Manager Profile: Marcelo Gallardo

Karim Benzema’s arrival at Al Ittihad came amid a flurry of headlines and camera flashes, capturing attention from all around the world, and was just one of a number of transformative signings in the off-season that stand to re-shape the club and the Roshn Saudi League.

The appointment of Marcelo Gallardo to replace Nuno Espirito Santo, who ended Al Ittihad’s 14-year title drought last season, might have generated fewer headlines, but his entry in Jeddah could be equally as transformative.

Having left his “beloved” River Plate - as a player, Gallardo represented the storied South American club across three separate spells - in October last year after eight remarkably successful seasons, the Argentine became hot property on the coaching merry-go-round.

The 47-year-old was linked with jobs at some of the biggest clubs in the world, including Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea, and Real Madrid. A first foray into Europe was seen as the logical next step on his managerial journey after conquering Argentina and, with two Copa Libertadores titles, South America.

“I am visualising what the next step in my career might be,” Gallardo said in a recent interview with The Athletic.

“It has to relate to a feeling. You have to find the right connection, the place where you can transmit your ideas. I’m not the kind of person who will just join any old club because I want to coach in Europe. That’s not my way of operating.

“I’d have to get to know the club’s model and culture. You cannot ignore the history of the place where you’re going to work and live. That part is incredibly important.”

That Gallardo identifies so intimately with Al Ittihad and its history as Saudi Arabia’s oldest club and two-time continental champions, its culture and its journey is a testament to the vision and ambition of the Saudi Pro League.



Identity strikes at the heart of who Gallardo is and what he is about as a manager.

Over eight years at River Plate, one of Argentina’s most-followed football teams, he transformed the club and its identity, particularly on the pitch with his own brand of high-octane football.

While some coaches are wedded to particular systems - think 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, etc - Gallardo doesn’t prescribe to only one.

His River Plate played with both a back four and a back three, varied between one, two or even three strikers, and tinkered with the make-up of the midfield at the same time.

But while the systems changed, what didn’t was the intent and the identity.

The Argentine uses the word “protagonismo”, which loosely translated means to be the protagonist; to take the game to the opposition. It’s all about playing on the front foot and shaping the game rather than allowing the opposition to do the same.

If you control the game, you can control the outcome.

“You can have a way of playing, an idea,” explained Gallardo, who aside from a stellar playing career with River Plate, also played for PSG and Monaco and was capped 44 times by the Argentina national team.

“Executing that idea is something else entirely because there’s an opponent in front of you, trying to impede you. But that desire to be the protagonist is the foundation, and very much related to the way I feel about the game.”


In football there are great coaches, and great man managers. The really special ones, like Gallardo, are both.

Modern football is so much more than just moving magnets on a whiteboard. You have to be a father figure, a mentor, a friend, a psychologist. Oh, and you still have to coach. You still have to move the magnets.

Gallardo, still a couple of months from his 48th birthday, is young enough and not so far removed from his playing days to understand the psychology of the modern footballer.

“I don’t consider myself to be a friend of the players,” Gallardo said in a recent interview, “but I don’t consider myself to be an authoritarian manager either.

“Today, a coach has to have a bit of everything.”


In Argentina, he earned the nickname “Napoleon” for his ability to inspire his players, which he says comes back to one basic principle: respect.

“If you start with respect, you can unlock so many things,” Gallardo says.

Players relished the unique environment he created. It made football fun, but in return Gallardo demanded plenty. It wasn’t easy, but the rewards were worth it for those who committed.

Once respect was established both ways, the culture inside the walls of the club developed itself. Maintaining that culture was the ultimate key to success.

“What you need is that continuous dynamic of culture - when everyone understands that if we let up even a bit, the structure will begin to wobble. It has to be nurtured at all times,” Gallardo explains.

“And it wasn’t just me. There was an entire team working together to make it happen. It’s not easy, but you have to try.”



Underpinning everything is, of course, success on the pitch.

Success isn’t created in a silo, however. It comes as a result of the environment. Culture breeds success, and at River Plate there was plenty of the latter. Gallardo left the club as their most successful manager in their 122-year history, guiding River to 14 trophies.

It’s a level of success that may never be repeated.

Most significant were the two victories in the Copa Libertadores, the highest level of club competition in South America, in 2015 and 2018. In achieving the feat, Gallardo joined an elite group of managers to have won the tournament on more than one occasion.

The latter of those titles came in dramatic circumstances, with the second leg of the final against fierce rivals Boca Juniors moved to the Bernabeu in Madrid in what was one of the most hotly anticipated continental finals in living memory.

River Plate’s victory, 5-3 on aggregate, was seen as a victory for Gallardo and his “brave” coaching. Where others feared losing, Gallardo only focused on winning.

After stepping aside last year, Gallardo has had time to decompress and recharge the batteries after an emotionally taxing time with his boyhood club.

Having been sought by so many clubs around the world, that he has chosen Al Ittihad as the next destination in his coaching journey is a tremendous feather in the cap for the club and the RSL.

He arrives in Jeddah refreshed and ready to throw himself at a new challenge.

“I’m incredibly excited,” Gallardo said in his first interview since taking the job. “Especially about this fantastic opportunity and the significant challenge of immersing myself in a new culture.

“This is the reason behind being able to face this challenge as growth as well, not just as sport, but also to understand from a cultural perspective how one can also engage in the development structure.

“This is what truly motivated me to come here, and it was one of the main reasons. I have a passion for development and the excitement of discovering something new.”