How Tata Martino went from Barcelona failure to MLS Champion


Every manager following Pep Guardiola at Barcelona have invoked different feelings and words from fans and players alike. Tito Vilanova's La Liga title in his one year in charge is remembered with incredible reverence and the title serves as the legacy of a man that was taken too soon. Gerardo "Tata" Martino took his place and captured just the Spanish Super Cup. Next up was Luis Enrique, who captured nine trophies in his three seasons in charge, winning a treble along the way. Enrique's exit was unceremonious and there was surely plenty of consternation along the way, but each passing year affords the opportunity to see the current Spanish national team manager's time at Barcelona with more affection. Enrique's departure brought in Ernesto Valverde, a leader that seems to be liked by the players but gets mixed reactions from the media and fans. Of the bunch, Martino had the least successful run and will not be remembered among the rest. The tough truth is that Martino has always been close to the finish line but getting over the final hump has been his Achilles heel.

Martino's run of "close but no cigar" began in 2011 while managing the Paraguayan national team. At the Copa América in his native Argentina, he found himself in the final against Uruguay after conquering both Brazil and Venezuela on penalty kicks. Without the star power of their rivals, they were defeated 3-0 and Paraguay fans missed out on what could have been one of the best moments in their history.

He followed up his stint with Paraguay by returning to the place where he became a legend as a player, Newell's Old Boys. He rescued the squad from a relegation fight and the following season won the 2013 Torneo Final, the sixth title in the club's history. The ensuing battle in the Superfinal against Vélez Sarsfield, the champions of the Torneo Inicial, ended in a 1-0 defeat. That result might have been a disappointment, but Martino's time with his old club was a resounding success, culminating in a semi-final appearance in the Copa Libertadores and the opportunity to coach FC Barcelona.

The man compared with fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa has called his time at Barcelona "an utter failure", but that may be a bit harsh. His first task was to integrate newly-signed Neymar into a star-studded squad that already featured Lionel Messi, Alexis Sánchez and Pedro, a job he did this with decent effect. With Messi and Carles Puyol missing chunks of the season and Víctor Valdés suffering an unfortunate ACL injury late in the campaign, things soured in his one year at the Camp Nou. At Barcelona the expectation is winning trophies and his inability to deliver anything other than the Spanish Super Cup was a gargantuan disappointment. Combining with fellow Rosario native Messi, he got some good results along the way. Unfortunately, a 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid and being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Atlético Madrid on the final match day to lose the La Liga title to that very team signaled the end of his time with the Blaugrana.

The Argentina national team soon came calling, appointing him manager in August of 2014. He continued to excel right until the very end, falling to Chile on penalties in the 2015 Copa América final and again losing to Chile the following summer in the Copa América Centenario final. The second loss led to his resignation and much like at Barcelona, his resignation might have come as much from media scrutiny as it did from internal conflict with the squad or AFA.

After dealing with the bright lights of Barcelona and Argentina, Martino was approached by a MLS team that hadn't played a minute of actual action yet and he was asked to take part in the project. With Atlanta United, Martino had about six months to build Atlanta United from the ground up; and that's exactly what he did. From the front office to the 48,200 average home fans, Martino certainly had help in creating a culture for a team to succeed in year one. 

To the Argentine's credit, Martino is a class above the average MLS manager, as least in experience and pedigree. Unlike City Group, who connects Manchester City and New York City FC, or even the loose affiliation with Arsenal and the Colorado Rapids, FC Barcelona have no connection to Atlanta United. Though anyone watching Martino's Atlanta team may have seen a few similarities. There was a distinct idea to what they were doing, whether they were pressing high or playing more conservatively. Top attacking talents in the MLS such as Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón may not be Lionel Messi and Neymar, but Tata figured out how to get the best out of his superstars.

In year two of the project, Atlanta looked again like forcing their way into the championship discussion. After the disappointment of losing out on the Supporters Shield to the New York Red Bulls, the Argentine's squad took it to Thierry Henry's old team in the Eastern Conference Finals, defeating them 3-1 after a dominating 3-0 opening leg. In front of 73,019 people at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, Tata Martino finally got over the hump and won another title, defeating the Portland Timbers 2-0.

It looks like Martino's next job will be the new head coach of the Mexico national team and after once again achieving some club success, it seems time for the manager to return to the international stage. If he is indeed the next boss of El Tri, he should have another crack at the Copa América title. Either way, in victory or defeat, Martino will continue a managerial career with more ups and downs than most managers have in a lifetime. His time with FC Barcelona will never be remembered fondly, but he has proved at Atlanta that he can still take charge of a winner.