Diplomat Bielsa goes on the attack
If he needs help in his captaincy dilemma then perhaps Fabio Capello could take a leaf out of the book of Marcelo Bielsa.
Currently with Athletic Bilbao after spells in charge of the national teams of Chile and his native Argentina, Bielsa believes that the role of the captain is to represent the squad - and on that basis he usually lets the players vote to determine who should lead them out. But that is where Bielsa's democracy ends.
In the late 90s when he first took the Argentine job there were some early problems - hardly a surprise given the unorthodox nature of his trademark 3-3-1-3 system.
Training sessions were not going as Bielsa would have liked. He felt that some resistance to his methods. He called his players together and asked them to write on a piece of paper whether they would prefer the team to line up with four or three at the back.
Then he sifted through the answers, almost all of which were in favour of a back four. "Well," he said to the group, "this shows which model has your preference. I would like to announce, then, that we are going to be playing with a back three. Bye." And with that he strode off.
Of course, the role of the coach is not to impose, but to persuade. And before long Bielsa had transformed his men into devout believers in his way of doing things.
After cruising through qualification in superb style, it is a great pity that Argentina turned up at the 2002 World Cup without enough gas in the tank to do justice to their attacking intentions.
Former Argentina and Chile boss Bielsa is an attack-minded coach. Photo: Getty
Because what Bielsa really wants to do is attack, playing the game in the opponents' half of the field, keeping them under mental and physical pressure and constantly seeking to create two against one situations down the flanks - hence the need to play two wingers.
The back three may have been controversial. But even more important is the front three.
Bielsa may have won over his players, but he would always suffer resistance in Argentina. His dynamic football had no room for the old style Argentine foot-on-the-ball playmaker, such as Boca Juniors' Juan Roman Riquelme.
Once he went to Boca's stadium, where the entire crowd jeered him for ignoring Riquelme. In typical Bielsa style, he loved it. The crowd's reaction, he said, was "the essence of football".
But he was always likely to get a better response in Chile, whose football, as legendary defender Elias Figueroa once explained to me, has been marked by an absence of identity. Moreover, Bielsa's emphasis on quick wide players seemed to suit the physical characteristics of many Chilean players.
During his time in charge of Chile Bielsa kept his distance from the country's domestic game. He was not in the habit of chatting with club coaches, for example. But it is now clear that he has made his mark.
Towards the end of last year I wrote a few times about Universidad de Chile, by some distance the best South American club in the second half of 2011. Their coach Jorge Sampaoli is a self-confessed Bielsa disciple, and in December his methods carried the club to its first international title, South America's Europa League equivalent.
But now comes the big one. This week the group phase kicks off in the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League. It will be very hard for Universidad de Chile to keep their winning streak going.
They have paid the normal price for success in South America - it puts the team in the shop window with the result that key players are sold.
The good news is that the new recruits had excellent league debuts on Saturday. Rangy striker Junior Fernandes and little Peruvian attacker Raul Ruidiaz struck up an instant understanding, and should feature strongly in Sampaoli's 2012 front three.
Santiago neighbours Universidad Catolica have played two league games so far, and coach Mario Lepe is still struggling to find the right collective blend.
But going forward, at least, he has a lot of talent available to him, and one option he has already looked at is an attacking trident of Paraguayan centre forward Roberto Ovelar, good with his back to goal, Argentine attacker Nicholas Trecco playing from the right and the hugely promising Kevin Harbottle operating down the left.
And Chile's third participant in the Libertadores, Union Espanola, seem certain to use a front three. That is the way they were set up for the second half of the home leg and all of the return match in their qualifying round tie against Tigres of Mexico. Such a bold strategy paid off especially well in the away game.
Indeed, the trend for front threes is not just restricted to Bielsa clones. Coaches spent years removing strikers from their teams. Now they seem to be putting them back.
I could hardly believe my eyes last year when I saw the team-sheet of Libertad of Paraguay.
They were visiting Fluminense of Rio in the knock out stages of the 2011 Libertadores, and in this first, away leg I had expected a safety first approach.
Instead they went with 3 strikers. The 3-1 defeat they suffered was a gross miscarriage of justice, righted the following week when they won the home leg and progressed to the quarter-finals.
Indeed, Brazilian clubs had lots of problems last year with this type of approach. Defending against attackers in wide spaces caused them a problem. If their attacking full backs pushed up, there was space behind. If they stayed back, then midfield limitations were exposed and the opponent took a grip on the game.
In theory Brazil should be dominating the Libertadores. Its clubs are paying higher wages than elsewhere on the continent. Brazil has produced nine of the last 14 finalists, and can boast the reigning champions, Santos.
But last year - the very moment when the financial gap was widening in Brazil's favour - its clubs had a very unconvincing time in international competition.
On paper Brazil is sending a very strong group of participants into this year's Libertadores. A theme to look for in the competition is how well they cope with different tactical approaches - such as the front threes set to be unleashed against them by coaches who may have been influenced by Marcelo Bielsa.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I'm planning to visit Venezuela at the end of March and wanted to see a football match. Do you recommend I watch any particular team? Are there any hidden gems there that you would recommend?
I was there for the 2007 Copa America, when they had invested heavily in new stadiums, and I would love to go back to check on the advances made to the country's football culture.
It's a big place, so obviously it depends on where you're going to be, but Caracas in the capital are certainly worth seeing. They've slipped a bit over the past 18 months, but in the last decade they've been the strongest club with the best youth development work.
To the west I would try to check out Lara in the city of Barquisimeto. The team are doing well, and they have a wonderful stadium, though spectacularly badly located. It wasn't strictly ready when inaugurated during the 2007 Copa. I would love to see what it looks like now.
Q) I read a story a couple of weeks ago regarding Keirrison's future, with his agent stating he would favour a move back to Coritiba.
When he signed for Barcelona for €14m in 2009 he looked a real prospect. Would be interesting to hear your take on his career so far. What went wrong? Will he ever fulfil his potential?
I've been wrong countless times in the past, but this was one where it wasn't too hard to get it right. He was nowhere near ready for such a move at that time. He was a front to goal right footed finisher and nothing more.
There is plenty of time for him to come again, but it's not easy for a much hyped young player to come to terms with the fact that he is not as good as he has been allowed to believe.