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Marcelo Bielsa: Exploring El Loco

Ryan from from Football Whispers writes in about Marcelo Bielsa and his philosophy tactically.

Marcelo Bielsa may not be a household name among casual football fans, but the Argentinian coach, nicknamed El Loco for his idiosyncratic and unorthodox methods, has inspired a degree of fanaticism among a legion of the game’s idealists.


A favourite of football hipsters around the world, Bielsa has also spawned a generation of tacticians who have sprinkled his philosophy with a pinch more pragmatism, and used it achieve greater success than the former Athletic Club and Marseille boss was ever able to.

Having pursued a career as a professional footballer, Bielsa turned out for his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys. But, having mustered only two appearances for the Rosario side, he realised that he would not cut it as a top-level player, and quit the game at 25 to take up a coaching position in Buenos Aires with the city’s university team.

Hailing from an academic background – the majority of his immediate family were either lawyers or politicians – Bielsa sought to apply his intellect to seek alternative solutions to football’s age-old tactical quandaries. “I am a student of football,” he once said. “I watch videos, read, analyse, but beneath all my technical talk the great principle is not to concede too much space.”

The up-start coach got his big break in 1990, when appointed manager of Newell’s after being promoted from his position as coach of the youth team.

“Tactically it was a radical change,” midfielder Juan Manuel Llop said of the new manager’s approach. “He altered the fitness preparation enormously, he worked set-pieces very thoroughly and paid close attention to all the details.

“The style was very practical. It was a very aggressive style, looking for every man to win his personal duel … along with controlling possession and always looking to go forward and attack.”

As self-confessed subscriber to the paradoxical philosophies of legendary Argentinian coaches César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, Bielsa built his blueprint by blending aspects of the two men’s styles. He took Menotti’s desire for aesthetically pleasing play and added a dash of Bilardo’s rigid organisation.

The style of Bielsa’s Newell’s was thrilling to watch. He demanded unwavering commitment from his players and set up his side with the instruction to harry their opponents into submission; they would press high and press hard.

Pressing was nothing new, the great Dutch side of 1974 were diligent and tireless in their closing-down duties. But Bielsa used pressing as on offensive weapon. By denying the opposition space in their own third of the pitch and systematically cutting off passing lanes, Newell’s would regain possession in areas from which a swift attacking movement would see them in on goal.

Bielsa describes this tenet of his system thusly: “While the opponent has the ball, 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 spaces for improvisation.”

In this regard, similarities can be seen in the way Jürgen Klopp built his wonderfully successful Borussia Dortmund team, and how his Liverpool side are currently going about their business in the Premier League. Indeed, the gegenpressing mould is one that will be eminently familiar to Bielsa.

It is also a well-known facet of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy that he instructs his players to press aggressively for six seconds immediately after losing possession, before falling back into their defensive structure.

Before Guardiola took his first managerial role with Barcelona, he flew to Argentina to meet and exchange ideas with Bielsa. The older coach’s theories on passing the ball, pressing and positional fluidity clearly rubbed off on the Catalan.

Bielsa, much like the great AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, believed in “occupying the pitch well”, as he once put it. To do this, he posited that the entire XI should move around the pitch as a unit, with no more than 25 metres between the deepest defender and the foremost attacker; each player’s position was dictated by the position of his team mate. This kind of spatial limitation is also a trademark of Guardiola’s sides, who aim to hold an almost abnormally high defensive line.

With what would become his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation, Bielsa led Newell’s to the 1991 Apetura title, but the coach’s rigorous demands took their toll on the side who suffered a slump for the following two campaigns – a tale similar to that of his final months in Bilbao.

After a rethink brought about by some soul searching following a humbling 6-0 defeat to San Lorenzo, Bielsa shuffled his deck, switched some of his key players around positionally, and galvanised his side to win the Clausura title in 1992. To mark his success and influence with the club, Newell’s named their stadium after their former coach in 2009.

The fluid back three system that brought Newell’s their success is not wholly dissimilar to that being used by Antonio Conte at Chelsea, and is getting them great odds on the title at, or the 3-4-3 or Guardiola’s final season in Barcelona. It was, after all, an adaptable form of 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield; “the scheme always depended on the characteristics of our opponents,” Bielsa explained.

Another innovation of the Argentinian tactician was to set homework for his players, encouraging them to study tape of upcoming opponents, find solutions and present their findings back to the team. This was seen as a way to foster a degree of independent problem solving from his players, engaging them mentally as well as physically.

Of his former charges, Gerardo “Tata” Martino would go on to have success managerially when in charge of Newell’s and the Paraguayan national team. He has also recently spent time at the helm of Barcelona and Argentina.

The most prominent coach spawned by Bielsa’s La Lepras, however, is Tottenham Hotspurs’ Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was a central defender at Newell’s and also played under Bielsa for Argentina. The former Espanyol and Southampton coach espouses many of the philosophical principles he would have learned under his former boss, though perhaps in a slightly more conventional, pragmatic manner. Nevertheless, the high-pressing, the physical demands of his players and the systematic tenacity are all hallmarks of a fully paid-up Bielsista.

Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone also worked under Bielsa for Argentina. Although El Cholo’s Atléti often lack the sense of adventure prominent Bielsa teams, work ethic and organisation are traits that have rubbed off on the former Internazionale and Lazio player.

In the more recent part of his career, Bielsa bent his system slightly to conform to the demands of the modern game. At Athletic and Marseille, a version of 4-2-3-1 was much more commonly used than anything akin to the 3-3-1-3 of Newell’s, or any of the back three-based formations he used with Argentina.

But while in charge of Chile from 2007-2011, Bielsa’s trademark system produced a thrillingly cavalier side which brought the best out of key players such as Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sanchez.

His successor in the role as Chile coach, Jorge Sampaoli, was an avid disciple of Bielsa and used many of his ideas to win two domestic titles and a Copa Sudamericana with Universidad de Chile, before guiding La Roja to their first ever Copa América in 2015. He is currently flying high in Spain with Sevilla, using a Bielsa-esque, high-energy 3-4-3.

Though Bielsa’s trophy haul is modest – just three Argentinian titles in total and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004 – the influence he has had on the modern game is undeniable.

Bielsa described his philosophy as being composed of four basic tenets: focus, mobility, rotation and repenitización — a musical term meaning something akin to improvisation – all of which have formed the basis of seemingly any aspiring coach to have come into contact with him.

Though winning was always the aim, style was of almost equal importance. With a nod to pragmatism and a commitment to aesthetics, Bielsa inspired a unique following within the football world; the method behind El Loco’s madness proved beguiling.

Ryan Baldi
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