The current Leeds United manager and arguably the most influential coach in modern football, Marcelo Bielsa is the subject of this analysis because I’m an admirer of his, not only of his footballing ideas but also his outlook on life. I find him very interesting and engaging and even Pep Guardiola famously called him “the best coach in the world”, and his influence on Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham Hotspur head coach is very visible by now, with his reputation in part down to developing players. I hope I can do him justice in this article.
1.Knowledge Of Training Methods
Marcelo Bielsa is a man full of interesting qualities. But in terms of sporting related qualities, the first I’ve selected is his knowledge of training methods. This is a valuable asset that top coaches must have in order to develop their players and to impart their footballing ideas and philosophies to their players and make them familiar with the team’s tactics. Training has specific goals of improving one’s capability, capacity, performance and productivity and Bielsa has done this effectively everywhere he’s worked thus far. As well as Pochettino, Eduardo Berizzo and Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino played for his successful, Argentine title-winning Newell’s Old Boys side of the early 90s. All three have managed successful managerial careers that have clearly been based on replicating his style, showing not only his ability to develop players but coaches also. At his first professional coaching job at Newell’s Old Boys’ (Bielsa’s hometown and boyhood club) 15-16-year-old youth team in 1982, they were playing in Argentina’s third division. Instantly his methods were catching the attention of others, a local news writer for Newell’s said in an article: “All the teams started to train and would finish but his team would continue training, players would come out puking”. Another incident in his early professional coaching career was when the players were training one asked “Where’s my bib?” the other replied “El Loco (The Madman) has it” Bielsa heard this and paused the session, he asked each player individually “Why are people calling me El Loco?” One answered, “It must be because of the way you work”. This nickname has stuck with him throughout his career.
In more recent times, he has developed players that have gone on to play for elite European clubs. One example is the nimble, and gritty midfielder, Ander Herrera. Herrera was already an established name in Spain after contributing to Real Zaragoza’s promotion from the Spanish second tier to the first division and even establishing them as a top-flight club. But it was at Atletico Bilbao with Bielsa where Herrera caught the attention of European giants. The midfielder was notably remarkable in Bilbao’s clash against the mighty Manchester United of Sir Alex Ferguson in the 2011/12 Europa League competition, they triumphed against Manchester United, knocking them out of the competition. 2 years later Herrera was sold to Manchester United for £32 million, Bilbao had bought him for £6 million two years previously.
This shows that Bielsa’s training methods are highly effective for improving players. Knowledge of effective training methods can go a long way in a football club. They improve players, improved players mean improved performance, improved performances can result in greater revenue, European qualification, and putting the club in a healthy state.
In Bielsa’s first year at Leeds, the club had previously finished 13th under a different head coach. In less than a year, the club competed at the top of the table for the entirety of the season, he turned league average midfielder Kalvin Phillips into one of, if not the best midfielder in England’s second division and there was even mention of a call up to the England squad, this was unimaginable before he arrived. Bielsa also managed to completely transform the error-prone defender Liam Cooper into an established, heroic and consistent captain for the side and he received his first international cap for Scotland. There is proof throughout the Leeds United squad that Bielsa has indefinitely improved all of the players, yet again proving that his knowledge of training methods are effective and impactful.
When a coach such as Bielsa arrives at a club there is almost a feeling that the squad is brand new due to their impressive performances. This can save a club millions. Instead of spending millions and millions to purchase better players, get a coach (Bielsa) that can improve your current players.
Amongst what seems like a glittering and stunning knowledge of training methods there seems to be a recurring pattern and a big weakness with Bielsa’s teams, mental and physical collapse. This was well documented last season as Leeds United, despite being top of the table for large parts of the season they fell away and form was drastic and ultimately did not succeed in being promoted. The mental and physical strain of Bielsa’s demands affected the players drastically performance-wise. During his tenure at Marseille which saw them finish fourth in the table, but only after leading and setting the pace for greater parts of the 14/15 season, before collapsing at the end with four consecutive losses in April. Despite their victory over Manchester United, His first campaign saw Bilbao lose in the finals of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey to Atletico Madrid and an all-conquering Barcelona side, as Bilbao somewhat lost their way at the end of a manic 64-match season. As well as managing at club level, Bielsa also managed at international level with Argentina and Chile. Enduring contrasting successes with both nationalities. With Argentina in the 2002 World Cup his team finished top of the qualifying group, without a game lost. They were clear favourites and the team was full of stars. When it was time for them to perform on the big stage at the 2002 World Cup they failed to provide as Bielsa’s team failed to qualify from the group stages. Many subscribed to the belief that a tired squad were not able to meet Bielsa’s demands during the tournament.
For every positive, there’s a negative, and that’s true with Bielsa’s training methods. Some flourish and develop well under his high demands whilst others crack and fail to perform. Liam Cooper, Leeds United captain had this to say about Bielsa’s methods:” A Lot of the credit for the call-up has to go to the manager and his staff. The way they have brought me on as a player and for him to have given me the responsibility of captain is invaluable.” A player that struggled with Bielsa’s ferocious methods was Ricardo Lunari, a former Newell’s Old Boys youth player, he said “At 15, I went to live in Rosario. I was 120 km from my hometown and I felt alone. Honestly, if I hadn’t had support from my family in those first years under Bielsa. I would almost certainly left football. It was something I was never able to get out of my head, it was fairly traumatic.” Whilst Leeds United midfielder and Polish international Mateusz Klich said “He is very strict, it’s like being in the military, there is respect and admiration. Players stay together the nights before games. A few times a week we have to go to an individual meeting and all the coaches and Bielsa is there, it usually lasts around 15 minutes. We review clips from training sessions and games to understand our role and position better and what we have to improve and work on”.
Bielsa is a stubborn man and I can’t see him changing his methods anytime soon.
2.Understands the mental needs of players
The next quality I think relates to Marcelo Bielsa is his understanding of the mental needs of his players but what does it mean to understand the mental needs of your players? It means that a coach knows what to say. When to be aggressive, when to be supportive and when to motivate. A coach should also show his/ her feelings such as love, fear, joy, frustration. It’s important that a coach has this quality as the coach can develop a greater relationship with his/her players, which maintains the squad cohesion and every successful team needs cohesion.
When Bielsa was appointed as head coach of the Newell’s first team in 1990 he needed to get his ideas across to his new players, who were unconvinced about their new manager who had only managed a few years with the youth team and had a poor professional career as a footballer. The striker was Tata Martino. He was held in high esteem by the club, a lethal goalscorer, loved by his teammates and the Newell’s faithful. There was a caveat though, he hated running. Bielsa had to motivate him and talked to him about this, Martino said: “I talked to him during pre-season, I quickly noticed the only way I would have a chance of playing in this team, as if I ran and worked hard.” He continues to say: “It’s worth remembering that by this time I was a player with over 10 years’ worth of experience in the first division, but I saw how it was and that it wasn’t going to be easy.” This had a knock-on effect throughout the entire Newell’s squad, they saw the man they respected and admired putting the graft and the effort in training and so they followed. Lunari a former Newell’s player said: “We saw Tito running, he hated running, it was well known in the squad. But when we saw our idol, our hero running, we said Okay if Tito runs we all run.” It’s vital that a coach can motivate his team, especially the big names in the team, as I said, it has a domino effect on the squad, meaning that all of them will be motivated and fired up. This is how Bielsa engaged with his players, by engaging the one they all idolized. He doesn’t do this normally, he likes to treat the players equally and ensures that the ‘stars’ within the team have no extra liberty or freedom. But mind, this was the first senior team he coached.
After Newell’s were humiliated at home, the players went into the locker room and it was completely silent. Bielsa walked in, no one said a word. Bielsa suddenly screams to the players: “You’re not saying anything to me!” as if they should be complaining. Newell’s went onto win their next 7 successive games by 2 goals or more.
After Bielsa left Newell’s in 1992 to go to Atlas in Mexico he needed players to sign. He started with a player he’d known for most of his coaching life, Ricardo Lunari. By now Lunari was playing in Chile, and he received a phone call from a familiar man, Bielsa.
“I want to bring you here to play in Atlas” Bielsa says.
Lunari responds, “Yes, I’d love to.” Bielsa waits until the next day to continue the conversation.
The following morning Bielsa says “Ricardo, I want to tell you that Católica(Chilean club Lunari played for) are asking Atlas for a million dollars for your transfer” he continued “You know that you’re not worth that amount of money right?”
Lunari says “Of course I’m not worth that amount of money!”
So the transfer doesn’t happen. Until an hour passes and Atlas pay Católica one million dollars. Lunari then travels to Mexico and the first thing Bielsa did when he met Lunari at the airport was, he took him straight to the Atlas training ground, not to train, for a chat with Bielsa. Lunari said “He sat me down. He looked me in the eyes. He said, (“The only thing I want you to know and be convinced of is that you’re not worth a million dollars”) I know I’m not worth that amount.” Bielsa replied, “Go and train then.”
I believe that it’s important that Bielsa did this because it keeps him grounded because this sum of money in the early ’90s in South America was massive. So Bielsa’s words stop him from being arrogant which can lead to a lack of effort and ultimately it keeps the squad happy.
More recently, in Leeds United’s 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion, Marcelo Bielsa brought on substitute Tyler Roberts on at half time in an effort to assert his offensive qualities but unfortunately for Tyler Roberts and Bielsa the game took a turn and Leeds defended for the majority of the second half and Roberts was substituted off in the 75th minute for defender Barry Doulgas. Roberts seemed hurt and saddened by the decision of his head coach but didn’t kick a fuss or act aggressively. After the match Bielsa addressed the situation: “He shows a lot of generosity with me but he knows that my decision touched him and even he understood the situation – but I know that this decision hurt him and it is difficult to overcome in a short time,” Bielsa said. He went on to reveal the reason for his decision, “I thought that if we were going to put one player more offensive we were going to be able to adapt to this moment. After the match, it was more difficult than I thought and the player had to try to resolve the situation – it is not my high point and after If I don’t make the second decision (bringing on a defensive player) there is going to be a second mistake.”
Bielsa felt so ashamed and guilty about this incident he held a team meeting in training the next day. He gathered the entire senior squad and the coaches to apologize to Tyler for his decision and that he would never make the same mistake.
I believe that it’s great what Marcelo Bielsa did. It shows that he clearly cares about his players as people. When a coach shows that he cares about his players the players will appreciate this and will reward the coach through respect and effort.
During his first pre-season at Leeds Bielsa made his players pick litter for 3 hours to learn how hard fans work in order to buy tickets and merchandise. An activity like this would generate the players to appreciate the fans and perhaps to be thankful that they are footballers, but it’s possible that some players could see it as a waste of time and there is no benefit to doing it.
3.Understanding the physical need of his participants
Firstly, what does understanding the physical needs of your participants even mean? I believe it means how intensely a coach thinks he needs to train his players, how much rest they need and just generally keeping tabs on all of the players’ physical state.
It’s important that a coach has this certain quality in order to avoid injuries, outworking or demanding unrealistic efforts which can lead to toxic relationships and environments.
Bielsa’s full-throttle philosophy and style demand the highest level of fitness. When Bielsa arrived in Leeds in the summer of 2018 he told Luke Ayling, a Leeds United defender to lose 5 pounds if he wanted to play for his team. Ayling who was by no means overweight or out of shape realised how fit the team must become to play the way Bielsa wants. Also during his time at Leeds he demands that the medical team weigh the squad every morning, “which details lean mass, fat mass and bone mass.” The players deemed not fit enough do not join training, instead they work on their fitness until they’re fit enough to endure his sessions.
During his brief tenure at Lille, Bielsa installed sleeping cabins at the training ground in order to rest them after extensive training hours. He has done the same at Leeds, players and even coaches rest hereafter very intense sessions. The coaches need areas to rest as they work into the small hours studying and analysing thousands of hours worth of football games.
The players eat at least two meals a day together and each have individual diet plans. Most of the players have protein-heavy meals throughout the week, while the carbs are consumed during the 24 hours before games. As well as diet plans the players also have individual gym routines/plans. Bielsa himself puts these together.
The commitment shown by Bielsa can spur the players to adopt the same attitude. Then again, does he think and consider their personal lives? Dedicating 12 hours of a day (8am – 8pm) surely must have a strain on the players’ personal life. Bielsa has even said himself that the biggest challenge of his career was keeping his marriage alive.
4.Knowledge about a players’ strengths and areas to improve
To begin I would define this as knowing your players and squad inside out, this sets realistic expectations as you know their capabilities. Sky-high and unrealistic demands can frustrate and destroy squad cohesion and relationships with players.
It’s integral that any coach at any level knows the strengths and weaknesses of his squad, as he can dictate the best style that can use the strength of his players’ capabilities. For example, if a team has wingers that have the capacity to run at high speeds and have a high level of crossing, the team will attempt to get the ball in the wide areas to exploit these characteristics.
Bielsa regularly talks about his players in his press conferences, talking about Ben White, a young defender for Leeds United, he said: “He’s a great player. He takes risks and he doesn’t make mistakes. This is the most difficult thing in football. The best players risk everything and don’t make mistakes. Everything seems White is in this band.” When a player sees or hears their coach praise them it makes their efforts feel rewarded and that will lead to them continuing their efforts, whether it’s in training or in matches . The players will value and respect their coach back. He also recently praised the versatile Stuart Dallas saying: “It’s not usual to find a player like him. He can play on both sides, he has the agility of a winger and is powerful as a defender and technically he is a complete player.”
In the summer just past Leeds sold fan-favourite and key player Pontus Jansson for £5.5 million. This raised a lot of eyebrows amongst the Leeds United community, especially after Bielsa had said he was Leeds’ most important player the previous season. But behind the scenes he was a “disruptive influence” with a poor attitude.
He failed to make a good impression on Bielsa as he demanded an extended break because he’d been playing for Sweden in the World Cup, but several other international players such as Ezgan Alisoki (Macedonian International) and Stuart Dallas (Northern Ireland International) returned on time (June 24th),as asked by the club. Jansson would often criticize his teammates after defeats and Bielsa felt he was in no position to do so.
When Leeds famously allowed Aston Villa to score against them, Jansson was the only one that tried to stop Aston Villa score. This infuriated Bielsa as he didn’t abide by his commands as manager. Ultimately Bielsa saw him as a weakness in the side and sold him. Ruthless.
The Characteristics of Marcelo Bielsa
The four characteristics I’ve selected for Marcelo Bielsa are:
Personally, I believe that these suit and apply to Bielsa perfectly. I’ll explain how below.
A reason I respect Bielsa so much is because of how he is as a person, and honesty is definitely a major characteristic of his. Honesty is such an important thing for a sporting leader to have as this builds a foundation for relationships with players. You become more trustworthy, when you become trustworthy you have followers/admirers.
In January, earlier this year police were called to Derby County’s training ground when a suspicious person had been walking around. The person in question turned out to be a young internee that Bielsa had asked to watch the training session. Reportedly he was equipped with “pliers, binoculars and camouflage clothing.” This triggered a massive outburst of coverage from all areas of the world, and quickly became known as ‘SpyGate’.
Bielsa was under fire by the British press and media: Virtually every manager in the division was questioned about the incident as to whether they believe it’s acceptable or not, and Bielsa eventually had to stage a miniature press conference with local news teams in order to explain the situation. The ‘miniature press conference’ turned out to be what many called ‘The best PowerPoint presentation of all time.’
He began the conference by saying “I was the only one responsible for this situation. The club is not responsible whatsoever and nobody on my staff is responsible for it.” He also said, “In a few words I can tell you we observed all the rivals we played against and we watched all the training sessions of the opponents before we played against them.”Bielsa didn’t have to say this, because nobody else knew, thanks to his honesty the EFL and FA now do, it makes their investigation easier. He went onto break down Derby County into great detail and shared his analysis technique. He did this with his backroom staff for every opponent and all the information was gathered through watching thousands of hours of games. He went onto say: “I know that not everything that’s legal is not right to do. You have many things that are legal, but not right. This is true as the fact that all the wrong things you do, are not done with bad intentions.” Bielsa went on to explain the thinking behind the ‘spying’:
“I would like to explain how the brain of a head coach works, or at least those who work like me. Apart from the players in a club, you have around 20 staff members.”
“These 20 people create a volume of information. Absolutely not necessary. And it doesn’t define the path of the competition.”
“So why do we do that?
“Because we feel guilty if we don’t work enough. Because it allows us not to have too much anxiety.”
“And we think that by gathering the information we feel we get closer to a win. In my case, it’s because I’m stupid enough to allow myself this kind of behaviour.”
What you can say about this situation is that Bielsa showed a lack of respect in doing this and was selfish to do so. But his honesty can only be appreciated. Following this, the club was fined £200,000 by the EFL (English Football League) and were charged with failing to ‘treat opposing clubs with utmost faith’. Bielsa paid the entire fine himself.
Another quality I believe Bielsa has is how fair he is. But what does it mean to be fair? Being fair is treating people equally, regardless of their race, nationality, or any other ethical or physical attributes. But why is it important for a sporting leader to be fair? Well, firstly it sets an example of how you should act in sport in general but also in life, treat people equally. Also when people see you as a just and fair person you are more likely to gain their trust and cooperation. This would make it easier to function as a cohesive group.
It was the 28th of April, 2019. Leeds faced Aston Villa in their last home game of the season. What was going to unfold would go down in the history of Leeds United but also football. There was a little over a quarter of an hour remaining of a fractious fixture when Liam Cooper clattered an Aston Villa striker in the centre circle. The forward stayed down, the ball was at Tyler Roberts’ feet while Aston Villa’s players and some of his own team-mates urged him to put it out of play. Roberts slowed down and offered up and played a pass that went straight to Mateusz Klich, who cut into the Villa area and scored. Carnage erupted. Aston Villa players were literally beating Leeds players. Both benches, Leeds and Villa were shouting and aggressively gesturing at each other and people were fighting amongst each other in the stands. Complete chaos. It was at this moment Bielsa was shouting at the top of his lungs “GIVE GOAL!” over and over. That’s exactly what happened the Aston Villa players walked the ball in as the Leeds team allowed them to score apart for Pontus Jansson as I previously mentioned, the game finished 1-1.
Bielsa said after the game: “English football is known for sportsmanship so I don’t have to comment on this kind of thing,” That’s all he had to say. The only negative about this is, will people expect Leeds to allow them to score every time a player goes down injured and they score? It’s a fairly regular occurrence nowadays.
In September of 2019 Bielsa won the ‘FIFA Fair Play’ award for his decision to allow Villa to score. So I think it’s fair to say that Bielsa is fair.
To me inspiring means to be able to say words that motivate people or make people do something they usually wouldn’t do through emotive language and words. It’s crucial that a coach can inspire the players because it enables them to feel confident in themselves and to feel empowered to let their “fire” free. Especially when times get tough, as it can during a season. Players will lose confidence, they will receive slack from fans. It’s vital that they can rely on the coach when moments and situations are bad.
When Bielsa was the head coach of French club Olympique Marseille between 2014 & 2015, they lost to Paris Saint Germain at home, they lost 3-2. This is what Bielsa had to say following the deflating defeat:
“It is hard to accept the injustices, but listen to what I’m going to say”
“If you guys play the way you played today, from here to the end of the league. You will have deserved the prize you deserved”
“Right now, I know that nothing I say will calm you down, because you gave it all during the game and you all deserve it but you could not reach it”
“Accept the injustice, because, in the end, everything finds its balance”
“There are nine games left, if we play the way we did the next nine games, do not doubt for a minute that you will have the answer you deserve!”
“Even if you think it’s impossible, don’t complain about anything”
“Make yourself strong!”
“That playing the way you did, the nine games remaining you will obtain what you deserved”
“Congratulations guys! All of you! All of you! All of you!
What he says here is key, it keeps the players’ faith, motivates them and restores their faith in Bielsa as a coach. It keeps the players driven to give it their all in the closing end of the season.
A word that people often describe Bielsa as is obsessive. It’s one of the reasons he’s known as ‘El Loco’. But what do we mean when we say someone is obsessive? Being obsessive means to be fixated on something. That’s exactly what Bielsa is about football, fixated. Some could see his obsessiveness as a good thing because it shows that he is passionate and committed to the cause. But others might see his obsessive characteristic as unecesarry and perhaps a waste of time. He pretty much lives in Leeds’ training ground, he has a bed and a kitchen area in his office, he sees this as normal practice because it’s his job.
Here are some examples of Bielsa being obsessive:
- Early in his professional career in 1997, he turned up to an interview for the managerial role with 51 tapes of the team, he had made himself and showed proof of how he could improve the current team. They won the Argentine league with Bielsa the following season. When he was at Newell’s his reactions to losing were sometimes extreme and difficult to comprehend. After being hammered 6-0 by Santa Fe, Bielsa locked himself away in a darkened room and reflected deeply on the game.“I shut myself in my room,” he said. “I turned off the light, closed the curtains, and I realised the true meaning of an expression we sometimes use lightly: ‘I want to die.’ I burst into tears. I could not understand what was happening around me. I suffered as a professional and I suffered as a fan.“For three months our daughter was held between life and death,” he later said. “Now she is fine. Does it make any sense that I want the earth to swallow me over the result of a football match? The reasoning was brilliant, but nonetheless, my suffering from what had happened demanded immediate vindication.”
- Also during his time at Newell’s, he was recruiting players for the academy. To make sure he left no stone unturned he divided a map of Argentina into 70 sections and visited each one, up and down the country. He drove over 5,000 miles in his Fiat 147 because he was scared of flying. In training, Fridays were for specific game preparation. Bielsa would lead his side through 120 different attacking situations and 120 different defensive situations.
- It was rumoured after losing the Rosario derby, that a set of supporters turned up outside Bielsa’s home unhappy with the performance and result. When he answered the door he was holding a grenade in his hand and he threatened to pull the pin if they didn’t leave. When they started to run, Marcelo Bielsa ran after them through the streets screaming.
- At Bilbao Before Bielsa took his first training session, he had watched all 38 of Bilbao’s league games from the previous season, writing a mountain of notes and compiling them together into lectures.
- During a press conference, he was asked how he would spend his summer holidays. He said, “I will exercise for two hours each day, and for the rest, I will spend 14 hours watching the video.” As a young man, he read a book a day and would watch two films each day. He also revealed that he can watch two games at once and can still analyse them.
- Before he was appointed at Marseille he apparently watched all of the games they played the previous season 13 times.
- During one of Marcelo Bielsa’s first visits to England, Jorge Valdano, the former Real Madrid manager, realised the extent of the Argentine’s obsession with winning football matches. As the pair flew over for Euro 96, Bielsa turned to his friend and said: ‘After losing a match, have you ever thought about killing yourself? This might seem extreme but it proves that football is Bielsa’s life inside and out and that he’s extremely passionate.
- 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
His obsessiveness about football is extraordinary and is fairly admirable and impressive, his dedication definitely rubs off and sets an example for the rest of his backroom staff as they also commit hours to watch and analysing football. Players might even take to him, in the sense of his commitment and passion and overall effort he does on his behalf, could inspire them to become more passionate and dedicated to the cause. He pretty much lives in Leeds’ training ground, he has a bed and a kitchen area in his office, he sees this as normal practice because it’s his job.