Ever since Argentina claimed the FIFA World Cup™ in 1978 and 1986, Cesar Menotti and Carlos Bilardo have been regarded – rightly or wrongly – as two of the prime examples of successful coaching in the South American nation. Their approaches were looked upon as fundamentally different; broadly speaking, the former appeared to rely on players’ individual technique to secure results, allowing them a certain level of freedom on the pitch, while the latter was more concerned with tactics and how players could contribute to the team as a whole.
Most coaches who have since gained success in Argentina have been categorised by fans as belonging to one of these schools of thought, even when there was no hard evidence to support this theory. This situation changed, however, with the emergence of Marcelo Bielsa, who from his initial experiences overseeing Newell’s Old Boys to his time at the helm of the Chilean national team, and not forgetting his six years in charge of Argentina, has strongly influenced a new generation of coaches that has begun to prosper in the game.
The beginnings of this ‘third way’ can be traced back to 1992, when the man currently holding the reins at Athletic Bilbao stated: “Menotti’s time was marked by a creative approach, because that’s what drives him. Bilardo, on the other hand, was passionate about all the little details, because he’s a very meticulous man. My plan, therefore, was to blend both of these things together.”
Whether Bielsa achieved this particular aim remains up for debate in football circles, but what is clear is that he had a real impact on individuals who worked with him, and who are now having their own influence on the game.
Mentor to Martino
The majority of those who have followed in Bielsa's footsteps were part of the Newell’s Old Boys team, who were crowned champions of Argentina in 1991 and 1992, and finished runners-up in the 1992 Copa Libertadores final. Bielsa had led the Rosario-based side since 1988, when, as a raw 33-year-old, he was offered his first coaching position.
One of his more notable protégés was Gerardo Martino, presently working wonders with Copa America finalists Paraguay, who was appointed as national coach of La Albirroja in 2007 after winning several domestic league titles. “I’ve always been a fan of Bielsa, who was just starting out as a coach as my playing career was drawing to a close," Martino explained in an interview with FIFA.com in 2009. "Straight away I warmed to his personality and I take great pride in being compared to him.”
Martino has arguably adhered most closely to his mentor’s methods, albeit preferring to play a 4-4-2 formation in place of Bielsa’s favoured 3-3-1-3. Their teams have locked horns twice, both matches coming during the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. The head-to head record stands at one win apiece, although Paraguay would eventually go one round better than Chile in South Africa, before stumbling out at the quarter-final hurdle.
“I’m delighted about his new job, mainly because it means I won’t have to face him in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers,” joked Martino when Bielsa was hired by Bilbao earlier this year.
We’re followers of Bielsa and of the way he plays the game, but when all is said and done, comparisons are unfair, because we’re talking about one of the best.
From Pochettino to Berizzo
Mauricio Pochettino, who enjoyed a successful 2010/11 season in La Liga as the head of Espanyol, is another young coach who has talked about Bielsa’s influence on more than one occasion. “There is no doubt that he had an effect on me. He helped me to mature when I was starting my career at Newell's, he helped me in the national team, and he’s even helped me since I took over at Espanyol,” explained the former centre-back.
Pochettino is not the only ex-Newell’s Old Boys defender to have been affected by the man they call El Loco. Whether they have already gained considerable experience on the bench, in the case of Juan Manuel Llop (at Racing Club, Banfield, Libertad and Santiago Wanderers), or are starting to make a name for themselves, like Fernando Gamboa (at Newell’s and Colon), none deny the importance of his impact.
After working in Mexico, Dario Franco returned to Argentina to take over at San Martin de San Juan, a side that was later promoted to the Argentinian top flight. He is another member of the Bielsa fan club. “I knew where he was coming from when he used to yell at me, because we looked at football in the same way,” Franco pointed out. “I like the style in which his teams put huge pressure on opponents, try to keep the ball on the deck and take charge of games,” added the current coach of Instituto de Cordoba.
Another not shy of expressing his admiration for the veteran tactician is Eduardo Berizzo, who like Franco, worked as one of Bielsa’s assistants in the Chilean national set-up. “He’s generous about sharing his knowledge and I’ve tried to emulate him in that department,” said Berizzo upon taking the reins of Estudiantes de La Plata at the turn of the year.
“His influence on me has been enormous. He’s a man I really look up to, and I hope that I can pass on some of the things I learned from him,” he continued, expressing himself in a fashion not dissimilar to his mentor.
Unfair to compare
Bielsa’s success, achieved despite a very short playing career, also inspired Claudio Vivas, Javier Torrente and Jorge Sampaoli, who all worked alongside him, rather than under him as players. There is nevertheless a counter-productive side to this experience, according to Vivas.
“People always think that by hiring one of us, they’re getting a Bielsa clone, but Marcelo is one of a kind. His influence is undeniable, and the fact of having worked with him does open doors, but that’s just the first step,” said Vivas, who recorded unremarkable coaching stints at Argentinos Juniors and Racing Club.
Torrente’s accomplishments have been more significant, guiding both Libertad and Cerro Porteno to second place in the Paraguayan league. “The ten years spent by his side were an ongoing apprenticeship. You try to put into practice what you learned from him, although not dealing with the same players obviously creates certain differences,” explained the present coach of Newell’s Old Boys, a post he acquired following a recommendation from Bielsa.
It should perhaps be left to Sampaoli, who recently led Santiago-based Universidad de Chile to the Apertura championship, to succinctly sum up the relationship between the wily coach and his former charges and colleagues: “We’re followers of Bielsa and of the way he plays the game, but when all is said and done, comparisons are unfair, because we’re talking about one of the best – if not the best – coaches in world football.”