The Magic of Marcelo Bielsa: Sometimes brilliant, sometimes bad, never boring

Marcelo Bielsa graphic

On 8th March 2012, Athletic Bilbao stormed past Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 3-2 at Old Trafford in the Europa League last-16. Their performance was so impressive that Sir Alex later admitted his team simply couldn’t cope. It made all of Europe take note of the Basque side. Their manager? Marcelo Bielsa.

On 24th April 2015, Olympique Marseille slumped to a 3-5 defeat at home to FC Lorient, their fourth loss on the trot. Marseille looked sluggish and disorganised as they dropped out of the Champions League places having been first only three months previously. Their manager? Marcelo Bielsa.

On 8th July 2016, Lazio announced that their manager had walked out, just two days after it was officially announced that he had taken the job. In a letter to the club, he explained that the reason was that the club had failed to sign players in time for the beginning of pre-season, as had been promised. Their manager? Marcelo Bielsa.

These three moments are Bielsa’s career in a nutshell. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes bad, never boring.

Marcelo Bielsa: In celebration of a maverick

For a manager who has won only a couple of Argentine titles and an Olympic gold medal, he has developed an extraordinary, almost cult following, and had a profound impact on modern football. But what is it that makes him so special?

Bielsa was born into a successful family, and while his brother was a minister of foreign relations for Argentina and his sister is a well-respected architect, a career in football was always the only option for him.

After an unspectacular playing career in the Argentine lower leagues, it was only when he worked his way up to coaching Newell’s Old Boys that Bielsa really made a name for himself.

Here, the methods that he has stuck with throughout his career began to take shape. He introduced a flexible, high-pressing system which relied heavily on his players being able to run and run and run. “Running is understanding, running is everything,” as he once said. They were rewarded with two titles in two years.

The intensity of his approach is evident to anyone who watches his teams play as they swarm the opposition high up the pitch in his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation.

Watch him in training and you can see first how animated he is as he attempts to convey to his players his footballing vision, and secondly how knackered the players as they attempt to meet his physical demands.

It is a feature of Bielsa’s teams to start slowly before they really understand his tactical vision before sweeping all in their path until eventually, exhausted from trying to reach this impossible ideal that Bielsa demands from them, they fall short towards the end of the season.

He is a purist, a romantic, in a sport that is too focused on what can be counted – money and results.

“One needs to be loved to win, not win to be loved” is another of his favourite sayings and represents his outlook on the game; he does not strive simply for titles but for something purer, something higher that can only be attained when his players understand precisely his complex tactical instructions and have the fitness to carry them out.

This was outlined by André-Pierre Gignac, who played under Bielsa at Marseille:

“The workouts are intense but enlightening, technically and tactically. He knows everything to the smallest detail. I glanced at his training schedules; there are hundreds of them and every one featured games he analysed.”

This quote illustrates well the combination of the traditional hard-running and the innovative, intellectual thinking behind Bielsa’s teams.

Bielsa: Football Obsessive

He is obsessed with watching and analysing video footage and meticulous in his preparation. So much so that before he even arrived at Athletic Bilbao, he watched all 38 of their games from the previous season and compiled a mountain of notes on them.

This quest for the impossible is what draws so many to Bielsa, and is why his legacy will be huge even if he doesn’t add to his modest trophy haul.

In Argentina, there used to be a split in the football world between the Menottistas and the Bilardistas, after César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo who won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups for Argentina respectively and had hugely different footballing philosophies. It is a credit to Bielsa that this divide is no longer so prominent and instead most in Argentina are Bielsistas.

Bielsa disciples: a new breed of manager

Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli, who took on Bielsa’s Chile team and led them to their first Copa America title and used to listen to Bielsa’s motivational team talks while jogging, are just a few of his current acolytes.

Pep Guardiola sought Bielsa’s advice at the start of his managerial career and was able to combine his high-pressing game with Johan Cruyff’s more possession-oriented ideas to create his all-conquering Barcelona side that will go down in history as one of the greatest teams ever.

Bielsa won’t be remembered for what he won. But he will be for his insight into the game and his unyielding vision of how it should be played.

After being linked with a number of jobs across Europe and also the Argentina job, it has finally been confirmed that Bielsa will take the reins at Lille next season. While it now seems unlikely that Bielsa will be given a chance to win silverware with one of Europe’s elite, could he possibly do so with a young, undoubtedly talented but underperforming Lille squad?

Whatever happens, it will definitely be entertaining.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @JustFootball and Facebook for more football news, features and analysis.

Words: Harry Lawes | Featured image credit: Joe Does Designs via Twitter.

, , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.