Talking Tactics: Marcelo Bielsa’s Philosophies

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Marcelo Bielsa is quickly winning praise in England for his fast start with Leeds, but who exactly is ‘El Loco’ and why are his philosophies so lavished in the footballing world?

To the shock and delirium of many English football fans, Leeds United appointed ‘El Loco’ Marcelo Bielsa ahead of the new season. Literally translating as ‘the crazy one’, Bielsa adopts an innovative, fast moving style of football that has won him global plaudits from some of the best coaches in the game, including Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino.

Surprisingly, many neutral watchers in England knew nothing of the Argentinian coach, and some still don’t. A couple of months into his spell at Leeds, we have learnt that Bielsa is indeed a very interesting character: he sits on a cooler during matches, is not afraid to make first half substitutions if things aren’t going right and employs a translator to help him with his interviews in a very odd yet admirable style.

Bielsa’s first job in management was with Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys, who play their football at the stadium now called ‘Estadio Marcelo Bielsa’ in Rosario, Santa Fe.

Taking the job in his mid thirties, Marcelo Bielsa’s meticulous style became evident months into his two-year stint at Newell’s. The dedicated coach racked up circa 25,000 miles in his Fiat 167 as he fled around the country trying to persuade players to join the club. Often, it was his eye for talent that made him stand out from the crowd, as he brought the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Mauricio Pochettino to the club, both of whom went on to have playing careers at the highest level.

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Just like all revolutionary coaches in sport, Bielsa has a desire for detail. When the Argentine took over at Leeds, this was clear. He installed sleeping quarters at the training ground and went against the norm of English football training patterns, by insisting that Leeds do double sessions with the players allowed to rest in the sleeping areas in between.

In essence, he has transformed Leeds’ training from a couple of hours in the morning to a nine-to-five job, with the players having demanding physical schedules as well as intense lectures in front of a tactics board learning about their next opponent.

Before his arrival, Bielsa watched all 51 Leeds games from last season, so he knew his players inside out. He completely immersed himself in the club and its surroundings, and thus far it is paying dividends, with Leeds flying in the league.

Top coaches such as Simeone, Guardiola and Pochettino swear by Bielsa as one of their biggest inspirations in management. Pep Guardiola visited Bielsa in Argentina before he took the job as a coach at Barcelona B, his first job. In fact, the two spent 11 hours at a barbecue at Bielsa’s Rosario home talking football and tactics.

Why? Bielsa has won a couple of Argentinian league titles as well as guiding Argentina to Olympic glory, but why is he so coveted in the wider footballing community?

“I only believe in Plan A. Plan B is to get Plan A to work”

Perhaps taking inspiration from Bielsa, a vast majority of top coaches in world football tend to stick to their core beliefs and not stray away from them. For example, Guardiola would never ‘park the bus’ based on the opposition in the same way Simeone refuses to depart from his defensive counter attacking game.

Bielsa sees the notion of changing tactics mid game as failure or a sign of weakness. If he doesn’t believe in his own way, why should the players invest so much attention and effort to believe in Bielsa?

That doesn’t mean El Loco is afraid of change – far from it, in fact. In the game against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium a fortnight ago, Bielsa hauled off his key midfielder Kalvin Phillips with not even half an hour on the clock, for tactical reasons. When Leeds needed a goal, it was always going to be one striker for another, rather than throwing Bamford on for a defender and changing the game plan to throwing balls into the box.

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It doesn’t always work. In his early days at Lille, Bielsa made three changes before half time and ended up having to play an outfield player as a goalkeeper, before changing his mind and swapping the outfield player. Lille lost that game 3-0, to Strasbourg. His style is rash and sometimes backfires, but often it works.

As Kanye West would say – “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”.

The famous 3-3-1-3 and more conservative 4-2-3-1 styles

Leeds’ star coach has been hailed in world football for his tactical innovations, namely his eye catching 3-3-1-3 formation, which gained popularity in Bielsa’s Chile, Marseille and Bilbao sides.

The system demands highly demanding pressing, elaborate attacking and fluid transitions that combine for a very exciting style of play.

The eccentric formation consists of: three defenders ample on the ball; a defensive shield in the middle of two inverted wing backs; an enganche; a front three of a target man and two wide men.

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Perhaps most eye catching of the formation is the playmaker just behind the front three: most notable in this role was Dimitri Payet during Bielsa’s stint at Marseille.

This player is given the most freedom and is relieved of pressing duties, thus is the biggest creative outlet in the system. Enganche is the traditional playmaker that is the prompt for attacking moves.

The wide men stay as wide as possible, creating overloads in the wide areas, allowing the playmaker to excel.

The un enganche y tres punta belief galvanized the French league at the time and Marseille fought for the title right until the end, where they were beaten by multimillionaire giants Paris St-Germain.

As is similar with most of the pioneer coaches of attacking football, many forget about the defensive side. Bielsa’s sides are more than equipped off the ball.

Chile adopted a high intensity style around this famous 3-3-1-3 formation and although not littered with talent, the South American nation have over performed in tournaments in the past decade, especially on the continent.

Whilst at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola stated that Barcelona’s draw at the San Mames, home of Bielsa’s Bilbao, was their toughest game of the season. He said that Bielsa’s men played like lions as the Catalan giants struggled to cope with their high pressing.

In that very season, the Basque club earned their way to surprising finishes in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, achieving the final in both competitions.

It isn’t just the eccentric 3-3-1-3 formation that Loco has up his sleeve, as he often turns to a 4-2-3-1 system with high full backs, which he is adopting thus far in Yorkshire.

Bielsa’s aim is to have one more central defender than the opposition have strikers, which facilitates his high line and pressing style of play, as only one spare defender means there are more players to push forwards.

“Concentracion, permanente movilidad, rotacion y repentization” – concentration, focus, rotation and improvisation.

Even though the shape may look slightly different, the idea and emphasis is the same. The key components are speed, verticality and fluidity: each player is expected to improvise within the system and fill in for one another.

Bielsa swears: “if football was played by robots, I would win everything”. He has a belief in his system that if players carry out his orders of where to be on the pitch, they will succeed.

The robotic comment seems strange, as Bielsa relies heavily on improvisation in situations for effectiveness.

He believes that totally mechanized teams are “useless, because they get lost when they lose their script”. The role of the enganche, in both systems, thus, is crucial.

Whether it be Dimi Payet at that high flying Marseille side in a 3-3-1-3 or now at Leeds, Samuel Saiz, the creativity and improvisation aspect is crucial. The playing style is about movement – you may watch Leeds and not know what position certain players are playing, because they have to be multifunctional similar to Pep’s City, where Kyle Walker pops up all over the pitch in wing back, midfield and centre back roles depending on the situation.

His interesting character and demeanour  

Bielsa has an affinity with fans and tries to drill into his players that they must fight for the supporters who work hard to afford to come and watch their team. He said: “[players] are an extension of fans, [players] are those people.”

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During pre season, Loco wanted to make the players know what it takes to earn a ticket, so made his squad go around litter picking for the time that it takes for the average earner to make enough to afford a Leeds United home ticket.

He believes that he is the boss, but he is separate from the players. The captain, Liam Cooper, was voted for by the players – Bielsa believes the captain is the voice of the players, so he should not have a say in who wears the armband.

What you do on the training pitch win you matches, but the finer details are what win you titles. The small changes Bielsa has made at Leeds will go a long way to making this side better equipped to fight for promotion.

This has always been the case: when at Chile, he changed everything from the dimension of the pitch to the font on the signage around the training complex, because he saw a font he liked at Santiago Zoo.

He speaks adequate English, but does not want his message to come across wrong, so relies heavily on his translator.

These finer details helped setup Chile’s golden generation which won back-to-back Copa America titles – they will be crucial for Leeds in a division which is so often decided on tight margins.

Leeds have started brilliantly, but they have done before. This feels different. Bielsa has a blueprint that he will stick by and the players can only improve, unlike previous years when it was potentially a new manager effect driving improved performances for a short period of time.

The buzz around the city is different and better than it has been for over a decade, with 20000 watching Tuesday night cup ties at Elland Road to see Bielsa’s Leeds in the flesh.

Bielsa has never had vast amounts of money to spend, so his ideas are crucial. He has a system that he believes in – if he can transfer this belief to the players, Leeds will go far.

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