Who Is Marcelo Bielsa?
by Nyle Farooqui
(Follow Nyle on Twitter @FarooquiNyle and on Instagram @nylefarooqui & his @theultimateatlantaunitedfan)
Marcelo Bielsa is regarded as one of the best managers in the world. The madman Argentine is currently the manager of Premier League side Leeds United. In 1980, Bielsa decided to become a football manager after his retirement as a player. His first opportunity as a manager was with the youth divisions of his hometown club, Newell’s Old Boys. In 1990, he was appointed to the first team as he would win the 1990 Torneo Apertura and the 1990-91 Torneo Integracion by defeating Boca Juniors on penalty kicks. Bielsa would lead Newell’s to the 1992 Copa Libertadores Final, only to be eliminated on penalties by São Paulo.
He would then go on to go to Mexico to be the manager of Atlas. At the time, Atlas was a club that thought highly of Bielsa. An escort from the club flew to Rosario to speak with Bielsa and noticed his fiery ego. He was intense, passionate, and really focused when speaking with Atlas. Atlas proposed a role to Bielsa that would be different compared to what he did at Newell’s.
Bielsa would not be a manager but instead a football director, he would be responsible for developing the Atlas’s youth system, putting foundations in place for the future, and working with young players. It was a bigger role for Bielsa but his personality made him a fit for the role. In Atlas, Bielsa was hoping to grow with the way he works as a person and how he individually stands out. However, Bielsa had to be sure.
He would go to Guadalajara to do what he saw as an evaluation. Bielsa would spend a month watching youth matches and thinking about his future. After watching a match where 16 year olds competed, Bielsa made a decision and saw the players on display as capable of reaching the international level. He was not going to make a decision quickly, he was going to take time to analyze as he would see this project at Atlas as a project with potential and longevity.
Working conditions in Mexico were seen as better compared to those in Argentina, but the league and national team was not as strong so this was something Bielsa hoped to resolve. Bielsa’s tiring search for talent dominated the persistent work he did at Newell’s. “I designed a structure to observe 20,000 players a year,” Bielsa said in an interview with a Mexican news outlet in 1997. He also added that Atlas had a relay in 2,500 cities and that there were tournaments that occurred, 15 players were selected from each tournament.
The work that Bielsa did would have an impact going forward. Atlas were seen to have the best scouting and training department in Mexico until 2010, and the national team benefited from the players. In Mexico’s match against Argentina in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, eight of the eleven players such as Rafael Márquez and record goalscorer Jared Borgetti were discovered or trained by Bielsa when he was the director at Atlas. Bielsa had an immense impact. He proved to be a great director, however Atlas would want him to become the head coach.
Bielsa was unsure at first as he planned on continuing to be the director to escape the pressure of being a coach at Newell’s. He wanted to take time to reflect himself when moving to Guadalajara and he achieved that in a sense as he would come to understand that football is not life. Football was not life but Bielsa was dedicated to his role at Atlas as soon as he arrived. He did extensive prepping as he learned about the country’s culture in hopes to understand how Mexico approached things like he did with Argentina.
Bielsa would later on be convinced and would manage the first team for the 1993/94 season, Atlas believed that he would bring what he brought as a sporting director to this coaching role which was his innovative and progressive approach. The team Bielsa would manage would be a team that was full of inexperience and featured quite a lot of youth, partly thanks to his scouting network. Bielsa would give debuts to players that would establish themselves. A defensive midfielder Pavel Pardo would be given a debut by Bielsa and would later win the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007, also making 148 appearances for Mexico.
Oswaldo Sánchez who would later hold a record in terms of making appearances and prolific goalscorer Borgetti were also handed debuts by Bielsa. Borgetti would have high praise for his manager; “Bielsa was a warlord. When I arrived in Guadalajara, I knew nothing about football. He taught me a lot about how to see the game, analyse it.
He was very demanding, a perfectionist, but he wants his players to learn football so they know and see what will happen in a game. He did not just teach me to play, it was deeper than that.” Borgetti was Atlas’s top scorer, scoring 13 goals that season. Atlas would end up being runners up in the Primera División group.
This meant that they qualified for the playoffs, something Atlas had not achieved for 12 years. Bielsa would contribute heavily to this because he made this possible for Atlas with his philosophy of a manager as his ideas appeared to be something his players favored. Bielsa’s Atlas side was formed in the youth system heavily so this gave the players time to get used to how Bielsa approaches the game. Players like midfielder Ricardo Lunari and defender Eduardo Berrizo would join Atlas from Bielsa’s former club, Newell’s.
This allowed Atlas to perform beyond their expectations, they would make it to the quarter-final stage of the playoffs but only to be beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Santos Laguna. Bielsa wanted to have a lot of say in training sessions and tended to pay very close attention in training sessions. He valued them as it allowed for him to pay attention to details closely. He would not be able to focus on anything else but his side as he would return from training and analyze videos late at night and plan on things he wanted to work on in the future. Even though Bielsa had transformative success as the coach of Atlas, he would go back to being a director after the summer break, but he was again convinced to be the coach.
Things did not go to plan this time, however. Bielsa was worried about the team lacking the level needed to compete, results began to get bad. Bielsa would not take this lightly as he would become stressed and anxious as he seemed to be exhausted by the way he was dealing with things. His team began to show signs of physical exhaustion which is something that would become the case throughout his career. Bielsa would resign in just 23 days of the new season, similar to his experience at Newell’s in the later stages. He was disappointed with what occurred; “When one commits oneself overly affectionately, as I did at Newell’s, there are more disappointments than satisfactions''.
The disappointment was clear with what transpired at Atlas, however he would briefly make a return in 1996 as the director. After resigning as the manager of Atlas, Bielsa would pursue playing golf. He would stay in Mexico after leaving Atlas. The time Bielsa had on his hands would allow him to explore the culture of the country more, he would love the local cuisine. “I have never seen anyone who eats as much as Marcelo Bielsa. He loved the Mexican antojitos, and the tacos they sold on street corners. When he went to restauarants, he asked for all the dishes on the menu to taste them all”, Bielsa’s neighbour Urrea said.
Bielsa who was a free agent at the time would be approached by Mexican giant Club America before the 1995/96 season. Before he arrived, he wanted to analyze the proposal by asking for every game Club America played in the last two seasons so he can see what the players are like and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Bielsa would have a more talented team at his disposal then he did at Atlas with players such as François Omam-Biyak, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, and Luis Garcia at Club America. Las Aguilas had a strong start to the season as they were at the top with half of the season completed and seemed to adapt well to Bielsa’s attacking and pressing philosophy.
However, things slipped in the remainder of the season. The club was owned by TV executives and the president wanted Bielsa to be responsible for some media duties. Bielsa was not happy about this and was vocal about his concerns. After Club America would lose in 3 consecutive games, Bielsa would be sacked in what was the end of a short and frustrating time with Club America.
His experience with America would result in him not wanting to do any one-on-one interviews. Bielsa would deal with the media only in press conferences. Bielsa would make a return to Atlas in the position he had worked in previously, again working in a resilient manner to recruit and develop young players for the future of Atlas. He left in March 1997 to return to Argentina with Velez Sarsfield and would go on to win the 1998 Clausura with them.
Bielsa is no longer with Atlas but he is still an important figure at the club where he was able to make himself a better manager and develop young players. Two years after Bielsa left Atlas, the club reached the Primera Division final. This was something the club had never achieved before and it is thanks to the transformative work Bielsa did at Atlas. Bielsa’s experience in Mexico as a manager was disappointing in results, but vital in legacy.
It was not as exciting as his time in Rosario. Bielsa reflected on his experience in a way that shows his intelligence; “The moments in life in which I have grown have to do with failure. Success is deforming, relaxing, deceiving, makes us worse. Failure is the opposite; it is formative, it makes us solid. It brings us closer to our convictions.” Bielsa did not fail during his time in Mexico, but it made him strengthen his beliefs. Bielsa’s experience of 5 years in Mexico is something that is not discussed enough, but it should be as it really helped him establish himself as one of the best managers in the world.
(photo credit @carlosdiazib)