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The History of Marcelo Bielsa

Rosario is mostly known for industrial and agricultural reasons and exports but it is also home to two major football clubs, Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys. Rosario is the hometown to modern football icons such as Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi but even Messi has a challenger for Rosario’s most significant football export. This is because in Rosario in July 1995, Marcelo Bielsa was born. Bielsa has gone on to become one of the most respected and influential figures within football even if he isn’t well known among football fans.

The Argentine was born into a middleclass family of lawyers and politicians. However, Marcelo wanted to be a footballer and he joined Newell’s Old Boys at a young age whilst also religiously reading El Gráfico, an academic and highly influential football magazine. Unfortunately, his talent didn’t match his enthusiasm and he left Newell’s first team to play in the lower divisions of Argentina before studying a range of subjects which included Physical Education. At the age of 25-years-old, he moved to Buenos Aires to coach the university side. Apparently, he scouted over 3,000 players before he selected his squad of 20 which he treated like professionals. This is where he started his relentless approach and preparation as a manager, something he has become synonymous with.

His first professional job came back at Newell’s in the youth system. He reportedly claimed that teams were missing players from the interior, their academy, so he split a map of Argentina into 70 sections and organised trials in each section. He drove all around Argentina, over 5,000 miles in a Fiat 147 to watch them as he hates flying.

In 1990, Bielsa became the first team manager at Newell’s Old Boys. With Newell’s he won the Torneo Apetura in 1990, the Torneo Integracíon in 1990/91 and the Torneo Clausura in 1992 whilst also taking them to the Copa Libertadores final in 1992 before losing on penalties to São Paulo. After the final, Bielsa resigned. Reprtedly he was exhausted of coaching the team he played for in his own style. This didn’t stop Newell’s Old Boys naming their stadium after him.

After spells at Atlas and Club América in Mexico, he returned to Argentina. He was at Vélez Sarsfield from 1997 to ’98 and he won the Clausura before resigning. He came to Europe to manage Espanyol, where Pochettino was a player. The spell at Espanyol only lasted 6 games before he resigned to become manager of Argentina’s national side. In 40 games over a 7-year span as manager of La Albiceleste, he was hugely unlucky especially at the 2002 World Cup. He then went on to lead a team featuring the likes of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to the win gold at the 2004 Olympics.

Bielsa then took 2 years off before becoming the manager Chile’s national side. He went on to work with players like Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel as he built an attractive attacking Chilean side that got to the Last-16 of the World Cup in 2010. This made him hugely popular in Chile as he developed young players and laid the foundation for Chile’s future success. However, Marcelo resigned in February 2011 after falling out with the president of the Chilean football board.

The Argentine went on to manage Atheltic Club and he got them to the Europa League final as well as the Copa Del Rey final before losing both to Atlético Madrid and Barcelona respectively. That summer saw the sale of Javi Martínez to Bayern Munich. This along with other factors saw a drop off in form from the Basque club as they finished 12th, this led to Bielsa’s contract not being renewed.

He moved onto Marseille, they started the 2014/15 season strong as they were top after half a season but fell away. This fall away saw Les Phocéens finish 4th. Bielsa only lasted one game in 2015/16 before resigning.

His reputation of being unpredictable wasn’t helped by his time in charge of Lazio or Lille. At Lazio he only lasted 2 days before resigning due to unmet demands and lies to get him there. Whilst at Lille he only lasted 13 games before resigning again due to lack of control over the squad which saw Payet, Thauvin and Gignac leave along with others without proper replacements brought in.

In June 2018, Leeds United shocked the world of football as they confirmed Marcelo Bielsa will be taking the reins at Elland Road. In his first season, despite what the media say, Marcelo was very successful as he took a team that finished 13th and won only 4 out of Heckingbottom’s 16 games to a third placed finish with some unfortunate results towards the tail end of 2018/19. Despite the success, 2018/19 for Leeds will be remembered differently by football fans after “spygate”. This was when Bielsa arranged for a member of his staff to go spy and Derby’s training. The spy was there to check on any late fitness changes as Bielsa has already done all of his analysis on Lampard’s side. Marcelo accepted that this was part of his standard practise and he didn’t think anything was wrong with it as it was done all over Europe by numerous top sides, but he apologised, accepted the fine and promised to stop. During this, the Argentine held a press conference as he gave an extremely detailed analysis on Derby’s tactics showing he had done his analysed before.

Marcelo has only won a gold medal with Argentina in the 2004 Olympics and a few titles in Argentina. Despite this, Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as one of the greatest football minds ever. He is even said to have disciples that he has influenced which includes some of the best managers in the world such as Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and the eccentric Jorge Sampaoli. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in 8 by 8 magazine “since the back four spread from Brazil in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, no South American has had such an influence on how the world played as Bielsa, has had in the first decade of the 21st century.” which shows how highly regarded he is.

The former Newell’s Old Boys player has been influential not only tactically but also practically as he became one of the first managers to heavily engage with tactical analysis. At Vélez Sarsfield he reportedly requested a computer that would allow him to take screen grabs of footage. This was in 1997, a long time before anyone else was doing it. This depth in analysis has a part to play in how his own style as you can’t press effectively unless you can anticipate the opposition’s approach. It is also part of Bielsa’s obsessive and academic approach to football. At his Vélez Sarsfield interview he took 51 tapes of analysis and at his Bilbao interview he presented a colour-coded assessment of all of their matches in the previous season. Whilst what tipped him over the edge to get the Leeds job, he had every formation and every approach used by every team in the Championship in the season before (2017/18). An article in the Guardian in 2012 by Sid Lowe said, “he watches thousands of games, building a footballing taxonomy, like some kind of botanist” and went on to say, “if a player does something new, he labels and stores it”. This obsessive nature is backed up by stories such as when he got his father-in-law to make notes whilst Bielsa watched games on a family holiday or when he said he would do 2 hours of exercise and spend 14 hours watching football on Christmas day.

When it comes to training, he has a methodical approach which sees him run training sessions with the intensity of a real game just two days before the match. This sees the reserves instructed to play like the upcoming opposition with intensive tactical notes for both the first and reserve teams. A day before the game, Bielsa will run through a lot of different match-specific situations. This is so the players are thoroughly drilled in how to respond to different attacking or defensive situations. Despite the emphasis on tactics, he is an inclusive manager which sees his often speak with players and consults them on about the side.

As his approach suggests, his personality is intense. At Newell’s Old Boys, after a 6-0 loss he explained that “I turned off the light, closed the curtains, and realised the true meaning of an expression we sometimes use lightly; ‘I want to die’ I burst into tears”. He is also known for his specific and distinct habits such as pacing 13 steps from one side of his technical area to the other or sitting on an ice box to watch matches, something Leeds United fans loved instantly. At Leeds, he instructed his team to spend three hours picking up litter so the players could understand how hard fans have to work in order to buy a ticket.

Marcelo Bielsa is one of the few managers whose careers will be measured in more than just trophies.


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