Coaching in the Argentine Primera División, even at one of the nation's top clubs, is often a thankless task, and one that only gets harder the longer one occupies a place on the bench. Defeat is intolerable, with a handful of losses likely to see a trainer part company with his employers sooner rather than later – but winning too holds its own hazards, as Marcelo Gallardo in particular is well aware.
During the long recess in play imposed by the coronavirus outbreak Gallardo celebrated his sixth anniversary at the River Plate helm. Staying that long at a single club is a momentous achievement in the Argentine top flight, one which contrasts starkly with the coaching fortunes of their nearest rivals.
In that same six-year lapse Boca have seen five 'permanent' appointments come and go; Racing Club – with the Xeneize and Lanús the only teams to have won the Primera since River's 2014 Final triumph under Ramón Díaz – have changed coach five times including two spells for Diego Cocca; six men have sat on the bench at Independiente and no less than eight at San Lorenzo.
El Muñeco's status as a hero in Núñez from his playing days obviously aids his longevity, but only up to a certain point. River certainly have had no qualms in the past about ditching fans' favourites when results were not up to scratch, as Matías Almeyda found out the year before Gallardo's arrival; nor did Boca hesitate to remove the likes of Carlos Bianchi, Rodolfo Arruabarrena or Guillermo Barros Schelotto in their bid to stay at the top.
What Gallardo has managed is to make himself an indispensable figure at the club, a feat achieved by the deceptively simple expedient of consistently winning football games and titles, particularly at continental level.
As hinted at above, success brings its own dangers in Argentina. Foreign clubs are continually on the hunt for the best talent in South America and, with their two Copa Libertadores wins since 2015 and runners-up finish last time round, River have proven a reliable source for such players.
Just one Millonario remains in Gallardo's squad from that first Copa triumph in 2015, the evergreen Leo Ponzio, while key members of the 2018 victory over Boca such as Pity Martínez, Exequiel Palacios, Jonathan Maidana and, most recently, China-bound Juan Fernando Quintero have all moved on to overseas leagues. And yet, River remain a formidable force, as shown on Wednesday as they dispatched São Paulo 2-1 to book their spot in the Libertadores last 16 for the sixth successive season, alongside fellow national hopefuls Boca and Racing.
“The value of qualifying is in the fact we keep holding ourselves up there with a team that for the last few years has always been competing and fighting at the very top,” Gallardo explained after the win. “That is why I feel fully acknowledged and I can identify with these players.”
Julián Álvarez sums up perfectly the continuous renewal and re-invention that is the secret to River's success under their coach. The forward was just 14 when Gallardo first took the reins in 2014, and prior to this current year had played only a bit-part role in the River first team. But with the departures of Quintero and Ignacio Scocco space opened up in the Millo forward line, and the 20-year-old promise is determined to take advantage.
Álvarez scored in River's encouraging 2-2 draw away to São Paulo earlier in September, their first match for six months, and added another in their 6-0 demolition of Peru's Binacional. But the kid left the best for Wednesday night, hitting both goals to take down the Brazilians and assure a spot in the knockout stages.
If he carries on at this pace it will not be long until a top European club is knocking on the doors of the Monumental for his signature – at which point River will surely re-form once more and continue to post a formidable threat both in Argentina and across South America with their fluid, dynamic attacking football which is, aside from the trophies, another hallmark of the eternal Gallardo era.