“If players weren’t human,” Bielsa noted, “I’d never lose”
The conquistador hotel in Santa Fe, Argentina, is an unremarkable concrete block on an unremarkable street, as standard as city-center business hotels come. It was here, in 1992, that one of the main prophets of football’s new tactical age wrestled with his doubts and, having conquered them, set upon a course that would forge a third way between the extremes of menottisme and bilardisme, the romantic and pragmatic schools that had dominated Argentine football since the 1970s.
History may not judge Marcelo Bielsa as a great coach: Three Argentine titles and an Olympic gold, after all, is not a spectacular return over a career. As a theorist, though, he stands among a select few. 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, the new manager of Marseille, has had in the first decade of the 21st century.
Bielsa has always been intense, driven, and intellectual. His idealistic streak made him awkward as a teenager. He became known as El Loco, and even in wanting to be a footballer he was marking out his difference. His family were all lawyers or politicians or both. His brother, Rafael, served as Argentina’s minister of foreign relations under Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, while his sister, María Eugenía, is an architect who has served as vice governor of Santa Fe.
So keen was Marcelo to be a footballer that he left home at 15 to move into club accommodation at Newell’s Old Boys. Typically, he was kicked out two days later because he refused to leave his two-stroke Puma motorcycle outside. He may have rebelled against his upbringing, but it conditioned him. It’s said that Bielsa’s grandfather had over 30,000 books at home, and Bielsa developed a sober respect for knowledge and learning, subscribing at one point to more than 40 international sports magazines and collecting thousands of recordings of matches.
He doesn’t regard his obsession as unusual; he always seems slightly taken aback that others don’t also spend their days poring over DVDs. When he interviewed for the Vélez Sársfield job in 1997, he took with him 51 tapes to explain how he would make the side better. Having got the job, he demanded an office with a computer that would enable him to take screenshots from videos—commonplace now, but unheard of at the time. Once, asked how he planned to spend the Christmas holiday, Bielsa said he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching videos. He has apparently developed the ability to watch two games simultaneously. “I am a student of football,” he said. “I watch videos, read, analyze.”
Bielsa was born in Rosario in July 1955, the son of Rafael, a lawyer who supported Rosario Central, and Lidia, a schoolteacher. Largely to annoy his father, it seems, he decided to support Newell’s, as did his brother. He played football from childhood but also began to learn about it, indexing the copies of El Gráfico his mother bought for him. “The influence of my mother was fundamental in my life,” he said. “For her, no effort was sufficient.” She was tough and hard working. Both Bielsa’s apologists and his critics agree that he is relentless, a workaholic who expects others to work as hard as he does. “At first he seems tough and he may even annoy you with his persistence and don’t-take-no-for-an-answer resilience, but in the end he is a genius,” said center forward Fernando Llorente, who played under him at Athletic Bilbao.
Effort and discipline, though, couldn’t make Bielsa a footballer. A defender who was good on the ball, he lacked pace and managed just four games for Newell’s before leaving at age 21. He drifted around the lower leagues and studied agronomy and physical education before, at 25, moving to Buenos Aires to coach the city university’s football team. His approach was characteristically thorough (he watched 3,000 players before selecting a squad of 20) and unusual (he carried a thesaurus with him at training and addressed players using the formal pronoun usted). He treated his players like professionals, insisting they train properly. Those who played for him noticed a new seriousness about the training. His belief in the importance of verticality was evident even then.
Bielsa spent two years there before returning to Newell’s to work in their youth setup. Deciding there were probably players from the interior who were being missed by the big clubs, he divided a map of Argentina into 70 sections and visited each one in the hunt for new talent, driving over 5,000 miles in his Fiat 147 because he was afraid of flying.
By 1990, he was working with the reserves and was established enough to replace José Yudica as first-team coach. “When Marcelo took over, there was a radical change,” said midfielder Juan Manuel Llop. “He was young and had a new way of training, new ideas, a positional 4-3-3 based on wingers, capable of becoming a 3-4-3 when necessary. Like Martino and the other older players, I was wary at first—too many changes. But we quickly realized he was the best thing that could have happened to Newell’s and supported him eyes-closed.”
Training changed dramatically. “It was nothing that would surprise us now,” said Llop, “but at that time it was surprising. All the training sessions were short but very intense. The ball was nearly always present, but tactics were always present. We started training at different times, three or four players doing specific, zonal exercises: For example number 5, number 4, and number 8 together. The young players were used to training like that. But we, of course, weren’t.”
With most games on Sundays, players had Monday off and then would work with the fitness coach all day Tuesday and Wednesday morning while Bielsa watched videos of the opposition. On Wednesday afternoon, the tactical work would begin. “The youngsters had to read the papers and bring detailed dossiers on the next team we were going to face,” Llop said. “It was a way to make them feel committed and to make them understand football better.” Bielsa would then take them through videos—never full games but isolated moments and sequences to highlight key points.
On Thursday, there’d be a practice match in the afternoon, “a short game,” Llop said, “but played with the intensity of a Primera match. It was amazing. We’d never seen anything like that. The other team played like our next opponents. And our mission was to beat them, to win the game. We were so focused on winning that we couldn’t afford to lose on a Thursday.”
Fridays were for specific game preparation. Bielsa would lead his side through 120 different attacking situations and 120 different defensive situations. “It was about movement, coordinated movement,” said Llop. “The ball has to come here, you must curtain there, you have to run here, in case they play the offside trap, two would come out of the play and one will have to take action to counter it. It was very, very detailed.”
It worked, at least at times. Newell’s began hesitantly, beating Platense 1-0 but then drawing away at Argentinos Juniors and losing at home to Huracán. When they went to Santa Fe to face Unión in the fourth game of the season, there were major doubts about Bielsa. “There were rumors,” said Llop. “I don’t know if he would have been sacked after the fourth game or later. But after a bad start, if we’d kept on that path, it would have happened. Marcelo was seen as a weird guy. There was scrutiny over his methods.” They won 3-1. “We took off and never stopped,” Llop said. Newell’s lost only once more in the apertura as they finished two points clear of River Plate.
That season, the winners of apertura and clausura played off for the title, which effectively meant Newell’s had nothing to play for in the second half of the season. They finished eighth in the clausura. In the playoff, Newell’s won the first leg in Rosario 1-0, but that still left an almighty task in la Boca. Absurdly, the Copa América began between the two legs, which meant both sides lost players—Fernando Gamboa and Dario Franco from Newell’s and Diego Latorre, Blas Giunta, and Gabriel Batistuta from Boca. Batistuta might be the biggest name of those five absentees, but losing Gamboa meant a restructuring of the defense for Newell’s.
“Bielsa asked me if I could please play as sweeper,” Llop said. “I’d never played as libero before in my life. Never. We trained on the Wednesday and it was horrible; the reserves outplayed us badly. Bielsa took us into the dressing room and gave us a talk, telling us what we could do to improve. We entered the pitch again and improved a little bit. And we trained again on Thursday, and it was better. But that was it. Two training sessions and full of doubts.”
Boca dominated, Cristian Domizzi and Juan Simón were sent off, and Reinoso scored with nine minutes remaining to give the home team a 1-0 win. Newell’s, though, won the penalty shootout 3-1. “It was the best game of my life,” said Llop. “We played in the mud: it was very mystical.”
Newell’s form, though, had deserted them, and in the apertura of 1991–92 they got even worse. In the whole of 1991, Newell’s won only nine games. Fatigue was a major issue. “It’s a method that provokes a certain level of tiredness, yes,” Llop said. “Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness.”
By the start of the clausura, the pressure was beginning to build. Newell’s began with a 2-0 home win over Quilmes, but then they were hammered 6-0 by San Lorenzo in their first game in the group stage of the Libertadores. “It was one of the most embarrassing games we ever played,” said Llop.
And so they went on to Santa Fe, where the charge to the title had begun the previous season. At the Conquistador, Bielsa’s doubts suddenly overwhelmed him. In the aftermath of the 6-0 defeat, he began to question himself. “I shut myself in my room,” he said. “I turned off the light, closed the curtains, and I realized the true meaning of an expression we sometimes use lightly: ‘I want to die.’ I burst into tears. I could not understand what was happening around me. I suffered as a professional and I suffered as a fan.”
He phoned his wife, Laura. “For three months our daughter was held between life and death,” he said. “Now she is fine. Does it make any sense that I want the earth to swallow me over the result of a football match? The reasoning was brilliant, but nonetheless, my suffering from what had happened demanded immediate vindication.”
What had happened against San Lorenzo wasn’t just a defeat, and Bielsa wasn’t just questioning his capacity as a coach. It wasn’t merely a solution he was looking for; it was vindication for the entire philosophy by which he played his football and lived his life. Bielsa called his players together. “If we have to rethink the project,” he said, “we will do it together. We will seek a new way of doing things if we don’t feel able to achieve what we set out to do at the start of preseason.”
Newell’s drew 0-0 against Unión, but Bielsa was set on his new path. It wasn’t, he decided, that he’d gone too far; rather, he hadn’t gone far enough. “Still under the emotional shock,” he said, “there was born a new manner of understanding the tactics of the team. For quite some time I had had some ideas about individuality and its contribution to the joint effort, which I hadn’t put into practice because they involved too many rotations in the field. We came through our failings to refresh the structure and a seemingly unfortunate situation allowed us to relaunch the general idea, through a series of changes of position.”
Llop remembers it as a stressful time. “Marcelo was trying to find the proper tactics, and they were days of talking and talking, because no one was happy with the result, and we needed to put it together. The first drastic change was Berti in, Rossi out. Just that. Then with time he made other changes.”
Llop was moved into midfield. Julio Saldaña was shifted from right back to left back, with Eduardo Berizzo pushed forward from left back to the left side of midfield. Gamboa, the libero, went to the right, with a brief to tuck in behind the defense if the center back Mauricio Pochettino was drawn forward by the man he was marking. The following week they beat Rosario Central 1-0. They went to Racing and won 1-0, then beat Gimnasia y Esgrima by the same score. The revolution gathered pace. Saldaña’s wife was killed in a car crash, but he played on, finding strength in Bielsa and the team unit.
Results picked up in the Libertadores as well. Newell’s went unbeaten through the remainder of the group stage and gained a cathartic 1-0 win over San Lorenzo in Almagro. The better Bielsa did, the more his methods were examined and the more the question was asked: What was this new style? Was he bilardista or menottista?
“Bielsa was not aligned to Bilardo or to Menotti,” Llop insisted. “A tactician is often seen as a negative, defensive style of manager, but tactics are not just defending and blocking the opponents’ main virtues. Bielsa proved that. He was a mix between the two, always thinking about the opposition goal, with an order and balance to be able to press as far away as possible from our own area and with a type of game more vertical than horizontal. We used the whole width of the pitch but with a vertical idea of going forward. Bielsa is like a fusion of the two schools.”
That was certainly how the coach saw it. “I spent 16 years of my life listening to them: eight to Menotti, a coach who prioritizes inspiration, and eight to Bilardo, a coach who prioritizes functionality,” he said after becoming national coach in 1998. “I tried to take the best from each.”
Menotti and Bilardo responded as every stereotype about their personalities suggested they should. “Bielsa is a young man with concerns,” said Menotti. “He has ideas and he knows how to develop them. But we do not agree on the starting point: He thinks football is predictable and I do not.” Bilardo, meanwhile, claimed Bielsa was simply repeating what he’d done. “I share his thinking because it seems to me that we did that in 1986,” he said. “They have many videos to study opponents, as I did back then.”
Some would argue that those 120 repetitions on a Friday were bilardista, but Bielsa’s ideas on the need to attack whenever possible were at the menottista end of the spectrum. He certainly would never have accepted Bilardo’s insistence that seven outfielders in the team were there to defend and three to attack. “I am obsessive about attack,” he said. “When I watch videos, it’s for attacking, not for defending. My football, in defense, is very simple: We run all the time. I know that it’s easier to defend than create. To run, for example, is a decision of the will. To create you need an indispensable amount of talent.”
For Bielsa, defending was the first stage of attacking. He didn’t set up his sides to sit back and absorb pressure but to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. “While the opponent has the ball,” he explained, “the whole team presses, always trying to cut off the play as close as possible to the opponent’s goal; when we get it we look to play with dynamism and create the spaces for improvisation.”
Bielsa said his philosophy could be reduced to four terms: “concentración permanente, movilidad, rotación y repenitización”. The first three are easy to translate—permanent focus, mobility, and rotation; the fourth, though, is classic Bielsa. In music, repenitización is used for the practice of playing a piece without having practiced it first. The term in football clearly has some sense of improvisation while also carrying a sense of urgency. It sums up the counterintuitive idealism of the Bielsa philosophy, demanding that players repeatedly do things for the first time, a paradox that perhaps suggests the glorious futility of what he is trying to achieve. “The possible is already done,” Bielsa said during his time at Newell’s. “We are doing the impossible.” When Llop speaks of playing mystical games and of having to have faith, that is what he means: Bielsa seems as interested in reaching for the absolute as in winning matches—and that, of course, gives him his cultish appeal.
Like many South Americans of his generation, Bielsa had been heavily influenced by the Dutch side of the early ’70s, and his basic style developed out of the Total Football philosophy of Rinus Michels; in fact, it bore striking similarities to the theories Louis van Gaal was putting into practice at Ajax at around the same time. The basic shape was a 4-3-3/3-4-3 hybrid, although that was always flexible and would change according to the opposition. “He looked to give players a certain versatility,” said Llop. “It wasn’t a problem changing positions because we were convinced by what we were doing. When you see the results, when you can see that it is working, then you are willing to do what he tells you.”
A proactive approach, taken to its extremes, denies fixed positions. Positions become relative, determined, as Arrigo Sacchi demanded, by four factors: the space, the ball, the opponent, and the teammates. “We can’t have anybody in the squad who thinks they can win games on their own,” Bielsa said, principles that had been embodied by Sacchi’s AC Milan. “The key is to occupy the pitch well, to have a short team with no more than 25 meters from front to back, and to have a defense that is not distracted if somebody moves position.”
The more direct influence on Bielsa, though, was the Uruguayan Oscar Washington Tabárez, a coach whose pragmatism seems oddly incongruent with Bielsa’s own idealism. “Football,” Bielsa said, “rests on four fundamentals, as outlined by Tabárez: 1) defense, 2) attack, 3) how you move from defense to attack, 4) how you move from attack to defense. The issue is trying to make those passages as smooth as possible.”
In adopting such an audacious approach, Bielsa was encouraged by the polifuncionalidad—versatility—in the Newell’s squad. If, for instance, Gerardo Martino, the attacking central midfielder, found himself facing two holding players, Alfredo Berti could push forward so Martino didn’t face “an unequal struggle.” That had a effect elsewhere, of course. “What do we do with Berizzo when he remains alone against two creative midfielders?” Bielsa asked. “Llop has to go up to the position that Berti left or Saldaña goes into the position of Berizzo, el Toto [Berizzo] thus running to the original demarcation of Berti … Both possibilities are valid, and which to apply is left to the judgment of the players.”
Newell’s lost only once that season in the league and took the clausura by two points from Vélez. In the Libertadores, they beat Defensor Sporting to set up a quarterfinal against San Lorenzo. The pain of the 6-0 loss was still fresh, but this time they won 4-0 in Rosario to take the tie 5-1. Newell’s then edged by América de Cali on penalties in the semifinal. The final, against the São Paulo of Rai and Cafú, also went to penalties, but this time Newell’s lost.
Bielsa, seemingly exhausted by the strain of coaching the team he supported to play in the style for which he was an evangelist, resigned. “We tried to convince him to stay,” said Llop, “but the process was worn out. He wanted to quit before then, and with Martino we went to his home and convinced him to stay a little longer, but after a month or two, he resigned. He probably understood that his era had ended. When he left, we ended playing to avoid relegation. It was terrible.”
For Bielsa, the template was set. The pattern has continued at every club he has been at: The intensity bringing stunning results, then exhaustion. It happened at Vélez and at Athletic, which played stunning football at times in Bielsa’s first season, particularly in their victory over Manchester United in the Europa League, before it fell apart in the second season as some players left and others proved unable to cope with their coach’s intensity.
“If players weren’t human,” Bielsa noted at Vélez, “I’d never lose.” But players are human. Perhaps that’s why his longest-lasting successes were at the national level. After a desperately unlucky World Cup in 2002—Argentina had more shots and won more corners in the group stage than anybody else but still went out—Bielsa led Argentina to the final of the 2004 Copa América and then to Olympic gold. With the Chile national side, he effectively defined a nation’s philosophy, making them one of the most watchable sides at the 2010 World Cup and laying the groundwork for a similar performance in 2014, when they were coached by Jorge Sampaoli, a Bielsa disciple.
That, perhaps, will be Bielsa’s greatest legacy—not the trophies he has won but the coaches he has inspired, men capable of treating players as humans.