Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most respected football coaches around the world. He is considered an idol by many of the present greats such as Pep Guardiola himself. Bielsa who is considered a tactical mastermind is currently at the helm of Leeds United and have granted them a promotion to the Premier League after a very long time.
So, why is Marcelo Bielsa such a respected figure even though he doesn’t have much of a trophy cabinet to boast about? What are Bielsa’s tactics? Let's find out.
Read more: Pochettino's story of Marcelo Bielsa
The basic idea
The basic principle of Bielsa’s style of play is that when the opponents have the ball, his team’s players will apply relentless pressure and get back the ball as soon as possible. This press is also known as the “Bielsa press”.
With the ball in possession, Bielsa’s teams play with dynamism and always move forward in a very unconventional way.
“ A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph” said Marcelo Bielsa. The quote quite rightly justifies Bielsa’s strange 3-3-1-3 formation which has now become his trademark. The formation means that Bielsa opts to play with the same number of attackers and strikers. This comes with systematic planning and relentless implementation of coaching routines devised over many years.
Bielsa is an attack minded manager who makes his players to move forward in the pitch and constantly press the opposition very high up the pitch. Bielsa’s play demands a very high quality number 10 who has to link the midfield and the attack while providing some key defense splitting passes. The number 10 dictates the overall play in Bielsa’s teams.
The center backs are given the duty of blocking the opponents’ shots and giving the opponents very little space to work with.
This kind of organization is very hard to achieve and takes hundreds of hours of practice.
The Bielsa press
Bielsa demands high and aggressive pressing from his players, retrieving the ball quickly from the opponents and starting a counter-attack. The defenders are a key aspect to Bielsa’s style of play.
The defenders and the wing-backs donot stay still, they are made to make synchronized movements to quickly cover any gaps that were created. by the opposition. This is a very hard skill as the defenders must know the exact timing of when to go forward and when to hold back and defend.
The inverted wingbacks come inside in the midfield in the 3-3-1-3 formation and Bielsa often uses a central midfielder to shield the line of defenders and link the ball quickly in the attack.
Undoubtedly the most important players in Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 formation are the inverted wingbacks, the number 10 and the number 9.
The flexibility of play
The direct formation that counters Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 is a 4-2-3-1 formation when the inverted wingbacks are marking the opposition’s wingers. As Bielsa’s opposing wingbacks are playing inside the midfield the opposing wingers could capitalize on the space in the wide areas.
While attacking Bielsa’s teams build the play from the back with a series of short quick passes. The wingbacks come in the midfield and make a diamond with the defensive midfielder and the number 10. All these are done to provide width to the wingers who can then provide the cross in the box.
The main principle of Marcelo Bielsa while passing the ball is to take the ball to the penalty area as quickly as possible. The most direct way of achieving that is vertical passes. These passes are not meant to be long or high but are made to break through the defensive lines.
The play starts from the back and once it the opponents’ midfield line with the first pass and the second pass is intended to break the defensive line and deliver the ball into the box.
With every pass, players make crucial off the ball movements to create space and allow the ball to move forward.
Even with the tactical prowess that Marcelo Bielsa possesses, he’s had limited success on the pitch winning notably only with Newell’s, Argentina, and Velez. Bielsa has lost a Copa Libertadores final, a Copa del Rey final, and a Europa League final.
There are many theories towards the lack of success of Bielsa’s teams, the most popular of which is the “Bielsa Burnout”
Marcelo Bielsa’s style of play requires immense physical fitness and intense will to run and press constantly, which is why his teams have a tendency to suffer from fatigue in the final stages of the season.
Bielsa trains his players excessively with a routine known as the “murderball”. “Murderball” is a game of 11v11 players with no stops. The coach and the staff keep on waiting to give the ball quickly into play incase it goes out. The timing of this drill is not fixed and can vary from 5 minutes to 20 minutes of nonstop running.
Former Manchester United midfielder, Ander Herrera played for Bielsa in Athletic Bilbao. The team had a fairytale run in the Europa League and in the Copa del Rey reaching the finals of both the competitions but lost both of them.
"No-one was able to run as much as us, it was impossible," Herrera said in an Interview in 2018, reflecting on his time working with Bielsa. "But I can't lie to you, in the last months we couldn't even move. Our legs said 'stop'.
“We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals. We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically f*cked. We couldn't run any more.
"I am not blaming the manager, because he was amazing for us and we should be very thankful because of the beautiful football, but the last month we could not even move and that is the reality." Said Herrera on his interview.
During Bielsa’s first season with Leeds United, he suffered a total of 13 defeats, with 10 of those coming after December. This made Leeds united miss out on automatic promotion to the Premier League and eventually come short in the playoffs as well.
Bielsa is an architect of the game and a genius. With Leeds United finally coming to the Premier League, it might just be the time for “ El Loco” to bag some well deserved trophies.