Mauricio Suchowlansky is an Argentine historian with a passion for football, and food that can be eaten with one hand. Here he gives an insight into why Marcelo Bielsa is revered by coaches around the world, despite his relatively unsuccessful managerial record.
Understanding Bielsa’s Genius: Marcelo Bielsa as a Coach and as a Mentor
It would not surprise anyone if I say that Marcelo Bielsa is by far one of the most enigmatic figures in the world of the beautiful game. After all, why do players, coaches, fans and even journalists speak so highly of a coach whose record boils down to three Argentine League titles and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina’s U-23 team? Why is he still revered in Argentina despite the national team’s first-round exit in the 2002 World Cup? What’s in his coaching style that has led managers of the calibre of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino to label Bielsa “the best coach in the world?”
Bielsa’s unpredictable behaviour, his almost obsessive reliance on video footage as well as his ‘vertical football’ tactics all give him an aura of a “football mystic.” Indeed, one could even say he is a character from an ancient Greek tragedy, whose sealed fate, disposition, and actions are destined to provide insight rather than results. He is for the football world what Sisyphus, a mythological figure of ancient Greece, was for French writer Albert Camus: a hero to be revered because of his resilience, passion, and discipline. Bielsa, in other words, is much more than a coach; rather, he is an educator and a mentor. Allow me to unfold this definition by returning to Bielsa’s life in light of three particularities of his work: his austerity, his passion for developing youth, and his tactical orthodoxy.
In a world in which luxury, indulgence, and extravagance are the rule, Bielsa’s commitment to an almost monastic life (despite the fact he does not work for cheap) speaks of his atypical persona. Born to a well-to-do family (his father was a lawyer and his siblings earned degrees in law and architecture to eventually become high-ranking public officials), Marcelo Bielsa’s career has always been tainted with an ideal of austerity. His early studies in physical education, his two-year stint as head coach at the University of Buenos Aires, his Argentine travels in a decrepit car searching for the undiscovered football gems, all bespeak of his admixture of discipline, passion, and modesty.
During his spell with Chile’s National Team, a now-renowned Bielsa lived in a small room within Chile’s football headquarters in nearby Santiago. The same was the case during his sojourns in Bilbao and Marseille. In Bilbao, he spent his days between a hotel room and a small office in Athletic’s Lezama complex. And while Olympique’s management sorted him a room at a luxury hotel in downtown Marseille, Bielsa preferred to sleep in his office at La Commanderie training camp. Comfort, luxury, and public life are for Bielsa but a bothering itch, a waste of time from what he does best: educating and mentoring players. And, to achieve this premise, he must be on-site 24/7.
Bielsa’s professional experience is filled with examples of his commitment to developing young players. While coaching Newell’s Old Boys’ youth squads, for instance, he travelled 25,000 km around Argentina in an old Fiat 147, scouting youngsters that had not yet been spotted by the Buenos Aires clubs. Players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Eduardo Berizzo, and Mauricio Pochettino were part of his Quixotesque travels.
His four years in Chile showed Bielsa’s abilities at spotting and developing youngsters, such as Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Gary Medel just to name a few, leading Chile to the World Cup in 2010. Indeed, his reliance on a young generation of players led Chile to the unthinkable: becoming a worldwide football reference and forming a team that would eventually win two Copa America titles (2014 and 2016).
In Bilbao and Marseille, too, Bielsa developed young players and turned already established ones into versatile, world-class players. Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez, Markel Susaeta, and Fernando Llorente in Bilbao, or Benjamin Mendy and André-Pierre Gignac at Olympique Marseille have all spoken highly of Bielsa’s input in their professional development. His six-year stint with Argentina’s national team also speaks of his influence and legacy. Young Argentine managers, such as Tottenham’s Pochettino, Atletico’s Diego Simeone, Chivas Guadalajara’s Matias Almeyda, Sevilla’s Eduardo Berizzo, among others, have all spent years under Bielsa’s tutelage and subsequently identified “El loco (the Madman)” as their mentor.
Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 dogmatism
If there is one aspect that reflects his non-conformist, contrarian character (and for which he is most admired), it is his reliance on what has been labelled ‘vertical football.’ Such is his tactical dogmatism that his fast-paced 3-3-1-3 system has been dubbed ‘Bielsista’ (Guardiola is probably wondering why his playing system is called ‘tiki-taka’ and not ‘Guardiolismo’). While most coaches admit to abide by a pragmatism ultimately determined by the available personnel, Bielsa has showed himself to be most inflexible. For instance, his reliance on a three-men defense had him position Newell’s midfielder Juan Manuel Llop as sweeper, and so did he with Javi Martinez and Oscar de Marcos at Athletic Bilbao.
Similarly, during the 2002 World Cup Bielsa desisted from playing Argentina’s star strikers Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo together because, from his perspective, their abilities made them simply “incompatible.”
Certainly, Marcelo Bielsa is hardly a successful coach by the standards that, more often than not, rule the world of professional football. But his mercurial character, his innate love for all things football, and his commitment to an ideal performance to the detriment of mere outcome (shall we call it ‘football-sophy?’) makes of Bielsa more a mentor than a coach, more a Sisyphus than a ‘winner.’ And we should love him for that.