater creativity of the front three and Recoba.

The team also carried forwards an intense if sometimes disorganized press, more akin to the garra charrúa, the bravery of Uruguayan teams, than to any kind of modern gegenpress. It showed, however, the early signs of Gallardo’s later tactical identity, with much work yet to be done.

Taking it into FM

Emulating Gallardo’s Nacional on Football Manager proved a tricky task, or at least more difficult than the regular challenge of taking a real-life style into the game. The reason being that with so many shifts and changes on the team, it was hard to decide what to take as a key feature and what was a reaction to the opposition, something Gallardo is quite skilled at.

In the end I went for this:

As you can see, it’s not an overly complicated approach. The back 4 is a rather basic set-up. The right back will probably be more adventurous than Núñez ever was, but I felt it was necessary for the overall balance of the tactic.

The midfield trio features the defensive mid/inside runners combo, with that AP-A providing dangerous movement into the halfspaces as the winger stretches the opposition. I wasn’t sure whether to include a HB or an Anchorman as Piriz did fall quite alongside the CBs, but eventually I chose to go for the less technical role.

Up front I settled for a Winger/TM/Inverted Winger combo that was featured when Richard Porta was used on the left. Had I gone for the Bueno/Medina/Viudez trio, it’d probably have been a Poacher surrounded by two wingers, but hey…I wanted to keep it interesting.

The instructions look to enhance our individual talents whilst guarding the defence. Typical South American long clearances by the goalkeeper will give plenty of opportunity for 50/50 balls falling at the feet of our skilled players, whilst the long game looks to exploit the TMs physicality.

Does it work?

Very much so. I chose Deportivo Alavés as a test team since it featured some of the key aspects I was looking for without risking the tactic’s weaknesses being masked (too much) by individual skill. Said key players were a tall and physical Target Man in Joselu and a skilled midfielder a la Recoba in Camarasa. Other options like Roma (because of Dzeko and Zaniolo) could have proven a bit too overpowered.

Joselu doing his work as the Target Man, facilitating the team’s play out. Look at Mendez exploiting the space left behind as he forces the defender to follow him.

Once I had the tactic nailed down I went into the season to test it, and was surprised by the results. The squad showed excellent defensive solidity, with 3 of the 6 goals conceded in official competitions being the result of penalties and set pieces. More so, the goals tally was very evenly distributed as everyone on the attacking unit benefitted of the tactic’s use of Joselu as a TM.

Camarasa turns and attacks the box in Recoba style. He had 2 goals and 3 assists by the end of the trial run, with great performances against Atlético Madrid and Real Betis.

After 13 matches (6 friendlies, 7 league matches), Alaves was sitting in 6th, just 2 points off 4th place and still undefeated. Major highlights were a 2-0 win over Atlético, a 2-1 win vs Betis at Sevilla and a 1-1 draw in the 89th minute vs Real Sociedad. Not bad for a team expected to finish in 15th.

In conclusion

Gallardo’s Nacional wasn’t the Argentinian’s best side, not by a long shot, nor was it a particularly special side for Nacional. It was, however, the beginning of the legend. After his current River spell ends, Gallardo will most likely move to an European club. Whilst successful South American managers have been a bit hit and miss over the years at the old continent (for every Simeone or Bielsa there has been a Bianchi or a Bilardo), whatever happens his stature within the South American game will remain impressive. All of that began, almost ten years ago, in Montevideo.

As always, thanks for reading.

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