In a business where only strong personalities survive, Marcelo Bielsa could very well be the most unique of them all. Bielsa is the mad scientist of world football. As a club manager he immerses himself completely while preparing for matches, to a degree that is unequaled among his peers. When it comes to match preparation it would be kind to call Bielsa fanatical. He has been known to separate himself from family and friends so he can focus completely on preparing for an upcoming international tournament or club season. Bielsa collects and studies hours of film on individual and team play to break down every nuance of his players’ skillsets and how his team has played together. He meticulously drills his players on individual in-game situations and they practice choreographed attacking movements until these movements are memorized. His drills and technique coaching is so specific that he even draws on his boots to show players the perfect location to play the ball. He also prepares for forecasted rain on match day by soaking the practice fields in an attempt to mimic the predicted weather forecast. Before he gives his final prematch talk, he walks the entirety of the pitch, in an attempt to measure the pitch and determine if he needs to adjust his tactics because of the size and condition of the pitch.
Just as Bielsa has his idiosyncrasies that make his managerial style very unique, he coaches a unique style of football that defies conventional footballing norms. Bielsa demands that his teams play attacking and dynamic football while retaining high energy levels throughout the entirety of the match, in all phases of the match. Unlike most managers who prefer to play with a settled defense in order to build continuity and understanding between defenders, Bielsa prefers to switch between a Back two, three, or four in an attempt to play with one extra defender than his opposition has attackers. With one additional defender Bielsa is able to have the extra defender provide defensive cover, while not wasting a player in midfield or attack. He prefers to convert Central Midfielders or Fullbacks into Centerbacks in an attempt to play more technically skilled players in deeper positions to help facilitate his team to posses and play the ball out of the back. Also, because Bielsa plays with a high defensive line converted Central Midfielders and Fullbacks are more comfortable playing higher up the field. Bielsa prefers a unique brand of attacking football. While most possession oriented football sides look to slow down the match tempo while in possession, he attempts to maintain a high tempo. Instead of trying to break down his opposition centrally Bielsa prefers to attack down the flanks. He does this by instructing his Wingers to position themselves on their touchline to stretch their opposition’s defensive line and create central attacking lanes to force them to defend as much space as possible. Wingbacks play aggressively providing width down the flanks to support their Wingers.
After disappointing results managing the Argentinian National Team at the 2002 World Cup, Bielsa returned to notoriety by leading a highly entertaining and successful Chilean National Team to the Round of 16 of the 2010 World Cup. In 2007, Bielsa was challenged to return Chile to the World Cup after two successive failures in qualifying for the tournament through the difficult CONMEBOL World Cup Qualification. In the 2002 World Cup CONMEBOL Qualification Tournament, Chile finished last place in qualifying, 15 points behind fifth place Uruguay who qualified for the World Cup Playoff. In the 2006 World Cup CONMEBOL Qualification Tournament, Chile improved their positioning finishing in seventh place and only three points behind fifth place Uruguay. Bielsa was hired after Chile was knocked out in the Quarterfinals, the first knockout round, of the 2007 Copa America when Brazil handed Chile an embarrassing 6-1 loss. This, after a disappointing display during the group stage where Chile finished in third place in their group of four teams and only advanced to the knockout stages because they had better results compared to other third place teams. Bielsa brought his unique style of football building his team around a collection of energetic and impressionable youngsters who had achieved success in the international youth ranks but were inexperienced at the highest level of world football. Throughout CONMEBOL qualification, Bielsa’s preferred formation was a 3-3-1-3/3-4-3 Diamond formation against many South American national teams who chose to play with two Forwards. Bielsa placed his Wingers, Mark Gonzalez on the Left Wing and Alexi Sanchez on the Right Wing, close to their touchline in order to stretch the opposition’s defensive lines wide. Chile’s Wide Central Midfielders, Arturo Vidal and Rodrigo Millar, had a dual role. In defense, they dropped deep and wide to protect Chile’s Centerbacks in the position where Wingbacks would align themselves. In attack, they made diagonal attacking runs into central areas to exploit the space created by Chile’s Wingers width. They also supported Matías Fernández, Chile’s Central Attacking Midfielder, who was responsible for being Chile’s primary creator and make attacking runs past their oppositions stretched defensive line. Chile aggressively pressed their opposition to keep the match in their opposition’s defensive half. Chile’s wide Wingers pressed their opposition’s Fullbacks and their Center Forward pressed the opposition’s Centerbacks and Goalkeeper. Chile aggressively pressed the rest of their opposition’s Central Midfielders, Wide Midfielders/Wingers and Forwards.
Bielsa led Chile to a second place finish in the 2010 COMNEBOL World Cup Qualifying, finishing only one point behind first place Brazil. In addition, he led Chile to their first ever victory over Argentina, and to their first ever away victory against Columbia. With a 1-0 Victory over Honduras, Chile won their first World Cup match since 1962 and Bielsa led Chile to the knockout stages where they lost to Brazil 3-0 in the Round of 16.
At the beginning of the 2010 World Cup, Bielsa only started one natural defender in his backline, Centerback Waldo Ponce. His primary Centerback partner, Gary Medel, had played the majority of his career as a Holding Midfielder. Gonzalo Jara, a natural Rightback and Holding Midfielder, was Chile’s starting Leftback when Chile played with a Back-4 and when Chile played with a Back-3 he was Chile’s starting Left Centerback. Mauricio Isla, a Central Midfielder and Right Wingback at his club team Udinese, was Bielsa’s first choice Rightback. Arturo Vidal, a Central Midfielder for his club team Bayer Leverkusen, played as Chile’s first choice Left Wingback when Chile played with a Back-2. Chile got width in attack from the Wing combination of either Jean Besejour or Mark González and Alexis Sánchez, who is Chile’s most technically skilled and dangerous attacker.
In February 2011, Bielsa stepped down as the Manager of the Chilean National Team after the election of Jorge Segovia as the head of the Federación de Fútbol de Chile (The Football Federation of Chile) in November of 2010. Bielsa believed Segovia did not fully support the National Team and had stated before the election that if Segovia was elected he would step down. In January of 2011, Segovia was annulled as the victor of the election and Sergio Jadue was given the position. Sadue’s primary responsibility was to keep Bielsa as the National Team Manager. However, the relationship between Bielsa and Jadue started off of the wrong foot, when Bielsa accused Jadue of making false accusations about him and Bielsa still stepped down from his managerial position.
In the Summer of 2011 Josu Urrutia ran for the presidency of Athletic Bilbao. His campaign was built around a promise that was made to him by Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa promised Urrutia that if he won the election for the club President of Athletic Bilbao, that Bielsa would manage Bilbao. Bilbao had not struggled in terms of results finishing sixth the previous season. However, the previous year under Joaquín Caparrós, there were concerns that Bilbao’s football had become too direct and was not entertaining enough. It was hoped that the addition of Bielsa, after the success of Chile in the 2010 World Cup, would bring entertaining play and results to Athletic Bilbao. As he had done with Chile, Bielsa chose to convert more attacking players into Defenders. Javi Martinez, a physically big yet technically skilled Holding Midfielder, was dropped deeper into Bilbao’s defensive line and given the responsibility of initiating Bilbao’s attacks from deep. He also attempted to play Óscar de Marcos an athletic Central Midfielder as a Left Fullback. Bielsa chose to play with width in attack by positioning his Wingers Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain, Igor Gabilondo, and Ibai Gómez close to their touchline in an attempt to stretch the area that Bilbao’s opposition had to defend. Muniain had the freedom to drift centrally to add an extra playmaker in central midfield to help Bilbao build play centrally. At the beginning of the season, When Bilbao played a direct Winger down their left touchline, Bielsa chose to play De Marcos as a Left Fullback who made driving runs into center midfield in order to exploit the space created by the wide positioning of Bilbao’s Left Winger. This tactic mimicked the movements of Chile’s wide Central Midfielders in his favorite 3-3-1-3/3-4-3 Diamond formation. Bielsa also experimented with the role of the starting playmaker position. He preferred to play two players in this position Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain. Herrera, who started as the playmaker in Bielsa’s 4-2-3-1 and was the most advanced Central Midfielder in the 4-3-3 that Bielsa settled with as the season progressed, played the more traditional playmaker role of creating chances and making late runs into the space created by the width of Bilbao’s front three. Muniain played as a Central Winger in an attempt to help Bilbao build width down the flanks. A Central Winger is a Central Attacking Midfielder who does not build play centrally, but instead drifts from flank to flank in an attempt to create attacking overloads.
At the beginning of their season Athletic Bilbao struggled to implement Bielsa’s new system. Javi Martinez and De Marcos struggled in defense and in their first five La Liga matches Bilbao drew two games and lost three. In an attempt to help create a system that Bilbao’s players were more comfortable with, Bielsa scaled back from his extreme style of football. De Marcos was moved to his natural Central Midfield position and Jon Aurtenetxe, a natural Leftback, replaced De Marcos as Bilbao’s starting Leftback. Most teams in Spain were playing with either a three man or one man front line. Athletic Bilbao settled into a 4-3-3 formation with De Marcos playing as the athletic link Central Midfielder and partnered with Herrera who was Bilbao’s most advanced Central Midfielder and playmaker. He made late forward runs to exploit the opposition’s stretched defensive lines. Muniain was pushed wide to the Right Wing and given the freedom to drift centrally. While they still played with a high defensive line, Bilbao was not as aggressive with their pressing. They allowed opposition Centerbacks time on the ball when they were deep in their own territory and began to press as their opposition began to play the ball forward.
Bielsa led Athletic Bilbao to one of the most successful Cup seasons in the club’s history. Bilbao made it to the Copa Del Ray Final where they lost to Barcelona 3-0. More impressively, Bielsa led Bilbao to the Europa League Final. Their route to the final included an impressive 5-3 Round of 16 victory over Manchester United, a 6-4 victory over Schalke, and a 4-3 Semifinal victory over Sporting Lisbon. Inevitably, the visibility that Bielsa brought to Bilbao and their Cup success led bigger clubs in Europe to become interested in purchasing Bilbao’s better players. In the summer between the 2012 and 2013 season, Javi Martínez, the player that had become essential to the defensive play and ball transition from deep, was sold to Bayern Munich and Fernando Llorente was unsettled by transfer interest from multiple clubs.
Athletic Bilbao is a very unique club with a very unique transfer policy. The club history and traditions are very important to Bilbao and Bilbao will only allow players from the Basque region of Spain, where Bilbao is located, to play for their club. They rely on their youth academy to build their roster. This makes money received from the sale of players useless, as this money will not be reinvested into buying players from other clubs. Therefore, Athletic Bilbao is rarely motivated to sell any of their players. Conversely, Bilbao forces other clubs to meet the buy out clause, which by La Liga rules has to be written into the contracts of all players, in order to break that contract and make that player available to sign for another club.
Athletic Bilbao refused to listen to transfer offers for Llorente and no club met his buy out clause. This created tension between the club, who would not sell Llorente for less than his buy out clause, and Llorente, who wanted to leave Athletic Bilbao. Llorente’s contract was set to expire at the end of the 2013 season and he refused to sign a new contract. Bielsa and Bilbao responded by benching Llorente for most of the 2012/2013 La Liga season. In the 2012/2013 season, Llorente only started four out of 38 La Liga matches. With the loss of Javi Martinez and Llorente, two of Bilbao’s best players, and with no comparative additions brought into the club, Athletic Bilbao struggled through the season and finished the year in 12th place. The lackluster results combined with tension between Bielsa and the Board over the poor condition of Bilbao’s training facility led to Bilbao’s Board refusing to extend Bielsa’s contract. Bielsa was relieved of his duties after the 2012-2013 season.
On May 2, 2014 the President of Olympique Marseille, Vincent Labrune, announced that Marseille had signed Bielsa to act as their new manager. Bielsa was tasked with turning around a Marseille side that finished a disappointing sixth in Ligue 1 the previous season, finishing with only 60 points, 29 points behind first place Paris St. Germain and 11 points behind third place Lille. Bielsa and Marseille were a perfect fit for each other. Marseille was a club that wanted to compete at the highest level but did not have the funds to financially compete with Paris St. Germain or AS Monaco. While the two bigger clubs in France could afford to spend large amounts of money on World Class players, Marseille had to rely on young homegrown players. Mathieu Valbuena, a starting French International and a player who was the glue of Marseille’s attack, was sold to Dynamo Moscow. The only new addition to have a any impact for Marseille is Romain Alessandrini, a Winger who started the first two Ligue 1 matches but now primarily comes off of the bench as an impact substitute. Their first 12 matches have been a complete turnaround from the disappointment of the previous season. Marseille leads the Ligue 1 table by four points over Paris St. Germain, a club that has accumulated a net loss of over 400 million Euros over the last three seasons, in its attempt to construct a team full of World Class players.
Bielsa prepared for this season by spending the second half of the 2013/2014 season attending Marseille matches. He has coached Marseille to mimic the dynamic and attacking style of play that he has relied on since he was given the Argentinian managerial position. Again he has chosen to play possession football. Compared to last season Marseille has seen their possession numbers increase 6.09%, jumping from 52.18% from last season to 58.27% this season. Marseille has attempted 26 more passes per game this season; attempting 438 passes per game this season as compared to 412 passes last season. Marseille has completed 30 more passes per match compared to the previous season; completing 367 passes this season compared to 337 passes from last season. Marseille’s Pass Completion Percentage has risen 2.36% suggesting that Marseille is attempting shorter passes than they attempted last season.
Bielsa still prefers to attack down the flanks. He positions his Wingers André Ayew on the left flank and Florain Thauvin on the right flank, close to the touchlines. Thauvin sticks to the touchline and regularly makes direct attacking runs that make him Marseille’s most advanced player. Ayew plays directly but is willing to cut centrally down into the left central channel in an attempt to link play. Bielsa has preferred the tactic that he tested out with Iker Muniain. He plays Dimitri Payet, a mainstay as Marseille’s starting Right Winger in the previous seasons when Valbuena was the starting Central Attacking Midfielder, as a Central Winger. Payet attempts to drift wide and link play with Marseille’s Wingers and Fullbacks/Wingbacks. André-Pierre Gignac, Marseille’s starting Center Forward, plays as a Wide 9 Center Forward and drifts into wide positions to link and build play down the flanks. These movements create attacking lanes for Marseille’s Inverted Wingers and Central Midfielders, by pulling opposition Centerbacks, Central Midfielders, and Holding Midfielders wide.
When Marseille plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, Gianelli Imbula is responsible for making driving runs from midfield to exploit the space created by the movement of Marseille’s front four. Imbula has scored two goals and created six chances in the six matches where Marseille has played a 4-2-3-1. Bielsa also chooses to switch formations so that he always plays with one more defender than the opposition has attacker. When Marseille plays with a Back-3 Imbula’s movement is limited as it is his responsibility to provide defensive cover to Marseille’s Back-3. When playing against a team who plays with a Front-3 or Front-1, Marseille plays a 4-2-3-1 with Nicolas N’Koulou, a Centerback who can also play as a Holding Midfielder, is partnered with Jérémy Morel, who has been converted from a Left Fullback to a Left Centerback. Marseille’s third choice Centerback, Rod Fanni, has played the majority of his career as a Right Fullback. When Marseille plays with a Back-3, in a 3-3-3-1 formation, Alaixys Romao or his backup Mario Lemina, who both play as Marseille’s more defensive Holding Midfielder, drop deep into the Right Centerback position. As was the case at Athletic Bilbao, Bielsa has preferred that Marseille build possession from deep. This means that Steve Mandanda, Marseille’s Goalkeeper, is more involved with Marseille’s build up. Mandanda has received six more backpasses per match this season than he did last season. In the 2013/2014 season Mandanda received 11 backpasses per match and this season he has received 17 backpasses per match. Mandanda is also more likely to play shorter passes; he has eight more short passes per match than he did during the 2013/2014 season. In the 2013/2014 season he attempted eight backpasses and during the 2014/2015 season he has attempted 15 short passes.
Bielsa has learned from his mistakes from his first season at Athletic Bilbao. He has not attempted to convert any Central Midfielder to Fullback as he did with De Marcos at Atheltic Bilbao and Vidal with Chile. He also has not given his Fullbacks or Wingbacks the freedom to push into Central Midfield. Instead he has played Benjamin Mendy, who plays either Left Fullback or Wingback, and Brice Dja Djédjé, who plays either Right Fullback or Wingback. Both stick to the touchline looking to provide width and support for Marseille’s wide attacks. With the movement of Ayew Mendy has the freedom to attack down the touchline and he is more aggressive with his positioning. The attacking runs of Marseille’s Fullbacks and wide movement of Marseille’s central attacking players, Payet and Gignac, allows Marseille to create wide passing triangles to play through opposition defenses.
It will be interesting to see how Bielsa’s tactics evolve during the season. Thus far he has preferred to play with a consistent 11, which has been possible because Marseille is not in a European Tournament and has already been eliminated from the 2014/2015 Coupe de la Ligue. As the season progresses, Bielsa will need to adjust his tactics to fit his backups who will replace injured or suspended players. Assuming Bielsa’s success continues and Marseille is playing European Football next season, he will need to adjust his tactics to accommodate the extra workload.