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Marcelo Bielsa: Understanding the Man, Coach & Innovations behind the genius "El Loco" - Part 1

The aim of this article is to provide the reader with a deep analysis into the DNA of a man that is iconic in the Football World......That man being Marcelo Bielsa!

We will be publishing this series of articles on Bielsa in four parts based on the amount of information we have gathered, we want to layer it into digestible parts for the reader. We felt the ideal starting point for Part 1 is to provide a background on Bielsa's "Early Years" as a coach and provide insight on the history that has shaped him into becoming one of the most admired coaches world wide. Below is a breakdown of this 4 Part Series of Articles:

- Part 1: Bielsa "Early Years"

- Part 2: Bielsa "The Iconic Coach"

- Part 3: Bielsa "Training Methods"

- Part 4: Bielsa "Game Model & Philosophy"

Bielsa has developed (Natural process and not by design) a kind of cult following across the globe for his innovative ideas, obsession with football tactics and attractive style of play. The man from Rosario - Argentina is radical in how he sees the game and crazy ("El Loco" is his nickname in the latin countries) with how he analyzes every detail that shapes his match plan, squad composition and tactical approach. To develop the findings and content for this article, we have analyzed many resources and those are noted at the bottom of this post. From the beginning of this article, I want to personally acknowledge that we used many resources to build this article and we couldn't provide this layer of information without those supporting bodies of work.

The main inspiration for writing this series of articles is Jed Davies - His book "The Football Philosophy – In the shadows of Marcelo Bielsa" is what got me hooked on studying Bielsa!

"At first, he seems tough and he may even annoy you with his persistence and don't take no as an answer resilience, but in the end he is a genius" - Fernando Llorente

Marcelo Bielsa - Understanding the Man Behind the Genius:

Career as Player:

1975-1977 - Newell's Old Boys (Argentina)

1978-1979 - Instituto (Argentina)

1979-1980 - Argentino (Argentina)

Career as Coach:

1990-1992 - Newell's Old Boys (Argentina)

1993-1995 - Atlas (Mexico)

1995-1996 - Club America (Mexico)

1997-1998 - Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)

1998-1998 - Espanyol (Spain)

1998-2004 - Argentina National Team

2007-2011 - Chile National Team

2011-2013 - Athletic Club de Bilbao (Spain)

2014-2015 - Marseille (France)

2016-2016 - Lazio (Italy)

2017-2017 - Lille (France)

2018 - Present - Leeds United (England)

The Beginnings - Love for Newell's Old Boys:

Born on July 21, 1955 in Rosario, Argentina, Bielsa grew up in a well educated family where most of his family members where politicians, lawyers, so knowledge and education was something that Bielsa was exposed to during his early years and that has shaped his thirst to research, analyze and share with others the information that he has compiled.

"Im a student of football" - Marcelo Bielsa

"Innovation often comes from those who approach a subject from a different angle"

Jonathan Wilson - Author of Inverting the Pyramid

"A Man with New Ideas is a madman...Until he succeeds!" - Marcelo Bielsa

As a youngster, Bielsa became a fan of Newell's Old Boys (Local Rosario Club in Santa Fe) and that led him to join the club at the age of 13. He was desperate to be a successful professional player and even moved into the clubs accommodations at the age of 15 for 2 days and was kicked out over a misunderstanding regarding his PUMA motorcycle. From the limited information that I have been able to find on his playing background, it was claimed in Inverting the pyramid by Jonathan Wilson that Bielsa was technically strong on the ball, but slow and not very good when dealing with aerial duels.

Bielsa did eventually progress through the ranks at Newell's Old Boys and reached the first team in 1975. However, Marcelo never cemented a regular first team spot and left the club in 1977 at the age of 21. He was quickly realizing that his future as a professional player was becoming limited and that his personal path was taking him in a different direction, which was more towards the educational stream.

Young Marcelo Bielsa during his playing days

Once he left Newell's Old Boys, Marcelo played in the lower leagues of Argentinian football with Instituto and Argentino. At the age of 25, he shifted gears and entered University where Marcelo studied agronomy and physical education. His University studies provided him with the scientific methodology that would shape his training methods in future years. Similar to Jose Mourinho, there was a strong academic formation for Bielsa "The Coach" that has allowed him to innovate and think different in comparison to the typical formation for a coach which is the transition from Pro Player to Pro Coach. While the Pro Player is focused on training, performance and achieving results every week.....Marcelo was gathering a wealth of information and shaping his football philosophy in order to be fully prepared when he stepped into a Coaching position.

His initiation into coaching came when he took over the University Team in Buenos Aires which he was given the opportunity to apply all the concepts that he was capturing during his formative process. It was noted in Jonathan Wilson's Book "Inverting the Pyramid", that Bielsa watched and scouted three thousand players before selecting his twenty man roster for the University squad. It became clear then that this was a man that would leave no stone unturned in his pursuit for success.

The next steps for the young coach was a return to his beloved Newell's Old Boys as a Youth Team coach. While Bielsa was the Youth Coach at Newell's Old Boys, he felt a lot of the most talented players in Argentina were being missed due to a lack of systematic scouting. Bielsa and his Youth team assistant Jorge Griffa divided the country into 70 different regions and drove his Fiat 147 to every region because Bielsa hates flying. When visiting the regions, Bielsa and Griffa set up trials to assess players and followed this same process at each visit they conducted.

To highlight how dedicated Bielsa was to capturing the best youth talent in Argentina, this story from Pochettino is a good one.....As explained in Guillem Balague's Book - Brave New World, Bielsa and Griffa turned up at a sleeping Mauricio Pochettino’s house at 2am, commenting how the 13-year-old future Spurs boss had “the legs of a footballer”. Pochettino has come out publicly to confirm that this story is actually true and this further highlights the scouting process/robustness of Bielsa's methods.

Gabriel Batistuta at Newell's Old Boys in 1988-89

But Pochettino is just one of dozens of players that Bielsa and Griffa scouted. Gabriel Batistuta, the son of a slaughterhouse worker in small-town Avellanada was another player that was identified in 1987. Under the guidance of Bielsa, whom Batistuta described in his autobiography as the most important coach he has ever had - “The one [Coach] who taught me how to train on rainy days, he taught me everything”, Batistuta was physically transformed, fed encouragement at the right times by Bielsa, and he was set up well onto the path towards becoming a World Class Striker.

Newell's Old Boys most recent prodigy is Lionel Messi who developed his craft and skills at the club from 1994-2000 (Ages 7-13) before being recruited by FC Barcelona in 2001.

Bielsa would eventually progress through the ranks at Newell's and takeover the head coach role for the Newell's first team in 1990. This was Bielsa's first big step forward into the Professional Coaching Ranks.

Marcelo Bielsa - During his time as Head Coach of Newell's Old Boys

At first, there was scepticism around Bielsa as he was a relative unknown entity within the Argentinian Coaching ranks and there was no previous experiences for the football world to set expectations. I feel this worked in his favour as it allowed Bielsa to set his own targets, philosophy and direction without the stigma of previous experiences which can add unrealistic pressures onto Coaches. The below quote gives an overview on how his style of play and tactics were impacting the club:

"Tactically it was a radical change, he altered the fitness preparation enormously, he worked on set pieces very thoroughly and paid close attention to the details. That was the main change. Marcelo's philosophy took place place between two decades. The style was very practically. It was an aggressive style, looking for every man to win his personal duel - when that happens, it shifts a match in your favour and that was how Marcelo planned games. It was adding up the sum of winning battles, along with controlling possession as well as always looking to go forward and attack. Of course, we had to balance that with defence but that was the idiosyncrasy of Marcelo's style"

Newell's Old Boys Midfielder Juan Manuel Llop - 1981-1994

His approach at Newell's Old Boys did bring success to the club where he went onto win the 1990 Torneo Apertura, 1990-91 Torneo Integracion (Beating Boca Juniors on Penalties) and the 1992 Torneo Clausura. During the 1992 Season, Marcelo would lead Newell's Old Boys to the final of the Copa Libertadores. In that final, they faced Sao Paolo of Brazil who at the time possessed Cafu and Rai who would both eventually move across to Europe and had successful careers for Club and Brazil. Sao Paolo were coached by the legendary Tele Santana, who had previously coached the Brazil National Team during the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Below is the tactical line up that Bielsa deployed to start the 1st Leg of the Libertadores Final:

Newell's Old Boys - Tactical Formation - 1992 Copa Libertadores Final 1st Leg vs Sao Paolo of Brazil

Newell's won the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final 1-0 at home in Rosario. Berizzo was the goal scorer on that night from the penalty spot. Bielsa used his favoured 1-3-3-1-3 Formation with Gamboa as the sweeper, Pochettino and Raggio as the wide centre backs in a Back 3. The Midfield shape was a diamond in essence - Berizzo was the holding midfielder, Martino played as the offensive midfielder with freedom to roam and overload key spaces. Berti and Saldana played wide in their 3-1 Midfield shape that was supported up front with three forwards in wingers - Mendoza & Zamora with Lunari in the centre forward position.

The 2nd leg was played at the Morumbi, Sao Paolo stadium in front of 105,185 crowd and the outcome was different this time around. Newell's kept a very consistent line up in the 2nd leg, the only difference being Llop replaced Raggio as the Right Sided CB in the back 3. Sao Paolo won the 2nd leg match 1-0 in regular time and the game went to a shoot out because the aggregate score was tied 1-1 after 180+ minutes of football. Tele Saltana and his Sao Paolo team would go on to win the Copa Libertadores from Penalty Kicks 3-2 (Berizzo, Mendoza, and Gamoa didn't score on their attempts from the spot with Zamora and Llop scored their penalties).

Newell's Old Boys - Tactical Formation - 1992 Copa Libertadores Final 2nd Leg vs Sao Paolo of Brazil

After the completion of the 1992 season, Bielsa resigned from Newell's citing the cause of his departure to the emotional strain he felt coaching a club that he was so deeply connected too. His impact and legacy at Newell's Old Boys was honoured on December 22, 2009 when Newell's named their stadium the Estadio Marcelo A. Bielsa. Also, when Bielsa shared to the public his letter of Thanks to FIFA for naming Bielsa and his Leeds United team as the recipients of the 2019 FIFA Fair Play Award, he made reference to his time at Newell's for shaping his values:

"To Newell's Old Boys of Rosario, a club to which I belong, where for twenty years I learned to live football in a particular way" - Marcelo Bielsa

Mexican Adventure:

After resigning from Newell's in 1992, Bielsa took over as football director of Atlas in the Mexican Primera League. The club was hoping to benefit from his relentless, almost obsessive work-rate, his innovations and detailed analysis. To ensure that Atlas was the right fit for Bielsa, he travelled to the city of Guadalajara to carry out what he described as an audit, spending a month viewing youth matches and contemplating his future. As cited in the Article by Callum Rice-Coates from These Football Times, Bielsa's decision was made after watching a game between 16-year-olds, after which he declared the calibre of players on show good enough “to reach international level”.

Atlas did their homework and knew about the regional structure Bielsa put in place to scout youth players in Argentina and they were eager for him to organize a similar system in Mexico. With the success of finding players at the performance standards/potential like Pochettino and Batistuta, Atlas were hoping Marcelo would identify and recruit the diamonds in the rough and with his reputation, attract top talents from across Mexico.

Louis Van Gaal during his successful period at AFC Ajax 1991-1997 - Van Gaal first started at Ajax as Director of Youth Education and then took over the first team at Ajax from Leo Beenhakker in 1991

This systematic approach to Youth Development shows many parallels with the career of Louis Van Gaal and Marcelo Bielsa, whom Van Gaal is a coach that Bielsa deeply admirers and has obsessively studied. During a coaches conference for Aspire Academy in Qatar, Bielsa revealed to the audience that he watched and analyzed 200 matches of Van Gaal's Ajax squad from the 90's. Based on the analysis that Bielsa conducted, he could accurately predict what line up, shape, tactical changes and even substitutions that Van Gaal would make based on the state of the game. Bielsa's wife would help write down his notes and he created his own labelling system to structure all the data from his analysis.

Bielsa approached the offer from Atlas with his consistent detailed assessment before accepting the role -  he saw this as a special project with huge potential, and even perhaps something that could be a long term position to grow the game as a whole in Mexico. The working conditions in Mexico were also considered superior to those in Argentina, as there was and still is a heavy investment by Mexican clubs into infrastructure and facilities to support the youth development system in Mexico (The benefits of this investment into Youth has been seen in the Mexican's recent successes at Youth World Cups in the 2000's) although the league and national team had less success in comparison to Argentina, which with time Bielsa hoped to shift.

Starting in July 1992, Bielsa began his work at Atlas as the Director of Football , with full control of the clubs strategic direction and operations he immediately began to transform the club and implemented a revolutionary approach to the scouting and coaching of young players in Mexico. “The work he organized was impressive, fast, effective and efficient,” Fernando Acosta said (Atlas Club President). “He organised a player recruitment network that still exists in 92 cities in Mexico.”

During his negotiations with Atlas, Bielsa had included in his contract 50 points that the club had to modify based on his projected organization and infrastructure. However, he did not stop there, Marcelo had also drawn up an extremely precise calendar with clear timelines for each point. If the changes were not implemented or in process based on his timelines, he would threaten to resign. Bielsa came to Atlas knowing exactly what conditions he wanted to work in, but he was clear that for the club to have long term success and sustain a strong squad, they needed a pipeline of homegrown players to come through the Youth set up.

What Bielsa was introducing to Mexican football was unique and unforeseen at other clubs across the country - “I designed a structure to observe 20,000 players a year,” he said in an interview with a Mexican newspaper in 1997. “Atlas had a relay in 2,500 cities, we organised tournaments, and we selected 15 players from each one". Up until 2010, Atlas were considered to have the best scouting system and training centre in Mexico, which is the legacy that Bielsa left at the club.

Jared Borgetti during his time at Atlas

During the 2006 FIFA World Cup, eight of the starting eleven selected in Ricardo La Volpe's Mexican squad during their Round of 16 match vs Argentina were players that had been identified and/or trained under Bielsa during his period at Atlas including - Rafael Marquez, Pavel Pardo, Oswaldo Sanchez and Jared Borgetti. Bielsa insisted on one key detail when detecting players for the Atlas Youth Academy that lived outside of the Guadalajara region.....he did not want players under 15 years old to be at the Atlas Youth Academy. For him, a teenager under the age of 15 was not ready to live far from home. Rafa Márquez was detected at the age of 14, but Bielsa waited a year for him to come to Guadalajara. Under Bielsa, Rafa would eventually learn a lot in terms of performance habits, tactics and values.

Marcelo role changed during the 1993/94 season as the Atlas Board wanted him to take full control of the first team for the upcoming season as they felt his ideology, game model and tactics would progress the first team to new performance levels. Bielsa’s inherited a side that was inexperienced and full of Young players, which some of the young players were scouted through the structure Bielsa implemented at the club:

  • Pavel Pardo - Defensive midfielder - 148 Caps for Mexico and was given his debut by Bielsa

  • Oswaldo Sanchez - Goalkeeper - 99 Caps for Mexico - Most appearances in the Mexican Primera Division

  • Jared Borgetti - Striker - 89 caps for Mexico and 46 Goals (Record Holder)

"He was interested in training players to be able to go to Europe. He wanted to change the mentality of the Mexican player. He gave his diagnosis to each of the young people at the centre, explaining to them what their qualities were, and how to work, for example, from a four-point evaluation to an eight or nine. He also insisted that one should think football even after the training is over"

Ernesto Urrea - Friend and Neighbour of Bielsa during his time in Mexico

Bielsa's methodology at Atlas was planned to the minute , taking training sessions with his typical authoritarianism and meticulous attention to detail. Once sessions were completed, he would watch videos late into the night, review his session outcomes and begin the planning process for future sessions, his mind was constantly thinking about football 24/7. “Marcelo arrived in Mexico with a catalogue of about 300 training exercises and left the country with more than 500,” Ernesto Urrea recalls. “His wife, a trained architect, drew them, then Marcelo filmed them in action to show to the other coaches at Atlas. He is a creative mind, one of the smartest people I’ve met.”

Bielsa planned on returning to his role as director of football during the following summer break, but the Atlas Board of Directors were adamant he stay on as Coach of the First Team. This second time around, though, things didn’t go as planned and it was a much more difficult challenge than the first season in charge. Bielsa was concerned that the Atlas squad was not of the required level to compete, and results began to decline in the Mexican Primera Division. Bielsa was stressed and anxious during this period, seemingly exhausted by his own approach (perfectionist personalities run into this issue as they become frustrated when the smallest details aren't right) , meanwhile his Atlas team began to show signs of burnout due to the intensity of his sessions (According to Mexican newspaper sources), something which has became synonymous with Bielsa throughout his coaching career...

Bielsa announced his resignation just 23 days into the 2nd season as Atlas First Team Coach. “When one commits oneself overly affectionately, as I did at Newell’s, there are more disappointments than satisfactions,” Bielsa said. Despite the disappointment that Bielsa experienced at Atlas, he would later return again to the club for a brief period as director football for a second time in 1996.

Bielsa during his time at Club America in Mexico

Bielsa, now unattached to a club, was approached by the Club América Directors in 1995/96 season to takeover as First Team Coach. This was a massive opportunity for Marcelo to make his mark with one of Mexico’s biggest and most successful sides - The home stadium for the Club America is the formidable Estadio Azteca, which is the biggest stadium in the country. Before his arrival into Mexico City, he asked the Club America Directors for videos of every game from América’s last two seasons, which he personally analyzed, making judgements on the needs of the players, their strengths and weaknesses. The team during that period 95/96 was a talented one, stronger than at Atlas, and contained popular names like François Omam-Biyak, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Luis García were part of the Club America squad.

The Mexican Primera season started off positively for Club América and they were league leaders during the first half of the season. His playing squad had adapted well up to that point and were effective at implementing Bielsa’s core principles of play (These will be defined and Analyzed in Parts 3/4 of this series):

  1. Mobility

  2. Rotations & Positional Interchanges

  3. Verticality

  4. Pre-determined Patterns of Play

  5. High Intensity Actions

  6. High Pressing

However, the second part of the season wasn't as successful and Bielsa began managing internal conflicts as the club were owned by TV executives and the president expected the first-team coach to perform certain media duties. Bielsa, unhappy with such demands from the club, voiced his concern, and following a run of three successive defeats, Club America sacked him....From this experience at Club America, Bielsa would make it clear to all future clubs that employed him that he would refuse to do any one-to-one interviews and would only deal with Media entities during the Pre Match and Post Match Press conferences. This same approach with the media would be employed by Pep Guardiola during his successful spell as Coach of FC Barcelona.

As mentioned before, Bielsa made a brief return to Atlas as director of football to continue on his previous work and further build their Youth infrastructure. He resigned shortly afterwards in March 1997, returning to Argentina to coach Vélez Sarsfield. Ernesto Urrea describes what happened during this brief return to Atlas:

"The day before Bielsa's official presentation, he meditates for a long time, exchanges views with his wife and decides not to show up and to go back to Argentina. His contract was still running for six months, and Marcelo, who, I believe, had received an advance payment, insisted on repaying Atlas up to the last cent. For him, if you do not work, you do not have to be paid. Marcelo is a man of principles"

Bielsa still remains highly respected at Atlas, the club allowed him to gain valuable experience and improve himself as a teacher of the game, and he learned from the players he developed as his pupils. “Unfortunately, Bielsa did not get to harvest all his work,” Atlas president Fernando Acosta said. “Maybe two years later he would have seen all the players he formed.” Two years after Bielsa’s departure from the club, Atlas reached the final of the Primera División for the first time in their club history, which highlights the impact that Bielsa left behind at the club.

Argentina Return - Velez Sarsfield:

In August 1997, Bielsa made a return home to Argentina and took over as Head Coach of Velez Sarsfield. This was to the surprise of many Argentina football fans as no one would have considered that Marcelo would take over another Argentinian football club other than his beloved Newell's Old Boys.

When Bielsa turned up to his interview with the Velez Sarsfield Board of Directors, he brought 51 Videos with him to explain his ideas clearly to the club directors. Once he was instilled as the Head Coach, he mandated that he have an office with a computer that had the capacity to capture screenshots from videos. In 1997, this was revolutionary as performance analysis and opposition scouting was still in its infancy at that time.

"I watch videos, read, analyze, but beneath all my technical talk is the great concept not to concede space" - Marcelo Bielsa

Bielsa in the Velez Sarsfield dugout

The club had recent success prior to Bielsa's arrival winning the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup in 1994, and won the League Title (Clausura) only 2 years previously in 1996. This recent success is what gained the interest of Bielsa to assume the role of Head Coach for the Velez First Team as he aimed to continue the positive trends and results.

At Vélez, his starting point was to assess every player through the meticulous process that Bielsa conducts at every club he takes over. From day one on the pitch, he started to implement his philosophy and lay the foundation for future success during the season. It was a period of adaptation for the Velez players as it took time to understand the ideas from Bielsa and they had to get accustomed to a completely different training routine. The work on the training pitch was very well organized, Bielsa demanded high intensity, quality execution and full concentration in every exercise. His methods contained a lot of unopposed exercises that were highly repetitive as Bielsa felt this approach is effective at improving the habits of players and he could install his system of play through recognizable/repetitive patterns of play.

The Velez team comprised of Patricio Camps who would go on to score 22 goals combined in the Apetura and Clausura tournament. Mauricio Pellegrino, who eventually played for FC Barcelona and Liverpool and was a key figure in the back line for Bielsa plus he captained the Velez side in 1998. In Goal was the Paraguayan Goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, who was popular for his Free Kicks (Scored 11 Goals combined in the Apertura and Clausura tournaments)

"Bielsa is the coach I like most. Vertical play is always proposed with him"

Jose Luis Chilavert - Velez Sarsfield Goalkeeper 1991-2001

Bielsa was accompanied at Vélez by his trusted Physical Preparation Coach, Luis Maria Bonini, who knew Bielsa's methods as the the pair previously worked together at Atlas and Club America. Bielsa and Bonini individualized their work with the players and customized exercises to work in specific zones, movements and patterns. They would even switch the training times throughout the week because players were divided into sub-groups to train at various slots based on the specificity of the session design in relation to the individual's needs/positional demands. This was highly innovative back in 1997/1998 to be conducting positional work.

Vélez, were accustomed to playing with a back 4 under their previous coaches Osvaldo Piazza and Carlos Bianchi. At the beginning of the 97/98 season, Velez struggled during the Torneo Apertura as Bielsa deployed his 1-3-3-1-3 System and it was the defensive organization with the back 3 and high pressing that took time for the Velez players to adapt and understand the spacing/distances. Based on Argentinian Newspapers in 1998, eventually the Velez found their rhythm and understood how to execute Bielsa's defensive principles/tactics:

  1. Pressing

  2. Compactness

  3. Marking (Man, Zonal, Mixed)

  4. Anticipation

  5. Intercepting

  6. Counter Attack - Defend with Attack in mind

The Torneo Clausura was successful as Velez won the 1998 title beating runner ups Lanus to the title by 6 points. Velez finished the Clausura with a record of 14 Wins, 4 Draws and 1 Loss (1-2 vs San Lorenzo) with 39 Goals Scored and 14 Goals Against (League Best - Which highlights how much Velez improved their defensive organization).

Velez Sarsfield 1998 Torneo Clausura

He was now attracting interest in Spain and Bielsa would eventually reunite with one of his former pupils...

Brief Spell at Espanyol - Reuniting with Mauricio Pochettino:

After his success at Velez, Bielsa gained interest in Europe and was head hunted by Spanish club Espanyol. In July 1998, he was officially unveiled as the Espanyol Coach and was reunited with his former pupil from Newell's Old Boys - Mauricio Pochettino. This is the same Mauricio years ago that Bielsa and Jorge Griffa went to visit as a Young boy at his home late into the night to recruit him for Newell's Old Boys.....

The below extract from Guillem Balague's book "Brave New World", provides an example on the impact Bielsa's time at Espanyol had on Mauricio Pochettino (This is expressed in Mauricio's own words) :

"My Encounter with Bielsa was crucial for me, as he ended up waking me up from a period of lethargy. I was seemingly asleep, hibernating. He knew the Pochettino from Newell's, but the one he met six years later at Espanyol was something else. I was too much in my comfort zone. In fact, I was lost but I did now know it"

Mauricio Pochettino

Bielsa was aware how Pochettino was performing as he analyzed the previous season matches and recognized that Mauricio was growing complacent and needed a spark to get him back on track.

"We were doing some drills on one of those scorching hot afternoons and I said to him, “Marcelo” – calling him by his first name was a bad start – “Have we got much longer to go?"

"Five Minutes” [Bielsa replied] and he kept working. At the end, a furious Bielsa called me over. “Look, that is the last thing I expected from you. It confirms to me just what you’ve become”[Bielsa]. He laid into me and I cried. I went home in tears because I felt embarrassed, as embarrassed as I’ve ever felt in front of someone. Everything he said was right. I’d been blinded, trapped in my own world. I had stopped doing what had got me there in the first place”

“Bielsa helped me to move on and later called me when he was in charge of the National Team. He handed me my full International debut against Netherlands in 1999. If he hadn’t gone to Espanyol, I never would’ve become a senior International….”

Mauricio Pochettino - From Brave New World by Guillem Balague

Bielsa and Pochettino reunited at Espanyol in 1998 - Which was a turning point for Pochettino's career.

During the pre-season, Bielsa had the Espanyol squad training 3 times a day. Starting at 7:30am in the morning, the players would do a 45 minute run with Luis Maria Bonini. The players would then shower and eat together followed by a rest period and then a second session which was a 90 minute workout with Bonini inside the gym. Followed by another shower, lunch, a rest period and then it was tactical work in the afternoon on the pitch. Bielsa wouldn’t be present during the morning period as he was getting the tactical work prepared for his afternoon session. What Bielsa and Bonini did back then to monitor the physical loads and intensity of training was have the players wear Heart Rate Monitors. This is common place in Pro Clubs these days, but rewind 20 years ago and the monitoring of loads was highly subjective and Bielsa’s Physical Education and upbringing shows how much he believes in objective information to support his planning/preparation.

Bielsa coached Espanyol for 6 official matches (1 Win, 2 Draws, 3 Losses) and stuck again with his traditional 1-3-3-1-3 shape, only shifting to a 1-4-2-3-1 formation against Villarreal in his 2nd last official match in charge. Based on previous research, most of his career to this point has been in the 1-3-3-1-3 formation and his last matches at Espanyol gives some indication that he may have been planning to adapt towards a Back 4 based on the poor run of results Espanyol, assessment of his player profiles and adjusting to his opposition counterparts.

Ernesto Urrea (Close Friend and Neighbour) was quoted on during an Interview:

"Bielsa had confided to me that his ultimate dream was to take charge of the Argentine U17 selection, not the Senior "A" National Team. I also knew that before taking the Argentine selection, Emilio Butragueño had met with Marcelo in Miami to propose to take charge of Real Madrid"

He left Espanyol in October 1998 after being contacted by the Argentinian Football Association to take over the Senior "A" National Team....

Espanyol 1998 vs Villarreal on Oct 4, 1998 - 1-4-2-3-1 Shape

"The Tactical scheme is always depended on the characteristics of our opponents"

Marcelo Bielsa

Key Takeaways:

  1. Formation as Coach - Bielsa’s formation as a coach was based on his experience as a player, youth coach and the research he conducted at University (Physical Education). A mix of practical and academic formation.

  2. Analysis of Squad/Know your players - The first analysis that Bielsa conducts when taking over a Team is doing a full review of the previous season to understand the players (strengths, weaknesses, mindset), what recruitment is required to strengthen the squad (is this team at the right level for my methods) and to help him determine what is the right model/style to implement

  3. Obsession with detail – Bielsa is determined to be successful at any club that he has taken over. He analyzes every detail of his squad, has meticulous training methods, conducts deep analysis of the opposition and at some points in his career he was the architect of the Youth Academy. His youth structure would breed World Class talent - For example, like what he implemented at Newell’s and Atlas was because of his work ethic to detect and recruit talent. I feel his work ethic, determination and methodology is what coaches world wide admire about Bielsa.

This concludes part 1 and we already working on the next post!

Part 2 - Bielsa "The Icon" to be released in the coming weeks will include:

  • Leading his Nation - Argentina National Team

  • Return to Football - Chile National Team

  • Setting his Mark in Europe - Athletic Club de Bilbao

  • The Olympians - French Experience

  • Grey Period

  • English Experiment

Top Coaches which have been heavily influenced by Marcelo Bielsa:

  • Pep Guardiola - Current Manchester City Coach

  • Mauricio Pochettino - Current Tottenham Hotspur Coach

  • Diego Simeone - Current Atletico Madrid Coach

  • Gerardo Martino - Current Mexico National Team Coach

  • Eduardo Berizzo - Current Paraguay National Team Coach

“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge because he makes the players much, much better. Still I didn’t meet one guy, a former player from Marcelo Bielsa who speaks no good of him. They are grateful about his influence on their careers in football. He helped me a lot with his advice. Whenever I speak with him I always feel like he wants to help me. He’s the best coach in the world.” - Pep Guardiola

“I have the influence of several coaches: Bielsa, Eriksson, Basile, they have all left a mark. Bielsa taught me the most.” - Diego Simeone

“He is like my football father. We are a generation of coaches that were his disciples. How he feels football, the passion he has for football, I think we all took that from him.” - Mauricio Pochettino

Referenced Sources:

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

Brave New World by Guillem Balague

The Obsession of Marcelo Bielsa by Matt Gault

Marcelo Bielsa: The Mexico Diaries by Callum Rice-Coates

Interview with Ernesto Urrea – SoFoot.Com

Jose Luis Chilavert Interview –

The Football Philosophy – In the shadows of Marcelo Bielsa by Jed Davies

Bielsa the Genius –

Interview with Bielsa –

Art by Phil Galloway @philthyart

Tactical Diagrams done with TacticalPad Software

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