Greg Johnson rustles up five potential new dug-outs for the man behind “vertical football” to takeover this summer…
Marcelo Bielsa needs a new job. Although cited by Jonathan Wilson as the progenitor to football’s current obsession with ball retention and worshipped as a sort of tactical deity by his fans, he is currently unemployed after parting ways with Athletic Club of Bilbao.
Having masterminded Athletic to two finals last season, losing out as runners-up to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in the Europa League and Copa Del Rey respectively, this year the man they call El Loco hasn’t fared so well. With the loss of Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich and a distracted Fernando Llorente dropped from the starting line-up, the €40M received from the German champions did little to help plug the gaps left by such vital players due to the club’s Basque-only recruitment policy.
Now the eccentric former Argentina and Chile coach is left searching for a fresh project to work his idiosyncratic ways on, but where can he go?
Too head strong and unpredictable for the Real Madrid hot seat, and too alternative to be short-listed as Ancelotti’s successor at Paris Saint-Germain, he’s a manager whose methods are better suited to open-minded underdogs and sides just outside of the established big club orthodoxy.
Here are five jobs that may interest football’s tactical fundamentalist.
Bielsa’s last foray into international management produced one of the most interesting and attractive teams of the 2010 World Cup; Chile. Previously a nation without much in the way of a recognisable footballing identity, his work with the national team instilled a style of play that has since been nurtured and retained by 2011 Copa Sudamerica champions Universad de Chile, and his influence continues to grow in the domestic game.
Chile’s roster of exciting young stars also benefitted from his tutelage with his intense training methods turning potential into extremely well conditioned, tactically astute footballers able to put his complex and demanding ideas into action on the pitch. His exacting requirements, and the national team’s success, helped to raise the profiles of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, ultimately assisting their big money moves to Barcelona and Juventus.
Situated in the very centre of Europe – tucked between The Netherlands, Germany and France – Belgium certainly isn’t detached from the trending sophistications of the modern game, but the lowlands nation, like Chile before it, does perhaps lack a defining character at a time in which a so-called “golden generation” looks to ready to emerge onto the world stage. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Thibuat Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Alex Witsel and Christian Benteke already ranked among the brightest talents in Europe, the pressure is on Belgium coach Marc Wilmots to make the most of this youthful bounty.
Considering their steady progress of late it would be harsh to call for Wilmots’ dismissal, especially for the sake of installing the living thought experiment that is Marcelo Bielsa, but if the Argentinian is happy to rest and take some time out, a slump in performances may force the Belgian Football Association’s hand. Should such an opportunity arise, it would most certainly be interesting to watch Bielsa mould such promise into his latest attacking football prototype. In Mousa Dembele he would have an ideal midfield shuttle, with Jan Vertonghen or Thomas Vermaelen able to step up out of defence to initiate attacks from deep. Meanwhile, Kevin Mirallas could offer flank-switching width and penetration on the dribble much like Sanchez for Chile or Iker Munian at Athletic.
Whether or not Bielsa’s Belgium could realise the sort of potential that expectations have decided they possess, through his hard-line methods, is another matter. If his way were to click with Belgium however, Europe would gain an exhilarating new mini-power, able to worry any nation over 90 minutes.
Beyond the spurious claims of forums posts that once proclaimed Jack Rodwell to be the Javi Martinez of Merseyside, at first there seems to be little to connect The Toffees with the other clubs already on Bielsa’s CV.
Yet the hard working, team play focused squad left by David Moyes could be an attraction, along with the club’s modestly successful youth academy and close rivalry to Liverpool FC. They’re a club with a history too, coming in at fourth place on the list of all-time English top-flight sides for championships won and, long before the likes of Swansea and Arsenal staked claims to be guardians of the purists’ game, Everton were regarded as the doyens of England’s most watchable football, even if success didn’t always follow.
Lining up Everton in Bielsa’s favoured 3-3-1-3 formation, Nickica Jelavic would start up top in the Humberto Suazo role with Leon Osman in the hole as the team’s engache (stop sniggering at the back!). On the flanks, Mirallas would again feature along with Steven Pienaar. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman could take up the positions as shuttling midfielders either side of Fellaini, holding in the centre. Meanwhile, at the back, Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka would support Darron Gibson, redeployed deeper as a creative, ball-playing outlet the defensive lines. Though describing his vision to the Everton squad may be difficult without an ability to speak English, the relative success of Manuel Pochettino at Southampton with the help of a translator suggests this wouldn’t be as much of an issue as some pundits would like fans to believe.
Roberto Martinez with his 3-4-3 is all well and good, but could he pull off uncompromisingly attacking football when the results aren’t going his way, on a cold, wet and windy night in the Basque country? Marcelo Bielsa already has.
Including Shaktar in a list of supposed underdog teams and glamour shy sides seems disingenuous considering the club have just secured their fourth straight Ukrainian Premier League title, but with Donetsk’s oligarch owner Rinat Akhmetov becoming impatient with manager Mircea Lucescu’s lack of progress in Europe, radical action may soon see a change of command in the dug out.
Step forward Marcelo Bielsa, who would find plenty of inspiration within the playing staff at the Donbass Arena. Midfielder Fernandinho was born to play the shuttling Cariellos-with-a-twist midfield role espoused by the Argentinian. Henrikh Mkhitaryan would also be an excellent fit for the advanced playmaker role Bielsa insists on, with Luiz Adriano the likely candidate to the lead the line and the press up front while two of Douglas Costa, Taison, Alex Teixeira or Darijo Srna man the flanks.
Though Bielsa’s record in tournaments is far from immaculate, had his Bilbao team had more strength in depth last season they may well have won both of the finals they competed in. In the end exhaustion destroyed his side’s potency and left a hangover that tainted his second season the job. At Shaktar, Bielsa would have a technically gifted and well-resourced squad with a healthy transfer budget, free from the restrictions of Athletic Club’s cantera policy. Who knows what he could achieve if left to his own devices to build a team on the fringes of the European scene?
With Jorge Jesus under fire for failing to win any major honours for the third year in a row, Marcelo Bielsa may not have to leave the Iberian Peninsula to find work.
Benfica are another club that look to have the personnel suited to his methods, with the opportunistic Oscar Cardoza up front a viable stand-in for Humberto Suazo, whom Bielsa used to such great effect as Chile’s attacking spearhead.
Like Shaktar, the Lisbon also have good strength in depth and highly skilful squad. Versatile and talented players such as Nemanja Matic, Nico Gaitan and Rodrigo would offer a wealth of options to fill the various niches identified by the tactics of El Loco. In defence Ezequiel Garay and Maxi Pereira would have the ball skills and composure to play out from the back while Aimar would line up as the first choice playmaker in the hole.
To this day Benfica lay the blame for their European misfortunes on an extraordinary curse concocted by the legendary coach Bela Guttmann. Perhaps it might take something as equally bizarre and outrageous as Marcelo Bielsa to break the spell once and for all?
In a week in which England failed to overcome Ireland at home due to what Gary Lineker called football fit for the “dark ages”, and what Roy Hodgson claimed were tactics similar to Borussia Dortmund, it’d be amiss to not consider the mayhem of a Bielsa led England.
Where to start? It’s hard to see how any England team would cope with his heavily prescribed plans and hard, inflexible demands, let alone the clashes of egos between the notoriously erratic Bielsa and his pampered squad of Premier League stars.
Perhaps he’d wipe the slate clean and start again with a clean batch of youth prospects, building a high-energy and highly impressionable side in his own image, rendering Stuart Pearce irrelevant all in one fell swoop. Forget the ill feeling over foreign managers left by Sven and Fabio’s unhappy endings; Marcelo Bielsa may as well be from another planet let alone another country as far as the FA is concerned.
Regardless of the absurd brilliance of such an appointment, Roy Hodgson looks set to lead England for some time to come, yet maybe Bielsa can bide his time at one of the other four clubs listed above until the poisoned chalice is free for him to drink from.
In 1966 Alf Ramsay won the World Cup with his “wingless wonders”. A tactical renegade with a rogue vision on how the game should be played could be exactly what the English national team needs to achieve more unlikely success in the future.