Marcelo Bielsa is the greatest loser in football history—if one defines winning only by trophy hauls. For a man who has inspired an entire generation of coaches, his 3 Argentinian titles and Olympic gold over a 25 year career make for a short resume. Despite his lonely trophy cabinet, Bielsa is still lauded by his peers and football romantics the globe over.
As both legend and myth, Bielsa has become the Henry Thoreau of football—out in his own tactical wilderness built from his fundamental ideals, refusing to compromise.
His teams, wooed by his philosophy, are a pleasure to behold. In sync, they’re intelligent football machines programmed with a combination of ruthless man-marking and cut-throat attacking patterns. They are easy to admire but taxing on the participants.
His disciples, affectionately named “Bielsaites,” have won more than he ever will. By taking Bielsa’s philosophy of high pressing and vertical attacks and tweaking the code, they edit the syntax with a hint of pragmatism. Pep’s Barcelona and Sampaoli’s Chile are the all conquering versions of tactical formulas Bielsa developed years ago.
However, one quickly learns with Bielsa. He never lets ‘em down gently. At the first sign of treason, he’s bashing skulls with management, walking out, and leaving withered teams in his wake.
It happened at Bilbao, it’s happened again at Marseille.
I’d become desperate for Bielsa to sculpt Marseille into champions. Would this Marseille team be Bielsa’s first European side not to sputter out?
After leading PSG most of the year, the season ended with a wretched 4th place finish. No Champions League. No runners up medal. Nada.
Bielsa’s inevitable resignation left me pondering – What if this was his last stand? What competitions missed out on a bespectacled football-obsessive trawling the sidelines? Which team could use a clear playing identity and knowledge that there’s 36 ways to communicate with a pass?
At first the list sprawled across my kitchen table: a mix between football manager, bucket list, plea for help, and Victorian love letter. In the end I whittled it down to three…three football institutions that could use a sprinkle of Bielsa after he abandons Lille.
The Champions League
World Cup be damned, the Champions League is now football’s most prestigious stage. Top coaches and players thrive in the competition. Crave it. The anthem, the flood lights, the chance to make history: it’s the country club for football’s elite.
A Bielsa team has yet to grace the tournament. And still, somehow this is where Bielsa belongs—amongst the greats.
Admittedly Bielsa’s brand of rapid vertical passing isn’t ideal for the measured approach most sides deploy, but that’s exactly why Bielsa needs to compete here: to challenge the assumed, to agitate the natural order.
Watching a Bielsa team at full gallop on a star-twinkled Tuesday night would be an experience to savor, to replay in your mind’s 8 millimeter reel. And if his team went beyond the group stages, well…
The F.A. Cup
Bielsa needs to win a trophy. Any trophy. Well, not any trophy. The Emirates Cup doesn’t count. Nor does anything that has “ToTo” in it. He needs a domestic cup. And what better cup to win than Britain’s premier knock-out tourney?
The team he leads there is irrelevant, but Leeds United or Nottingham Forest would be fine choices. Two fan bases lusting for past glories, each two legged affair en route to the final would be high-line opera.
The final itself—a celebration of English pomp—would have Bielsa looking like a nerd at lunch, frantically trying to spot a chair where he’d be left alone.
And if they won it? Scenes.
Winning the F.A. cup would challenge Bielsa’s allergic reaction to smiling. Can you imagine Bielsa, hair frazzled, champagne bubbles dripping off his chops, cheerleader-tossed in the air by his adoring players?
Yeah me neither.
The United States Men’s National Team
Too fantastic a notion? The stuff of screenplays? Sure. But when Bruce Arena’s time is up this is the hire you make – got it Sunil? Offers you can’t refuse slammed on the negotiating table.
A perfect match, the current US pool is brimming with fragmented potential: a motley crew of eager midfielders, naive defenders and sitter-missing strikers. They’re a collection of players willing to bust lungs for 90 minutes—the type of dedication Bielsa demands, but, are missing a collective aim.
Jurgen’s promises of a unified American playing identity never surfaced, while crafting a clear team structure is Bielsa’s purview. For all his neuroses, Bielsa took Chile, a team swollen with talent but haunted by ghosts of tournaments past, and drafted up a blueprint that each successor since has continued, improved upon and won trophies with.
U.S. Soccer and the powers that be, make it happen.
Where will Bielsa turn up after Lille? His journey has been as unpredictable as the man himself. He may in fact never coach in the Champions League, win the F.A. Cup or coach the United States Men’s National Team. But wherever he settles, you can be sure—regardless of destination or results—his legend will continue to grow.