BBC BLOGS - Tim Vickery
« Previous | Main | Next »

Diplomat Bielsa goes on the attack

Post categories:

Tim Vickery | 11:00 UK time, Monday, 6 February 2012

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.

Athletic Bilbao boss Marcelo Bielsa

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, 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?
Abdul Miah

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?
Nick McKuhen

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 2.

    Great article Tim - always look forward to these on mondays. Do you think any of the brazilian coaches would be brave enough to adopt a Bielsa formation?

    As an aside, you may want to have a word with the bbc folks though, as it was rather difficult finding the link to the blog.

  • Comment number 3.

    Agree with #2 on both points: this blog is the highlight of my Monday, and yet the BBC seem to be hiding it away at the moment. New website blip, I'll assume.

    I've always loved watching proper attacking football, teams going all-out to just score more than their opposition. Though I have a question on the Chilean teams: what formation are they preferring to back up their front 3? Is everyone pulling for the 3-3-1-3 or are there 3-4-3s and 4-3-3s in there as well? Which one seems to be working best for them?

  • Comment number 4.

    A great battle this past weekend in Spain between Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao and Mauricio Pochettino's Espanyol. It ended 3-3 as both clubs played an end to end match. Pochettino is another coach to keep an eye out for. He was by the way a star central defender on the Bielsa coached Newell's Old Boys team which lost the 1992 Copa Libertadores Final to Sao Paulo (the Brazilian club later went on to beat Cruyff's Barcelona in the Intercontinental Cup Final in Tokyo.) Newell's current coach, the ex Paraguay boss, Gerardo Martino also was on that 1992 team. So it is not just Sampaoli, but Bielsa is getting many of his "disciples" out in the coaching world.

    Tim makes an intreresting point about the tactical inflexibility of Brazilian coaches. I also do not think it helps that Brazilian clubs seem to recycle so many coaches. Vanderley Luxemburgo, Emerson Leao, Abel Braga and Tite seem to have each coached almost all the major clubs in Brazil at least once in their careers! Very few new coaches are brought into Brazil, thus new ideas are not coming in. Instead it is the same plans being recycled by the same coaches.

  • Comment number 5.

    Playing with wide midfielders (or attackers) in Brazil can be a difficult task, not to mention risky to managers who are always in danger of losing their jobs.

    Take Gremio as an example: they are rebuilding the team after their poor last year's Brasileiro showing. Caio Jr (manager) is playing his midfielders wide which is generating a lot of pressure from the press. They say that the midfield is "empty", or that why that player is "hiding" on the side of the pitch. Nonsense of course, but that's the culture there. internacional's Falcao tried to play with wide midfielders which costed him his job.

    Personally, I can't understand why Brazilian teams haven't been importing managers. Managers in Brazil are of limited supply and quality; the better ones are either well employed (Mano) and/or extremely expensive.

  • Comment number 6.

    #4 raises a good point about the "recycling" of coaches. The champion is probably Celso Roth, who in the last 15 years alone, has coached Grêmio (2 or 3 times), Inter (2 or 3 times), Vitória, Goiás, Santos, Palmeiras, Atlético Mineiro (twice), Flamengo, Botafogo, Coritiba and Vasco- and that despite winning only one major trophy, and in 2010.

    Meanwhile, a coach like Andrade, who won a Brazilian league in 2009 taking a team from the 14th position to 1st in 17 games and playing attractive football to boot, doesn't get any offers at all, even from smaller clubs, because he doesn't fit the "manager profile" clubs want- which means either "intellectual" like Parreira and Caio Jr. or "stern" like Felipão and Roth (few space for anyone in between), good at talking to the press (which is one of the main reasons why foreign coaches don't get hired), and white- which is at least to some is a factor.

  • Comment number 7.

    #5- Many, or most even, clubs play today in 4-2-3-1 in Brazil, just like the rest of the world, including the two wide attacking midfielders. What Falcão was trying to do was making the team play in a 4-4-2 English style, which is something Brazilian clubs very rarely do- and frankly, I'm not sure they should, since it's a system very few used outside England today. I haven't seen Gremio play this year, so I can't comment on that specific case.

  • Comment number 8.

    I love this man! I tell anyone that cares to listen hat if there wasnt a absurdly critical ref, a stupid keeper and possibly some over anxious players putting the boot in when they didnt have to, Chile would have knocked spain out in 2010. Its the only time i have seen spain on the back foot for most of the game and Xavi fail to dominate midfield, such was the pressure their defence was under.

  • Comment number 9.

    @4 excellent, insightful commentary.

    my personal take is that its not only brasil finding it difficult to cope with inventive new attacking ways. 'la U' pretty much demolished any south american team that came their way late last season with an eye-catching football display. as beilsa's philosophy catches on, i suspect teams will learn to adapt better in the higher-quality copa libertadores competition.

  • Comment number 10.

    brasil teams perhaps should not only be paying attention to such formations, but also venture trying them in domestic leagues to suit style. may help the national team also. it is evident that chile national team is / will be benefitting from clubs adopting a similar attacking approach. as is spain national team (from barca way of playing)

  • Comment number 11.

    Nice to see Paraguayan Roberto Ovelar get a mention, he's been a great 'Paraguay Abroad' in recent years in Peru.

    Tata Martino certainly is a Bielsa 'disciple' but interestingly when I interviewed new Paraguay coach Chiqui Arce he was reading Bielsa's book "I'm a lot like him" he told me, although "not soooo detallista" - although nobody is as detallista as Bielsa!

  • Comment number 12.

    When I read the headline of this piece, about "Diplomat Bielsa" I thought Tim was going to mention Marcelo Bielsa's older brother Rafael who once was Argentina's Foreign Minister!

    #11 is right, nobody is as obsessive and detail oriented as Marcelo Bielsa. One of the reasons his nickname is "El Loco." Bielsa though is unquestionably becoming an influential coach, not only through his own work and those who once worked under him but also from other coaches around the world who are copying his style. With Bielsa's emphasis on attacking play and high pressure, that can only be good for fans who want to see entertaining football.

    I think in almost every league there is some recycling of coaches but nowhere, not even Mexico, is there as much recycling as happens in Brazil. When was the last time a new coach was given a chance at a Serie A club in Brazil? Andrade is a good example of a coach who despite success is having trouble finding other work after being let go by Flamengo. Or is he still waiting for Flamengo to call him again?

    For all his faults Dunga at least brought some new ideas to Brazil's national team. Odd isn't it that no club has since been willing to give him a chance since he left the national team job?

    Soccer Futbol Forum:

  • Comment number 13.

    Not a bad blog Tim, I really want to see how La U do in the Libertadores. However, your idea that Brazilian clubs should dominate the Libertadores championship is debatable. Why is this? Technically, Argentinian teams have more success than Brazilian teams in the competition. This idea that Brazilian clubs should be doing better than their opponents because ther country is going through an economic boom is naive. Money does not bring quality and as I am sure you are aware of, Flamengo, arguably the biggest club in the country, is in a sticky situation with her finances. Brazil going through an economic boom is obviously not helping Flamengo with her apparently bad administration.

    @6-Mengo2008. Good analysis but really mate, come off it, as if being a white coach means more in Brazil than being a black coach. Think about it.

  • Comment number 14.

    Tim a good article as usual, just a couple of questions.

    Bielsa's way of dealing with the captaincy issue, sounds perfectly reasonable until we are told 'it's my way or the highway' for the team formation. Is he what we would call a players coach, a Mourinho type or does he create a gulf between himself and his players.

    We saw what happened in England when the money flooded in. Has Brasil seen any major differences in their game, for better or worse.

  • Comment number 15.

    #13- I'm not saying it's the only reason Andrade didn't even get a single offer from a Serie A club in over two years it's because he's black- he doesn't fit in the "intellectual" or "stern" mold of virtually every other major Brazilian coach, it's too quiet or laid back dealing with the press, and of course he's very identified with Flamengo, but I don't doubt it's a factor in some cases. I mean, how many black managers are there in Brazil major clubs, or even in smaller ones?

  • Comment number 16.

    I'm a huge fan of 3 at that back and I think it should be used more often in the Premier league. Partiularly for a home side trying to break down a weaker opponent who have parked the bus. I would really like to see Everton adapt something like a 3-4-3 formation at home because they have the players to do it and it would suit them really well at home. It gives teams an extra player in an attacking position but when in transition if the team works hard enough they will have a back 5 when defending.

  • Comment number 17.

    Bielsa hardly has an ideology set in stone. For all of this season he has played a back four with Athletic. Granted, the full backs (usually Iraola and Aurtenetxe) are encouraged to push on and the holding midfielder (Iturraspe) drops deep, but it is not nearly as fluent as the system Barcelona used last season with Busquets dropping between the centre backs.

    Pep Guardiola is well-known to be a huge supporter of Bielsa's coaching and his recent use of three at the back is quite likely a reflection of this, but how ironic that it is the Argentine that is now tending to copy the Spaniard by settling his team into a regualr 4-1-4-1 of sorts and utilising a ball-playing midfielder in the heart of the defence.

  • Comment number 18.

    I would really like to see Everton adapt something like a 3-4-3 formation at home because they have the players to do it and it would suit them really well at home. It gives teams an extra player in an attacking position but when in transition if the team works hard enough they will have a back 5 when defending.

    Write a letter to Moysey and suggest it, i was at wigan on saturday and all i got was frostbite, it was not a good game.

    On the formation itself, i know what your getting at but against stronger teams i think a team would pay the price. The other point is when players drop back they have a tendency not to move and having 5 at the back in England, it may well encourage more pressure from opponents. I also think if it was used in England where the pace around the whole pitch is faster, the work rate required of certain players would be very high but no one could accuse Everton of not having a high work rate.

    It is interesting though and I'd love to see Moysey try it in training and playing it, say pre season, to see if it was possible.

  • Comment number 19.

    13 - "Money does not bring quality" It goes a fair way, as I'm sure fans of Chelsea and man City would agree. A lot of the Brazilian clubs continue to have financial problems - the more that receive the more they spend - but they more spending power now, and the strength in depth of the squads bears this out.

    "Technically, Argentine clubs have more success in the competition than Brazilian." Wrong tense - 'used to have. Argentina's recent record is very patchy - 2000 is a good cut off point, because that's when the size of the tournament increased - since then (and you can drag it back a bit) only 2 Argentine clubs have reached the final - Boca and the Veron-inspired Estudiantes. Brazil, meanwhile, has furnished 9 of the last 14 finalists.

    But here's the fascinating thing. Brazil had been threatening to take over, providing half of the 1/4 finalists in some recent years. But then last year, at the very moment that the financial gap widened in their favour, Brazil's clubs had an awful time in international competition - I would argue for some of the tactical reasons mentioned above. This for me is one of the most fascinating aspects of this year's competition - how has Brazilian football responded to the disappointments of 2011.

  • Comment number 20.

    Ok, you did say that Andrade being black was not the only and was not the major issue behind him not being hired by a decent club for some years now but I doubt it was an issue at all. You asked how many major team or small team managers are black in Brazil, well, as a Brazilian, I believe I have to let you know, or remind you whatever be the case, that you are dealing with a country where the vast majority of the population does not have such a clear cut and defined definition of race. You must also remember that the definition of who is black or white is also debatable. Do you go for the US definition whereby having one drop of blood from black ancestry in you makes you black, no matter how white you may actually be? To answer your question, depending on your definition, here are some managers of clubs in Brazil that are black: Toninho Cerezo, Joel Santana, Cristovao Borges, Helio dos Anjos, Celso Roth, Tite, Givanildo Oliveira and Paulo Silas. Lets not forget one that is not in Brazil, Carlos Alberto Parreira. It is also important to note that a vast number of managers in Brazil are ex-players, therefore their skin colour cannot be an issue if they do not decide to try their hand at managing, because I am pretty sure people would not say no to the likes of Pele, Djalma Santos or Junior.

  • Comment number 21.

    Tim, it is true that Brazilian teams have more spending power now, this is evident in even a financially questionable Flamengo spending so much on Wagner Love amongst other expensive tranfsers by other clubs, but the vast majority of really promising young Brazilian talent is still going abroad, Ganso and Neymar are rare exceptions. The players that are in the country, like one of your previous blogs stated, are the old greats coming back from Europe or the ones that never left and/or left for not so much time and impact.

    Oh, that is true, my incorrect tense there. But you do have to remember, yes Brazilian clubs were dominating the tournament with the amount of teams going far into the Libertadores, even having two years with all Brazilian finals, but one year being off pattern does not constitute a horrible mess that is going to continue, it could simply be an off year. If I recall correctly, Cruzeiro, Fluminense and Internacional all played well in the stage they got knocked out in and it was simply bad defending and/or complacency that got them conceding the one goal that would see them out on aggregate. This is really not much of a horrible performance by them, more a clumsy one, like Internacional´s performance against Mazembe. This clumsiness cannot be seen as being linked to their supposed favourable financial situation as yet, if this pattern repeats itself, as we have yet to see, then there may well be a link. It is simply too early to say if it is simply an anomaly or a trend created by several reasons.

  • Comment number 22.

    #7 fair enough on the wide wingers/attackers, but my point was about wide midfielders, which is also something Tim talk a lot about: in Brazil the attacking fullbacks run the side of the pitch and the midfields "should" play in the centre.

    I actually think, and I think Tim brought it up before, that the English 2-lines could cause a lot of trouble against teams who depend on their attacking fullbacks (pretty much all Brazilian sides).

  • Comment number 23.

    Simply put Tim, Bielsa thinks "attack is the best form of defence", or "He who dares, wins", and I agree with him. Every dog has his day, but, over time, I believe, pound for pound, Bielsa is ahead of the game. This is why Ferguson has been successful, in my opinion. It's also stating the obvious, but I also think the longer you keep the ball, the better you get at keeping and making use of it. And vice versa, the longer you don't have the ball, the worse you become at retaining it. It's exponential.

  • Comment number 24.

    Interesting blog tim, as usual, although it was more difficult to find than previously, in this incredibly dense new BBC visual format.
    On the subject of tactical lessons learned, I am dismayed by the fact that, despite the learning opportunity in Tokyo and the evident need to take advantage of it, Santos don't seem to have changed their style at all this season. And given that they have lost Danilo, Jonathan and Alex Sandro (without adequate replacements), Adriano is a long-term injury, the CB pairing has become a liability and Elano and Borges have suffered precipitous loss of form, I fear that their centenary year is not looking very auspicious at the moment.

  • Comment number 25.

    Tim, excellent article as always. I have been trying for quite some time to find a documentary or biography in English to give me more detail on the personality and tactics of Marcelo Bielsa than I am able to find reading by reading online, is there anything you can reccomend? I am a keen student of the structure of teams and I would love to read more about one of the great tactical innovators of our time.

  • Comment number 26.

    Tim, thanks for another top notch article. Very refreshing to see somebody blogging about tactics and the intricacies of football. I have always thought that the idea of a back three is derided too easily in England and feel that more sides should impliment this system against the rigid 4411 many of the sides in the premiership use.

  • Comment number 27.

    Nice start in the Libertadores for one of last season's semifinalists, Velez. They won 3-0 away to Uruguay's Defensor Sporting. I am not sure they have enough to become champions but Velez have a pretty good team, a quarterfinal or even semifinal finish is possile for them. This week's best Libertadores game, on paper at least, Wednesday's matchup between Vasco and Nacional of Uruguay.

    Another "recycled" coach Joel Santana returns to Flamengo. He leaves Bahia who named Paulo Roberto Falcao as coach. At least Falcao, who spent most of his post playing career as a pundit, is a relatively different face in the coaching field. He has briefly coached both the national team and Internacional before so he is not a newcomer coach. Ironically Falcao's first game in charge at Bahia will be against his old teammate Toninho Cerezo who coaches cross town rival Vitoria!

  • Comment number 28.

    Interestingly the Brazilian League defies the romantic vision of the National team and has done for many years. Drab defensive football played in front of low crowds.

    I for one hope this year the Libertadores is won by an attack minded team.

    Only 28 comments Tim,your lowest number ever.
    Im sure this is down to the BBC website changes. I had to search for you by name to find this blog.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.