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Explaining Marcelo Bielsa: How the Argentine came to influence football's greatest managers

Marcelo Bielsa
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Such eccentricities often manifested after defeats. He took a video of a recent Newell’s defeat to the wedding reception of striker Martin Posse and asked Argentine legend Jorge Valdano on a flight: “Jorge, after losing a game, have you ever thought about killing yourself?”

Bielsa’s impetuous passion is what endears him most to his players. Stylistically, El Loco and Diego Simeone couldn’t be more anathema to each other. Bielsa wants to win, yes, but with panache, while Cholo is more Machiavellian.

There was a telling conversation between the two after the midfield general had just won the Serie A title with Inter in 2000. “Do you not realise,” Bielsa asked Simeone, “that no one apart from the fans is going to remember this title? You can’t call that football.”

Bielsa’s influence on Simeone the coach, however, is incalculable. When Argentina were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup at the group stage, Bielsa called a team meeting in which he explained their defeat and apologised for his role in the catastrophe. The first person to get up and hug the manager was keeper German Bugos, who had played in every qualifying game but was replaced by Pablo Cavallero for the tournament.

“That tells you everything about Bielsa’s character,” said Simeone, “how he kept everyone together through good and bad. He’s a genius, one of the best coaches I’ve had. He would talk you through things so much that when to press became automatic. It’s one of the things that has always stayed with me about him. A coach can either make you brilliant or normal. You just had to follow.”

Ask anyone in that Argentina squad to describe Bielsa’s oratory powers and they will always cite the same example – a team talk he gave the squad before a World Cup qualifier in Colombia.

“There are two types of street fighters,” declared Bielsa, entering a nervous dressing room with powerful certainty. “Those who see blood, get scared and immediately go home. And those who see blood, then go in for the kill. Well, lads, I’m telling you, it smells of blood in here.” Argentina won 3-1.

A cast-iron belief

The inspiration that Bielsa clearly feeds off comes from a cast-iron belief in his methods. Like many mavericks, he’s utterly self-assured. “A lot of coaches will tell you that you must decide your philosophy based on the players you’ve got – I don’t agree,” he once said. “It’s very hard to convince a player of something that you don’t believe in to the death.

“I’m an extremist,” he added. “I manage according to how I feel. I don’t compromise – and I don’t say that as a virtue. It’s a defect.”

As Argentina boss, Bielsa gave his players a vote on whether the Albiceleste would play his preferred back three or a four. The latter won. “That shows what you lot prefer,” announced Bielsa, “but we are playing three at the back. Ciao.”

It did, however, work. In 2004, Bielsa guided Argentina to the Copa America final and a first Olympic gold medal, but by the end of the year was again exhausted and resigned. To recover, he shut himself away in a convent.

“I took all the books I wanted to read,” he recalled. “I didn’t take my phone and had no TV. I lasted three months there, after which I started having full conversations with myself. I was going mad.”

That Olympic gold was Bielsa’s last major honour, but his influence has endured, not least during his three most recent success stories. Chile (2007-11) Athletic Bilbao (2011-13) and Marseille (2014-15) adore Bielsa not necessarily for the success he delivered, but for the love, intensity and attention to detail he brought to one of South America’s more deprived football nations, the fiercely proud Basque Country, and the gritty port city of southern France.

When Bielsa arrived for Athletic’s opening day of pre-season in the summer of 2011, club staff and players were staggered to learn that the Argentine had watched their previous 55 matches, “42 of which I’ve sat through twice each”. The Basques also loved Bielsa’s habit of walking around his technical area in exactly 13 steps, then crouching down like a praying mantis in his shabby, loose-fitting tracksuit to go with the professor’s spectacles.

At Marseille, he fitted a TV screen and whiteboard to the back a golf buggy, so he could drive it onto the middle of the training pitch and immediately explain a tactical change he wanted to make.

Training facilities are essential for Bielsa to develop the automated footballers he craves. And if they aren’t up to scratch, he’ll make sure they get there in the same way he does so for players: with a mixture of hard work, bargaining and threats.

Chile’s Juan Pinto Duran complex was a near-ruin, so in order to raise money for improvements, Bielsa travelled around the country giving public talks. In Bilbao, he took a different tack: Bielsa held the construction firm rebuilding the Lezama complex so accountable that he resorted to grabbing the foreman round the throat.

“He’s got the right to complain about what I did,” conceded Bielsa after the inevitable report to the club’s suits, “but I was only doing what Athletic should have done.”

Success followed. Chile – built around Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo, all of whom Bielsa personally promoted – reached the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, then won back-to-back Copas America under Jorge Sampaoli after Bielsa resigned amid conflict with the FA.

He promptly guided Athletic to the finals of both the 2012 Europa League (demolishing Manchester United home and away in the last 16) and Copa del Rey. Los Leones lost both – the former to Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, the latter to Guardiola’s Barcelona, who had Sanchez up front. The master had taught his apprentices too well.

At Chile, Athletic and Marseille, the fall came because the Argentine’s unbending certainty in himself caused ruptures with suits higher up the food chain.

But at Lazio and Lille in 2016 and 2017, there wasn’t even the rise. Bielsa lasted just two days in Rome, and was later threatened with breach of contract. While in northern France, his typically forceful determination to bring through youngsters – at the expense of 11 senior pros who’d been informed by Bielsa before pre-season began that their futures lay elsewhere – led to his suspension by the club after 13 league matches.

If Leeds really want this to work, the players and, crucially, majority shareholder Andrea Radrizzani must buy into Bielsa’s beliefs.

“I think of Bielsa like my dad. He inspired me”

Marcelo Bielsa has influenced modern football more than any other manager since Johan Cruyff. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of the regular Newell’s XI which won three Argentine titles in the early-90s have gone on to become coaches.

“From that 1990-92 team,” notes former striker Cristian Domizzi, “nine have become coaches, another an agent. That tells you a lot. Any one of us will have 95 per cent good things to say about him.”

Gerardo Martino coached Barcelona, Eduardo Berizzo went to Sevilla and has now followed his mentor to Athletic Bilbao, while Juan Manuel Llop, Alfredo Berti and Ricardo Lunari have carried on the Bielsa tradition in the Newell’s dugout.

Beyond La Lepra, Mauricio Pellegrino at Velez Sarsfield and Simeone for the national team identify with their former manager more than most. But of all Bielsa’s previous charges, Pochettino stands out.

“I think of him like my dad,” concedes Spurs’ manager. “There’s no doubt about my affection and love for him. He was the manager who inspired me to be a coach. I love to help young players. Marcelo Bielsa was an inspiration for me, everything we did at Newell’s was a big mark on my life. Young players need that sort of help in their early days.”

Pochettino, the Beatle to Bielsa’s Chuck Berry, is at the forefront of crafting the next crop of his former gaffer’s linear grandsons. It’s hard to imagine Harry Kane, Dele Alli or Adam Lallana’s development without Poch’s trust in youngsters, in the same way that the Gallagher brothers, the Arctic Monkeys and even the showmanship of Lady Gaga wouldn’t exist without Berry by proxy.

Yet the generacion bielsista extends beyond just those with familial ties. When Zinedine Zidane was studying for his coaching badges in December 2014, he spent a day at Marseille alongside Bielsa. The pair chatted for over three hours.

“Zidane is a living football monument,” said master of apprentice. “Having Monsieur Zidane there right next to me, to listen to me, was an unforgettable moment. Zidane exercises this inhibitive power on common mortals. It’s indescribable.”

Nor was Zidane the first to request such a summit meeting. On October 10, 2006, a recently-retired Pep Guardiola travelled to Maximo Paz ranch, 78km from downtown Rosario, with one intention.

“If you’re going to become a coach,” Bielsa alumnus and former alfajores addict Batistuta had told Pep while the pair were playing in Doha, Qatar, “you’ve got to meet Bielsa and talk to him.”

They spent 11 hours in each other’s company, discussing everything from the pair’s love of cinema to football systems, formations and tactical concepts. They watched videos from Bielsa’s 4,000-strong collection, listened, argued and settled debates by asking Google. Guardiola scrawled down so many notes, he ran out of pages in his notepad and had to ask Bielsa for one of his.

“Why do you, who knows all the rubbish that comes from the world of football, the high grade of dishonesty of certain people, still want to return there and put yourself through it again?” Bielsa asked Pep at one point. “Do you really like blood that much?”

“I need that blood,” confirmed Guardiola. It’s a meeting that has changed football perhaps more than any other. Within two years, Guardiola was Barcelona manager, winning an unprecedented Treble in his first season. Even Lionel Messi has acknowledged the link, saying: “Bielsa would’ve appreciated me.”

“It was an honour that he’d open up the doors of his house and share his day talking about football with me,” Guardiola has said of the meeting. “He’s the best coach in the world. It doesn’t matter how many titles he’s won in his career, that’s much less important than his influence on football and his players.”

You can’t touch influence. You can’t quantify it. It just is.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said about what made The Beatles, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”

Just like you might call football management ‘Marcelo Bielsa’.

This feature originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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