As featured on Guardian Sport
With one brief, shocking press conference, he was gone. Marcelo Bielsa announced to the media at the Stade Vélodrome following Olympique Marseille’s 1-0 loss to Caen that he had stepped down as head coach. “I took my decision on Wednesday,” the coach told perplexed cluster of journalists. “I’ve finished my work here. I’m going back to Argentina.”
After a characteristically headline-grabbing, exhilaratingly chaotic 12 months in charge, Bielsa’s rising tide in Ligue 1 was suddenly no more. He had drafted a resignation letter but left it in his office as he took charge of the club for the last time. Patrolling the technical area with the usual maniacal paroxysm, nobody inside the packed Vélodrome would have suspected that, buried beneath a flurry of thoughts in Bielsa’s restless mind, he was planning to announce his departure.
The news, unsurprisingly, hit the fans and players hard. After arriving in the summer of 2014, the notorious, fanatical doctrine of ‘Bielsista’ had captured the imagination of the club’s voracious supporters. The exacting, expansive mind of the Argentine coach had swept into the south of France in a wave of excitement and wasted no time in endearing himself to the raucous MTP (Marseille Trop Puissant – the club’s most hardened faction of supporters).
He started with a bang, too. Marseille, as documented by Philippe Auclair in a feature for Eight By Eight magazine, is one of France’s “crazier” clubs. A Marseillas is undoubtedly a fan of unrelenting passion, but the club’s support have experienced a whirlwind of emotions over the past number of years, with everything from winning the Champions League in 1993 to suffering a decade of decline prompted by the financial irregularities and match-fixing scandal surrounding then president Bernard Tapie, which plunged them into enforced relegation while being stripped of the Ligue 1 title they had won in 1993. The never-ending carousel of managers further added to the sense of volatility at the club.
Bielsa was OM’s 36th head coach in 28 years. Known affectionately around the footballing globe as ‘El Loco’, he came with a sparkling reputation as being one of the most revered tactical thinkers in the game. By Christmas, the south of France was already gripped with Bielsista fever. The remarkably intense persona of Bielsa seemed to align well with OM’s fanatical fans and the marriage was a serene journey in its first few months.
After an initial stumble in his first two matches, that saw a breathlessly frustrating 3-3 draw with Bastia before a 2-0 home loss to Montpellier, the Bielsa effect began to take hold – and the former Chile and Athletic Bilbao boss oversaw a glorious run of eight consecutive victories.
Thanks in no small part to the prodigious goalscoring talents of André-Pierre Gignac up front, Bielsa’s well-documented hard-pressing philosophy had been embraced by the players and, as a result, they were operating with optimum efficiency and fluidity. Under Bielsa, Marseille alternated between his trademark 3-3-1-3 and a more conservative – but equally effective – 4-2-3-1. Although it differed slightly in shape from some of the Bielsa teams down the years, the philosophy and characteristics were very much the same. Through a combination of tireless work-rate and intelligent positioning, Marseille bamboozled a number of teams as they rode the crest of a wave in September and October, recording resounding victories over Nice, Rennes and Reims in the process.
By the time December came about, Marseille were top of the table and looking pretty. Plenty of column inches in the French press had been dedicated to portraying Bielsa as a saviour and a mastermind coach. Marseille’s talented squad was tested to the extreme by their coach’s intensive, militaristic methods in training, but they were responding to his charisma – and his vision.
“The workouts are intense but enlightening, technically and tactically,” said Gignac. “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. He taught us a vibrant, real type of football.” This snapshot of glowing praise from one of Bielsa’s prized assets illustrated exactly how he can enrapture the footballing mind. Marseille’s young and technically gifted players were desperate for a leader to latch on to and, with Bielsa’s peerless level of meticulousness now available to them, they bagged themselves a pretty good one.
Plenty of footage from Bielsa’s training sessions at La Commanderie, Marseille’s resplendent training facility, is available on YouTube – and they make for compelling viewing. In the linked clip we see him totally engaged with his side, barking orders and remonstrating wildly while they played the football of his making. At the end of the incredibly intense session, Bielsa claps and lauds the efforts of his players, patting an exhausted Mario Lemina on the back while the midfielder crouches over and attempts to get his breath back.
Yes, Bielsa demands a lot from his players, but they respond to his philosophy and, like him, have confidence in the benefits of playing such chaotic, aggressive football. Bielsa has always issued instructions, team talks, lectures, video analysis sessions or whatever it may be with the utmost self-confidence. At Marseille, certainly during the first half of the season, there was an overriding sense that the fans and first-team squad had bought it into what he was preaching.
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Bielsa has always adhered to the “running is everything” motto and his players didn’t shy away from this taxing physical demand. From the outside looking in, Bielsa may have cut a ghastly figure, stalking the pitch on the touchline and displaying an explosive temperament. But to Marseille, he had quickly grown to become their indisputable leader.
However, not long after Bielsa’s honeymoon period at the Vélodrome, the romance petered out and made way for a spell characterised by drama and discord. After the turn of the year, defeats became regular as the performances became erratic. Having been perched at Ligue 1’s summit in December, they lumbered through a period in April that included four straight defeats, including a particularly bruising one against Paris Saint-Germain at home to the tune of 3-2.
Wildly unpredictable by this stage, Bielsa guided his side through a strong finish in winning their last four league games, including an enthralling 4-0 victory away at Lille in the penultimate game. However the mood simply wasn’t the same. Furthermore, matters behind the scenes had become less than sanguine. Club president Vincent Labrune had initially hailed the appointment of Bielsa as a wonderful moment for Marseille and compared it to “signing Lionel Messi for 12 months”. He may have said it, but Labrune was hoping to retain Bielsa’s services for a far greater length of time. But it didn’t work out like either party had hoped.
Bielsa’s departure came seemingly out of nowhere. Just 48 hours before addressing the media for the final time, the coach had talked positively about his contract but differences with Labrune had prompted his decision to depart. And like that, Marseille were plunged into darkness as Bielsa closed another eventful chapter in his storied career.
Why, then, would a manager who overworked his side to the point of physical collapse and resigned after just a year in charge, deserve a place in the Masterminds series? The answer is simple: Bielsa ideas and principles are bold, daring and tactically revolutionary. While it’s true that Bielsa will not be held in the same regard as the more trophy-laden managers of the modern game, he still stands among a select few as an innovator, a thinker, a mentor and a symbol of footballing intellect.
His acumen and grasp of the tactical intricacies of football is borne out of his upbringing in a successful, career-driven family. His brother Rafael is a former minister of foreign relations in Argentina and his sister, Maria Eugenia, is a renowned architect. But Bielsa was not interested in such a career. He was driven, from a very young age, to be a footballer, and left home at 15 to live at the club accommodation at Newell’s Old Boys. It was here, at one of Argentina’s most illustrious clubs, that the seeds of Bielsa’s undying football obsession were sown. Journalist Jonathan Wilson once stated that Bielsa’s grandfather amassed a colossal collection of books and, as a result, he developed an insatiable appetite for learning and knowledge.
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It wasn’t in writing that Bielsa’s processes manifested themselves. Instead, he has cultivated an unusual obsession with video footage. Bielsa has spent months of his managerial career consuming reams and reams of videos, constantly perpetuating his education as a student of football. He impressed the Vélez Sarsfield board when he was interviewed for the manager’s position in 1997 when he brought several tapes as proof of how he could improve the team. It quickly became apparent that he was a unique individual with an astonishing work ethic.
Bielsa is an exhausting coach to work for – and with – and it was generated by a demanding mother who was tough to impress. However, in spite of this, he couldn’t quite make it playing football. He was a technical defender but lacked pace and spent the bulk of his career floating anonymously around Argentina’s lower leagues before deciding to quit the game and study physical education.
His first major coaching role was with the Buenos Aires university football team and he spent two years there honing his tactical nous before returning to Newell’s and establishing himself as a protégé with the reserves. He eventually replaced José Yudica as first-team coach and facilitated a dramatic change.
Bielsa introduced a flexible, fluid 4-3-3 with pacey wingers that were able to adapt to a 3-4-3 seamlessly. The system began to work after Bielsa organised structured, regimented and wholly intense training schedules that mixed tactical sessions, ball work and video analysis. Bielsa demanded a lot – even from the youngest members of the squad.
The players were required to prepare detailed dossiers on the opposition and have the capacity to highlight key moments in play during a video session. Bielsa would ask a player to demonstrate a tactical trend or mishap from screenshots and footage. This particular method has grown in popularity over the years, but back then it was fresh and innovative, with Old Boys claiming the league title after a playoff victory over Boca Juniors.
Of course, there were heartaches as well as ecstasies at Newell’s and, at times, football threatened to swallow Bielsa up. His reactions to losing were sometimes extreme and difficult to comprehend. After the acute ignominy of being hammered 6-0 by Santa Fe, Bielsa locked himself away in a darkened room and reflected deeply on the game.
“I shut myself in my room,” he said. “I turned off the light, closed the curtains, and I realised the true meaning of an expression we sometimes use lightly: ‘I want to die.’ I burst into tears. I could not understand what was happening around me. I suffered as a professional and I suffered as a fan.
“For three months our daughter was held between life and death,” he later said. “Now she is fine. Does it make any sense that I want the earth to swallow me over the result of a football match? The reasoning was brilliant, but nonetheless, my suffering from what had happened demanded immediate vindication.”
Extraordinary. We can see how Bielsa views football. It is not just a game for him, but a way of life, an understanding – an ideal. For him, it is the driving force, the lifeblood of his obsessive compulsions that has helped him forge an identity as a model student of the game. Like many, Bielsa became fascinated with the Total Football philosophy pioneered by Rinus Michels with the Dutch side in the 1970s. Bielsa believed, like Michels and later Arrigo Sacchi, that it was important to embrace and encourage the versatility within a player.
He formulated the 4-3-3/3-4-3 system and has always abided by four core principles: Concentración, Permanente movilidad, Rotación y Repenitización (Concentration, Permanent focus, Rotation and Improvisation). His school of thought occupied somewhere between the two prevailing ideologies in Argentine football – Menottista (romantic idealist) and Bilardista (territorial and tactically-driven), from 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 and, 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 the head coach of the national team, winning an Olympic gold medal in 2004. Although he didn’t succeed in the World Cup in 2002, Bielsa’s reputation as an accomplished tactical brain was burgeoning and he was high in 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.
Innovative and thrilling in the 3-3-1-3 system, Bielsa’s Chile were inherently attacking and pressed high up the pitch aggressively. They progressed to the last-16 in the 2010 World Cup but were ultimately undone by an on-song Brazil. Although they were humbled by their South American counterparts, Bielsa’s popularity soared in Chile and there was, once again, a great deal of sorrow when he resigned, citing differences with the country’s football federation.
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For many, it was Bielsa’s emergence as manager of Athletic Bilbao that made them sit up and take notice. He took over from Joaquín Caparrós in the summer of 2011 and once again enacted dramatic changes to the set-up and style of football. Bilbao had finished sixth under Caparrós but there were growing concerns over his particularly bland style and when Josu Urrutia – a former midfielder and club legend – became Bilbao’s president, Bielsa was instated.
Typically, Bielsa had no qualms in abandoning the tactics of his predecessor in order to mould his own side. Javi Martínez, Bielsa thought, was suited more 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 .
The Argentine’s off-field eccentricities manifested themselves full throttle at Bilbao. Months after he had arrived, the players were still amused and baffled by him. His preparation for taking over as head coach was immense – and it amazed them. 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. But, as it had done 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.
He taught the Basque players how to synchronise their movement and, most noticeably, how to out-run the opposition. 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. Beleaguered, yes, from their group stage exit from the Champions League, but there wouldn’t have been much a high-flying United team could have done about Bilbao.
United may have taken the lead but Bilbao were never perturbed. They didn’t once veer from Bielsa’s tactics and, come the end of the night, it was the men in green that were huddled in joy on the Old Trafford turf, as the home supporters applauded in appreciation at the sheer quality of the visitors. Bielsa was a bundle of restless energy on the touchline – as usual – but his incessant pacing wasn’t done in vain and, by the time Muniain had scored his side’s third goal, all of Europe were 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 as “beasts”. Ferguson hailed Bielsa’s organisation and determination, accepting that his United side had been well and truly beaten by the San Mamés outfit.
While it’s true that Bielsa’s project at Bilbao started to unravel before his eventual departure, he left a great legacy and impression in that part of Spain, like he did with all of his teams. Bielsa has fashioned an image of himself as a brilliant footballing mind and a hopeless romantic.
Shortly after he resigned from Marseille, there were reports that he was in talks to succeed another towering personality in Miguel Herrera as Mexico coach. In a way, I’m glad that didn’t happen. When Sam Allardyce left West Ham, some fans dreamed of Bielsa. He is yet to grace the Premier League and Bundesliga in his storied managerial career and, although some have argued that his chaotic style is more suited to international football, moving to either of those two leagues would represent another hair-raisingly intriguing prospect in his career.
Some managers should not be judged on their haul of trophies and titles. Bielsa is one of them. Three Argentine league titles and an Olympic gold is far from a spectacular return but that should not be the barometer with which we measure Bielsa’s genius and impact on the way modern football is played. He is a pure idealist, an ascetic that will never change.
While it’s true that his theoretical preachings should be tempered in order to win trophies, without Bielsa we may well never have had the glory of watching Guardiola’s Barcelona, such was his impact on the Spaniard and his work as manager. His interminable quest for the ideal is what keeps drawing people to Bielsa. He is constantly name-checked around the world, constantly searched on Google, constantly studied. 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.
He is one that has always prioritised the execution of the process over the eventual outcome and football should love him for it, even if he exhausts as much as he invigorates. There may never be anyone quite like him again in the footballing world. Savour it while it lasts.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11