Bielsa’s Boys from Bilbao; A closer look at the Argentine making a huge impact in the Basque country
The philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa
Football, the world’s beautiful game, loved by millions and played professionally by a relatively gifted few, is a sport of many characters, personalities, views and ideas. This is immediately seen with the range of methods managers employ when building teams, deploying tactics and constructing formations. For coaches to succeed, they need to exhibit a number of traits: discipline, man management, foresight, patience and shrewdness. A quality often overlooked is the ability to develop and implement a footballing philosophy.
Whether defensive or attacking, expansive or possession based, the philosophy of a manager and his team is crucial to the way a side acquits itself on the football pitch. Over the years, a selection of managers and teams have been noted for their philosophies – there’s the tiki taka of Barcelona, pioneered by Johan Cruyff, re-implemented by Frank Rijkaard and expanded upon by Pep Guardiola.
There’s the total football of the Oranje, the Wengerball of Arsenal and the catenaccio of the great Serie A sides. However, as the years have gone by, a debate has raged, questioning the legitimacy of a footballing philosophy, posing the question: does a coach and/or his team need to have a specific style of play? If tonight’s game at San Mames is to be viewed as a response, then the answer would have to be a resounding “Yes.”
Who would deny the influence of Marcelo Bielsa on the improving boys of Bilbao? Who would question the quality of Athletic’s technical play? Who would bemoan the aesthetics of quick fire, quicksilver counterattacks and silky, intelligent interplay? Perhaps the question that should really be asked is – how has Bielsa produced such a progressive side of aggressive attacking quality after taking the helm not too long ago?
Of course, there are kinks to be ironed out. Yes, the recipe isn’t quite perfected, and some comparatively low quality parts undermine the successful running of the machine. However, this Bilbao side is one to pore over and delight at.
There have been moments this season when Athletic have been criticised in some quarters for playing “English” football; an unkind euphemism for boring long balls and well constructed set pieces. If this really is the case, one wonders, why can’t all Premier League sides play like Martinez and co? In truth, English football is a lot more technical and attacking than given credit, particularly on the continent, and Bielsa’s boys certainly play the game beautifully. The Argentine coach’s role in the production of that beauty must not be underestimated.
Those who recall the exploits of the Chilean national side in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup, will remember the daring, attack oriented approach of La Roja. The Chileans excelled at the tournament, qualifying from a tough group, and were widely praised for lighting up a competition criticised as uninteresting. As with Bilbao, Bielsa imposed his attacking philosophies on the Chilean side, extolling a progressive style of play built on a bedrock of high pressure pressing, storming counter attacks, and quick football.
Throughout his managerial career, Bielsa has opted for the use of marauding fullbacks. He has repeated this almost to the point of employing a two or three centre back formation in which his sides are then given the advantage of having four attackers as opposed to one or two. At times, this might even lead to a 2-4-4 formation, filled with players of interchangeable positions. The result is entertaining and often successful, as evinced by the upturn of Bilbao’s fortunes.
Many have questioned Bielsa’s decision making, throwing up doubts about his tactical acumen, and even his sanity. It would be insane, however, for anyone to question the Argentine’s philosophy after watching his young side defeat Sir Alex Ferguson’s far more experienced men. Bielsa’s case attests for the importance of having a managerial philosophy and sticking to your guns. You might just out-shoot a side as good as Manchester United.