Who influenced Marcelo Bielsa?

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 7, 2019

Even an iconic, iconoclastic coach and thinker like Marcelo Bielsa has been influenced by a number of other coaches and schools of thought. Bielsa’s style is extremely intense, physically and tactically. Complicated and systematic approaches are worked out based on the opposition’s structure, learned, and practiced in minute detail.

Defence is based on a swarming, but managed, press; attack is based on verticality, with a possession-based, positional system.

One feeds the other, with counter-pressing also a feature of Bielsa’s approach. Bielsa has explained his philosophy using four terms: “concentración permanente, movilidad, rotación y repenitización”.

In English, these are ‘permanent concentration or focus’, ‘movement’, and ‘rotation’; the fourth term means something like improvisation, but actually comes, according to Jonathan Wilson, from sight-reading music without practising it first.

This philosophy has its roots in Argentina’s footballing history, and two of its towering, and opposing figures.

Carlos Bilardo, who won the 1986 World Cup as coach of Argentina, was born from the pragmatic school of Argentinian football. Influenced by Victorio Spinetto and subsequently Osvaldo Zubeldiá, who managed him to three consecutive Copa Libertadores wins as a player with Estudiantes, Bilardo was a tactically astute, but physically fearsome player.

Zubeldiá wanted to win, at any cost, preaching a doctrine of relentless effort, meticulous preparation, and, if needed, cynicism or even violence. Bilardo was his most successful and determined pupil and learned, and coached, that along with hard work and self-sacrifice to the team, the keys to success were preparation and analysis of the opposition. This resulted in training based on repetitive drilling of match specific situational responses. His tactical approach, seen for example in Argentina’s successful World Cup side of 1986, was about balance, pragmatism. There, the attacking talents of Maradona, Jorge Valdano, and Jorge Burruchaga were unleashed, but only because the remaining seven outfield players were destroyers – a team of two units, made in the first instance of a 3-5-2 seen at the highest level.

This coaching approach – demanding effort, drilling specific scenarios over and over, the predication on meticulous opposition research – had a huge influence on Bielsa.

Bilardo’s mentality also influenced Bielsa. The uncompromising approach, the idiosyncrasies that, while not celebrated, demand acceptance. And, perhaps more than anything, the need to win. As Bilardo once said, “You have to think about being first. Because second is no good, being second is a failure. For me it’s good that if you lose you hould feel bad; if you want you can express it by crying, shutting yourself away, feeling bad.

The antithesis to Bilardo was César Luis Menotti, a raffish, chain-smoking manager nicknamed El Flaco, the skinny one. Menotti, who also won the World Cup with Argentina in 1978, could not abide the cynicism and brutality, not to say the defensiveness and overly tactical approach, of Bilardo.

Menotti loved attacking football, his title-winning Huracán side of 1973 was full of invention, trickery, and attacking intent. He wanted his teams to dazzle and inspire:

“I maintain that a team is above all an idea, and more than an idea it is a commitment, and more than a commitment it is the clear convictions that a coach must transmit to his players to defend that idea.”

Bielsa certainly inherited this love of attacking football and, more subtly, the sense that Menotti had that playing football was a privilege and that footballers had a duty to inspire as well as entertain – there are echoes of this sense of responsibility in Bielsa making his Leeds players pick-up litter.

Menotti, who was ironically replaced by Bilardo as the coach of Argentina, played with a 4-3-3 that drew inspiration from the Dutch national side of 1974, a whirl of fluid, off-the- ball movement and intricate passing that required huge technical ability and an intuitive understanding of space and the position of teammates. This 4-3-3 was the first system used by Bielsa at Newel’s, but the importance of attacking and movement, and of football itself to fans and players alike, was Menotti’s more concrete influence on Bielsa.

The synthesis of the two influences, of Bilardo and Menotti, is described by Wilson in his superb book Angels with Dirty Faces as ‘The Third Way.’

Bielsa himself said, “I spent 16 years of my life listening to them: eight to Menotti, a coach who prioritises inspiration, and eight to Bilardo, a coach who prioritises functionality. I tried to take the best from each.”

In Argentinian football, influence always looms large and is there to be acknowledged and built upon.

There are two further, clear influences on Bielsa that are worth noting. Total Football, the philosophy developed by Rinus Michels and his greatest pupil Johan Cruyff, beat Argentina at the World Cup in 1974 and was, as Wilson notes, a clear influence on Argentinian football thereafter, especially Menotti. Bielsa’s insistence on an, at times, almost manic press, is born of Ajax and the Dutch sides of the early 1970s, who pursued the ball with intensity, seeking to make the pitch as small as possible when out of possession, and as large as possible when attacking.

Versatility and rotation – for example Bielsa’s deployment of midfielders as defenders – also stems from Total Football’s emphasis on players being able to interchange. This allows Bielsa’s teams to create more passing options and overloads from the back more easily and naturally, and also facilitates counter-pressing. It requires Bielsa’s players to be technically excellent, as well as extremely fit, and when at its best, creates a whirl of movement and interchange that resembles Total Football at its finest

Bielsa was also influenced by the Urugyuan coach Oscar Tabárez, who revolutionised the youth system in the Uruguayan national set-up and took the senior side a Copa América win in 2011; he also won the Copa Libertadores with Peñarol in 1987 and a title with Boca Juniors in 1992.

According to Bielsa, “Football rests on four fundamentals, as outlined by Tabárez: 1) defense, 2) attack, 3) how you move from defense to attack, and (4), how you move from attack to defense. The issue is trying to make those passages as smooth as possible.”

Jonathan Wilson notes in his 8by8 piece on Bielsa that the Uruguyan’s pragmatism is at odds with Bielsa’s idealism. But Tabárez’s way of breaking down the game into a series of states and transitions between those states was clearly hugely influential on Bielsa as a way of thinking about the game. His theories of movement and rotation, the interchangeable function of players within a system, are a response to Tabárez’s view of the four fundamentals, Bielsa’s answer to the questions posed by the transitions between states.

Marcelo Bielsa has been characterised as the product of the two dominant, but opposing schools of Argentinian football: that of Menotti, and Bilardo. From Menotti, he took attacking intent, the importance of possession and passing, and, with a sense of football’s importance to fans, almost a moral standpoint. From Bilardo, he took the mechanics of how to achieve this: hard work, dedication, meticulous preparation, and training based on rehearsing responses to in-game situations.

From Michels and Cruyff, via Menotti, came movement, fluidity, rotation, and positional flexibility, as well as pressing. And from Tabárez, a way of thinking about a game that broke it down into four constituent parts, each to be worked out and solved in terms of how they relate to one another.

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