Profiling Alejandro Sabella, the Argentina Manager Who Rarely Receives Praise

Nick DorringtonSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 11, 2014

Argentina's head coach Alejandro Sabella gives his team directions from the sidelines during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and Belgium at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

Alejandro Sabella has a cut a comic figure on the sidelines throughout Argentina’s World Cup campaign.

Whether receiving a squirt of water from Ezequiel Lavezzi, falling over himself following a missed chance or wincing when two players collide, his reactions have made him an Internet star—GIFs and Vines trail in his wake.

But what about Sabella the coach; Sabella as the man who has led Argentina to their first World Cup final since 1990?

For years, Argentinian coaches have been classified as either “Bilardistas” or “Menottistas,” depending on their approach to the game.

The former group takes its name from Carlos Bilardo, the arch-pragmatist who led Argentina to World Cup success in 1986; the latter from his antithesis, Cesar Luis Menotti, the chain-smoking philosopher whose attacking football led the nation to World Cup glory in 1978.

Defensive-minded coaches are categorised as “Bilardistas,” while those of a more attacking bent are labelled “Menottistas.” Other schools exist—most notably the “Bielsistas,” who follow Marcelo Bielsa’s energetic, high-pressing model—but Argentinian football is largely defined by its two World Cup-winning coaches.

Sabella, who on Sunday will have the opportunity to become the third, definitely veers toward the “Bilardista” end of the scale.

As a player he won two league titles under Bilardo’s command at Estudiantes, and he later coached the same club to a league title and success in the 2009 Copa Libertadores.

Estudiantes conceded just twice in eight knockout-round ties, and six times in 14 matches overall, during their triumphant Libertadores campaign. His Argentina side have been similarly parsimonious and are yet to concede in the knockout stages of this World Cup.

Argentina played a more open brand of football during the qualifiers, but such an approach never really sat right with Sabella. As per the BBC’s Tim Vickery, when Argentina’s opponents counter-attacked, there were times when all Sabella could do was shut his eyes and pray, such was the lack of defensive cover.

The 3-5-2 formation in which Argentina began the World Cup against Bosnia and Herzegovina was further indication of Sabella’s circumspect nature. They were dreadfully poor in the first half of that match—despite going in ahead at the interval—and were much improved following a half-time formation change.

Sabella has since found the balance he craves in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, with the positioning of Lionel Messi dictating the exact alignment.

Sabella directs operations from the touchline.
Sabella directs operations from the touchline.Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press/Associated Press

The caution with which his sides play is mirrored by Sabella’s public remarks.

While Argentina’s supporters have repeatedly chanted a song that, as per Sid Lowe of The Guardian, asks Brazilians “how it feels to have daddy in your home,” Sabella has consistently played down expectations.

He did so again following his side’s semi-final victory over Netherlands, as per, making particular reference to Germany’s extra day of rest:

They haven’t played extra time and we’ve played two, and played one day after Germany. Germany is always a difficult hurdle to overcome.

We’ll see if it’s a minor issue, the fact we’ve played after and the Germany game was decided in the first 45 minutes, so they could ease off in the second half, whereas we had to spend all the effort, and every last drop of sweat to reach the World Cup final.

Were the same words to be uttered by another coach, the conclusion would probably be that they were engaging in mind games. But Sabella is a coach marked by three qualities: honesty, humility and loyalty.

For 15 years following his retirement as a player, Sabella served as a trusted lieutenant to his friend and former teammate Daniel Passarella. His time as Passarella’s assistant took in spells with the national teams of Argentina and Uruguay and club jobs in Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Mexico.

It was not until 2009 that he finally stepped out of Passarella’s shadow, and only then because Passarella had decided to end his coaching career. In an interview with Ole (in Spanish) in 2010, Sabella admitted that their friendship had prevented him from leaving Passarella’s side sooner.

Sabella takes a low-key approach to management, letting his players take credit for their successes. He plans meticulously and delivers clear and concise messages to his players.

When asked by Ole about his favoured player type, he stated that he prefers an intelligent hard worker over a technical player with little intelligence.

Argentina: A strong collective spirit.
Argentina: A strong collective spirit.Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press/Associated Press

The group dynamic is very important to Sabella. As per Sam Kelly of ESPN FC, part of the reason Sabella has consistently ignored calls to select Carlos Tevez is because of the potential harm his inclusion could have on squad harmony.

The togetherness of the Argentina squad was very much evident during the penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands.

Javier Mascherano's words of encouragement to goalkeeper Sergio Romero ahead of the shootout: “Today you’re going to become a hero,” as per Marca, were emblematic of a strong and determined group of players.

Sabella’s side have been far from spectacular en route to the final. They have quietly gone about their business, doing just enough to progress on each occasion. In this way, they are a manifestation of their coach: Understated, yet effective.

Argentina are one match away from a third World Cup crown. Win it and, whether he likes it or not, Sabella’s name will be elevated to a position alongside those of Bilardo and Menotti.

Who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll see a new generation of coaches with a new tag: “Sabellistas.”