A cloud of insects dances around the glow of the floodlights in La Paternal, the residential neighbourhood of Buenos Aires that Argentinos Juniors call home. The Argentine spring edges towards summer, the air is hot and humid.
By the pitch, Gabriel Heinze paces the length of his technical area. The Argentinos manager clasps his hands behind his back and observes his team’s match against Ferro Carril Oeste. He places a hand on his chin, watching the match intently and occasionally dispensing tactical advice to his players. He gains their attention each time with a shrill wolf-whistle.
Heinze’s managerial career is still in its infancy. The 38-year-old hung up his boots in 2014 after a playing career that spanned the top divisions in Argentina, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Italy. Seventy-two appearances for Argentina add gloss to the fine innings of a full-back who combined technique, intelligence and a ferocious competitive streak.
Roy Keane wrote in his autobiography that Heinze was ‘a nasty fucker in training’. Coming from Keane, the king of nasty-fuckery, Heinze must take it as a compliment; a nod to the steely-minded focus that he drew upon as a player and must continue to employ as a manager.
There have already been hiccups. A year after Heinze played his final match for Newell’s Old Boys – the club of eccentric Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa – he was appointed by Godoy Cruz, a Primera División club from the vineyard city of Mendoza. But Heinze didn’t possess the necessary managerial credentials to perform his duties effectively.
He had restricted access to the dugout on match days and, even more damagingly, to the training ground during the week. El Gringo, so called because of his German-Italian heritage and fair hair, lasted just ten games. It was an impossible situation, but nevertheless it gave Heinze a taste that he craved to experience again.
Back on the touchline in La Paternal, Heinze continues to pace. Between two tiers of the stand behind him, the name of his childhood hero stares down in imposing block capitals: ‘ESTADIO DIEGO ARMANDO MARADONA’. The embossed letters are a potent reminder of the club’s rich history of producing gifted players: Maradona, Redondo, Riquelme, Cambiasso, Sergio Batista.
Equally, the embossed letters are a reminder of the need for rejuvenation at Argentinos Juniors. The club was relegated to the second division at the start of 2016, having claimed the sole relegation spot in a bloated Primera Division, which has recently been increased to 30 teams.
Argentinos soared to a 3-1 victory against Ferro, one of their leading rivals in the battle for promotion. After the shock of relegation, the atmosphere was one of optimism again. At the final whistle Heinze shook the hand of his opposite number Walter Perazzo, a former Argentinos player, and scurried down the tunnel. The fans chanted vamos a volver – ‘we are going to return’.
Their expectations are justified. Just a few months into Heinze’s reign, Argentinos Juniors are already playing with remarkable tactical clarity. In a league where matches come thick and fast, the rookie coach hasn’t had enormous amounts of time on the training pitch in which to impress his ideas. Yet Argentinos play with flair and a clear idea of what they want to achieve.
The most distinctive traits are a focus on maintaining possession, coupled with continuous movement off the ball. At goal kicks the centre-halves split to the edges of the box; the full-backs trot up to the halfway line; and the defensive midfielder, No.5 in Argentina, drops deep to collect the ball.
When they don’t have possession, Los Bichos – ‘The Bugs’, as Argentinos are known – hassle and harry the opposition, swarming them like the insects around the floodlights. For a player who was rough around the edges, Heinze’s coaching ideals are evidently much more stylish and refined.
On occasion, he has thrown impulse into the mix. In his first game in charge, a Copa Argentina clash against lower-league Deportivo Laferrere, Heinze subbed on the reserve goalkeeper for the penalty shoot-out. It was reminiscent of Louis van Gaal’s management of the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup. But, while Tim Krul’s late cameo helped Holland beat Costa Rica, Argentinos lost 4-3 on penalties and were eliminated.
It was Heinze’s strong will that strained his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. It had been tense even before he kicked a ball at Old Trafford, after he chose to represent Argentina at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Heinze was unperturbed by Ferguson’s warning that the situation ‘could deny him a career at Manchester United’, and the following year the £6.9m signing from Paris Saint-Germain was named the club’s Player of the Season.
Heinze stood toe-to-toe with Ferguson again in 2007 as he attempted to force through a transfer to United’s bitter rivals, Liverpool. It escalated to a Premier League tribunal, and this time Ferguson got his way as the panel ruled in favour of United. Instead of Anfield, Heinze moved to Real Madrid the following month.
It is thought that he has since reconciled his differences with Ferguson. Heinze admits that the episode is one of his few regrets as a player, acknowledging his ‘impulsive and strong-willed character’. With Ferguson it was a case of an unstoppable force colliding with an immovable object.
Argentina has more psychologists per-capita than any other country, and the rest of the population like to dabble as amateurs. Being strong-willed can be troublesome for a player. But as a manager, having the courage of your convictions is absolutely necessary.
For Heinze, the true challenge will come if he can guide Argentinos back to the Primera. His commitment to an expansive style will face much harsher scrutiny by stronger opposition.
Heinze has shown two sides to his managerial character: his penchant for the impulsive clashes with a steely focus and clear idea of his tactical plan. His career as a manager will be determined by which facet wrestles control.