Can Jorge Sampaoli rebuild his reputation at Santos?
One of football's most intriguing narratives of 2019 will be whether former Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli can get his career back on track with Santos of Brazil.
Going into the 2018 World Cup in Russia this summer, Sampaoli's reputation was high. He had taken the Chile national team to their first-ever serious piece of silverware: the 2015 Copa America. He had also made a successful adaptation to European club football, building an exciting and attractive side at Sevilla. Neutrals loved to watch his teams and in the build up to the World Cup, some proclaimed him as the best of all the 32 coaches competing in Russia.
Maybe. But of all of the 32 he was arguably the worst choice for Argentina.
Sampaoli's teams seek to overwhelm the opposition in their half of the field, creating numerical superiority close to the goal, seeking two-on-one situations down the flanks to get behind the rival defence and furiously working to win the ball back as soon as it is lost. It is a high press game that carries high risk: namely, leaving plenty of space for the opposition to exploit on the counter attack. It is the type of style where defensive pace is vital, but Argentina had none. Unable to defend, the team fell apart and were a shambles in Russia, which was no surprise to anyone who had followed their pre-tournament preparations.
Sampaoli came out of the tournament badly and not just because of the results as Argentina sneaked through the group stages only to lose 4-3 to eventual winners France in the round of 16. He has always been a temperamental coach -- sent to the stands on many occasions for his continual protests -- but he found it hard to lose with dignity, especially against Croatia, when he spent some of the final minutes yelling at the opposition. After that match, Argentina's senior players effectively took control, forcing the selection of an orthodox back four and undoubtedly improving the side, though it was too little, too late.
Russia 2018 was an unmitigated disaster for Sampaoli, so it was no surprise to see him depart as coach before July was even half-over. His next step was clearly going to be an important one, so he took some time to think it over before taking a job that nobody could call an easy route. Santos, the former club of the great Pele, offers a fascinating challenge.
The intellectual mentor of Sampaoli, the man who has inspired much of his thinking on football, is his compatriot and current Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa. A few years ago, Santos were interested in hiring Bielsa. Defensive midfielder Claudio Maldonado had extensive experience in Brazilian football and knew Bielsa well from their time working together as player and coach in the Chile national team. But Maldonado advised Bielsa against accepting Santos' offer.
The logic was simple: Bielsa loves working on the training ground and his method of play requires extensive drilling. But the Brazilian calendar is so cluttered with games that there's little time to work on tactics. Bielsa heeded the advice and looked for work elsewhere, taking short stints at Marseille, Lazio and Lille before finally settling at Leeds.
The good news for Sampaoli is that he's not parachuting in during the season. There are no competitive games until the Sao Paulo State Championship kicks off at the end of January, so he will have a brief preseason period to help him bed in his ideas. Yet he may well run into a problem similar to the one that so badly derailed his work with Argentina.
Most Brazilian centre-backs like to play very deep; the country continues to turn out plenty of giant, centurion-type defenders who are too lumbering to be comfortable in a high line. Some Brazilian coaches who have tried to defend with a high line have come badly unstuck.
So how will Sampaoli approach his new challenge? Will he charge in with the braggadocio of old, running the risk of leaving his team open to the counter-attack? Or has time made him more pragmatic?
On the bright side, he will surely enjoy working with one type of player that Brazilian football produces in great quantities: the striker who cuts in from wide areas. This has become a speciality of the Brazilian game in recent times -- indeed, some of the most highly valued players on the move in the summer transfer window were precisely this type of player.
Those types of player should be looking forward to being part of the Sampaoli rebirth but all eyes will be on how he copes with the other demands of Brazilian football for signs that the Argentine coach is back to his best.