As Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate side went 2-0 up in the first half against Lanus in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-finals and led 3-0 on aggregate, it was easy to imagine the headlines and plaudits headed towards the 41-year-old manager. Rumored to be a candidate for the Atletico Madrid job should Diego Simeone leave, a second Copa Libertadores title would further raise his profile in Europe. Even as Lanus recovered a goal just before half, there was a sense that his side still had control. Instead, the second half followed a trend of improbable comebacks as Lanus scored three goals to overturn the deficit and head to their first tournament finals in club history. All Gallardo could do after the match was lament the use of VAR that awarded his opponents a penalty that led to the fourth and decisive goal.
A second Copa Libertadores title would have added what is already the most successful international reign at River Plate, especially at his young age. After winning the 11-12 championship in his first season as manager at Nacional in Uruguay, he replaced the 55-year-old Ramon Diaz at his former club in 2014. He began his tenure with a 24-match unbeaten streak while showcasing youth like Giovanni Simeone and Sebastian Driussi. He led River Plate to a Copa Sudamericana title his first season, the club’s first international cup since 1997. A Copa Libertadores title followed the next season with an emphatic 3-0 win over Tigres, featuring a goal from now Bayer Leverkusen striker Lucas Alario.
His path as River Plate manager is the rare combination of developing in the youth academy, playing for the senior side, and returning home as manager. He left Argentina for Monaco where he won the French League Footballer of the Year in 2000, came back to River Plate and captained a side that included Javier Mascherano and Martin Demichelis, went to PSG before a one-year detour as D.C. United’s first ever designated player before finishing his playing career at Nacional in Uruguay and managing the side the following year (in his short stint in the MLS, riddled with a hernia, he finished with just four goals in 15 appearances and was named one of the top 10 worst signings in league history).
Gallardo’s preferred form of controlling a match resembles modern themes of possession and pressing. Seven years ago, Jonathan Wilson wrote about River Plate being held back by romantic views of the game, but Gallardo is firmly on the cutting edge. Influenced by Marcelo Bielsa, he’s expressed his desire for his sides to be the protagonists of a match. Gallardo relies on a 4-4-2 formation highlighted by the quality of his two strikes, but there is an underlying philosophy regardless of the formation. The dog wags the tail.
For tactical obsessiveness and loyalty to pressing, he’s drawn comparisons to Pep Guardiola. He’s spoken of his admiration in which the Manchester City manager emphasize the mental aspects of the game over physicality. He hired a neuroscientist at River Plate to help with visualization training, saying “players who think better, more quickly, make the difference.”
Perhaps the most important variable of managing in Argentina is an ability to shift on the fly with important players bought and sold in both transfer windows. He’s displayed an eye for mixing value signings with the core of a vaunted youth academy focused on interchanging play in small areas that’s produced the likes of Javier Mascherano and Pablo Aimar. Since he took over in 2014, he’s overseen defenders, midfielders and strikers ranging from Ramiro Funes Mori, Matias Kranevitter, Giovanni Simeone, Lucas Alario and Sebastian Driussi move to Europe for over $77 million. Gallardo is set to be the next European great export from the club.
The impact of Argentine managers on the continent is immediate. Of course, there’s Jorge Sampaoli digging his country out of World Cup qualification purgatory. Then there’s Ricardo Gareca leading Peru for a chance to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1982. Jose Pekerman took Colombia to their second consecutive World Cup after leading the side into the knockout rounds in 2014.
One could argue they’ve made an even larger impact in Europe. Before managing Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone won the league with both San Lorenzo and River Plate in 2006 and 2008. Sevilla manager Eduardo Berizzo’s path took him through a season at Estudiantes and three seasons in Chile before making the leap to Spain. Although he bypassed the Argentine domestic league as a manager, Mauricio Pochettino was scouted by Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys and counts himself a disciple of his pressing philosophy. All three managers and Sampaoli have created a framework for Gallardo and other South American managers to follow in making a move to Spain.
What a side accomplishes without the ball is as essential as what they do with it in whether a manager succeeds in today’s European game. While Sampaoli hones this aspect in the national team, this phase is a strength for Argentine managers whether in the Bielsa brand of pressing as seen in Pochettino and Gallardo, or Simeone’s two banks of four defending. Here, Gallardo moves with the match. River Plate initially lined up in a 4-3-3 shape in defense to start the second leg against Lanus, matching each attacker against their opponent’s backline. They shifted to a 4-1-4-1 as they took a 2-0 lead, then to a traditional 4-4-2 as they desperately chased the game. As for losing four goal leads in a semifinals, perhaps one day there’ll be a level headed, tactical explanation.
After winning Copa Libertadores in 2015, Gallardo’s side represented South America against Barcelona in the FIFA World Club Championship finals. With a fraction of the budget of their opponents, River Plate pressed Mascherano and Gerard Pique but were countered by Barcelona manager Luis Enrique’s own style of pressing. The Spanish side’s second goal summed up the difference in quality, with Barcelona winning the ball in their own half and Sergio Busquets playing a ball over the top to Luis Suarez who easily outran River Plate’s high press. The goal to mark Mascherano out of the match was poignant considering they were teammates a decade earlier, and rumors of Gallardo’s future mimic the conundrum of Argentine talent developed domestically then exported in their prime. The next time Gallardo manages against Barcelona will be on a fairer financial playing field, on a European stage.