Explaining Marcelo Bielsa: How the Argentine came to influence football's greatest managers
Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll music, but he probably came closer than anyone else, along with Elvis Presley and Little Richard, to putting all the necessary components in the right order.
Berry was radical, obsessive and utterly convinced he was always right about everything. He spent much of his teenage years in the early 1950s disassembling and reassembling transistor radios, so he understood the exact mechanics of how they produced sound and could adapt his rock and roll masterpieces accordingly.
It worked. Every time he implored Beethoven to roll over (and tell Tchaikovsky the news), he inspired wide-eyed teens everywhere to pick up their guitar and play. “It wasn’t until I heard Chuck Berry that I realised what you could do,” recalled The Who’s Pete Townshend.
“I lifted every lick he ever played,” said Rolling Stone Keith Richards. “Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck.”
This summer, Berry’s football equivalent, whose coaching playbook is no less exhaustive or far-reaching, achieved a lifetime ambition of managing in England. Marcelo Bielsa became Leeds manager.
Almost every major league is permeated by his coaching acolytes, many of them former players such as Mauricio Pochettino or Diego Simeone, who’ve lived and breathed the unconventional methods of El Loco – The Madman. Pep Guardiola may not have played under the Argentine coach, but the Manchester City boss has long since viewed Bielsa with the sort of reverence that The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and more reserved for Berry.
The 63-year-old is the best-paid coach outside the top flight, his idiosyncratic, almost autocratic mannerisms bringing stardust to the Championship. There will be fireworks, homework, the potential amputation of fingers, and team talks from a coach who relaxes by going for 2am runs while listening to tapes about tactics.
Life is seldom dull when Marcelo Bielsa is around.
“He wanted to help this group of street kids become heroes”
Johnny B Goode is the semi-autobiographical story of a humble guitar-playing country boy, whose mother convinces her son that “someday your name will be in lights”.
While you could never describe Bielsa’s upbringing in a Rosario townhouse as humble – the family is one of Argentina’s great legal dynasties; Marcelo’s grandfather, father, brother and sister are all either lawyers or politicians – his mother Lidia did indeed instil her youngest son with the intrinsic belief that he would dominate his chosen discipline. From an early age, football became that calling.
“She was fundamental in my life,” Bielsa has said of his mother. “For her, no [amount of] effort was sufficient.” Lidia would be dispatched to the local newsagents most days to pick up the daily newspapers and Argentina’s weekly sporting bible El Grafico, which her son would study religiously.
Bielsa learned from his grandfather Rafael – a lawyer responsible for creating much of the country’s legislature – that knowledge was power; knowledge gleaned from his collection of more than 30,000 books at the family home. Even now, Bielsa subscribes to more than 40 different sports magazines the world over, FourFourTwo included.
Ever the contrarian, Bielsa supported Newell’s Old Boys because his father was a fan of bitter city rivals Rosario Central. Picked up by Newell’s in his teens, he was good on the ball, but slow and poor in the air. He realised after three first-team appearances that his talent lay more in an innate appreciation of how and why things happen on a pitch than what he could actually do with a ball himself. So at 25, he quit, enrolled to become a PE teacher and two years later, in 1982, took a job managing the University of Buenos Aires’ football team.
Bielsa was only three years older than most of his players, but his work ethic and obsessive professionalism won the squad over. He watched more than 3,000 players before deciding on his 20-man squad, then drilled them relentlessly. When UBA drew with Boca Juniors’ reserves in a friendly, Newell’s hired him as a youth coach.
Convinced that Argentina’s agrarian interior housed untapped talent, Bielsa and his assistant Jorge Griffa divided the country into 70 different regions and drove his battered Fiat 147 to every one.
Bielsa and Griffa turned up at a sleeping Mauricio Pochettino’s house at 2am, commenting how the 13-year-old future Spurs boss had “the legs of a footballer”. But Pochettino is just one of dozens of players they scouted. Gabriel Batistuta – the son of a slaughterhouse worker in small-town Avellanada – was another in 1987.
“When I arrived, I was fat – it’s that simple,” explained Batistuta. “I liked alfajores [a traditional biscuit]. The first thing Bielsa did was get rid of them and teach me to train in the rain. I hated him for it.
“We were a group of dreamers and the first dreamer was Bielsa. He dreamed about being Arrigo Sacchi, who he watched constantly winning European Cups. He wanted that to be us. A group of street kids to become heroes.”
Pochettino and midfielder Eduardo Berizzo followed Batistuta into the first team, Bielsa’s personally-scouted stream of young, hungry players with fire in their bellies turning Newell’s Old Boys into one of Argentina’s most promising sides. His El Loco epithet – earned after telling defender Fernando Gamboa that he’d cut off his own finger if it guaranteed victory – was long since earned.
In 1989, Bielsa was promoted to reserve team manager, and his methods were being noticed further up the club. “We shared the dressing room with the reserves,” said attacking midfielder Gerardo Martino. “You’d come in for training and there would be so many arrows on the whiteboard that you could barely make out where one ended and another began. You thought the Indians were coming! Within a year, that guy was our coach.”
“If my players weren’t human, I’d never lose”
Martino was vital to Bielsa’s acceptance in the first team in 1990. The side’s most talented and creative player, the indolent playmaker hated grafting – a trait Bielsa despised in a player.
“We had a chat before he started,” revealed Martino, “and he told me there was only one chance to play in his team: you had to run. He convinced everyone that his was the way. Every training session with him was different, he never repeated a single one. I would come back from international duty and go straight to one of Marcelo’s sessions because they were that good.”
Defend, attack and transition between the two at frightening speed: that was the mantra. Deny the opposition space anywhere, win the ball as high as possible and be dynamic to create chances.
Repeating those turnovers became second nature, even though they required independent thought – a curious contradiction Bielsa came to call repentizacion; essentially sight-reading for football. Even though each attacking situation was different, the squad worked so constantly on those transitions that the concept became ingrained, like playing a piece of music without practising it beforehand.
So determined was Bielsa to implement that strategy, he instructed keeper Norberto Scoponi to intentionally hit goal-kicks out of play for a throw-in, reasoning that the midfield could win the ball back quickly and create an artificial turnover. Newell’s became a pressing machine.
Inside a year, Bielsa’s side had won the 1990 Apertura; with the Argentine league season split into two parts followed by a play-off between the two champions, La Lepra (the Lepers) then triumphed in the championship decider on penalties against Boca Juniors.
“Newell’s, carajo!” became the club’s war cry – “Newell’s, you c***s!” Shouldered aloft by his charges at a baying Bombonera, Bielsa was taking on all-comers. El Loco had become the architect of chaos.
For six months, the club’s form dipped alarmingly: players were unable to live up to Bielsa’s physical and mental demands.
“They were very passionate team talks,” recalled midfielder Alfredo Berti, his manager’s on-field lieutenant to whom Bielsa addressed tactical instruction. “If you loved football, you got so much out of them. Every comment was discussed and Marcelo had the patience to explain it.”
For the first time, the workaholic Bielsa delegated. He began to set the squad’s younger players homework. They were to buy El Grafico, Solo Futbol and Clarin, and research how upcoming opposition played: usual formations, their last eight games, which substitutes they used, set-piece takers and threats. Their findings would then be presented to the squad and a training session built around them.
“It helped you find answers on the pitch,” Pochettino later recalled. “All that homework – I wish all my friends could have experienced at least one per cent of what I did.”
Out of the rut, Newell’s went on to secure the 1992 Clausura and reached the 1992 Copa Libertadores Final, losing on penalties to Sao Paulo with Cafu scoring the Brazilians’ decisive penalty.
Yet Bielsa could take no more. Like his future disciple Guardiola two decades later, the pressure of managing his boyhood club proved too much and he resigned as Newell’s boss, never to return. “If players weren’t human,” he said, “I’d never lose.”
“Don’t shoot! I’m Marcelo Bielsa!”
Bielsa taking a break could never be as easy as spending time with his wife Laura and two daughters. Over the following six years he became something of a coaching nomad, managing both Atlas and America in Mexico, before returning to Argentina with Velez Sarsfield – lifting the 1998 Clausura – and finally spending a nine-game spell with La Liga side Espanyol. Further idiosyncrasies followed.
Owned by a cabal of television executives, America insisted on Bielsa speaking only to their outlets. He so hated the imposition that by the time he became Argentina coach in the autumn of 1998, he refused to give any one-on-one interviews whatsoever.
“Why am I going to give an interview to a powerful guy, if that’s going to deny someone from the provinces?” he reasoned. “What’s your criteria to do that? My own interests? That’s just opportunism.”
Bielsa would talk to Argentina’s media only at press conferences, a method since repeated by Guardiola, but the deal-sweetener was that journalists could ask him anything and he would answer in detail. One press conference went on so long – more than four hours – that many members of the country’s fourth estate had to leave early or risk missing deadline for their evening editions.
Never one to do anything by halves, Bielsa finds it impossible to switch off. A frequent de-stress technique is to go for a run. At 2am. While listening to his favourite coaching mix tape detailing the 22 formations he believes are possible on a football pitch.
So engrossed was Bielsa while running through the grounds of Argentina’s Ezeiza training complex in early 1999, he couldn’t hear local police shouting at him. Finally noticing a dozen guns pointed at him, he hid behind a tree, pleading: “Don’t shoot! I’m Bielsa!”
NEXT: An inspiration to Simeone, Pochettino and Guardiola