Alejandro Sabella: ‘The Sloth’ finally steps out of the shadows

For decades, Alejandro Sabella has been overlooked for more illustrious and, seemingly, more competent names.

After all, nearly 30 years ago, Sabella was consistently snubbed by Argentina’s manager, from 1983-1990, Carlos Bilardo. Even though Sabella won all of his 4 caps for Argentina at the 1983 Copa América – where Argentina failed to make the semi-finals under El Narigón that year – and struck up a close relationship with Bilardo from his time at Estudiantes, Sabella was still dropped from Bilardo’s squads. Remarkably, this was despite being at the peak of his creative powers from 1984.

Bilardo instead opted for rising stars like Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, intriguingly, Sabella’s predecessors as managers of La Albiceleste. Even though there was no doubting Maradona’s and Batista’s respective brilliance, over 20 years later, little has changed in Argentinean footballing selections. Sabella, the mastermind behind Estudiantes becoming surprising, yet well-deserved, Copa Libertadores winners in 2008, was the outstanding candidate when the Argentina job was vacant in 2008 and 2010. Now, at the third time of asking, he finally gets his chance. Even though the 56 year old has officially only managed one team, his beloved Estudiantes – after being Daniel Passarella’s devout assistant for 13 years at the likes of Argentina, Uruguay, Parma, Monterrey, Corinthians and River Plate – Sabella will bring welcomed organisation and tactical nous to an Argentina side who have not won a trophy since their Copa América victory, under Alfio Basile, in 1993.

Sabella, born in Buenos Aires, began his career at River Plate and after rising through the youth ranks, he made his debut at 20 years of age. Deployed as an attacking midfielder, the Argentine was blessed with a cultured left foot and the ability to switch play effortlessly. However, despite his brilliant playmaking ability, Sabella found himself in an era where pace was beginning to count just as much as genius and from this, he was nicknamed El Pachorra (the Sloth). Sabella shadowed the already iconic River figure Norberto Alonso, who was one year older, and they shared similar traits such as brilliant technique, feints and lofted through balls. Sabella initially found starting opportunities limited, particularly when Alonso inspired River to the Nacional title in 1975 – their first title for 18 years. However, when Alonso moved to Olympique Marseille in 1977, Sabella became River’s undisputed number ten.

Sabella played a huge role in River’s 1977 Metropolitano victory but when Alonso’s spell at Marseille did not work out, manager Ángel Labruna could not resist bringing River’s fans’ favourite back to the club. Realising that the then 24 year old Alonso would be at River for many years to come, Sabella took the brave step of moving to England with First Division side Sheffield United in 1978. Before Sabella was contacted, and in preparation for the 1978/1979 season, the then Blades manager, Henry Haslam, went to Argentina on a scouting trip. His main aim was to find a number ten and from this, he made a £180,000 bid for Argentinos Juniors’ rising star: the then 18 year old Diego Maradona. The bid was rebuffed by Juniors and Haslam instead turned his attention to the available, cheaper and more experienced 24 year old El Pachorra. A £160,000 bid was accepted by River and Sabella joined the likes of Claudio Marangoni, who joined Sunderland, and Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, who both moved to Tottenham in the summer of 1978, in becoming the first Argentine footballers to grace English soil.

In his two seasons with the Blades, Sabella struggled for consistency with a relegation-threatened Sheffield United team, but he still scored 8 goals in 76 games. Despite United’s summer spending and scouting outlay, they were relegated to the Second Division in 1979 and to the Third Division in 1980. Now a Third Division player, Sabella had an offer from Second Division Sunderland but decided to hold out for a First Division club. From this, a £400,000 fee was agreed with Leeds but Sabella had a mixed season at Elland Road: scoring 2 goals in 23 appearances. Having struggled to adapt to the bustle of his Yorkshire surroundings, both at Sheffield and Leeds, El Pachorra was contacted by Estudiantes manager Bilardo in 1982. Bilardo went to such effort to bring Sabella to Estudiantes that, in his own words, after “getting a few dollars together for the journey to England”, he had to “convince the directors it was a good deal and borrow money from Sabella to pay for the journey home.”

Estudiantes had become a sleeping giant since Bilardo played there between 1965 and 1970, when they won 1 Metropolitano title, 3 Copa Libertadores’ and 1 Intercontinental Cup (after beating Manchester United’s ‘Busby’s Babes’ in 1968), and Sabella was intrigued by Bilardo’s project of “restoring Estudiantes’ lost mystique and catapulting them back to the top.” Alongside the likes of José Luis Brown, Miguel Angel Russo, Marcelo Trobbiani, Jose Daniel Ponce and Hugo Gottardi, Sabella inspired Estudiantes to the 1982 Metropolitano title, under Bilardo, and the 1983 Nacional title, under Eduardo Luján Manera. Despite Sabella’s performances with Estudiantes and his close relationship with ex-manager Bilardo, he was unable to force himself into Argentina’s illustrious squad. As well as facing competition from Maradona and Batista, Sabella was edged out of a midfield slot by the likes of Carlos Daniel Tapia, Jorge Burruchaga, Norberto Alonso and Ricardo Bochini. Seeking pastures new after a stale three seasons with Los Pincharratas, a trophyless interlude followed at Grêmio in 1986/1987 before a return to Estudiantes for the 1987/1988 campaign. Sabella then spent a season with Argentine club Ferro Carril Oeste before retiring in 1990, after a season with Mexican side Irapauto.

Having struck-up a close relationship with Estudiantes and their fans, as well as playing for another La Plata club, Ferro Carril Oeste, Sabella lived in La Plata after his retirement in 1990 and kept in touch with Los Pincharratas’ board members, players and officials. However, having known Sabella from their time playing together at River Plate, between 1974 and 1978, Passarella was the first to approach Sabella with an offer of a coaching position. This came in 1990 and Sabella spent 13 years, in three different continents, working as Passarella’s right-hand man. Passarella’s last job was a trophyless three-year spell with River, which ended in 2007, but it was not until 15 March, 2009 that Sabella finally took his first managerial job. In 2009, Estudiantes had struggled under Sabella’s predecessor, Leo Astrada, with dressing-room unrest (epitomised by defender Marcos Angeleri falling out with Astrada) reflecting a position in the relegation zone of the Apertura and poor performances in the Copa Libertadores. So poor were Estudiantes’ performances in the Copa, they had qualified through away goals over the vastly inferior Peruvian side Sporting Cristal in the qualifiers and lost two out of the three games they had played in the group stages up to Sabella’s arrival.

Sabella – heavily influenced by Billardo’s and Passarella’s compact 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formations and strong defensive foundations – made Estudiantes an impenetrable force. This led to Los Pincharratas winning the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 39 years and finishing the competition unbeaten for the 11 games Sabella was in charge, scoring a modest 14 goals but conceding just 2. Despite having the likes of Angeleri, Germán Ré, Leandro Desábato, Rodrigo Braña, Juan Sebastián Veron, Gastón Nicolás Fernández and Mauro Boselli to call upon, Sabella’s rookie performance was incredible. However, rather than serenading his own achievements, Sabella’s humility and humour was summed up in the fact that he credited a brown jumper that he wore in every match that season for his success, after initially wearing it on his debut in the 4-0 win over Deportivo Qutio in the Copa Libertadores group stage. Such was Sabella’s achievement, before the final, Cruzeiro went into the second-leg as overwhelming favourites – scoring 21 goals up to that point and holding Estudiantes to a 0-0 draw in the first-leg at La Plata – yet Los Pincharratas had an inspiring second-half: Fernández and Boselli netting on 57’ and 72’ respectively, after Henrique put Cruzeiro 1-0 up on 52’. As well as their incredible Copa Libertadores turnaround, Estudiantes lost just 5 of 36 matches in all other competitions.

They went on to finish the season in sixth place, in comparison to when Astrada left them second bottom in March. The next test for Sabella was the Club World Cup in December 2009. Having beaten Pohang Steelers of South Korean and Atlante of Mexico respectively, Estudiantes and Barcelona contested the final in Abu Dhabi. Despite a 16 year age gap and a contrasting playing career – with regard to silverware and international caps – Sabella and Pep Guardiola were two rookie managers, who were in their jobs a combined 27 months. Undaunted by their illustrious opponents, Estudiantes were boosted by the signing of right-back Clemente Rodriguez and the resurgence of inform left-winger Leandro Benítez. Los Pincharratas came within 2 minutes, after Boselli had given Estudiantes the lead on 37’, of defeating one of the greatest club sides of all-time. By packing the midfield, Sabella interrupted Barcelona’s passing rhythm and his careful pre-match analysis of Barça’s passing and set-piece trajectory meant little danger was posed, with Barcelona having just 4 shots on target for the whole 120 minute match. However, two of these proved fatal: Pedro netting on 88’ and Lionel Messi on 110’.

The performance led to worldwide plaudits for Sabella and Estudiantess, and he continued his success with the 2010 Apertura title. In the Apertura, Estudiantes scored more goals yet managed to keep their incredible defensive record – netting 32 and conceding only 8 goals in 19 games. However, days before the national Clausura’s first round of matches, Sabella surprisingly handed in his resignation on 2 February – 23 months after he took over. While the reason for his shock resignation was never publicised, it is believed to have been down to the reluctance of Estudiantes’ board of directors to spend. To measure Sabella’s achievement, it is worth noting that his replacement, Eduardo Berizzo, resigned just four months into his reign on 30 May, following a 12 game winless streak that left Estudiantes hovering above the relegation zone. Despite being linked with an incredible return to La Plata, in June, Sabella gave his word to the UAE League team, Al Jazira Club, that he would sign a three-year contract. However, when the Argentine Football Federation (AFA) finally came calling, Sabella could not refuse and backed out of a golden handshake with Al Jazira Club.

To analyse what Sabella might tweak with La Albiceleste, it is important to first look at why Batista failed so miserably at the Copa América. Batista’s tactical naivety was summed up in his hope of playing like Barcelona but before the Copa América, rather than given the Catalan giants credit, he instead, somewhat arrogantly, claimed that “Barcelona stole the essence of Argentine football.” Nonetheless, Batista still went ahead with a Barcelona-like formation and tiki-taka passing instructions, designed to get the best out of Messi, who was deployed as a false nine and whose aim was to make space for forwards to cut inside and for midfielders to break forward. To transfer a template that has been engrained in Barcelona’s players’ footballing brains for at least a year, if they are a new signing, or decades, if they are La Masia youth graduates, in just a month was ludicrous. The pressure was on for Argentina to deliver in their home tournament but, without marauding full-backs or a box-to-box midfielder, Argentina struggled badly – particularly with Batista’s wholesale tinkering of personnel after the first game against Bolivia – which was masked by a 3-0 win over Costa Rica.

With Julio Grondona eager to hang onto the AFA Presidency, which he has held for 32 years, a change was needed to appease supporters. Nonetheless, Sabella has proved himself as a short-term miraculous tactician, after dramatically turning around Estudiantes’ fortunes, but this will be a huge test for the Argentine. It looks likely that Sabella will appoint Veron as his assistant or as part of his coaching staff and after Veron’s inspirational renaissance as a player under El Pachorra, Veron could prove a smart appointment in tandem with Sabella’s tactical nous. While Sabella did use 4-4-2 occasionally, it would be no surprise to see his successful 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 being the first formation he turns to. However, despite the fact that Estudiantes conceded few goals during his tenure, it would be unfair to suggest that Sabella will use a negative tactic and playing style – particularly with Argentina’s great attacking options.

Personnel wise, few goalkeepers in Argentina’s pool can rival Sergio Romero at the moment and despite the odd lapse in concentration, the 24 year old, who only became Argentina’s number one in 2010, will continue to develop. With 37 year old Javier Zanetti likely to retire from international football and Pablo Zabaleta failing to dazzle, and only Cristian Ansaldi likely to prosper at left-back, Sabella may well decide to play three central defenders. With Walter Samuel (33), Gabriel Milito (30) and Nicolás Burdisso (30) nearing the end of their international careers and lacking consistency, Sabella may well decide to blood some new names in the backline for the 2014 qualifying campaign. Nicholas Otamendi (22) had a great first season with Porto in his natural position of centre-back; Mateo Musacchio (20) looks a brilliant prospect at Villarreal; and Ezequiel Garay (24) may finally show his potential, having left the bench at Real Madrid for Benfica. Sabella may even consider deploying Maradona’s and Batista’s captain, Javier Mascherano, at centre-back after his accomplished and composed displays throughout the 2010/2011 season, including the Champions League Final against Manchester United.

La Albiceleste badly lacked a playmaker in the Copa América, despite Éver Banega’s brilliant ball-playing ability. Banega, like Esteban Cambiasso, Mascherano and Fernando Gago, operated in a deep-lying role and this left Argentina’s forwards isolated. If  Sabella goes with four across the midfield, with a player in the number ten role, he will surely look at bringing in Javier Pastore into the starting line-up. Pastore was one of the few Argentines to impress at the Copa, displaying great technique, energy and passing trajectory, and is naturally a trequartista – which is as close to a fantasista as Argentina have. With two of Banega, Mascherano or Cambiasso behind Pastore, he would be given license to give Argentina much needed link-up play – especially if Messi is given a free role to move into the channels on the right-hand side. Ángel di Maria is the obvious option on the left and with two of Mascherano, Cambiasso or Banega deep, Argentina would be covered through the middle in what could become a 3-2-3-2 set-up, but they may be still be left vulnerable to a counter-attack on the flanks. Up front, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain could be a perfect complement together, with Agüero able to drop deep to link-up with Pastore, di Maria and Messi.

Despite Sabella’s near flawless 23 months as Estudiantes manager and the fact that he is one of the most accomplished Argentine tacticians to manage La Albiceleste in recent years, the AFA have taken a massive gamble on El Pachorra. However, finally he has been given the chance, after so many years of being deemed too slow or too old as a player, or too inexperienced or too unadventurous as a manager, to prove himself on the world stage and in the process, finally step out of the shadows.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

One thought on “Alejandro Sabella: ‘The Sloth’ finally steps out of the shadows

  1. Sabella is a very bright, intelligent and respected tactician. he’ll bring out the best of the players at his disposal. on of his CB’s (i’m guessing Rojo) will be a make-shift LB so he can shuffle between a 3, 4 and 5 man defence. I can imagine Di Maria playing ahead of him, as he can operate quite well across the flank. the real problem in my opinion will always be Tevez. to call or not to call. he fits the mould required for the system, but is incompatibale with Messi. Aguero is better off upfront alongside Leo, with Banega, Mascherano & Pastore in midfield. Sabella’s midfield consists of a recuperator, an attacking midfielder, and a dynamic all-rounder. Zabaletta, although unconvincing, is the best option on the right due to his polyvalence. I’m getting carried away, but gosh, Sabella could do wonders with Argentina. it’ll be a throw-back to Bielsa’s days…when Argentina played football!

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