Can Marcelo Gallardo take his success with River Plate to the highest levels of the European game?

Can Marcelo Gallardo take his success with River Plate to the highest levels of the European game?

“I can’t do any more than this, there is nothing more than this,” said Marcelo Gallardo in an intimate moment with his coaching staff during the on-field celebrations of River Plate’s epic victory over eternal rivals Boca Juniors, in the seemingly never-ending final of the Copa Libertadores in Madrid earlier this month.

Was it an emotional goodbye from the man nicknamed “Napoleon” by his adoring River fans, as much for his tactical brilliance as for his slight stature, before departing the club for a stab at glory at one of Europe’s big clubs?

According to Gallardo it wasn’t, reminding journalists in his post-match press conference that, only a year earlier, he had signed a contract with the club that runs until 2021. However, should Gallardo’s River follow up the Libertadores by usurping Real Madrid as world champions and claim the 10th trophy of a glorious four-year reign – a figure that puts him in the same category as the likes of Pep Guardiola – then surely his name will be in the mix when the annual post-season dance of the coaches begins in earnest next May.

Gallardo’s success is no overnight sensation. As cerebral and erudite a coach as he was a playmaker for Argentina, earning 44 caps between 1994 and 2003, his footballing CV is long and distinguished.

After making his debut as a teenager in the 1992/93 season, when he earned the nickname ‘Muñeco’ – Doll – from teammates because of his delicate frame, Gallardo became an idol of the River fans over three spells in which he won six Primera División titles and the 1996 Copa Libertadores.

In between those spells, Gallardo’s career took him to France, where he spent four years with Monaco, being honoured as the Ligue 1 Footballer of the Year for the 1999/2000 season, as well as a year with Paris Saint-Germain in 2007, before moving to DC United in Major League Soccer in 2008. Ultimately, Gallardo spent a valedictory 2010/11 season in Uruguay where he won the league before retiring as a player, maintaining an impressive record of winning a trophy with each club he represented.

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Gallardo’s first foray into coaching came just 10 days into his retirement, when he was offered the job of replacing Juan Ramón Carrasco – who had moved to Emelec in Ecuador – as coach of Nacional. Despite leading Nacional to the Uruguayan title at the first attempt in 2012, he surprisingly left Los Tricolores to spend with his family, who had remained in Buenos Aires whilst he was working on the other side of the Río de la Plata in Montevideo. 

It was a sabbatical that was to last two years, although, as he signalled in a 2014 interview with El Gráfico, “One day I will be coach of River.” It was a prophecy that soon came true when the call arrived that June for the 38-year-old to replace Ramón Díaz, who quit after leading River to the 2014 Clausura Championship. Gallardo’s impact was immediate, guiding the Buenos Aires giants to victory in the 2014 Copa Sudamericana final against Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, their first continental trophy in 17 years.

A year later, Gallardo trumped that achievement by leading River to their third Copa Libertadores title, and their first since he had played in the 1996-winning side, becoming the latest of a select band of seven men to have achieved the feat. Whilst the Primera División title eluded him, the trophies kept coming at a rate of knots, with River establishing a near monopoly over the Copa Argentina. They won it back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, and their reign was only ended in a semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat to Gimnasia, when minds were distracted by the impending Libertadores second leg in Madrid.

Gallardo is a coaching disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, whom he played under for the Argentina national team at the beginning of the 2000s, favouring a high-pressing, attacking style. He is a coach who feels the game in much the same way as he did as a player, acting on intuition and creating a close bond with his players.

His instinct to stick with Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martínez as his team’s playmaker after a difficult period following the player’s arrival from Huracán, when he was the target of the Monumental boo-boys, has been amply rewarded over the past two years, not least the nerves of steel shown by Martínez when scoring the last-minute penalty in Porto Alegre that earned River’s place in the Libertadores final. As River president Rodolfo D’Onofrio noted after the victory over Boca: “Gallardo not only knows football, he knows how to form excellent groups. It is not accidental that almost all of the champions of 2015 came to support the team [in Madrid].”

Indeed, Gallardo’s empathy with his players has seen him get into trouble, too. In that semi-final against Grêmio, he totally ignored the terms of his ban – the result of keeping his players 30 seconds too late for the second half in a previous tie – by attempting to disguise himself under a baseball cap from the watching press and enter the River dressing room to give his team a motivational half-time team talk. Afterwards he said: “I took the decision because I thought the players needed it and I needed it.” Unrepentant, he continued: “I broke a rule, I recognise it and take responsibility.” The rest, as they say, is history, although it cost him a hefty fine and a ban from the River bench for both legs of the final. 

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It is not just the River players who have a close relationship with Gallardo; he is adored by the club’s fans. Last year, after River lost the first leg of their Copa Libertadores quarter-final in Bolivia to Jorge Wilstermann, there was no backlash against the coach. If anything, they fed off the confidence of Gallardo, who said publicly that his team would overcome the deficit in the second leg, creating a cauldron-like atmosphere as River raced into a 4-0 lead inside 20 minutes to finish 8-0 winners.

Similarly, they kept their patience after River surrendered a three-goal lead to lose 4-3 on aggregate to Lanús in the Libertadores semi-final. The defeat signalled a nightmare run of results in the league, which was only halted following the January signing of Franco Armani in the problematic goalkeeping position.

After a 2-0 Supercopa Argentina win over Boca in March all was forgiven, and River embarked on an unbeaten run that was only ended in November by Estudiantes. Meanwhile, after Los Millonarios lost the first leg of this year’s Libertadores semi-final 1-0 at home to Grêmio, most River-based social media posted, “In Gallardo we trust.” Indeed, such is the esteem that Gallardo is held in by the Monumental faithful that a giant mosaic bearing his name was erected on the terraces ahead of that first leg. 

Given the dire economic situation of Argentine football, Gallardo’s stewardship has been essential to the stabilising business model employed by D’Onofrio since becoming president in 2013. By developing youth team graduates such as Sebastián Driussi and Emmanuel Mammana, and promising players bought in from other clubs like Lucas Alario and Marcelo Saracchi, Gallardo has brought in millions of dollars to help the club’s balance sheet.

Despite winning the Copa Libertadores, the task of rebuilding again begins almost immediately with Martínez due to join Atlanta United in January for $17m. Spanish vultures Real Madrid and Barcelona are circling over their best youngsters, Exequiel Palacios and Gonzalo Montiel, while the talismanic captain, Leonardo Ponzio, at the age of 37, is surely in the twilight of his career. 

Gallardo has so far indicated that he is up for the challenge, though the bright lights of the Champions League may be too hard to resist, certainly in the long run. Ironically, much may depend on the movements of another Argentine coach, Mauricio Pochettino. Should, as has been touted, the Spurs boss decamp to either Real Madrid or Manchester United, it could trigger a managerial merry-go-round that opens up a vacancy for Gallardo at a club in which he can cut his teeth.

One job that he won’t be taking, at least in the near future, is that of Argentina coach. With the Argentine FA in a permanent state of economic and administrative crisis, it is unlikely that he would go near the position, despite its grandeur, although perversely, given his track record for developing players, Gallardo would be the ideal choice to lead La Albiceleste in this period of transition. Whatever happens, we will be hearing a lot more about “Napoleon” over the coming years.

By Mark Orton @MarkAOrton

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