This week in Manager’s Corner we analyze the playing philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa, the manager at Leeds United. As a student of the game, I have always been fascinated by Bielsa’s playing philosophy as his tactical framework has inspired some of the world’s greatest managers. Take Pochettino, who Bielsa managed at different stages throughout the Argentinians playing career, who claimed that “we are a generation of coaches that were his disciples.”
Bielsa’s impact on the modern game
Marcelo Bielsa is one of the pioneers of modern soccer. This is a bizarre assertion when one looks deeper into Bielsa’s managerial career. Bielsa has never won a title in Europe and is remembered by the average soccer fan for Argentina’s dismal display at the 2002 World Cup. Plenty of managers have won more titles than Bielsa, but few have had a greater impact on the modern game.
Pep Guardiola, who is considered the best manager in the world, stated that “it doesn’t matter how many titles he has had in his career…for me, he is the best coach in the world.” Diego Simeone has already pledged his allegiance to the school of Bielsa by stating that “I have the influence of several coaches…Bielsa taught me the most.” Bielsa’s impact has even reached the MLS with Colorado Rapids’ head coach, Anthony Hudson, stating that he has “fallen in love” with how Bielsa works. The Argentinian has disciples throughout soccer.
Underpinning Bielsa’s footballing philosophy illustrates the dichotomy that modern-day managers face. Usually, managers implement systems that are possession based or ones that call for a direct style of play. Bielsa fused these two together.
possession with purpose
The hallmark of Bielsa’s play can be characterized by the phrase “possession with purpose.” Possession based systems call for sideways passes to entice the opposition to falsely press the ball-carrier. This false press opens spaces within the opposition which the team can then exploit.
Bielsa favors keeping possession of the ball, to create space, whilst playing with intensity. Keeping possession of the ball whilst playing at the pace of a counterattack is why the phrase “possession with purpose” is used to describe Bielsa’s playing philosophy.
These tendencies are visible within systems that have been inspired by Marcelo Bielsa. The foundations of Guardiola’s and Pochettino’s tactics are characterized by “possession with purpose.” Guardiola’s and Pochettino’s sides impose their will on the opposition by dominating the ball, but do so with great intensity. Of course, Guardiola and Pochettino have formulated their own philosophies. However, the impact of Bielsa is clear to see.
Bielsa utilizes a 3-3-1-3 formation which contains 3 centre-backs, a midfielder that acts as a screening central-defensive-midfielder, 2 wing-backs and a central-attacking-midfielder that operates within the space just behind the front three. The front three contains two wide players that stretch the backline to create space for the lead striker.
Of course, Bielsa is flexible in the way that he sets up his team, but he always aims to have one more centre-back than the opposition has strikers. By having one spare defender, Bielsa’s team can press high up the pitch as they always have the safety of one defender hanging back. This also allows Bielsa’s teams to attack with numbers as the extra centre-back acts as a comfort blanket for the team.
The defensive tactic of the team is characterized by pressing. By pressing with a high line, Bielsa restricts the ability that the opposition has in creating an attack. This is because the defensive high line reduces the space in which the opposition can play within.
The demands of Bielsa’s system means that his players require elite athleticism and exceptional technical abilities. Bielsa often plays a midfielder in the centre-back position as this allows his team to pass out from the back. Midfielders, usually, have greater passing capabilities than defenders so Bielsa plays a midfielder in the centre-back position as a means of enabling his possession-based system.
In attack, the two wingers of the front three play as wide as possible to stretch the defense of the opposition. This creates spaces for the wing-backs to exploit; which causes overloads down the opposition’s flanks. The central-attacking-midfielder plays in the middle space that is created by this overload. This space is created as the opposition lose their defensive shape by sending central players wide to try and negate the overload. The central-attacking-midfielder interacts with the other attacking elements within the side by passing in triangles. This aims to further disrupt the defensive shape of the opposition whilst utilizing the extra man that is created by the formation.
As Bielsa’s system is “possession with purpose”, there is an emphasis of moving the ball forward and transitioning up the pitch with blistering pace. As a result, recycling possession sideways for long periods of time, which is the hallmark of traditional possession based systems, is avoided. Attackers within the system are expected to be able to fulfil each other’s roles and can swap positions with one another. Here we can see how Total Football has inspired Bielsa’s playing philosophy.
Bielsa’s revolution at Leeds is well underway. For years, he has been widely respected within the world of soccer and his genius is now getting the mainstream appreciation that it deserves. Though he will not be remembered as the coach with the most titles, he will be remembered for the impact that he has had on the modern game.
There have been coaches that have helped change soccer and Marcelo Bielsa is on that small list. Rinus Michels gave us Total Football, Johan Cruyff gave us Tiki-Taka and Bielsa has joined those soccer legends by creating his “possession with purpose” system.
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