JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 28: Marcelo Bielsa head coach of Chile gestures to his players during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Brazil and Chile at Ellis Park Stadium on June 28, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
It's been 13 years since Marcelo Bielsa's last spell in Spain – his last management job at club level. It was a brief, intense time spent with Espanyol, that came to an incredibly abrupt end. On the pitch, the legendary Argentine managed just 1 win from the 6 league games he was in charge for. Off it, it was as strange a managerial period as La Liga has probably ever seen; to the extent that 12 days before the first game of his first season, Bielsa knew he was leaving. The Argentina national team job had come up, and he immediately went back on his contract and informed the team to look for his replacement. A crazy notion in modern football.
But that's just what Marcelo Bielsa is – el loco. The craziness is not just limited to his nickname, it follows him, coming with him to every job he takes. It's what makes him unique as a manager. Whether he's been winning leagues, Olympic gold medals, or making waves at World Cups in charge of top national sides, there's always been that hint of the extraordinary about him that has set him apart from the average coach. He will often spend hours in press conferences, fielding every last question and hotly debating every issue, yet refuses to ever give interviews. One evening as Chilean coach, Bielsa felt a mental block. Most tacticians would turn to books, or maybe even their old mentors. Not Bielsa. He went to the Santiago Zoo in search of ideas.
These eccentricities, along with his track record, go far to explain the palpable excitement there is in Spain about Bielsa's return. Even his arrival carried with it that hint of 'loco'. Bielsa was approached by Internazionale, and offered a job which many would consider to be among the cream of the World's managerial crop. For the average unemployed manager, it would've been a no brainer; a dream come true and a chance to reach the highest heights of the profession. But not for Bielsa. He had already given his word to ex-Athletic captain and one-club man Josu Urrutia. If the Bilbao legend was elected club president, he would be his first choice manager. As things transpired, Urrutia edged former president Macua to win the job; and, refreshingly loyal and honest in a corrupt footballing world, Bielsa followed him to the Basque country almost immediately.
On paper, it's a perfect footballing marriage. One of the planet's most dynamic and intriguing coaches arriving at one of the few clubs in the world to retain a unique identity. Bielsa didn't make a single signing in the Summer, declaring after his first training session that he “can't think of any excuses why we shouldn't try and win from the very start”.
It's 2 games in and no wins have come; with 2 bad results – a draw against newly promoted Rayo Vallecano and defeat at the hands of the Espanyol that Bielsa once deserted. Still, while he is yet to set the league table alight, where Bielsa really gets pulses going in the footballing world is on the tactics board.
Bielsa is regarded as one of the best tactical innovators in the game, and brings with him to Bilbao a very interesting tactical set up. After his appointment, El Mundo asked “Bielsa's system – 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, 4-1-4-1, or all of these at once?”. If your head hurts now, that's probably normal. His tactics are generally, you've probably guessed, a bit loco. Bielsa is most famous for his signature 3-3-1-3 shape, which he used to good effect with both Argentina and Chile. However, that is less suited to Spain and he is experimenting further with Athletic.
The style of play is overwhelmingly positive, with the key feature a mentality drilled into each and every one of his players. With the ball, the side consists of 11 attackers. Without it, they become 10 defenders and a keeper, working relentlessly to win the ball back as high up the field as possible. Once they do, they go gung ho once again. The movement of the players in his Chilean team in the latter stages of his reign there had all the intricacies and unpredictability of a finely choreographed dance, to the extent that it may have seemed like loosely organised chaos to unaware observers.
If the key to the defence is pressing, the key to attack in Bielsa's sides is the aspect of his tactical game he will probably never alter – 'un enganche y tres puntas' (one classic #10 playmaker and three forwards). Lining his attack in the way allows players to pile forward, and when it works well and players move adroitly, defences will be incapable of dealing with the sheer numbers they'll have have coming at them from all sides.
The bedding in period, though, has been difficult. Critics have lambasted Bielsa's decision to leave out International class right back Andoni Iraola from the side so far; while also claiming that the Argentine's high tempo, and often frenetic passing game does not suit a side with a throwback big man at centre forward like Fernando Llorente, who thrives on direct play. Concerns have also been raised at the recent injury suffered by Ander Herrera. The Spain U21 star arrived from Zaragoza in a deal agreed long before Bielsa took over, and has so far played as the key playmaker at the focus of attacks. His absence for a period predicted to reach a month and a half will be a tough one to overcome.
The results may not have come immediately, and at a club as rich in tradition as Athletic, the white tissues of resentment will come quickly if the side can't hit the ground running, even in transition. However, if his players can buy into the system and the tactics start to produce the beautiful football they have in the past, Bielsa is a coach with a record of success and his means are very sustainable.
It will be fascinating to see if he can hold down a job in Europe, especially as he is fiercely loyal to his players and finds himself at a club where loyalty to the crest is preached probably more than anywhere else in Europe.
Perhaps he'll succeed and bond with them, and feel compelled to stay for the long run. If he does, you can be sure that there will rarely be a dull moment at San Mames under his stewardship. In the shorter term though, one thing is certain, La Liga is a much more interesting (and crazier) place with El Loco a part of it.
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