Bianchi exit heralds new era for Boca Juniors
On Sunday, Boca Juniors begin a new era, and bid farewell to the previous one. It wasn't supposed to happen like this; when Carlos Bianchi, the most successful manager in Argentine club football history, returned for a third spell in charge of Boca Juniors in December 2012, things were looking up.
Under previous manager Julio Cesar Falcioni, Boca had had a good eighteen months; champions of the 2011 Torneo Apertura by twelve points and with the fewest goals conceded of any winners in Argentina's short championship era, Boca reached the final of the Copa Libertadores in the first half of 2012, and finished a respectable fourth in both of that year's championships. Respectability, though, isn't enough for a club of Boca's size, and fourth place in the Apertura ending in December 2012, having been top for much of the championship, was beyond the pale.
Falcioni's defensive style didn't help matters, it's true, but whilst letting him go was a calculated risk, bringing in Bianchi to replace him always looked like playing to the gallery on the part of Boca's board.
Argentine fans are unceasingly loyal to their favourites, so the thinking was twofold; first, Bianchi would, by virtue of being Bianchi, be given time to develop the team as he saw fit and get Boca back to the top. Secondly, appointing him would make the board more popular with the club's members (who vote, every four years, for a new president and with him, board of directors).
The reason it looked risky was that Bianchi, 63 when he returned to the club, had been out of management since an underwhelming spell at Atletico Madrid in 2005-06. He'd been 'manager' at Boca in the meantime, it's true, but the Spanish word refers to more of a director of football position -- what we in England would call the manager is, in Argentina, the director tecnico, or DT.
In the meantime, football had moved on, but Bianchi's ideas didn't seem to have done. Getting upset about Falcioni's system had seemed strange at the time, given that Bianchi's Boca, who had hoovered up Copas Libertadores as if they were going out of fashion in the early years of this century, hadn't exactly played total football themselves; but Bianchi, of course, was a winner, and his sides played with spirit.
In 2013, though, with Boca no longer in such a dominant position, things were trickier for him.
Boca finished second bottom of the 2013 Torneo Final (the championship played in the first half of the calendar year), but, clearly prioritising continental competition, reached the quarter-finals of the Libertadores, where they went out to eventual finalists Newell's Old Boys on penalties.
Other managers would have come under pressure for such a performance, but Bianchi continued; seventh place in the Torneo Inicial 2013 was still underwhelming, but it was a big improvement on the nineteenth place they'd finished in six months previously.
The Torneo Final 2014 saw another leap in terms of results -- Boca finished second. Even that finish was bitter-sweet, though; not only did they go into the last round of matches already out of the race, but the side who finished above them were their hated rivals River Plate, celebrating a long-awaited title under their own most successful ever boss, Ramon Diaz. What's more, results might have improved but the football certainly hadn't.
The stagnation in the team was clear for all to see; in Bianchi's year and a half in charge, Boca had let many of their better performers leave (including, in this last transfer window, Juan Roman Riquelme), and replaced them with players who patently weren't good enough. Injuries became a huge problem, too; during 2013, Boca picked up an astonishing sixty injuries to members of their first team squad, many to thigh or hamstring complaints sustained in training.
Some might have questioned training methods and looked into changing things around a bit, but during the first half of 2014, the problem continued. At the time of writing, Juan Manuel Martinez, Emanuel Insua, Pablo Ledesma and Guillermo Burdisso were all expected to miss Sunday's match -- all would expect to start if fit -- whilst Fernando Gago's fitness issues were plain for all to see at the World Cup.
As my girlfriend's Boca-supporting father put it to me at the end of the Torneo Final, 'Boca finishing second says a lot more about the league than it does about Boca.' And yet still Bianchi remained in place, eternally popular with the fans. What was it going to take to oust him?
In the end, losing three of their opening four matches of the new league season, and getting an almost comically undeserved victory away to Belgrano in the other, was what it took. After being beaten 3-1 on Wednesday by an Estudiantes side who had struggled to click in attack previously, the board finally acted. Bianchi was fired on Thursday; on Friday morning, the club confirmed Rodolfo Arruabarrena as his replacement.
The speed of that appointment suggests the club already had Arruabarrena lined up a while ago. A fan favourite at Boca as a player, he had two spells with the club, and was also a key member of the Villarreal team which reached the European Champions League semi-finals in 2006.
Arruabarrena has had two managerial jobs before; an impressive spell at Tigre, and a higher-pressure but slightly less successful one at Nacional in Uruguay in 2013 (oddly, Marcelo Gallardo, who won the title as Nacional manager in 2011-12, is now River Plate boss).
Arruabarrena is a change from Bianchi; a young, up-and-coming manager who seems eager to learn. Boca will be a pressure cooker for him, but his favoured position with the fans should -- like Bianchi -- insulate him to some extent. At least expectations have been lowered somewhat, although whilst bettering Bianchi's feats of 1998-2004 would be a very tall task, improving on their showing of the last two years could also be a challenge, given the state the club is currently in.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPNFC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both UK), Howler (US) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the internet's finest (okay, only) English-language Argentine football podcast, and tweets as @HEGS_com