There is life at River Plate after Marcelo Gallardo. After an epic spell in charge of the Buenos Aires giants, Gallardo stepped down at the end of the year, with a statue at the stadium to remind fans of his contribution.
But even before Gallardo has fixed himself up with a new job, River have all but made sure of the Argentine league title. With three rounds to go they lead nearest challengers Talleres by nine points, and have a substantial advantage in goal difference. They have surely done enough already. But a single point will make sure — or preferably three against Estudiantes in front of their own fans on Saturday — will get the party started and ensure a highly promising start to the senior coaching career of Martin Demichelis.
At the start of the century Demichelis began his playing career with River, mostly operating in front of the defence. Thereafter he operated at centre-back for Bayern Munich, Malaga and Manchester City — and the experience acquired in three major European leagues was being stored away for the next stage in his life.
He made the transition from player to assistant coach at Malaga, took charge of youth teams at Bayern and from the start of this year he took his first senior solo flight with River. He had a hard act to follow. It cannot have been easy stepping into Gallardo’s shoes.
But Demichelis has made it all look natural. He has quickly stamped his own identity on the team. Quick and slick in possession, swift to put pressure on the opposition when they lose the ball, they have been a delight to watch over the past few months. Problems have emerged, though, in the Copa Libertadores. River eventually booked their place in the knock out phase, but they made hard work of it. Only four other sides in the field of 32 conceded more goals. Once River’s initial pressing line was breached then defensive deficiencies, both collective and individual, were exposed.
There is plenty for Demichelis to think about as he prepares for the second round, where early next month River take on Internacional of Brazil. But this kind of problem solving is an important part of a fledgling coaching career. Cutting an immaculately tailored figure on the touchline, he will attempt to bring his intelligence and experience to bear in the search for extra defensive solidity. And the solution will be interesting — especially for those who are following what could be a very interesting trajectory. Demichelis is clearly hungry and motivated, keen to make a name for himself as a coach.
It is strange how many recently retired high-profile Argentine players are willing to take on the challenge. There is Lionel Scaloni, of course, in charge of the national team, while Javier Mascherano has been in charge of the Under-20s. Fernando Gago is at Racing, Gabriel Milito is at Argentinos Juniors, Gaby Heinze at Newell’s Old Boys, Kily Gonzalez at Union Santa Fe. Even Carlos Tevez recently had a go at Rosario Central.
These are all World Cup players. Presumably there is no pressing financial reason for them to take up coaching. There are plenty of less stressful ways to earn money. But they want to do it. They are anxious to put themselves on the line and pin that team sheet to the dressing room door.
This is a very Argentine phenomenon. It does not happen to anything like the same extent in neighbouring Brazil, for example — where Gremio’s Renato Portaluppi is the only first-division coach to have played for his national team. Some of this can be explained by the force of tradition. Football was introduced into South America — and especially the Southern Cone — but the British, but more than anyone else it was Argentines who spread the game further north up the continent. The lingering importance of Argentina’s role can quickly be seen with a brief look at the continent’s national teams.
Of the ten nations, seven are coached by an Argentine. Brazil is an obvious exception. But the other two, Ecuador and Peru, until recently were coached with considerable success by Argentines. The importance of the 1958 World Cup is also crucial. Argentina spent most of the decade in glorious isolation, basking in a spirit of self congratulation which was a hangover from the game’s golden age in the 1940s. They stayed away from the World Cups of 1950 and ’54, and went into ’58 swaggering with self confidence — until their balloon was punctured by a 6-1 loss to Czechoslovakia. The brutal truth was they had fallen off the pace. It was an important lesson. Talent was not enough. There was a need for organisation. This helped foster a culture of intense tactical debate.
Not all of the results have been easy on the eye, but the back and forth of tactical ideas has created an environment where players have always been thinking about the collective side of the game and make a comfortable transition into coaching. Demichelis is the latest in the line, and he is surely just days away from landing his first league title. Watch this career — it could be going places.
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