Barcelona may have won a 22nd Spanish title last season, but given the side’s implosion in the Champions League, the campaign was largely viewed as a failure in the Catalan capital where expectations—both results-based and stylistic—are as high as anywhere in Europe.
Shellacked to the tune of 7-0 over two legs by Bayern Munich, Barcelona’s close-passing "tiki-taka" style of football for once appeared predictable and unimaginative.
And, given the magnitude of their defeat, it was suggested the power base of the club game had shifted from Spain to Germany.
As recently as Thursday, former Bayern and Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was quoted as saying Barcelona’s best days were “over,” and while his remarks were likely to be premature, you could see where he was coming from in light of last spring’s Champions League semifinal.
Enter Gerardo Martino.
The well-travelled Argentine coach and former Newell’s Old Boys midfielder wasn’t exactly appointed Barcelona manager under the most comfortable of circumstances in July.
Outgoing boss Tito Vilanova had stepped aside to resume his cancer treatment, but with a coaching change forced upon them, the club has opted to go in a somewhat different direction.
Gerard Piqué to Gazzetta dello Sport—"We had in-house coaches, Pep then Tito, who promoted our tiki-taka style until we were enslaved by it"— Nik Postinger (@nikpostinger) September 12, 2013
Granted, Martino was never going to depart from the high-pressing 4-3-3 system used to such great effect by Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012, but what he has promised to introduce is an element of pragmatism that seemed absent at times under both Guardiola and Vilanova.
"We are going to play in a way which the players are most comfortable with," he told reporters following his La Liga debut—a 7-0 win over Levante.
"Obviously," he added, "I will put my own stamp on things—personal ideas that can help make the team more complete." (UEFA.com)
His comments echoed remarks he made shortly after his appointment at Camp Nou, when he stated that "every team, even Barcelona...can always improve." (CNN)
"We are going to try to recover certain things that we’ve seen when Barca have been at their best, and add a few ideas of our own," he said.
So far his approach has been a popular one and has earned rave reviews from at least two of his most high-profile players.
"Martino is a serious and hard-working coach who is close to his players," raved Xavi last month.
"Everything we do is consensual...The coach has tweaked tactical aspects and that makes us very comfortable." (Goal)
"We played the last few years with home-grown coaches—first Pep and then Tito—and maybe we ended up exasperating our style of play to the extent that we found ourselves slaves to that system," he said. (ESPNFC)
"Now that [Martino], who comes from outside the club, has arrived...he is showing us different options."
The defender added: "After many years our opponents obviously knew how we attacked, how we moved."
In the Gazzetta interview, Pique revealed Martino had begun encouraging more long passes from his players—a strategy designed, as the 26-year-old said, to "mix things up" and "give the players oxygen" from time to time.
"It’s far easier to create chances without having to build up right at the back, particularly against sides who close up a lot," he said.
A reinvigorated Barcelona is hardly good news for their opposition, both in La Liga and the Champions League.
And if Martino has his way, the Blaugrana will become even more comfortable with his varied, pragmatic tactics as the season progresses.
"We can be more intense," he told the club’s official website last month. "We can prolong our pressure and we can continue to look for alternatives when we go forward."
And in so doing add an unpredictable element to a setup that has been the envy of a continent for so long.