Marcelo Gallardo: The unpredictable tactician all of Europe is after

Photo: River Plate official Twitter account

Lionel Messi nominated him as one of the top three managers in the world for the most recent “The Best Awards”. Pep Guardiola was astonished when he wasn’t nominated, saying that his work is incredible, and he’s overlooked because he doesn’t manage in Europe.

Marcelo Gallardo is one of the brightest managers, if not the brightest, in South American football. His achievements and accolades throughout his six-and-a-half seasons in charge of River Plate speak for themselves. Gallardo has gone from only having one managerial season under his belt when he took over River, to be the club’s most successful manager in history – winning 11 titles in six years. Internationally, River Plate has won more titles under Gallardo’s tenure than in the total history prior.

Photo: River Plate official Twitter account

A brilliant tactician, who credits Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching methods and Pep Guardiola’s possession-based and high-pressing football as the big influences on his managerial style. Gallardo has outstanding motivating abilities and tactical knowledge to take his team to the next level. His personal touch and insistence on relying on River’s academy has also seen the club put through some of the best Argentinean talents of their generation.

But who is Gallardo? What tactics, formations, and style of play do he utilize? What are his strengths and weaknesses and how compatible would he be with European football?

During his playing days, Marcelo Gallardo was a flashy playmaker and his most noteworthy playing days came at River Plate and Monaco, with a brief spell at Paris Saint-Germain. The 44-time Argentinean international, who played two world cups for his country, ended his career at Uruguayan club Nacional de Montevideo in 2013, where he instantaneously became manager days after retiring as a player. Gallardo spent 18 months at the club from the Uruguayan capital, where he won the league in his first season in charge, before leaving the club and returning home to Argentina to perfect his coaching methods. Two years later, he was appointed as the new manager of River who saw him as a very young coach with fresh ideas.

In his first 14 months in charge of River, he won Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana and Recopa Sudamericana which is the equivalent of winning Champions League, Europa League, and a European Supercup in the first one-and-a-half years in charge. Prior to Gallardo, River hadn’t won a continental title in almost 20 years. Ahead of the 2020 season, Gallardo averaged a trophy every six months and 1,82 games per game.

Tactics and style of play

Marcelo Gallardo is a very flexible tactician, not unknown to surprise the opposition with last-minute changes to his formations and approach to the games. This makes his River Plate a very tough opponent to face because you never know what you’re going to face. It also makes players coming through River Plate very tactically flexible and knowledgeable.

Tom Nash (@CARP_English on Twitter), a Buenos Aires-based journalist and River Plate supporter, describes Gallardo’s tactics like this to Football Elements:

– He’s most commonly used a 4-4-2 without traditional wingers and have the full-backs providing natural width. Although he’s shown massive flexibility and sometimes shifts to an entirely different system ahead of games, Nash tells Football Elements.

Gallardo has switched standard formations over the years during his River tenure. He started with a 4-3-1-2 and a 4-4-2, which later became a 4-2-3-1, then a 4-2-2-2, then a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-3, to ultimately become a 3-5-2 after playmaker Exequiel Palacios left for Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020. As with the switch to a 3-5-2 when Palacios left, that has been a problem River has struggled with like most South American clubs; the best players moving to Europe, leaving the teams with places to fill without much money to fill them with. River, like many South America clubs, therefore, must rely on their academy producing replacements.

But, apart from his first season at River when his 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 were built on its defense, the common theme in Gallardo’s style of play and tactics has been a counter-pressing and possession dominating side, playing with width and mainly utilizing the central channels for the build-ups and transitions.

The fundamentals are to dominate possession, counter-press, numerical overloads in all thirds, and a change of pace to launch attacks by rapid ball movement. Gallardo wants to build from the back by short, rapid, and precise passes from defense to gradually build through the thirds until a good attacking position is reached. His football is very physically demanding as well, as he demands his team to transition shape as quickly from defense to attack as from defense to attack.

In Gallardo’s early days at River, he had Enzo Perez sit in front of the back four, and Exequiel Palacios being deployed behind the two strikers. Palacios often dropped into the midfield during the build-ups to assure numerical equality in the midfield, allowing the full-backs to push up in the wide channels – who he then pinged long balls at. The wingers in the 4-4-2, usually Ignacio Fernandez or Nicolas de la Cruz, or the outer central midfielders in the three-man-midfield would narrow the team by drifting into the half-spaces, to create numerical superiority centrally, either for when the fullbacks crossed the ball in from the flank, or to surpass the opposition defense by combination play.

Photo: River Plate official Twitter account

Whilst defending, the first line of defense was always the two strikers, Rafael Santos de la Borré and Matias Suarez – two high-energy strikers who counter-pressed the oppositional build-ups with great intensity. Palacios and the wingers sometimes joined in the counter-press. Palacios joined in to create a greater number of players in the pack chasing down the ball, and the wingers if the ball was moved to the wide channels. Whilst there, the wingers and center midfielders would try to pin the ball-holding player against the sideline via a hunting pack, attracting more oppositional players to support the ball-holder, then win possession and switch the play to the opposite wing where they through this maneuver had created lots of space for the winger to operate on.

Gallardo wants his players to quickly regain defensive shape, which is designed to make the space where the ball is small and congested. When the ball is lost, River intensively presses the congested areas, often high up the pitch, and try to regain the ball as soon as possible by counter-pressing. If possession couldn’t be regained by the counter-press, the pressing players would aim to force the opposing defense to make long passes that Perez or the center backs would step in to sweep up.

By these tactics, River was the most efficient team in the Argentinean Super League in 2019. Data from Wyscout show that they had the most shots, won the most corners and penalties, and had the most touches in the box. They also averaged the most passes per 90 (460.2), most key passes per 90 (4), most passes into the final third per 90 (71.7), most progressive passes per 90 (99.5), and the most deep completions per 90 (15.8 – six more than the next best side). They were also second in through passes per 90 (14.2).

Defensively, they were the most efficient pressing side, conceded fourth-least shots against, and had the highest passes per defensive action.

Exequiel Palacios’ departure to Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020 forced Gallardo to once again reinvent his team. His current formation is a 3-5-2 which revolves around River playing both short and long passes into the wide channels to create width. The fundamentals still apply, though. Dominate possession, build from the back, change of pace to launch attacks, rapid ball movement, counter-pressing, numerical overloads in all thirds and channels.

Lucas Pratto and Juan Fernando Quintero have gotten increased responsibility whilst in possession and in the counter-pressing. The River goalkeeper, Fernando Armani, has also gained responsibility in the build-ups.

Enzo Perez has become a key player and has overtaken the playmaking role from Palacios. He remains in his regular position at the base of the midfield – but offers support both in the defensive and final third. Defensively, he uses his pace, tactical understanding, and brilliant read of the game to break up the play. Offensively, he distributes the ball long in-behind the opposition defense, to invite Matias Suarez and Santos Borré to run deep at, or into the wide channels to the fullbacks, Gonzalo Montiel and Milton Casco, for width.

Strengths and weaknesses

One of Gallardo’s greatest strengths is his tactical flexibility and adaptation to the opposition. He has a unique ability to change formations, approaches, style of play to what is needed to beat the opposition. To rework his systems radically when needed.

A particular situation where Gallardo’s brilliant flexibility with tactics showed was when he, the day before the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final against arch-rival Boca Juniors, decided to go with a back-three with wing-backs instead of the reliable four-man defense he had frequently used throughout the season and which had taken them to the final. The game ended 2-2 with River being really impressive.

In the second leg, Gallardo instead opted for a 4-5-1 which saw River win the game by 3-1 – ultimately landing them the second Libertadores title under his reign.

He’s also great at knowing when to make substitutes and who to use. On a number of occasions, River has won vital games from goals by someone Gallardo has subbed in. He has the ability to see who the game needs and when that player is needed for River to win.

Photo: River Plate official Twitter account

Another of Gallardo’s main strengths is his skill of developing young players and maximizing his players’ capabilities.

Gallardo has a rare bond with his players. They go to war for him, and he goes to war for them. Gonzalo Martinez, Milton Casco, Rafael Santos Borré, and Nicolas de la Cruz have all been under scrutiny by both the Argentinean media and the fanbase. But Gallardo stuck with them, and they have all proven to be successful now. River doubled their investment on Gonzalo Martinez when they sold him to Atalanta United for example. He had been criticized for three seasons, but the fourth he blew everyone out of the water. He was elected Copa Libertadores MVP, Argentinean Footballer of The Year, South American Footballer of The Year, and MLS All-Star the season after.

Under Gallardo’s six-and-a-half-year tenure at River, he’s given 30 academy players their senior debuts. The list of names for young players he’s developed, nurtured and shaped at River is very impressive; Giovani Simeone, Manuel Lanzini, Exequiel Palacios, Lucas Alario, Lucas Martinez Quarta, Nicolas de la Cruz, Juan Fernando Quintero, Gonzalo Montiel, German Pezzella, Sebastian Driussi, Marcelo Sarrachi, Rafael Santos Borré, Julián Alvarez, Guido Rodriguez amongst many.

As an incentive for Gallardo to stay with River, the club’s board gave him the role of overseeing the club’s academy. Something he does together with his assistants Matias Biscany and Hernan Buján. They closely oversee the progress of all academy players from age elven and older. All youth games are recorded for them to analyze and they hold quarterly meetings with managers at each level to coordinate the academy players’ development closely. Gallardo, Biscany and Buján have also implemented a style of play and philosophy used by all age levels all the way up to the first team.

Gallardo is a very progressive manager and is seen as a pioneer by many. He does whatever needs to be done to win and always aims to win margins. In 2014, he became the first manager in Argentina to appoint a female assistant to his staff. Dr. Sandra Rossi, Ph.D. in neuroscience, who holds the role as River’s “brain trainer”. She was hired by Gallardo to train the players’ minds to build successful patterns, reinforcing positive behaviors, whilst getting rid of negative and harmful thoughts and patterns. She helped the players to visualize what they should do in certain situations and prepare them for big games. Gallardo and Dr. Rossi have together instilled a mentality in the squad which makes the players rise to the occasion instead of freezing under pressure. Which shows, as River has won 10 out of 13 finals under Gallardo.

These methods are common in Europe; however, Gallardo saw the macho culture in Argentina as an obstacle that often tended towards violence on the pitch. Within a year of hiring Dr. Rossi, River won the Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana, and the Supercopa.

Photo: River Plate official Twitter account

Gallardo’s greatest weakness at River has been balancing the league and the continental cups, where the continental cups have been prioritized. However, in his defense, it’s a decision made together with the board. Since his appointment in 2014, Gallardo has never won the league. River has finished 9th, 9th, 2nd, 8th, and 4th. The starting players have been rested ahead of Libertadores and Sudamericana games – where he’s won six continental titles. But the league finishes have left River dependent on winning the continental titles or domestic cups to qualify for next year’s continental cup.

As this has been decided together with the board, Gallardo should not be blamed for it. But, should he move to Europe, his biggest challenge will be balancing the league with other competitions. Because in Europe there’s no club that will be okay with overlooking some tournaments. There, every title counts.


Gallardo’s contract with River expires in 2020, and should he move to Europe to test his wings on the central stage of football, Tom Nash would recommend him moving to Spain or France.

– He’d be a very good fit for many European sides, especially in Spain and France as he speaks those languages. I’m not sure which league would suit him the best. Probably not Italy as I don’t think he shares the outlook on tactical defensive football many share there. He’d need longer to settle in England and Germany, I think, so Spain or France seems likely as he’s fluent in those languages and ex-Monaco and PSG.