Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as one of the most influential coaches in world football despite having won significantly fewer trophies than some of his counterparts. Today, we try to throw some light on why silverware don’t define Bielsa’s legacy, and never will.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Growing up in a family of lawyers and politicians, Marcelo Bielsa never cared much for either. What started from following his father’s rival football club just out of spite, to becoming one of the most revered footballing academicians on the planet, Bielsa has always been known for his oddities, the same oddities that have and continue to yarn the very fabric of football we all love.
With Leeds United returning to the Premier League, the eyes of the public fall on Marcelo Bielsa now more than ever. For many who have only heard of his ‘greatness’ via indirect accounts, his team’s mid-table performances and a relative paucity of silverware – the common barometer by which we all judge football personalities with – makes everyone wonder, “Marcelo Bielsa – is he all that?”
Simply put, to call Marcelo Bielsa not important enough to be celebrated to the extent he is because he hasn’t won enough trophies would be like calling Diego Maradona not a great player because he hasn’t scored as many goals as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have. Just as all that glitters is not gold, there are some things you cannot quantify, but just because they can’t be quantified, doesn’t make them mean any less. There’s a lot more to football than just blockbuster entertainment and shiny cups – the precipitates of a sport Bielsa directly affects every time he sits on his bucket by a touchline. His story can really not be justified within a few thousand words, which is why many great football writers have taken a painstaking amount of time to write books on him. You really need to have an academic affinity for the game to understand why Bielsa means the way he does, so here’s a (very) short account of Marcelo Bielsa’s importance in football.
STYLE OF PLAY
Bielsa’s tactical systems famously require every player to play a specific role that contributes towards the efficiency of said systems on the pitch. No one player can have all the focus and responsibility as that will render the entire system obsolete. He professes his sides to play in a high tempo, short passing triangles-based system that encourages fast vertical transitions – moving the ball quickly from defence to attack and vice versa.
In transition, his teams famously adopt a 3-3-1-3 formation – three ball-playing defenders and three midfielders along with three forwards that sandwich a playmaker that acts as a hook. The defenders are encouraged to pass among themselves before playing the ball out wide ahead, with the front three tasked with stretching the opposition thin, allowing the wide midfielders or full-backs to sneak in.
Bielsa’s teams are known for their pressing and continuous movement. While each player has designated roles, there’s always room for some level of improvisation because no one system is 100% predictable. While Bielsa prises his teams to effectively out-tactic their opposition, he appreciates the entropy football entails. The quick movement keeps the opposition on its toes and allows a relatively seamless transition back into defensive positions in case of a counter-attack. Bielsa’s teams are famous for running their socks off across both ends of the pitch even towards the end of 90 minutes.
Commenting on his sides’ shortcomings, Bielsa once said, “If players weren’t human, I’d never lose.” For a man known for his rigorous and thorough devotion to the game, it is natural that same is expected of his players. Working under Bielsa is not only physically tiring but also mentally extenuating. Bielsa’s players have often called his training sessions not dissimilar to that of the military. Practice and repetition are one of the key pillars of Bielsa’s training regimes to bed into the players his ideas as quickly as possible. Away from the pitch, Bielsa often asks his players to watch videos of their oppositions’ matches to understand their systems and subsequently their workarounds. True, that working under Bielsa is a surreal learning experience, but it inevitably brings with it a fuse that shorts much quicker than it would with anyone else. Apart from his stints with the Argentina and Chile men’s national teams, Bielsa has barely lasted anywhere more than two years, mostly because he himself resigns after he feels his marriage with a team has run its course. His players also famously seem to run out of steam by the end of seasons, but that is not entirely their fault. As Bielsa has already noticed, they’re all but human.
Marcelo Bielsa’s mannerisms both on an off the pitch contribute as equally to his venerated persona as his tactical philosophies. He has been a student of the game from a very young age, so even when it became painfully clear very early in his life that he won’t be able to make it as a pro he pushed towards managerial positions, landing a coaching role at the University of Buenos Aires’ college team by the age of 25. From traveling across the Argentinian mainland in his Fiat 147 after dividing it into 70 different sections to scout talent (he doesn’t like flying) to pacing exactly thirteen steps either side of his dugout by the touchline when not sitting on his bucket/haunches, these incessant idiosyncrasies have brought upon Bielsa the nickname El Loco, meaning “the mad one”, given by his players not out of contempt, but awe.
Even when walking into his job interviews, the amount of detailed research Bielsa is able to put in front of his potential employers is at times, simply insane. When he walked in for his interview at Vélez Sarsfield in 1997, he brought with him 51 videotapes-worth of analysis, at a time when video analysis itself was a very nascent idea. On his first day at Athletic Bilbao, he provided colour-coded dossiers detailing each opposition the club faced the season before and their corresponding performances. When the representatives from Leeds United met Bielsa in Argentina, he provided them a detailed account of every team – their formations, approaches, and performances – that Leeds played in the Championship the year before.
Bielsa doesn’t care much for his contracts with the clubs. Once he has made up his mind to leave, one can hardly convince him to make a U-turn, and he simply resigns without any severance due. His extensive approach takes a toll not only on his players, but also on him.
For many of us, football is entertainment; a medium of escapism we find solace in to get away from our everyday lives. Even for football personalities, there is usually a life outside of football. Not for Marcelo Bielsa. He has devoted his life solely to football and made football his life. With that very devotion, he has garnered the respect of many, and affected the game in ways not easily comprehensible at a quick glance.
So now, I hope you have a bit more insight into why Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as a footballing genius despite the major honours listed against his name (or lack thereof). Before being a manager, he is a professor, a philosopher, a student. He has given footballing identities to footballing teams like Chile’s MNT and inspired the likes of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli, Diego Simeone, Tata Martino, and many, many more, all of whom spread the good word of El Loco by not only openly professing their adulation of him, but also through their work. He may not have won as much as his disciples, but the footprint of his ideologies can be seen in every successful team around the world. Yes, winning trophies etches your name in textbooks, but inspiring future generations to help mould the landscape of football ensures your name resonates within the shrines that worship the beautiful game. In the pantheon of footballing geniuses, Marcelo Bielsa sits right amongst the very greats, irrespective of what he has won and indeed, will in the future.
THAT, is and will be, the legacy of Marcelo El Loco Bielsa.