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 admitted his team simply couldn’t cope and it made all of Europe take note of the Basque side. Their manager? Marcelo Bielsa.
On 24th April 2015, 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 because the club had failed to sign the 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 awful but never boring. 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 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 he really made a name for himself. Here, the methods that he has stuck with throughout his career began to take shape, as 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 are as they attempt to meet his physical demands. It is a feature of Bielsa’s teams to start slowly while they get to grips with 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 to 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.
“The workouts are intense but enlightening, technically and tactically,” said André-Pierre Gignac, who played under Bielsa at Marseille. “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. He is obsessed with watching and analyzing 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 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.
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. He won’t be remembered for what he won but for his insight into the game and his unyielding vision of how it should be played.
After the debacle with Lazio in the summer, it is hard to envisage one of Europe’s big clubs taking a gamble on the 61-year-old. He was linked with the Argentina job but, along with countless others, he rejected it because of the turmoil at AFA before it went to Edgardo Bauza. It may be that his uncompromising attitude means he is never given the opportunity of the top club job he needs in order to meet his quest for perfection, to finally win a major competition. But will he moderate his approach just to win? Unlikely. And I, for one, am grateful for that.
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