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Marcelo Bielsa: the new king of the football philosopher.



The Argentine manager of Leeds United, Marcelo Bielsa, looked down, inscrutable as always, shuffled a bit and muttered, unleashing a characteristic characteristic circumlocution. Next to him, his interpreter, Salim Lamrani, a French academic, pronounced his translation with a bewildered smile. It could have been any interview before or after the game: Bielsa is Bielsa, whatever he is talking about. Here, however, he was talking about espionage charges.

Yes, he had sent a club employee with binoculars to look over a fence at the Derby County training camp. He took all the responsibility. He had been doing it throughout his career. He did not think it was illegal or immoral, but the discomfort of the Derby manager, Frank Lampard, was enough for him to feel that he had violated the spirit of fair play.

It was a Bielsa classic: considering all sides of the argument, being discursive, disarming and almost completely impossible to cite. The Football League is investigating and several experts are horrified, but it's hard not to see this as an overreaction.

Lampard in his indignation seemed to have forgotten that his great mentor in Chelsea, José Mourinho, did exactly the same. There is no regulation against such acts, and how could there be when the "spy" of Leeds was on public land and went ahead when asked?

Research is a natural part of the Bielsa method. He is not like the others. In Leeds, the current leaders of the Championship, he sees matches placed in a bucket up in his technical area because, according to him, it gives him a better angle than standing or sitting on the bench. He studies the opponents obsessively. Once asked how he planned to spend the Christmas holidays, Bielsa said he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching videos.

For almost three decades, Bielsa has been a pioneer in the modern way of "pressing". Their teams chase the ball with ferocity, with the objective of recovering it as high as possible from the field, while they rely on their aggression to protect themselves against a direct ball played behind their own defensive line.

It is not just about energy: the pressing is focused. That's why Bielsa has to study the opponents, learn the patterns of their game, discover how to interrupt them and discover where the vulnerabilities may be.

Marcelo Bielsa was born in Rosario, Argentina, in July 1955, the son of Rafael, a lawyer, and Lidia, a teacher. He was intense, motivated and intellectual, but he also wanted to be a footballer. Bielsa joined Newell Old Boys, one of the two local clubs, although, in general, it is not what his father supported. That marked him as different: his family used to be lawyers or politicians. His brother Rafael was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina under Néstor Kirchner, while his sister María Eugenia, architect, was vice governor of the province of Santa Fe.

Bielsa not only played football; he felt he had to learn it, so he persuaded his mother to subscribe to the sports magazine The graphic – And then index it for him. He may have rebelled against his education, but that gave him form.

Hard work, however, could not compensate for his lack of pace, and Bielsa left Newell at the age of 21, having played only four games.

He went around the lower leagues, studied agronomy and physical education, then returned to Newell to work on the development of young people. Deciding that the clubs lacked indoor players, he divided a map of Argentina into 70 sections and organized tests on each, driving more than 5,000 miles on his Fiat 147 to see them because he hates to fly.

Bielsa became manager of Newell Old Boys in 1990. He won two league titles with them and another with Vélez Sarsfield in 1998. He led Argentina to Olympic gold in 2004, but those are the only four competitions he has won. He effectively reinvented Chilean football when he was named national coach, laid the foundations of the country's recent successes and was popular in Bilbao and Marseille, but won nothing. And yet, his ideas have had a profound impact on the modern game.

Before Pep Guardiola became manager of Barcelona in 2008, he visited Bielsa and spent seven hours discussing his philosophy. The manager of Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino, admires the manager who signed him at 14 years of age while he was asleep (after having looked at his legs first).

However, there is a defect. Bielsa will not commit. There is a familiar pattern of Bielsa teams starting a season with fury, and then they are running out of steam. His many acolytes temper his approach; Bielsa will not do it.

That is why someone so revered is on the second English flight with Leeds. There he is loved, his eccentricities are celebrated.

Leeds have played exciting football this season and, after beating Derby 2-0, are four points clear at the top of the Championship. Previous records suggest that they may tire out in the second half of the season, but Bielsa will not change.

His idealism undermines him, but it is also what makes him great.


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