Friday, 27 January 2012

Marcelo Bielsa; an enigma

This current season marked the return of Bielsa to club management and I, for one, am glad to see him back. Nicknamed 'El Loco' or 'Madman' in English, he employs tactics that many clubs are afraid to use and akin to his namesake. Here I take you through the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, the Madman of modern football.

The Early Days

Bielsa had a relatively short playing career as a defender in Argentina as can be seen by retiring at 25. He found that he was better suited to coaching and moved in to that department at Newell's Old Boys when he qualified as a P.E teacher. Much at the behest of his father as Bielsa shunned playing for Rosario Central, Newell's rivals. From there, he coached various youth teams before being the coach of the first team at the age of 35. During his few years in charge, he was relatively successful in winning a couple of tournaments. After brief stints at Mexican clubs, Espanyol came in for him only for Argentina to come knocking and wanting him to be the manager in 1998. Argentina won their qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup however their memorable performance for not getting past the first round won't be forgotten easily. To make amends, they were runners up at the 2004 Copa America and won the Gold Medal at the Olympics the same year. Following this, Bielsa resigned out of the blue; adding to his 'Madman' moniker.

It was when he became the manager of the Chilean national team after a 3 year hiatus did his philosophies become apparent. It was not sheer luck the stark improvement the side went under during his stewardship and a list of firsts can be compiled to corroborate:

  • First away point gained against Uruguay ever
  • First win over Argentina, causing Basile to resign
  • First away victory over Peru for 22 years
  • First away victory over Paraguay for 20 years
  • First ever away win over Colombia
  • Helped Chile qualify for the 2010 world cup after an 8 year absence

His willingness to play young players and fast track them to the first team was something held close to Bielsa. 
Also instilling a much more attacking mindset among his players, regardless of opposition and regardless of stadium. He would stick to the same style of play regardless of whether it was home or away. Reminds me of a certain Catalan team.

It was only when he became the manager of Athletic Bilbao did I get excited again as I felt he had done all he could with Chile. Similar to Raynald Denoueix in my post about Real Sociedad, Bielsa was not too dissimilar. Without offending anyone from the Basque region of Spain, Bielsa was a newcomer to La Liga, much like Denoueix. He also inherited a team with many highly talented individual players. Moving to the Basque country was a shrewd move for him as there was strong interest from Inter Milan. Shrewd in the sense that Bilbao were already a young, energetic team playing high-tempo football under the guidance of Joaquin Capparos, whereas Inter are very much the opposite; ageing, defending deep and playing a slow paced game.
The marriage of Bilbao to Bielsa seems like one that was meant to be as Bilbao are not your average club. Their insistence on bringing through youth players from the Basque region can only aid Bielsa who did not ask for new signings when he joined. Testament that he can make his methods work regardless of clientèle. His insistence on training and retraining players to cope with his style of play can be seen from his transition from Argentina to Chile. Both played a variation of 4-1-3-2/3-1-3-3 deploying a high tempo direct style of play that included aggressive pressing while off the ball. Such a style requires extreme fitness and it took a while for him to get Bilbao on his wavelength and such fitness can be seen by Guardiola's Barcelona. The main aim is to  win the ball as close to the opposition's goal as possible, attacking directly and at pace. He talks of the value in squeezing the game into a 25-metre area.

(image courtesy of

El Loco

It's his personality that draws you to him though. He's somewhat of an enigma and not understood by many. He sees no reason to be part of something and would rather create his own path. He has in the past refused to grant exclusive interviews to the press, taking the view that no single media outlet should receive preferential treatment: he's not wrong either. Then there is his famous ‘El Loco’ touchline persona which stems from his passion for his mindset and straying from that can be explosive. Finally his willingness to field every single question at press conferences which I think is brilliant but is a side-effect of his egalitarian approach to the press, which at times has led to three or four hour sessions with the press. His meticulous nature could very well be where Rafael Benitez learned to be so contrite. Bielsa has an obsessive collection of football videos which he has studied in depth and has derived his tactics due to this. There are even rumours he paces out the length of a pitch before a game to decide what formation to deploy.

False Start

It took a while for Bielsa to get a tune out of Bilbao. So much so, they went through their worst start to a league in 32 years after accumulating just 2 points from their first five games. It could have been six games had their match against Real not been postponed due to player strikes. It is common knowledge in La Liga that SociedadDeia. Here was a man with principles stauncher than most coming to team used to having one way of playing and attempting to change everything. 

The players didn't initially warm to Bielsa and for good reason, his methods were so meticulous that many didn't understand. He was labelled a 'smoke-seller' by a few and his opposition was growing stronger with each game they failed to win. It seemed as though his radicalisation of Bilbao was occurring at too fast a pace and the support was growing impatient. Remember this is a team that has Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain, Andoni Iraola and Javi Martínez; three very gifted players.

The methodology is entirely different: the work is much more conceptual, theoretical and technical than it has ever been before, highly detailed stuff. Players are walked through moves without opponents, the areas that they should occupy are marked out on the turf. There has been just one 11-a-side game in training all season. As one player notes: there are actually explanations and instructions now. But those explanations have been hard to apply.
There have been different formations too, from three at the back, to four, to five. The game that Yoigo Pérez played was at left-back – which is not his position. Nor is it Oscar de Marcos's position – he is a  is a young winger/forward who wears the number ten shirt. – but he has played there too. Carlos Gurpegui has been all over the place. Javi Martínez, one of the finest central midfielders in the country, has been played at centre back – where, rather than brilliant, he is just very good. Martinez is naturally a holding midfielder, and has played for the national side in that position. Bielsa often used midfielders in the defensive line for Chile, believing they were more mobile than some of his centre-backs, and also better at starting moves. The shift for Martinez is perhaps not surprising, because Bielsa always wants a very defensive-minded holding midfielder. Martinez is more of a ball-player, and therefore, whilst it may seem strange to move a player into the defence because his strengths lie in playing the ball rather than winning it back, it’s not completely unexpected. At 6′3 he has the ability to challenge in the air so not all is lost.
When results did not arrive, those apparently bizarre, nonsensical decisions looked even worse.
The players needed to time to adopt his methods and increase their fitness and fitting that in all came to fruition during the Basque derby against Real Sociedad. In the previous game against PSG in the Europa league, Bielsa managed to get a tune out of his team. He had to evolve otherwise he would have ended up forgotten in Bilbao, tarnished even. Bielsa created a hybrid of Bilbao's system created over generations coupled with his own high tempo  style. Atlethic won 2-0 despite PSG's new found riches and Bielsa was a relieved man. This was the game that all his hard work came together and even the players, as could be seen, were revelling in this new style that presented them with the ball more often than not while retaining their direct approach to the game. After the win away to Sociedad, one of Spain's great derbies where opposing fans sit next to each other, Bilbao were looking like a tough side to beat. Martinez, of Sociedad, scored one of the best goals at the anoeta (according to former player Xabi Alonso). However this was the only way that Sociedad could score: spectacularly. Llorente scored the equaliser and the winner and these were his first 2 goals of the season. It lifted a weight off his shoulders.

'Out Barca' Barca

Pep Guardiola famously travelled through the night to Bielsa's remote residence outside Rosario to ask advice when he was considering becoming a coach. Along with bizzare facts, he was presented with a question: "Do you really like blood that much?" Guardiola said 'yes'. Besides, he had come to Bielsa to learn, and learn he would. Bielsa showed Guardiola the art of pressing, the art that all pundits are waxing lyrical about now. It is one thing to have the ball and embrace tiki-taka, it is another to win it back withing seconds of losing it. These were important stepping stones that Guardiola adopted in order to make Barcelona who they are today.
Fitting that the reason I wrote this is because of the recent match between the now seasoned Guardiola and Bielsa. Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona at the San Mames. "A hymn to football" Guardiola called it after the game and he was not wrong. Before going on to the game, I need to mention the torrential downpour that was in full force when the players made their way on to the field. There was no relief either as by the end of the game, parts of the pitch were flooded. That hampered both teams but Barcelona more-so.

(image courtesy of

Bielsa is probably the only Manager who could have pulled off what he did due to how his team have trained and adapted over the season. Their fitness and intensity levels are pretty much unrivalled with the exception of Barcelona so it was fitting that the game ended 2-2. Bielsa went for a 4-3-3 formation, if you can call it that. The reason I say this is that the majority of his team marked Barcelona's players man-for-man. That's not something you see everyday and any other team would probably have come unstuck deploying such a tactic. Bilbao's pressing extremely high up the pitch forced Valdes into playing long balls which played into Bilbao's hands as Barcelona's front line were all small and rarely challenged for a header successfully. Llorente worked very hard trying to close down the centre backs, but wasn't joined by another. This was due to Bielsa wanting to retain a spare man at the back (something he has always stuck by as to not come overrun). He deployed a man marking system due to Barcelona's system of players swapping roles according to their Total Football mantra. Bilbao's centre backs were happy to come a long way out of defence to track Messi or Fabregas, sometimes even into the midfield. The full-backs would come infield, and on other occasions would find themselves in extremely wide positions, particularly Iraola while getting tight to stifle Adriano. There was always either Amorebieta or Martinez sweeping up at the back, usually covering a huge amount of space. Somehow, Bilbao rarely needed to make any last ditch challenges and credit for that goes down to this system. Even more credit is due when Iniesta and Xavi were both unable to make a mark on the game as they're used to. Susaeta and Muniain were both clever with Abidal and Alves respectively, Abidal looked like he was scared of Muniain and rarely pushed forward while Susaeta adopted a more conservative approach and was the assist maker for the opening goal. It was this directness in possession that helped Bilbao that evening. 

Athletic made clear their intentions to take the game to the defending champions and Susaeta had a good chance when Llorente laid the ball off for him to fire a piledriver goalwards, but it was straight at Victor Valdes.
The warning was not heeded by Barca, who fell behind in the 20th minute to a fine goal, with Susaeta driving down the wing before finding Herrera who curled the ball beyond the reach of Valdes. It was the first goal Barca had conceded in nine games which in itself is quite amazing. Added credence to Bilbao's play is that in order for Barcelona to equalise, they scored a goal that is uncharacteristic of them: a cross and a header. Abidal the former and Fabregas the latter. It was, however, not one way traffic as Barcelona began to take control, and Messi slipped a ball through for Iniesta but Iraizoz made a good save to deny him. But Athletic were still plugging away and a defence-splitting pass from Herrera released Muniain but he could not get his shot right. Fabregas then released Messi but Iraizoz denied him again as the weather made things more and more difficult for both sides to find a rhythm.
It was Athletic who took advantage of the disjointed game as they went back in front in the 80th minute thanks to a comical mix-up in the Barca defence, with Abidal's attempted clearance striking Pique and bobbling over the line. Cue Barcelona to barrage Bilbao's goal from here in the final moments of the game. Iniesta had a great chance to get Barca level again three minutes later when David Villa, on as a substitute, brilliantly controlled the ball and laid it off for Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean found Iniesta at the far post but he could only shoot into the side netting. But just when it appeared that Barca would suffer their first defeat, Messi fired in to snatch a point. A point that was deserved for both teams when taking everything into account.
Come the end of the game, you could see the relief in both managers. Guardiola, the once upon a time pupil had poignant words to say: “We’ve never played against a team who were so intense, so aggressive, and has denied us so much space” He and his players didn't really know how to react or adapt to let their technical quality shine through; they simply aren't used to facing a side like that. It is not a policy that is recommended for any team as more often than not they will be ripped apart. Few other sides would be able to play this way as easily as Athletic did – because this is close to the usual style Bielsa wants, they were able to adapt. Also there was an element of luck as well as nature which played it's hand so it's not a blueprint for other teams.

Bielsa has been a breath of fresh air to La Liga, even if he is a break from the norm. Sometimes it is what is needed to make others take notice. His philosophy to football is exuded throughout his team and it is paying dividends with reaching the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, 7th in La Liga and prior to their recent defeat by Real Madrid hadn't lost in 7 games. (12 if you don't include the Europa League) - only conceding 4 goals along the way For me, Bilbao are now right up there with the best of the rest and that's only a good thing.


  1. Would be better if you clarify that all the “firsts“ you name in your article when Bielsa was Chile´s coach, were while playing away from home. Chile has beaten repeatedly Colombia (it´s with an O, not with a U), Paraguay, Perú and Uruguay. The only true statement is the first official victory over Argentina

  2. Thanks for the comment. I should have mentioned these were all away matches and will edit the post.

    You have a good knowledge of the game.

  3. That's a tight hate

  4. Good write-up. Was v impressed with what Bielsa did with Chile and would be v interesting if he can develop Bilbao in a similar way, especially if Munian plays in a similar role to Alexis Sanchez.
    Chile seemed a bit suspect defensively under Bielsa though, especially when they were knocked out by Venezuela in Copa America. Bilbao seems to concede more goals since he took over, but Im not sure if this is more of a calculated risk, due to more attacking tactics, or if they have actually lost some defensive discipline and make mistakes like Chile sometimes did, especially defending set pieces.

    1. Definitely a bit suspect, especially considering he's playing midfielders and attackers back there. I'm of the belief that he's going for the 'we'll score more' approach so doesn't mind conceding. Look at the Espanyol game this weekend!

    2. Bielsa did not coach Chile for the Copa America.