As the championship season kicks off this coming weekend, a lot of attention will be paid to the fixture at Elland Road as Marcelo Bielsa gets his English footballing career underway opposite the recently relegated Stoke City.
Stoke, under the guidance of the newly appointed Gary Rowett, will certainly provide Bielsa with a stern test with both clubs vying for promotion back to the top flight.
Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, to a family of politicians, Bielsa knew from an early age that he did not have the quality needed to make it as a top footballer, so he instead turned his attention to coaching. Despite playing a full season as a centre-half for his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys, his career ultimately petered out, and he retired only two years later in 1980 at the age of 25.
Then, as an already qualified P.E teacher, he was handed the opportunity of coaching the youth sides at Newell’s, eventually being given control of the first team. It is during this period that he would coach Mauricio Pochettino, a man whom he has influenced so much.
Under his reign, which lasted from 1990 until 1992, Newell’s went on to win two Argentine first division titles, as well as finishing as runners up in the 1992 Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League.
Bielsa then moved to Mexico, where he endured a four year stay as coach of both Atlas (1992-1994) and Club América (1995-1996), although he left trophyless, before returning to his native country when Vélez Sarsfield requested his services during the 1997-1998 campaign.
He only remained in this post for the one season, although that was all it took to win another first division title, before a brief stint in Europe with Spanish side Espanyol, where he again coached Pochettino, until the Argentine national team came calling. It is here that he really made a name for himself and got people talking.
The chief talking point of his stint was the use of the 3-3-1-3 formation. Here, Bielsa deployed a ball playing centre-half, or libero, in the centre, with two stoppers either side.
A central midfielder would play just ahead with two wider midfielders either side to cover the space, while an ‘enganche’ would play behind a centre-forward and two creative wingers.
The ‘enganche’ was the most important position for Bielsa as he was tasked with linking the defence to the attack.
Although he was rarely used under his tutelage, it was Juan Román Riquelme that would go on to best define the ‘enganche’ role, often being labelled as “the last true number ten”.
Due to his tendencies not to play Riquelme, when Bielsa visited La Bombonera for a Boca Juniors game, Riquelme’s then current club, he was booed by the vast majority of the crowd, although he would later go on to praise the atmosphere and give the fans credit. He has the nickname ‘El Loco’ for a reason.
Despite a poor showing at the 2002 World Cup, Bielsa guided Argentina to the 2004 Copa América, losing narrowly on penalties to Brazil, while also claiming gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics.
He then took a break from management, before bringing his expertise to the Chile national team.
He is revered more in Chile than he is in his native country. Although he never won them a title, He masterminded their first win in a competitive match over Argentina in October 2008 and successfully guided them through the knockout stage at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, their first qualification since France ‘98.
More important, however, is the blueprint he laid out for his disciple Jorge Sampaoli. Upon his resignation in 2011, stern follower of his, and fellow Argentine, Jorge Sampaoli was appointed Chile boss a year later.
During his three year stint in charge he, thanks largely in part to the foundations Bielsa laid out, lead them to the 2015 Copa América, defeating, ironically, Argentina on penalties. This was Chile’s first ever major honour.
Following this, Bielsa returned to Spain to coach Basque club Athletic Bilbao. During his first season, he reached both the UEFA Europa League final and the Copa Del Rey final, losing both to Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, respectively.
One particular game caught the eye in his debut season with the Basques, however. On November 6th, 2011, Bilbao welcomed Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to the San Mamés in a game that is fondly remembered by Spanish football fans.
An outspoken admirer of Bielsa’s high pressing possession based football, Guardiola set his side up in much the same way as opposite number. The result? An enthralling game of end to end football, with both teams pressing high up the pitch from the first whistle and ending in a 2-2 draw.
Proceedings fell apart the following year though, as the sales of key players left his squad in disarray, and he was not offered a new deal following a 12th place league finish.
Since his Bilbao exit, he has endured some uneventful stints in both France and Italy, leaving a managerial job two days after being awarded it in the latter, and being sued 50 million euros by the club, but England provides a new challenge for the man who Guardiola referenced as “the best coach in the world”, and who has had a major influence in the careers of coaches such as Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.
One slightly discouraging aspect, though, is his intensity. His sides are well known for starting seasons strong, but fading out towards the end due to the work he demands of them. If they can not keep up for 36 or 38 game seasons, how will they fare for 46?
Since becoming Leeds coach, Bielsa has promised to return the club to the Premier League. Whether or not he keeps his promise, we will have to wait and see.