Best Among Equals: The Marcelo Bielsa Case

When Leeds United hired an Argentine coach barely English-speaking to take them back to the upper echelons of English football many pundits and fans alike were stunned. That coach was Marcelo Bielsa, an Argentine football manager who had traversed Europe and South America while coaching teams like Newell’s Old Boys, Atlas, America, Velez Sarsfield, Espanyol, the Argentine national team, Marseille, Lazio, Lille, and the national team. Yet it was to be the vastly travelled Argentine to bring English Premier League football back to Elland Road after 16 years. 

Nicknamed El Loco (the crazy one) the Leeds coach has made decisions in his football management career not many of his peers would fathom. Principled, astute, meticulous, firm, and adventurous, Marcelo Bielsa is without a shadow of doubt the best among equals.

For many managers in world football, trophies mean everything. This metric of success is a good one and is rightly heralded. The biggest proportions of El Loco’s critics point to his paltry collection of silverware in management as his major drawback. They hold the view that for a manager so well known in South America and Europe his trophy haul is a tad underwhelming. Bielsa won the Olympic Gold medal while coaching the Argentine national team (the first in his native country) and additional league titles and cups while at Velez Sarsfield and Newell’s Old Boys. Other than that, Bielsa has not won much in Europe, losing two finals while in charge of Athletic Bilbao in his first season. But fundamental truth lies further from these assumptions.

Firstly, Bielsa has trained teams that are relatively ‘small’ both in resources and structure. El Loco has basically competed with juggernauts using minnows. The Copa Del Rey and Europa League finals Bielsa lost with Athetico Bilbao were against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona respectively. His other teams such as Marseille and Lille haven’t been great on any measure when compared to the likes of PSG and Monaco who have been bankrolled by foreign investment at different points. This, therefore, means using trophies to measure his influence is being oblivious of the enormity of tasks that have lay ahead of him in every appointment Bielsa has landed in Europe. Likewise at Leeds, Marcelo took a Leeds team wallowing in the miasma of football mediocrity and staring football oblivion.

Secondly, the man has been led by a philosophy that supersedes trophies. For Marcelo, playing the right way is more important than the wins that culminate into trophies. Bielsa believes that his teams must be able to play attractively and create chances even if this comes at the expense of title winning pragmatism. Marcelo is a firm believer in the process more than the results and while this has been fairly successful, it has cost him at crucial moments.

But make no mistake; Marcelo Bielsa is a better football manager than he gets credited for. For Bielsa, there are 29 football formations that could be used to great effect on the pitch. The 65 year old has made the 3-3-3-1 his signature formation with the 4-1-4-1 also a great aid during his time at Elland road. His knowledge in the game is so vast that when he was interviewed for the Leeds job, El Loco revealed all the formations the 23 championship teams had used against Leeds in the previous season in the 46 games. During the ‘spygate ‘ saga, Bielsa took 70 minutes and a PowerPoint presentation to show journalists that he already knew everything about his opponents anyway electing to pay the 200,000 pound fine imposed on Leeds United out of pocket. The Leeds United manager took time to give a detailed report of how his opponents lined up, their favorite formation, the variations, the substitutions, defensive and offensive shapes much to the fascination of listening journalists.

During his spell at Athletic Bilbao, Bielsa once analyzed Barcelona in a manner that led the then manager Pep Guardiola to concede that Bielsa knew more about Barcelona than him. He meticulously analyzed their formation, tactics, player involvement and offensive shape much to the surprise of Pep. Till this day, Pep Guardiola has on more occasion than one heralded the 65- year old as the finest in the game. The Manchester City manager substantiated this claim by stating that Bielsa’s teams play an attractive brand of football and he improves all the players that he works with. 

It is no coincidence that Laporte and Mendy players El Loco gave debuts are now part of Guardiola’s squad. Javi Martinez and Alexis Sanchez are also on the list of illustrious players to have been trained by the Spaniard and the Argentine. Communication between the two is a constant feature till this day and Pep has always looked up to the 65 year old as a mentor in the game. Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone are also managers that have gone through the apprenticeship of the mercurial tactician. 

Those who have worked with 65-year old have attested to his obsession with football tactics. Bielsa is known for spending extensive periods of personal time analyzing teams, studying their tactics and watching their videos. Bielsa is said to have the most advanced football library of any known manager. Bielsa’s match preparation is so brilliant that some of his former players are in awe of the Argentine’s thoroughness. In high praise, Javi Martinez once observed that every player “deserved” to be trained by the vastly travelled tactician. 

Bielsa is known to have a keen eye for player development. Having seen a crooked Pochettino develop to be an Argentine international, spotted the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Aymeric Larpote, Benjamin Mendy and others at an early age, Bielsa’s tutelage has yielded world-class footballers. Dimtri Payet credits a lot of his football development to the Argentine and so does Gabriel Batistuta, the iconic striker. Since the start of 2018, Bielsa has given 10 debuts to players aged below 21 at Leeds United. 

With the 2019/2020 season gone, it would be interesting to see how Bielsa copes with the rigors of top tier English football where he rightfully belongs. This is a position he has earned through thorough preparation, tactical ingenuity, and impeccable player development. His importance to the Leeds United fans has certainly not gone unnoticed with a street named in his honor after winning the championship with 10 point game and achieving what numerous managers before him failed at the Elland road dug out. 

His contract will be a priority for the Leeds United board but this championship represents every romantic aspect of Marcelo Bielsa football. It will be interesting to see how Pep versus Bielsa matches turn out in the new season with the latter now assuredly a premier league manager. As every Leeds United fan awaits to behold this day, El Loco’s influence on the game is bigger than most people realize.

Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeSparrow3