Having acquired a cult following in his native South America, Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa is currently making waves in Europe. Having never won a trophy outside Argentina, many European fans are unaware of this fascinating character. Despite this, he is currently being linked with the prestigious Barcelona job. So who is Marcelo Bielsa?
As Moneyball style statistical analysis invades even the most stubborn sporting strongholds, football still resists. Despite forward thinking managers like Arsene Wenger employing Bill James-like principles to the transfer market years before Billy Beane’s successes with the Oakland As, elite level football clubs are only recently beginning to appreciate the value of sabermetrics.
Nevertheless, there is growing pressure from both within and without the sport to transition from idolisation of the all powerful manager figure. Prominent analysts like Chris Anderson and David Sally, authors of The Numbers Game, suggest that based on research and analysis, the role of the manager “can probably be reduced to 5.5%” of the team’s results.
This might well be an exaggeration of the powerlessness of the man in charge, but the evolving role of the manager in the running of the club has grown to reflect this over the past decade. Following a model developed in Europe, many top level clubs now have positions such as the vaguely titled ‘Director of Football’ who may influence certain aspects which were solely the domain of the manager in years past.
Joe Kinnear’s role at Newcastle for example, when he was appointed as the Director of Football in 2013, involved liaising with the manager Alan Pardew and the club owner Mike Ashley and signing new players. It is difficult to imagine a manager like Jose Mourinho working with such reduced powers.
Football insiders who are quick to defend the cult of the manager are quick to point to success stories such as Jose Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola, as managers who have brought successes to several different clubs. The idea that these cases prove the importance of the manager has some caveats however, as their combined work history at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid also happens to be a list of some of the richest football clubs in the world.
There is one name, however, it is difficult to argue against. Pep Guardiola- at the peak of his glittering career as Barcelona manager- declared this particular man to be the “best manager in the world”. Despite this, it wasn’t until a 5-3 Europa League victory against Alex Ferguson’s’ Manchester United in 2012 that football fans in Europe really started to sit up and listen. Known in Spain simply as ‘El Loco’, Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa has the rare honour of being beatified mid-career. Not only is the Argentine still active, he has yet to reach his managerial peak; that is if he follows convention and goes on to manage an elite European club as seems inevitable given his reputation.
Starting out managing teams in Argentina and Mexico, Bielsa actually made the move to Europe in 1998. Following a brief, successful tenure of less than a year at the Spanish club Espanyol, El Loco accepted an offer to manage the Argentinian national team. His team were knocked out in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup, but he rewarded the faith placed in him. Less than 2 years later, he led Argentina to the Copa America final as well as an Olympic gold medal.
It was his subsequent appointment as the Chilean coach which secured his reputation amongst the managerial elite. He is idolised in Chile as a result of his 4 years in charge of the national team, and his fingerprints could be seen on Chile’s lauded high intensity performances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil under his ‘disciple’ Jorge Sampaoli.
Since moving back to Europe and moving to Marseille after spending two years managing Athletic Bilbao, Bielsa has been winning over fans and critics alike with his teams’ aggressive style of football.
Senor Bielsa is the ideal candidate for the preservation of the cult of the manager. Obsessive and often pedantic, Bielsa controls everything about his team. He plans all training sessions and leads as many as possible. Marseille’s current leading scorer Andre-Pierre Gignac recently said of Bielsa “I glanced at his training schedules: there are hundreds of them, and every one featured games he analyzed.”
His attention to detail can also be seen in his vast collection of football recordings. Most of them feature his teams, and he spends hours a day analysing recordings of his individual players and past team performances in order to tailor his tactics and training sessions. Sports journalist John Carlin labelled this collection “the most learned football library on the planet”.
Despite his reliance on an idiosyncratic 3-3-1-3 formation in the past, the 59 year old has adapted to life in Ligue 1 by tailoring his tactics to a variation of the 4-2-3-1 formation which is currently prevalent across Europe. Simply, this is because South American teams tend to play with one or two strikers, whereas many European teams attack with a front three, requiring more defensive cover.
His real signature, however, lies in intensity. Bielsa teams are physically robust, and play at an often frenetic pace. Signalled by one of many pre-trained ‘triggers’, his teams will relentlessly press the team in possession high up the pitch in an attempt to force a mistake and win the ball close to the opposition goal. This style is currently being aped across world football, although few managers dare to employ it so religiously and aggressively as Bielsa himself.
But does it work?
A glance at the statistics of his time at Athletic Bilbao would suggest not. The year Bielsa took control of the club, they finished 10th in the league, despite finishing 5th after the previous season. The team’s win percentage dropped, as did number of goals scored per game.
Bielsa apologists would rightly point out that Bilbao also reached their first European final in more than 30 years, as well as the final of the Copa del Rey.
There had also been a change in the presidency of the club (which in fact led to Bielsa’s appointment), which coupled with a change in management could go a long way to explaining the poor results in the first half of the season. Results in the latter stages of the campaign- when the players were used to the physical and tactical demands of their manager- were vastly improved, and they were unlucky to finish the season with an empty trophy cabinet.
A summer of turmoil followed, which led to the poorest league and cup performance in the club’s recent history. The Basque club were knocked out of the Europa League in the group stages, the Copa del Rey in the first round, and finished in 12th place in the league. The board decided not to renew Bielsa’s contract, and thus his first real European project ended inauspiciously.
A year and a half later, and Bielsa finds himself and his Olympique de Marseille team second in the French Ligue 1. Only one point behind current leaders Olympique Lyonnais, Marseille are clearly reaping the rewards of the Bielsa system. Compared with the previous season under Jose Anigo, Bielsa’s Marseille have scored more goals per game, have a higher win percentage, and make substantially more tackles per game.
Striker Gignac is the 5th highest goalscorer in the top European leagues, and creative midfielder Dimitri Payet has the 4th highest number of assists. September saw the start of a 9 game winning streak that ended with a tight 1-0 defeat to current league leaders Lyon. Marseille actually led the league for much of the season, until a tough run of fixtures meant they dropped into second place.
El Loco is finally earning his substantial reputation.
Critics of the Argentine have suggested that Bielsa is actually much more suited to being an international manager. His exhaustive training regime, employed across a full season means that his teams have tended to suffer towards the end of the campaign: when results are most critical. International squads obvious meet less frequently, and don’t suffer from fatigue as readily as a result. The truth of this criticism will be seen as the season develops.
This may not ward off potential suitors. Barcelona- still searching for the heir to Pep Guardiola’s throne- are rumoured to be looking for a new manager. The gossip columns are full of suggestions that the board and players alike are unhappy with Luis Enrique’s management of the team.
Another trophyless season for the Catalans might force President Josep Maria Bartomeu’s hand, and he will have at least one eye on the south-east of France.
Whatever happens at the end of the current season, expect to see El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa, at one of Europe’s top clubs in the next few years.
My name is Cal Hudson, from a beautiful village near Manchester that nobody has ever heard of. I love reading, writing gives me headaches, and I’m scared of woodlice. I feel the same about football (soccer) as I do the Queen. They are unnecessary institutions with no place in the modern world, but I can’t help but love them. Although, I think FIFA is more feudal than the royals.
Feautured Image Courtesy of: http://www.weszlo.com/2014/12/23/el-loco-bielsa-szaleniec-w-pogoni-za-utopia/