Marcelo Bielsa’s Influence on the Champions of Argentina
The story goes that for 12 hours as they enjoyed asado, Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola spoke of nothing but football.
As the meat burned in the barbeque, ideas flowed freely. The soon to be manager of Barcelona’s B team was being taught about high pressing, positional and possession football. From salt shakers and ketchup bottles, to tables and chairs being moved around, Bielsa imparted his football philosophy on a man who would later make Barcelona the greatest team in the world.
Guardiola would of course go on to espouse this philosophy – the high tempo passing and animalistic pressing displayed by his Barcelona were features of Bielsisme. And while the Catalan had found another in a long range of mentors that includes Johan Cruyff, Arrigo Sacchi, Louis Van Gaal and Juanma Lilo, Bielsa was making another of his disciples.
It is however the greatest of his disciples, certainly the closest, that has just won the league in Argentina. Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino has led Newell’s Old Boys to a Torneo Final triumph. The Rosario based club has been worthy winners – exciting to watch on the eye and playing an aesthetic type of football that has seen them score 40 goals in 19 games. This, for an Argentine Championship, has only been bettered by River Plate in 2004.
It could be though that the short term-ism of the Argentine League is exactly what fits the radicalism of a Bielsista like Martino. The Argentine League, unlike most of the leagues in South America, runs on a European calendar rather than the calendar year. Like most European Leagues, it consists of 20 teams. But unlike in Europe, teams do not play 38 game seasons, rather they play 19 game seasons with the games of the first season mirrored in the second (i.e., if you played a team away in the first fixture of the first season, you will play them at home in the first fixture of the second season).
The first season is known as the Torneo Inicial (running from August to December) and the second season is called the Torneo Final (running from February to June). The winners of each Torneo become outright League Champions*, with the period in January between both Torneos serving as an off season with transfer dealings and pre-season and managerial changes taking place.
This provides for a short term mentality, with good form required to convince early as there are just 19 games in which to do so. It thus becomes ironic that in this environment, the Bielsa tactics that take so long to become adapted have worked brilliantly.
Ever since taking over at Newell’s at the start of the Inicial in 2012, Martino has espoused those Bielsa principles of high tempo, quick vertical passing, pressing, and defending as one team. It could be however that Newell’s was the perfect club to accept these ideals – it was in the early 1990’s that Bielsa himself had success at this same club with those principles. It thus feels like a club identity.
And in those early Bielsa coaching years, it was Martino who was Bielsa’s go to man on the pitch. He was the coach’s personification on the pitch, much in the same way Xavi Hernandez was to Guardiola or Roy Keane was to Sir Alex Ferguson. Therefore, Martino’s appointment must have felt like the second coming of a former club hero. He was thus embraced with open arms.
That has ensured that on the pitch, his team has looked very much like Bielsa’s. In a way, on the touchline, the manager has resembled Bielsa – wearing a tracksuit, spotting spectacles and trodding along the touchline nervously. Much has been similar about Newell’s Old Boys with the man who set about their identity.
Likewise as well, the physical demands of that Bielsistic approach meant that Newell’s almost withered away at the end. The human limitations of Bielsisme have long troubled Bielsa – he himself once remarked that if football was to be played by robots, he would win everything. As such, human faults mean the emotional as well as mental and physical demands of that type of football make it virtually impossible for sustainability.
One just has to consider how Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao blew away Manchester United in the Europa League last season, only to be blown away themselves by Atletico Madrid by the time the final came by. Their incredible season faltered at the end, with comprehensive defeats in the league and the Copa del Rey final making them look a shadow of themselves.
In the same way, Newell’s faltered at the end of the Inicial, eventually overtaken by Velez Sarsfield and finishing runners-up. Even in the Final, they looked to have blown it with River Plate and Lanus always looking ready to pounce at any misstep.
This though would not resemble the glorious defeats of Martino’s Paraguay at the Copa America in 2011, or Bielsa’s Bilbao in 2012. Martino’s side became champions of Argentina reminding everyone of Bielsa’s Newell’s of the early nineties.
In the process, their striker, Ignacio Scocco finished the season as top scorer with 11 goals. Though he shared that accolade with Emanuel Gigliotti of Colón, it is the fact that he was also top scorer of the Inicial with 13 goals (also shared with Facundo Ferreyra of Velez) that stands out. Nobody has ever managed to become top scorer in both consecutive seasons.
Bielsa may be out of a job at Bilbao, and his constant radicalism means that his principles have not worked as expected in Europe. But along the way, he has bred disciples who mix realism with theorism to avoid the fundamentalism.
Jorge Sampaoli, coach of the national Chile** team is one. Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton is another. Pep Guardiola certainly espoused Bielsistic principles in his coaching. Diego Simeone also professes his love for Bielsa. And it has been remarked that, although independently developed, the coaching styles of Jurgen Klopp and Andre-Villas Boas*** look Bielsistic.
It is though, Gerardo Martino who is employing those principles as closely to Bielsa as anyone else is. And in the city where Che Guevara and Lionel Messi were born, Martino is showing that with the right conditions, Bielsisme can produce success.
*Despite the winners of the Torneos being outright Champions, the Argentine Football Federation has still organised a match between the winner of the Inicial and Final to come up with a ‘superchampion’. Why the need for this game is not entirely clear.
** Marcelo Bielsa was coach of Chile at the 2010 World Cup and his philosophy has now been adopted as Chile’s national football identity.
***Oddly, Jurgen Klopp and Andre Villas-Boas finished the 2012-2013 season in glorious defeat. Reaching so close to success but eventually losing out.