“In football there is no reason to be immobile”
Chile impressed in group H of the World Cup last summer with their offensive playing style against Spain, Switzerland and Honduras. The Argentine coach of Chile, Marcelo Bielsa, is very keen on entertaining the fans. From his players he demands good conditioning, motivation and responsibility. The similarities with Louis van Gaal are apparent.
In Augustus of 2009 the Chilean team travelled to Denmark for a friendly match against Morten Olsen's national squad. Denmark was flabbergasted; the two Chilean wingbacks dominated the flanks, their two wingers were positioned much wider than the Danish squad was used to, Chile had a constantly open number 10 and when in possession Bielsa's squad were always changing positions and had great movement off the ball.
On top of their great possession play the Chileans executed direct pressure on the Danes when they were in possession. The Danish squad had great difficulties with the visiting Chileans and lost 1-2, which could have easily been higher if it wasn't for the abundance of missed chances by Chile. Bielsa's reaction after the match was very van Gaal like: "I just saw a great match from my team. We played our own game, without any consideration for the opponent."
Marcela Bielsa coached the Argentinean national team from 1998 to 2004, which players like Gabriel Batistuta and Juan Sebastian Veron mark as the period in which Argentina played their best football.
“I am a big fan of the football Ajax played under Louis van Gaal,” saysBielsa. “When executed properly, it is winning football and great for the fans, which is what we should all aspire to accomplish." An Argentine who gives a non-Argentinean example of great football is very rare in the proud South American country. As a coach in Argentina you should be a fan of Carlos Bilardo, World Champion with Argentina and countless clubs, not a Dutchman like Louis van Gaal.
Due to his admiration for van Gaal, Bielsa was given the nickname El Loco (the crazy) in his home country.
Argentina often played, much like Ajax in 1995, beautiful swinging football under Bielsa. Unfortunately they failed to dominate when it mattered most, like during the Copa America in 1999 and 2004 and the 2002 World Cup. This was largely attributed to injuries, but regardless of the reasons, Bielsa was asked to leave. He ended his reign of the Argentinean squad with a gold medal during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Bielsa stopped working as a coach.
Fortunately for the game of football the offensive minded coach returned to professional football in 2007, where he took over as Chilean national team coach. The Chilean football federation convinced Bielsa to return to football and he easily guided Chile to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Messi's Argentina was even more prospect less than the Danish.
Bielsa proved that this football can still be played. "Ajax always played very flexible in opponent possession. The lines adapted to the opponent's playing style, but in possession the team plays its own game. Without consideration for the opponent and of course very offensive. We are trying to do the same.”
The coach continues: “The aspect of Ajax's playing style under van Gaal I enjoyed most was probably the fact that the team played the ball back about 37 times per match. This may not seem attractive and fans generally dislike this, but it means nothing less than creating a new attempt at a great attack.” Chile played the same way up to the World Cup, always with 3 defenders and a real number ten.
The coach copied the Ajax-system, both in possession and opponent possession. Bielsa, however, does not want to refer to it as mechanizing his team. “The player, like any person who deals with great pressure, has what I call a ´temor éscenico´, a fear of failure. And how can you neutralize that? By mechanizing. By letting the player do something he is used to doing, something he practiced repeatedly, allowing for a very slim margin of error.”
“The responsibility for the execution of something like this is for the coach. If the coach asks the players to do something, something they have been training on, but they are not yet able to execute it probably, then the changes of it going wrong in a match are present. A coach can only demand from a player to do something he is capable of doing.”
“This doesn't mean that if something is executed correctly during training that it is guaranteed to go well during matches. But who's fault is it then? No one really, sometimes things just go wrong. This is why I hate mechanization of a team, because it decreases the level of player responsibility. So I want a well organized team, but not a mechanized team. I want a team where certain positions are respected and communication is a norm.”
Bielsa demands order in his team, which means he wants players to take their responsibility. A big responsibility he demanded from the Chilean team was their conditioning. The average Chilean player is not known for enjoying runs. Bielsa was able to turn that around in his squad.
“I always tell my guys that our playing style is about movement. A player should always be moving. You can come up with a reasons for every player in every position and every circumstance, why he should be moving. In football there is no reason to be immobile.”
“I am a physical education teacher. I used to be a frustrated and average player. After a couple of matches at the Argentine premier league for Newell´s Old Boys I realized I would never be a top player. That is why I want to be a top coach. In order to accomplish this I decided I needed to specialize in physiology, which is the specialized area when it comes to movement.”
“This is where the secret of football sits. I never aspired to become a teacher, I just majored in this area to learn about movement and guiding players. I graduated after a five year study and left knowing everything I needed to know about training the human body, even medically.”
“I will never allow a player not to go for something. Players should fight for every ball during a match. De-organization or something going wrong during a match, those are acceptable mistakes, things like that just happen. But giving up or not fighting for a ball, that is unacceptable. Players who always fight for the team objective, deserve a spot in the squad.”
His education makes him even more like van Gaal, but the similarity is also very apparent when you watch him work during a training session. He passionately pays attention to every single details within the order of his team. Players who do not pay attention will not go unpunished. Arturo Vidal knows all about this. When the left wingback executed a weird move during a training session, Bielsa immediately stopped the sessions and told Vidal off: “You sir, play at Bayer Leverkusen and you believe you are something else, don't you!? But all you do is create chaos! If you wish to play for me, you will have to execute the basic tasks I demand from you. Not the tasks that you believe are necessary. We have enough so called heroes in football!" Vidal stood still for a few minutes, flabbergasted by what he was just told and was demoted to a spot on the bench for a while.
Bielsa on this incident: "Communication is the most important factor for me. I need to be able to trust my players on their word. Communication is also closely linked to hierarchy. I believe a coach should have a unique aspect: he must be able to make his players feel they are not equal to him. The coach is the boss.”
“What is a boss, or a leader? Someone who when he enters the dressing room the murmur turns to a pause of silence. When he speaks everyone else is quite and maybe most importantly someone who when he tells a joke everyone laughs, while nobody would laugh at the same joke if someone else told it.”
“Leadership is most visible when you lose, a good leader is able to deal with the stress that comes with a loss. The best time to observe this is during stressful situations. Whether I am a leader? When I am asked to speak at a guest lecture the title of my presentation is usually: leadership, norms and values.”
Bielsa was able to renew Chile with his approach. Like van Gaal he has the courage to select young talents. And with result! Never before were Chilean players sold to European top clubs for great amounts, as during the Bielsa era.
Bielsa doesn't like comparisons, but I have 1 more for you: his relationship with the media. It is laborious to say the least, although his good results have made Bielsa very popular in Chile. “A journalist's weapon is the written word. My weapon is the spoken word. When I use fifty sentences to explain an idea and the journalist only uses ten, I get frustrated. Although this may also have to do with the fact that I am a poor writer.”
“What I really hate is when journalists twist my words. I would rather not be known at all, then being known for the wrong me, because I am not represented or quoted correctly. This may be odd for a coach, but I care about what people think of me.”
“This is why coaching is very difficult for me; it is a difficult occupation. As a coach you are a public figure and I am constantly in the picture. I don't like it when people hate me or don't understand me, because I am not being portrait correctly. That is why I always hope that whatever is published in an interview is also what I actually said. I don't mind it if people attack me on what I think. But I don't like it when people attack me on something I don't think or believe at all." In order to make it easier on himself Bielsa rarely agrees to an interview.
Prior to the World Cup Simon Kuper predicted that Chile would not do very well during the tournament. The author of famous football analytical books (such as Soccernomics) stated: “Bielsa plays the same way van Gaal played in 1995, with three defenders. In South America this may work, but European football has evolved.
Bielsa's football is too predictable for a World Cup. Van Gaal opted for a different style and has played 4:4:2 for quite some time now. Switzerland with Hitzfeld will be able to easily prepare for their match against Chile and I think they will win.”
Contrary to Kupers expectations Bielsa opted for a different system of play against European opponents. Chile played a 1-4-2-3-1.
(Chile is vulnerable against an opponent who plays 1:4:4:2 with deep wingers and deep wingbacks or against a 1:4:2:3:1 with deep wingers and wingback. Bielsa was also very aware of this and changed his system of play for the World Cup to a system with a four players defensive line. If Bielsa would play with his system against a 1:4:2:3:1(and deep wingers) he would be faced with a 1v1 on every field position. The risk to pressure would then be too high, as it would allow for lots of space on his defensive end. In the South American qualification Chile's opponents would rarely play with deep wingers, but European coaches do).
Bielsa's new playing style during the World Cup was very similar to Bayern München. The main difference was the fact that Bielsa opted for a right-footed right winger, Alexis Sanchez, and a left-footed left winger, Mark Gonzalez or Jean Beausejour.
Because of this there was a much lesser threat to come inside then the threat of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry on respectively Bayern's right and left wing. Bielsa's wingbacks also played a lot deeper than Bayern's. Another notable aspect of Chile's playing style was the fact that they continuously changed their system.
“I OPTED FOR WHAT I BELIEVED WAS THE BEST WAY TO PLAY AGAINST OUR OPPONENTS DURING THE WORLD CUP. THAT MEANT I HAD TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM. WE TRIED TO DICTATE THE MATCHES' PLAYING STYLE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, WHICH WE WERE ABLE TO EXECUTE QUITE WELL, EVEN AGAINST SPAIN FOR THE MAJORITY OF THE MATCH. I AM VERY PROUD OF THAT. WE JUST FAILED TO SCORE MORE AGAINST SWITZERLAND AND HONDURAS. LOOKING BACK THAT COST US THE FIRST PLACE IN THE GROUP.”