Mentor, master and brilliant manager – Bielsa is the one of the great thinkers of the beautiful game and leading a new project at Lille
Lille may not have been the obvious choice when it was announced that Marcelo Bielsa was taking over as manager but nothing that El Loco does is really orthodox and while Les Dogues already appear to be reaping the rewards working under the stewardship of one of world football’s greatest minds, the rest of us can sit back, content that the master is back doing what he does best.
This set of players at Lille are certainly not the most talented that Bielsa has had at his disposal but after some astute signings and a good preseason, all the hallmarks of a system that bears his name and is reproduced by some of the best coaches in the modern game, were clear in the impressive opening weekend victory against Nantes – the intense high-press, the flexibility in formations and the snappy, dynamic passing.
Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes couldn’t cope and the 3-0 eventual scoreline was probably flattering on the visitors, providing reason for genuine optimism and excitement at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy this season.
Bielsa has brought in a large number of players and obviously looked to South America for inspiration but the 62-year-old’s strengths go well beyond the specific personnel.
The autonomy to take control of the squad and oversee an influx of players, a number from South America, Bielsa is able to get to grips with the club from the foundations and it is here that his impact can be best viewed. There is no question that with Argentina or Chile, even at Athletic Club or Marseille, Bielsa had better, more established individuals but where El Loco excels is getting the best from those available.
Full back Kevin Malcuit, who arrived this summer from Saint-Etienne, revealed that Bielsa was a key reason behind his move and told reporters: “It’s a collective strength that’s starting to bed in. The Bielsa method really works your brain.”
The demand placed on his side both mentally and physically is perhaps not to every player’s tastes but for those that buy-in, there appears a bond that goes well beyond the usual coach-player relationship and the result has seen coaches from Pep Guardiola, who famously declared Bielsa as ‘the best in the world’, to Jorge Sampaoli, Mauricio Pochettino and many others to implement his tactics.
Marcelo Bielsa to Claudio Ranieri: "You're an example to us all… I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it." pic.twitter.com/G5hq8whR1q
— Get French Football News (@GFFN) August 6, 2017
For some in the results and trophy-driven business of modern football, the adulation from the likes of Guardiola or the moments of eccentricity are what fuel the cult of Bielsa more than his achievements on the pitch.
Only these past few weeks when the Lille performance could’ve been minutely analysed, it was given equal or even less coverage to Bielsa’s tango-inspired initiation song or his heart-felt praise for Claudio Ranieri.
And it is perhaps here that Bielsa can get a little lost on those critics and why El Loco differs to so many in football – an idealist, who puts his vision above glory and once said: “One needs to be loved to win, not to win to be loved,” is at odds in a world that looks straight at the results column.
However, even this short-sighted view of Bielsa overlooks some of the complexities of his career path since his own playing days were cut short through injury.
A native of Rosario, Bielsa’s rebellious streak was immediately apparent by his decision to support and ultimately play for Newell’s Old Boys, despite his father being a supporter of rivals Rosario Central. Cutting his teeth as a coach, Bielsa led La Lepra to two Primera titles, equalling the amount previously won in the club’s history, and took his talented side to the Copa Libertadores Final, an era that still lives long in the memory – so much so that Newell’s named their stadium after him.
Spells in Mexico with Atlas and Club America led Bielsa back to Argentina and another league title followed, this time with Velez Sarsfield before Espanyol took him across to Europe.
However, barely with his foot through the door in Barcelona, Argentina came calling and Bielsa couldn’t say no. At every other job Bielsa has taken, the demand hasn’t been to win titles and so it is was with La Albiceleste that El Loco experienced what can be regarded as his only real failure.
The group stage exit at the 2002 World Cup hurt Bielsa but didn’t break him and he stayed in the position to introduce a new-look, young side that went onto win gold at the 2004 Olympics and suffer an agonising defeat to Brazil in the Copa America Final.
His career post-Argentina hasn’t been trophy-laden but laying the foundation for Chile’s recent success by introducing the young players that La Roja still rely on today; his hugely admired Athletic Club side that were Europa League runners-up or his year with Marseille which restored pride to fallen giants could only be considered successes.
Significant improvements were made, his teams played attractive, attacking football and supporters loved him and there is little doubt that the same will be true in Lille.
El Loco won’t be remembered for trophies or medals but for so much more than that. Failure to recognise that is a failure to appreciate the beauty that exists in football.