With the middle of the Argentine Inicial upon us, Newell’s Old Boys are showing that a system is more important than the sum of all parts. More importantly, when those parts are functioning well within a system, things can change and they will remain the same.
In soccer, we always talk about how one person is not greater than an institution. Yet that argument can be challenged when a person arrives and changes the culture. It’s this change that has seen Newell’s Old Boys become one of the most solid teams in not just Argentine football, but in South America. Newell’s had a process instilled and that garnered them the nickname in circles throughout Argentine media as that country’s version of FC Barcelona. Although that comparison might be a bit exaggerated, there are some slight parallels between the two clubs and how they are currently playing right now in their respective parts of the world.
The greatest testament to Newell’s style right now came from a former coach. Ricardo Caruso Lombardi came out on Sunday after his old team defeated his current squad, Argentinos Juniors, 2-0. The usually witty and venomous Caruso Lombardi had only praise for the reigning champs when he said it was “impossible to defeat a team that always had possession of the ball.”
This was probably the biggest compliment one could receive from a coach. Throughout the match, Newell’s Old Boys pressed and forced mistakes in the heart of the park. Once they gained possession, they would weave the ball around and force the opposition to lose the ball.
Their solid midfield play with Diego Mateu anchoring the middle as well as pulling the strings as the first line of offense coming out of the back worked like a charm. Plus the defense is now amongst one of the best in Argentine football up until now.
Although this version of the Rosario side lacked the firepower that a goalscorer like Scocco had to offer, the entire squad knew that there would be no need for changes. What is meant by changes is that every player would have to make greater collective contributions. Everyone from recently hired veterans like David Trézéguet as well as individuals such as Gabriel Heinze, Diego Mateu and Maxi Rodríguez — who were instrumental in the title run last season with their great form and leadership on the pitch — was needed in order to replace 13 players that had departed during the off-season.
Their performance so far answered the biggest question mark looming over their heads coming into this Torneo Inicial — after losing some major pieces to their puzzle from their title-winning side. Ignacio Scocco left for Internacional while Gerardo Martino went to Europe to refresh a Barcelona side that started to show signs of decline despite having won their fourth league title in the last five years. A weird series of events led to Martino’s arrival to Can Barça after he replaced Tito Vilanova.
His handling of the Maxi Urruti move to Toronto FC was just probably more vilified in Rosario than Kevin Payne was in Toronto with the way he handled Urruti’s immediate transfer to Portland. For fans in that part of the world, the shocking move by Urruti was virtually the end of his career as he fell into the black hole that was one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer, a league that few know much about in that part of the world.
Despite the administrative chaos that surrounds La Lepra (The Lepers), the smartest decision was to continue with the mold that was established by the man that changed the culture of the club over 25 years ago. The solution was rather simple for club president Guillermo Lorente. All he had to do was look at his stadium, and follow the course. It was a course that was lost in years prior to Lorente’s arrival to the presidency at the club.
In order for the about-face that was taken at Newell’s to be better understood, you have to see how far the club fell both in performance as well as in administrative incompetence.
Lorente, after several failed coaching hires during the early stages of his presidency, was convinced that Marcelo Bielsa created something special in the late 80’s and early 90’s. That, of course, went in an opposite direction when Lorente’s biggest political rival at the club took Eduardo López. The López regime at Newell’s was marred with political corruption with events that saw barrabravas take over the club and the president eliminating elections during his 14-year tenure. Former Argentine Foreign Relations Minister Rafael Bielsa (Marcelo’s brother) called López “the only de facto president left in Argentina.”
During this era, all opposition were rejected by the club brass. This even included the two names synonymous with the team’s greatest success — Martino and Bielsa.
Gerardo Martino helped the team he so dearly loved back to the prominence they enjoyed when he was the emblematic leader of a squad that was contending for league titles and Copa Libertadores back in the day with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm. Of course, when the decision was finally taken by the club brass to return to this formula for success, Bielsa was the first choice. Upon his rejection, Martino became available after he stepped down as Paraguayan national team coach. Newell’s found themselves in the precarious situation where they were being haunted by relegation and form was non-existent.
Fast forward two semesters and Martino oiled the machine and saw Newell’s win their first league title in nine years and were getting to the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 20 years. He helped resurrect the career of Ignacio Scocco, who returned to Argentina after a disappointing stint in Mexico with Pumas.
Martino’s departure from Newell’s seemed to have left a vacuum on the coaching bench, but it took very little time to occupy as former Bielsa player and former assistant with the Chilean national team Alfredo Berti stepped up. Obviously he did not have the fanfare and standing ovations that Martino had before taking over in Barcelona. It was a much more lower key affair and the results have continued as if nothing changed. Even more lower key was their preparation during the pre-season. That quickly became silenced when they defeated Boca Juniors in their league debut. There were some doubts when they were blown out by Vélez Sarsfield 3-0 in Liniers. Instead of that being an alarm, it was more of a wake-up call for the squad and since then they have not looked back, winning their last three matches in consecutive manner and seeing them take over the top spot in a tournament that no one saw them fighting for in a few months prior to that.
Newell’s current run of form have them poised to emulate one of their greatest eras. There’s been a constant storm surrounding the squad but in the end they’ve realized that positive results stemming from hard work trump all types of speculation that the media might hurl at them.
Juan Arango is a play-by-play announcer at Gol TV where he’s covered various leagues in Europe and South America. He’s also written for various publications on the Internet as well as in print.
Any questions about South American football, post them in the comments section below and he’ll answer them for you in future editions of his column.
Follow Juan on Twitter (@JuanG_Arango).