- Marcelo Bielsa turns 65 today
- ‘El Loco’ recently steered Leeds back into the Premier League
- We spotlight his madcap ways and genius tactics
In life, sometimes things just click; at other times, not so much. Marcelo Bielsa, who turns 65 today, has had several roles that have not turned out to be as good a fit as expected, even if he did win Men's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004 gold with Argentina in 2004 and is still admired in Chile after helping the team qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The idea of appointing Bielsa, who barely speaks any English, as head coach at Leeds United and tasking him with finally returning the club to the Premier League for the first time since relegation in 2004 seemed a crazy one. And yet it worked – things fell into place. At the weekend Leeds celebrated their return to the top tier of English football under the guidance of a man known to many as El Loco (The Crazy One).
None other than Pep Guardiola once said of him: "For me, he’s the best coach in the world."
And that from a man who many also consider worthy of the title of the world’s best coach. The Catalan went on to explain why he holds such a view of Bielsa, who hails from Rosario in Argentina, the same hometown as Cesar Luis Menotti and Lionel Messi.
“I admire Bielsa so much because he improves players so much," said Guardiola. "It doesn’t matter how many titles he’s won in his career. We are judged by how successful we are, but that doesn’t compare to the influence he’s had on the game and on his players.”
But how does that correlate to his nickname? Well, you could probably fill a book with the unusual experiences, shall we say, that clubs and players can have with Bielsa.
- He once drove to a family’s house at one o’clock in the morning and knocked on the window asking to be let in so that he could see the legs of a 13-year-old living there. “They look like the legs of a very good player,” was his verdict, before inviting the youngster to play for his team. The boy in question was Mauricio Pochettino.
- After his Newell's Old Boys side, who had already been crowned champions, failed to adhere to a one o’clock curfew after a wedding and the club refused to impose any sanctions on the players, Bielsa resigned immediately. Today the club’s stadium is named after him.
- Following an incident at Leeds, when he secretly had a training session of upcoming opponent Derby County spied upon, he held a 70-minute PowerPoint presentation for the press in order to show that he already knew everything about Derby anyway. He paid the ensuing £200,000 pound fine out of his own pocket.
- When he first arrived at Leeds, he ordered his players to pick up the litter around the stadium for three hours in an effort to illustrate to them roughly how long their fans had to work to afford a ticket.
- After a minor altercation with a construction worker, in which he believed he had behaved incorrectly, Bielsa turned himself in to the police. As the other person had no intention of pressing charges, the police sent him home.
- In a match against direct promotion rivals Aston Villa in April 2019, Leeds scored while an opposing player was down on the ground injured. Bielsa subsequently instructed his side to allow Villa to equalise in a match that ultimately ended 1-1. Leeds missed their last chance of securing automatic promotion, and later failed to go up via the play-offs. Considering such stakes, Bielsa’s decision was all the more remarkable. He was later awarded the 2019 FIFA Fair Play Award for the gesture.
“I don’t think he’s crazy at all,” says Poccettino nowadays. “He’s a genius. He’s a person with charisma and a character that’s very different to us normal coaches. That makes him so special.”
Yet what is it that has caused so many famous players and coaches to admire Bielsa to the extent that Javi Martinez once said that “everyone needs to have worked with him once in life”?
Bielsa is renowned as a cunning tactician who analyses opponents in meticulous detail. During his job interview with Leeds it became clear that he had studied and could recall all 46 of the team’s matches from the previous season, including the opposition formations. For him, studying videos for hours at a time is a source of enjoyment, and he can reportedly watch two different games on separate screens at the same time.
That is not all. The Leeds tactician dissects football down to its very core and talks of there being 29 possible formations, five ways of breaking free of a marker and 36 ways for players to communicate with each other through their passes.
"It’s tactics, tactics, tactics," said Leeds midfielder Mateusz Klich. "We didn’t know how good we could be.”
But how is it possible to “communicate” with a pass? It is best explained via the ‘Bielsa wall pass’: three players take up positions in a diagonal line. The middle player “communicates” via his run that the ball should be played; the player with the ball “communicates” with the force of his drilled pass that the middle player is not the intended recipient; the middle player dummies over the ball, leaving the third player in the line to receive the ball and play it into the path of the middle player with one or two touches. This move often leads to opponents pressing to close down the receiver, leaving space for the middle player to run into.
Whatever your opinion of Bielsa, one thing is clear: he lives for football. And he will hopefully do so for the enjoyment of everyone in the Premier League next season.