Coaches Who Changed Football: Marcelo Bielsa
He is eccentric but his style of football is energetic. We look into the machinations of Marcelo Bielsa style, one of modern football’s most inspiring coaches.
Intense, passionate, and stark raving mad; these are just a few adjectives used to describe Argentina’s Marcelo Bielsa, a prophet of football’s new tactical age. Nicknamed ‘El Loco’ or ‘the mad one’, Bielsa in his endeavour to learn everything about football, took the game’s rulebook and ripped it to shreds.
Bielsa, driven to be a footballer at a very young age, joined Newell’s Old Boys at the age of 15. It was here at Newell’s, that the seeds of Bielsa’s intense football obsession were sown. Bielsa developed a respect for knowledge and learning, subscribing at one point to more than 40 international sports magazines and collecting thousands of recordings of matches.
As a player, Bielsa was slow and unable to compete at a high level. However, that did not deter him from wanting a career in football. He joined Newell’s youth set up as a coach and was instrumental in changing their scouting system. By 1990, he was working with the reserves and was established enough to replace José Yudica as first-team coach.
Bielsa was building his reputation at Newell’s as a bold, daring and tactically revolutionary manager. Like many South Americans of his generation, the early 70s’ Dutch side heavily influenced Bielsa, and his basic style developed out of the Total Football philosophy of Rinus Michels. In fact, it bore striking similarities to the theories Louis van Gaal was putting into practice at Ajax at around the same time.
For Bielsa, defending was the first stage of attacking. He set up his sides to press the opponent and win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. “While the opponent has the ball,” he asserts, “the whole team presses, always trying to cut off the play as close as possible to the opponent’s goal; when we get it we look to play with dynamism and create the spaces for improvisation.”
He has always abided by four core principles: concentration, permanent focus, rotation, and improvisation. His school of thought occupies the area somewhere between the two prevailing ideologies in Argentine football – Menottista (romantic idealist) and Bilardista (territorial and tactically-driven), named so for César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, who guided their country to World Cup success in 1978 and ’86 respectively.
Bielsa was also influenced by Uruguayan legend Óscar Tabárez. Solidifying his doctrine, he guided Newell’s to the Copa Libertadores final in 1992, where they lost to São Paulo. Following that Bielsa resigned, much to the dismay of his players. However, his managerial model and tactical approach had been cemented – and he was ready for bigger challenges.
Bielsa spent six years as head coach of the Argentinian national team, winning an Olympic gold medal in 2004. Although he didn’t succeed in the 2002 World Cup, Bielsa’s reputation as an accomplished tactical brain was burgeoning and he was in high demand after leaving Argentina. His next journey was with Chile, and it was under him that La Roja became one of the most electrifying teams in world football.
Bielsa’s Chile was a team of attacking tactics, pressing high up the pitch aggressively. They progressed to the final 16 in the 2010 World Cup but were ultimately undone by an on-song Brazil. While managing the Chile team, he usually utilised an incredibly demanding, and physically draining 3-3-1-3 that required the most immense sense of versatility there is.
His philosophy of using aggressive defenders shone through here, as he deployed defensive midfielders on the outside of one true central player to shuttle up and down the pitch.
For many, it was Bielsa’s emergence as manager of Athletic Bilbao that made them sit up and take notice. Bielsa had no qualms in abandoning the tactics of his predecessor in order to mould his own side. Javi Martínez, Bielsa believed, was better suited to being deployed deeper into the defensive line, while he introduced genuine width in the play with Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain, and Ibai Gómez. Ander Herrera was signed from Real Zaragoza in 2011 and immediately became instrumental to Bielsa’s attacking vision at San Mamés.
Bielsa’s off-field eccentricities manifested themselves full throttle at Bilbao. Months after he had arrived, the players were still amused and baffled by him. Before Bielsa took his first training session, he had watched all 38 of Bilbao’s league games from the previous season, writing a mountain of notes and collating them together into coherent lectures. As it had been with the Chilean national team, Bielsa’s madness was infectious and charming. In training, Bielsa demanded the absolute maximum from everyone, overseeing gruelling sprint sessions before playing out potential match situations, with Bielsa always preaching high pressure and joining in as much as he observed.
Bielsa’s teachings came full circle in their fascinating two-legged display against Manchester United in the Europa League last-16 in March 2012. Bielsa’s hard-running, relentless outfit completely outplayed Sir Alex Ferguson’s beleaguered Red Devils.
Bielsa was a bundle of restless energy on the touchline – as usual – but his incessant pacing wasn’t in vain. Byy the time Muniain had scored his side’s third goal, all of Europe was talking about Bielsa’s Bilbao.
That season, the Rosario native guided Los Leones to the final of both the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey. They fell short on both occasions, but Bielsa had constructed the most exciting Bilbao team in years and drew glowing praise from onlookers. Pep Guardiola, who felt a strong affinity with Bielsa after seeking his advice at the start of his own managerial career, described Bilbao as “fascinating” and labelled the players “beasts”. Ferguson hailed Bielsa’s organisation and determination, accepting that his United side had been well and truly beaten by the San Mamés outfit.
When it comes to match preparation, it would be an understatement to call Bielsa fanatical. He is well known for isolating himself from family and friends so he can focus completely on preparing for an upcoming international tournament or club season. Bielsa collects and studies hours of film on individual and team play to break down every nuance of his players’ skillsets, and to analyse how his team has played together. He meticulously drills his players on individual in-game situations and they practice choreographed attacking movements until these movements are committed to memory.
Bielsa coaches a unique style of football that defies conventional footballing norms. Unlike most managers who prefer to play with a settled defence in order to build continuity and understanding between defenders, Bielsa prefers to switch between a back two, three, or four in an attempt to play with one extra defender than his opposition has attackers. With one additional defender, Bielsa is able to have the extra defender provide defensive cover, while not wasting a player in midfield or attack.
He prefers to convert central midfielders or fullbacks into centerbacks in an attempt to play more technically skilled players in deeper positions. This helps facilitate his team to possess and play the ball out of the back. In addition, because Bielsa plays with a high defensive line, converted central midfielders and fullbacks are more comfortable playing higher up the field.
While most possession oriented football sides look to slow down the match tempo while in possession, he attempts to maintain a high tempo. Instead of trying to break down his opposition centrally, Bielsa prefers to attack down the flanks. He does this by instructing his wingers to position themselves on their touchline to stretch their opposition’s defensive line, and create central attacking lanes to force them to defend as much space as possible. Wingbacks play aggressively providing width down the flanks to support their wingers.
“Bielsa’s teams are very aggressive. They don’t let you breathe,” Guardiola once said. “Seven arrive in the penalty area, they lose the ball and 11 defend. Their games are all up and back, up and back, without stopping.”
However just like at his previous club, Bielsa’s project at Bilbao started to unravel before his eventual departure. The pattern has continued at every club he has been at: the intensity bringing stunning gratification, followed by burnout.
For all his meticulous planning and obsession over preparations, one of the strangest things about El Loco is that he doesn’t change his tactics according to the personnel available. Where other teams may alter how they play if without a key figure, Bielsa simply replaces them with another and commands that they perform to the same level.
This was particularly evident at Bilbao, as without Martinez, Los Leones weren’t able to get going. Yet instead of adjusting the system and placing more of an emphasis on Fernando Llorente, for example, he simply instructed the technically limited Ander Iturraspe to take up the mantle.
Despite his vast knowledge of the game, the lack of leeway he affords to players is astonishing. This is a man who, aside from being a tactical genius, is inflexible with his system, and demands titanic efforts from his players.
History may not judge Marcelo Bielsa as a great coach: three Argentine titles and an Olympic gold, after all, is not a spectacular return over a career. While he never may win a Champions League or World Cup, Bielsa’s profound effect on tactical trends and coaching philosophies is what makes him a mastermind. Pochettino, Sampaoli, Guardiola, Tata Martino, Brandon Rodgers, and Simeone are just some of the coaches who have embraced Bielsa’s attacking philosophy and pressing methods.
He might be loco, but as Bielsa himself once pointed out, “A man with new ideas is mad — until he succeeds.”