Marcelo El Loco Bielsa – ‘Madman’ and true tactical genius

Marcelo El Loco Bielsa – ‘Madman’ and true tactical genius

BILBAO, SPAIN - APRIL 14:  Head coach Marcelo Bielsa of Athletic Club reacts during the la Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on April 14, 2013 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
BILBAO, SPAIN – APRIL 14: Head coach Marcelo Bielsa of Athletic Club reacts during the la Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on April 14, 2013 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

“Is Marcelo Bielsa as mad as he seems? “ a journalist once asked Athletic Bilbao winger Iker Muniain of his then-manager. “No, “ Muniain said, “he’s madder. “

Bielsa, former Bilbao manager nicknamed ‘El Loco’, resigned as Marseille manager after just one game of the new season. Marseille began their Ligue 1 campaign with a 1:0 loss to Caen at the Stade Velodrome, after which Bielsa announced his departure.

“I’m leaving my post as coach of OM. My work here is over, I will return to my country. I am not leaving here to take another job.I thank the supporters, who were always behind me during the matches and day to day. I have given all I have to this team,” Bielsa said, reading a statement that he addressed to club president Vincent Labrune.

Bielsa was known for the radical 3-3-1-3 system he used with the Chilean national team and Athletic Bilbao. His Marseille team had played it on several occasions, but Bielsa had generally preferred a 4-2-3-1 in France. While the numbers in each line had changed, the overall philosophy remained the same.

The most obvious characteristic of any Bielsa team is its work rate and concentration of numbers without the ball, but it’s not just about full-out pressure. It’s about creating favorable match-ups to win the ball back as quickly and as high up the field as possible.

“Bielsa’s teams are very aggressive. They don’t let you breathe. Seven arrive in the penalty area, they lose the ball and 11 defend. Their games are all up and back, up and back, without stopping,” said Guardiola who called him the best coach on the planet in 2012.

Rosario-born man is famous for his dedication to every minute of practices and games, as well as long speeches that he gives his players in the locker room. He constantly follows weather forecast and waters the practice field if he knows that his team is about to play game in rainy weather.

Regular part of preparation for every game includes hours of reviewing videos of opponent’s games, sometimes he even interrupts the practice to hold the meeting with the players on the pitch. 60-year-old football fanatic sometimes was so absorbed in tactics preparation that his family life suffered. Once he even marked a spot on his shoe for players to understand which part of foot to use when kicking the ball, wearing them for days after. Munian was right in his description of Bielsa.

He started with this practice at the very beginning of his career after short football career that he ended at the age of 25. Before Bielsa got a job at Espanyol in 1998, he coached Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys, then moved to Mexico with Atlas and America, before returning home to Velez Sarsfield.  He spent a little over 2 months in the capital of Catalonia and lead the team in only one official game before the invitation came from National association of Argentina. Right after taking over the national team he successfully lead them through qualification for World Cup 2002. They easily took the first place with goal difference 42:15 in 18 games.

This great success was followed by a bitter disappointment because tournament favorites Argentina got knocked out in the group stage. They lasted only 3 games, finishing their group behind England and Sweden. In spite of a bad result, Argentinian national association gave him another chance and he repaid them by winning the silver medal in Copa America in 2004 and gold medal at the Athens Olympics the same year. His team became the first Latin American side to win the Olympic football title since 1928, when Uruguay beat Argentina for the gold.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - OCTOBER 4:  Marcelo Bielsa, coach of Athletic Club looks on during the UEFA Europa League group stage match between AC Sparta Praha and Athletic Club held on October 4, 2012 at the Stadion Letna in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Michal Cizek/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – OCTOBER 4: Marcelo Bielsa, coach of Athletic Club looks on during the UEFA Europa League group stage match between AC Sparta Praha and Athletic Club held on October 4, 2012 at the Stadion Letna in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Michal Cizek/EuroFootball/Getty Images)

Those accomplishments were followed by his career as a head coach of Chile, the country where he is considered a legend. He led “La Roja” to their first win ever against Argentina, his former team, followed by taking Chile to their first World Cup in 12 years. Marcelo became a hero of Chile during the qualifications for World Cup in South Africa in 2010 after they finished second with only a point behind Brazil.

As Nicholas Peters explained, Bielsa’s preferred formation was a 3-3-1-3/3-4-3 diamond formation against many South American national teams who chose to play with two forwards. He placed his wingers, Mark Gonzalez on the left wing and Alexis Sanchez on the right wing, close to their touchline in order to stretch the opposition’s defensive lines wide. Chile’s wide central midfielders, Arturo Vidal and Rodrigo Millar, had a dual role. In defense, they dropped deep and wide to protect Chile’s centerbacks in the position where wingbacks would align themselves. In attack, they made diagonal attacking runs into central areas to exploit the space created by Chile’s wingers width. They also supported Matias Fernandez, Chile’s central attacking midfielder, who was responsible for being Chile’s primary creator and made attacking runs past their opposition’s stretched defensive line.

Chile played fast and attractive football, they were second highest scoring team in qualifications but they were as impressive at the World cup itself. They defeated both Honduras and Switzerland 1:0, before losing to Spain. Despite that loss, they secured their spot in last-16 where they lost to Brazil.

Everything nice comes to an end, so El Loco stated that he would leave his position if Jorge Segovia was elected as President of the Chilean Football Board. He followed through on this threat, despite Segovia’s election being annulled, and resigned in February 2011. He finished his campaign in Chile with 34 wins, 12 draws and 20 defeats from 66 games.

He proved his coaching knowledge in Bilbao, where he created the best team Athletic had since the nineties. They were the biggest surprise in La Liga. He used his typical 3-3-1-3 formation, but he managed to find the perfect position for very tall forward Fernando Llorente, who became one of the best attackers in the league. All the players fitted in perfectly – Gorka Iraizoz, Jon Aurtenetxe, Fernando Amorebieta, Andoni Iraola, Ander Iturraspe, Markel Susaeta, Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente, Oscar De Marcos, Iker Muniain, Ibai Gomez… In spite of many of them having problems in adjusting to unusual methods of their coach, they eventually brought results.

The peak was reached when they played Manchester United off the park in Last-16 round of 2012 Europa League, with the aggregate score of 5:3 in Bilbao’s favor actually flattering the Red Devils. In those two games, Spanish team performed extraordinarily and deservedly won.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 08:  Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao scores his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford on March 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – MARCH 08: Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao scores his team’s first goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford on March 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

In that period, Bilbao have scored almost twice as many headers as any other team in Spain but where the ball used to be thumped into the area at the first opportunity, it was now being worked up the pitch.

Only Madrid and Barcelona have completed more passes or scored more goals that season.

They closed the perfect season with a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, but Catalans were the stronger side and won 3:0.

A year later, his contract with Bilbao expired, but during his time at San Mames and earlier on in Latin America he gained many followers who in turn became successful coaches. Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino, Matias Almeyda and Jorge Sampaoli mentioned followed his steps and made big careers, while even Guardiola quoted El Loco’s influence as an important part of his own development.

Bielsa joined Marseille at the start of last season and lead them to a fourth-place finish in Ligue 1, after leading the table for almost half a season. He is currently wanted by Mexican national federation, looking to fill in for Miguel Herrera, who was sacked for punching a journalist.

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