Marcelo Bielsa is about to take the Premier League by storm.
Whether or not his Leeds United side will smack England‘s top flight flush in the face as Sheffield United did, or thrill us and get sent spiralling back down like Norwich City did, remains entirely to be seen.
No one could possibly predict what “El Loco” will do in the Premier League, but it will surely be entertaining. His rematch with Frank Lampard (now at Chelsea) will be must-see TV, then there’s a match-up against one of his protegés in Pep Guardiola, and the chance to avenge his former player Mauricio Pochettino when he takes on Spurs, while Leeds vs. Man Utd is always box office.
The stories of Bielsa’s intensity and eccentricity have been told many times over, he’s had an incredible career across several decades and continents. Here we’ve listed seven of his most iconic and career-defining line-ups, could he add to these games in 2020/21?
Sao Paulo 1-0 Newell’s Old Boys (3-2 pens)
Bielsa had rebuilt his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys from the ground up following his appointment in 1992 and as a result they had made it all the way to the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1992. They won the first-leg at home 1-0 and headed into the return leg in Brazil needing just a draw to be confirmed as champions.
They played in Bielsa’s now iconic 3-3-1-3 system, with Juan Manuel Llop and Mauricio Pochettino (yes, him) either side of Fernando Gamboa in defence and Eduardo Berizzo ahead of them. In Bielsa’s system the wide centre-backs have to be comfortable bringing the ball out from the back whilst the two central players are defensive pillars.
Unlike European diamonds, Bielsa set his two central midfielders very wide to provide the side’s width as veritable wing-backs. Tata Martino was the “1” in the formation and his side’s chief creative playmaker. Ahead of him the side obviously had a central striker but the wide forwards often played in the half-space rather than truly wide, and acted as secondary goalscorers.
The game itself was intense, with Newell’s first leg lead being wiped out by a suspect penalty converted coolly by Rai. The game went to a shootout but unlike in the semi-final against América de Cali where twice their misses were not punished, this time Sao Paulo made Bielsa suffer, with Cafu scoring what turned out to be the winning penalty. It was a massive defeat for Bielsa, who resigned shortly after, but he had still set his side up to compete on the biggest stage in one of the very boldest systems.
Argentina 0-1 England
Fast forward a decade and Bielsa is in charge of the Argentine national team at the 2002 World Cup. He has at his command a murderer’s row of world-class players. However, many of them are coming to the end of their illustrious careers. Still, Bielsa’s side had been resplendent in qualifying for the World Cup, dropping points on just five occasions (four draws and one defeat) en route to a remarkable 43 points.
That meant that when the teams were lining up in Sapporo in 2002, Argentina had lost just once that century with 14 wins under their belt, including their World Cup opener against Nigeria. Yet his star-studded side couldn’t contend with England‘s ferocity and focus. Gabriel Batistuta and Juan Sebastian Verón were ineffective (Verón was subbed off). Pochettino, who was playing in defence, gave away a penalty and even the great creators Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar were unable to carve England open.
Whilst defeat against Sao Paulo was bad luck, this match (and, indeed, Argentina’s entire World Cup campaign as they crashed out in the group stages despite being tournament favourites) seemed a complete rebuttal against Bielsa’s style of football.
Argentina 1-0 Paraguay
Bielsa began his career coaching youth teams at Newell’s and so it seemed fitting that hope arrived in the form of the 2004 Olympic games when coaching a youthful Argentine side featuring a young Javier Mascherano, Fabricio Coloccini and Carlos Tevez in his classic 3-3-1-3 formation. The Gold Medal match was won by Tevez, converting a Mauro Rosales cross with a ludicrously deft near-post finish.
For 20 years, this triumph in Athens was the sole trophy that Bielsa won. In fact until just last week this was the only trophy he had won outside of his native Argentina. A rare moment of trophy success for a coach whose genius is so often starved of it.
Colombia 2-4 Chile
Bielsa’s Chile side were absolutely iconic. They were a thrill to watch at the 2010 World Cup, introducing Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez to a world stage they would adorn for the subsequent decade, and the tournament became poorer for their absence after Brazil eliminated them. However rather than focus on that match, or their loss against Spain which started hot and ended cold, we’re looking back to the end of qualification for the World Cup.
Travelling to Colombia, Chile knew that they had to win in order to keep pace atop the qualification table with Brazil (who had just beaten them 3-2), Paraguay and Argentina. What followed was a magnificent performance where they went 1-0 down, brought on Jorge Valdivia, came back to 1-2 with Valdivia getting an assist, were pegged back to 2-2 against a side that hadn’t lost at home all year before roaring to win with Validivia scoring and getting another assist late on. There was even a late red as the match ended in acrimony.
It was vintage Bielsa, rebounding from the adversity of the Brazil defeat and sending La Roja roaring towards South Africa. It announced Bielsa and his side on the world stage in such a way that there was genuine buzz around Chile even going into the tournament. After so much woe and failure, this match told the world that Bielsa was back.
Manchester United 2-3 Athletic Club
After leaving Chile over a grudge, Bielsa rocked up at Athletic Club and turned the side into one of the best in Europe. For once he switched from his beloved 3-3-1-3 and changed to a 4-3-3. This was due to the sheer number of single striker attacks in Spain, as Bielsa always wants a spare man at the back so wants one more defender than the opponent has attackers.
Not that his Athletic side were orthodox, he moved wing-forward Oscar de Marcos in to play central midfield and pushed midfield general Javi Mártinez into the heart of defence. Bielsa’s side were breathtaking to watch and participated in the game of the season in La Liga when they played out a heart-stopping 2-2 draw with Barcelona in the pouring rain.
Still, though, no one expected them to beat Manchester United, defending champions of England. Of course not only did they beat them but they thrashed them. Bielsa’s side were better than Sir Alex Ferguson’s in every department and whilst they only scored three, it could have been any number. They came to Old Trafford as awestruck fans, but left as conquerors.
Athletic finished the job in the second leg too, winning 2-1. Bielsa was on top of the world, but predictably the season ended miserably (two 3-0 defeats in the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals hurt most of all, bringing back memories of Sao Paulo) and things fell apart in 2012/13. But no one will ever forget when Los Leones roared at Old Trafford.
Marseille 2-3 PSG
Bielsa’s spells in France weren’t that long but they had some far-reaching consequences. His Marseille side led Ligue 1 for the first-half of the 2014/15 season but began to fall away in the second-half, slipping down gradually. They were third when new league leaders PSG came to town, and Bielsa’s side was not about to go down without a fight.
Despite missing key defensive midfielder Gianni Imbula, Bielsa deployed Marseille in that now-famous 3-3-1-3 and their pressing was relentless. They twice took the lead only for PSG to claw them back both times then, as they tired, the Parisians won it late on. This match was emblematic of the way Bielsa’s sides often collapse towards the end of the season; not just in terms of competitions but within games themselves. They start hot and end cold.
For what it’s worth, this season was also the year that Dmitri Payet and Benjamin Mendy were forged into elite creative talents that would go on to leave their mark indelibly on bigger occasions than a random Ligue 1 match. Bielsa remains a key shaper of talents.
Leeds 3-0 Fulham
Finally, we come to the now. Bielsa’s Leeds came oh so close to Premier League promotion last season, but like Marseille did they fell away in the second-half of the season, dropped into the playoffs and then lost to Derby in the semi-finals. It was all classic Bielsa. They had done brilliantly to begin to rebound this season, but when they lost their first game after the Covid-19 hiatus 2-0, and missed the chance to go top, suddenly questions were being asked. Was Bielsa bottling it again? Next up was third-placed Fulham.
But Leeds showed the kind of mental strength we haven’t seen from a Bielsa side for a long, long while. They opened the scoring, survived through Fulham pressure in the first-half before blowing their opponents to bits in the second-half, winning 3-0.
Leeds this season have primarily used a 4-1-4-1 system. The shape is yet another tactical adjustment from Bielsa, retaining a solid “English-style” defensive structure whilst allowing his side to morph into something like his usual 3-3-1-3 when in possession. This demands a lot of his players but Bielsa has coached them so well that they are more than capable of delivering for the Argentine.
This game is career-defining because it was Bielsa overcoming the old narratives. It was Bielsa’s side, at the tail end of a long and hard season, bouncing back from adversity instead of succumbing to it. It propelled Leeds on a run of form (six wins out of the next seven) that not only secured Premier League promotion but also the Championship title, the first club trophy Bielsa has won outside of Argentina and just his second trophy at all this century. A phenomenal success that sets the stage for “El Loco” to make a run at the English top flight.