Is Marcelo Bielsa the most influential manager currently working in the game?

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 8, 2019
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Marcelo Bielsa is a coach who has transformed the theory and practice of those who influenced him, not least two of the great figures of Argentinian football, Carlos Bilardo and Cesar Luis Menotti, and, in turn, gone on to influence a huge number of managers and coaches himself. Bielsa’s synthesis of preparation, hard work, rigid training techniques, fast, vertical football, and pressing, can be seen across the modern game. Indeed, as Jonathan Wilson said in an article in 8by8:

“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.”

So what is his influence? And who is it on? Alongside the methodologically rigorous training, opposition analysis, and emphasis on commitment, hard work, and fitness, it’s worth laying out a basic sense of Bielsa’s tactical style. Jed Davies, a coach who has worked extensively on analysing Bielsa’s approach, puts it like this:

“Bielsa’s preferred approach is one that looks to overload the defensive third with his ‘spare-man philosophy’ when in possession and in the final third Bielsa is known to employ an un enganche y tres punta (one playmaker and three forwards) system. [Bielsa] also looked to cut the time taken in transition (the time in between the two formations – defensive and attacking).”

This is achieved with verticality, transitioning at pace between defence and attack, employing midfielders as defenders to ensure that he has ball-players capable of passing from deep and moving intelligently to create such overloads, and emphasising rotation among positions. To this is added Bielsa’s fierce pressing approach, and it’s clear to see how other managers have been influenced by the combination of a form of intense, vertical positional play and pressing.

While the 3-3-1-3 that Bielsa has advocated for and had success with is fairly unusual in modern football, the idea of having an attacking, linking midfielder with a striker and two wingers ahead is common among Bielsa followers, even if the team’s defensive shape doesn’t show it as clearly. Mauricio Pochettino has employed variants of this at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, while also preaching the press, and, by necessity, adhering to the same levels of intensity in training. Pochettino, like many of the coaches who cite Bielsa as an influence, played under the coach at Newell’s; indeed, Bielsa seems to have marked Pochettino out early as a natural leader and intelligent analyst of the game, getting him to produce and present opposition analysis even as a teenager.

One manager who has perhaps most purely followed Bielsa’s tactical approach is Jorge Sampaoli, who achieved success at Universidad de Chile after a less than stellar early career. Jonathan Wilson has said of that side, “For a time in 2011, La U were easily the best side in South America, and on form one of the best in the world…The principles were overtly Bielsista: high pressing, triangles of passes and vertical attacks down the flanks. And, like Bielsa, Sampaoli is a great researcher of the opposition.” Sampaoli, a self-confessed Bielsa disciple, went on to follow his mentor in managing the Chilean and Argentine national sides and is now at Santos in Brazil.

Another manager who did not play for Bielsa but has been hugely influenced by him is Pep Guardiola. Guardiola, who has refined positional play into an almost overpoweringly dominant style during his tenures at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City, visited Bielsa in Argentina in 2006 for advice. Guardiola has stated that Bielsa is the best coach in the world:

“It is important for me to say this about Marcelo because it doesn’t matter how many titles he had in his career. We are judged by that…But that is much less influential than how he has influenced football and his football players.”

Indeed, while Guardiola has the perhaps curious trait of not signing players he’s worked with at former clubs, he has signed former Bielsa players a number of times, including Benjamin Mendy, Javi Martinez, and Aymeric Laporte, a testament to how highly he values Bielsa’s input on a player’s development.

And Bielsa’s former players have certainly gone on to embody many of his traits, often with far more success in terms of titles. Those former players include, along with Pochettino: Marcelo Gallardo, already River Plate’s joint-most successful manager, who has won the Copa Libertadores twice, as well as other trophies with the Argentinian side and the Uruguayan top flight with Nacional; Diego Simeone, the Athletico Madrid who has won two Europa Leagues, La Liga, and two titles in Argentina, and whose assistant manager German Burgos is also a former Bielsa player; Tata Martino, who has won domestic leagues in Argentina, Paraguay, and the United States, as well as managing Barcelona and coming second in the Copa America twice with Argentina; Matias Almeyda, currently with the San Jose Earthquakes and a former CONCACAF Men’s Football Coach of the Year who won five titles with Guadalajara; and Eduardo Berizzo, the former Atheltic Club de Bilbao coach who is now in charge of Paraguay and has won the title in Chile with O’Higgins.

There are less well-known managers or coaches who played under Bielsa, too: Gabriel Heinze, in charge at Bielsa’s former club Velez Sarsfield; Constantin Galca, now manager at Vejle BK in Denmark, who also managed Espanyol and had a very successful spell at Steaua Bucharest ; Walter Samuel, current assistant manager in the Argentina set-up; Pablo Aimar, the Argentina U17s boss; Esteban Cambiasso, assistant manager of Colombia; and Andoni Iraola, in charge at AEK Larnaca in Cyrpus. The list goes on and on – Bielsa’s influence is extraordinarily wide-ranging, and that is just when you consider those who have played for him.

Bielsa’s influence ranges across the tactical, analytical, and preparatory. Many have tempered Bielsa’s attacking intensity and added a degree of caution, but the foundations of today’s Tottenham Hotspur, River Plate, and San Jose Earthquakes are overtly rooted in the philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa. That breadth of influence, among so many coaches, surely marks out Marcelo Bielsa as one of the most important figures in the modern era of football.

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