Marcelo Bielsa – Guardiola’s replacement?

by Ben Davey

The unthinkable has happened; Josep Guardiola has departed company with FC Barcelona. It’s May 2013 and Guardiola has just lifted the Champions League trophy for the third consecutive year and for the fourth time in five years. Pep has overtaken Bob Paisley to become the only coach to win the trophy four times and Barcelona has replicated the European dominance that Ajax and Bayern Munich enjoyed in the 1970’s.

His five seasons in management have taken a toll on Guardiola, dark rings have appeared under his eyes and his hair is visibly thinner. Guardiola may well take a year sabbatical to ponder his next step; perhaps he will move to London to take over at Chelsea where Roman Abramovich has just sacked another manager; or perhaps he will take over from Wenger at Arsenal, a club that require full scale changes similar to those needed at Barcelona in 2008.

The search for the next manager of Catalonia’s capital club begins. Replacing Guardiola is an impossible task, he represents the club having been part of it throughout his footballing career, he understands the club motto “mes que un club” (More than a club) like others cannot, he took over a club in crisis and gave it an identity.

This is all speculation of course, football, like politics and the rest of the world, has been dramatically altered by twenty-four hour news coverage. Fifteen months has always been a long time in football, but now, just as on pitch results have always been able to change so suddenly, public opinion off the pitch fuelled by Sky Sports News and Twitter can swerve from one way to another in days. It is impossible to predict who Barcelona will look to in fifteen months time; no one after all would have predicted they would have selected Guardiola in 2008, a man who had never managed a top flight club.

Ask Guardiola about his future and he is always very coy; there has however been increasing speculation over past months that Athletico Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa may be the man that can replace Pep. It has been acknowledged by Guardiola that he holds Bielsa in high regard. At the end of his playing career Guardiola visited Bielsa at his home on the outskirts of Rosario Argentina; it is reported that they spent eleven hours after a barbecue discussing football, staging positions and reviewing tactics.

Neither coach had come face to face until a frantic 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in November; Bielsa had been busy taking Chile to their first  World Cup Finals since 1998 where in South Africa they were along with Ghana one of the surprise sides of the tournament to watch. Upon taking the Athletico Bilbao job in the summer, Bielsa said of Guardiola “I am embarrassed about the size of his work” Guardiola reacted similarly in his post match comments after the sides met stating “They [Bilbao] deny you space and time so well, and they take you on, one on one, all over the pitch. They’re beasts. I have never played against a team so intense.” A draw was a fair result in a match that was played in torrential rain, both managers could be thankful they were not embarrassed in front of one that they regard so highly.

After being once burnt with the signing of Ibrahimovic from Seria A in 2009; last summer Guardiola was to be more cautious about the signing of another forward from the Italian Leagues. Determined not to make the same mistake twice it was Bielsa he turned to for advice of the temperament of Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez. Bielsa, having coached Sanchez for the Chilean national side was able to provide a reference and the signing went through.

Both managers are seen as tactical mavericks, Bielsa largely used a 3-3-1-3 formation at Chile not widely dissimilar to the 3-4-3 Guardiola has used at times at Barcelona. Both managers spend hours analysing and dissecting every detail of the game; Bielsa, in preparation for taking over at Bilbao last summer watched every match of theirs from the previous season twice. Both managers strive to play a pressing game and demand optimal fitness from their players.

Guardiola has commented publicly on the possibility of Bielsa taking over at Barcelona stating “I have no doubt he would be a success” and “You know the opinion I have about him – his ability is unquestionable.” Bielsa refuses to be drawn into speculation about the job, likely partly out of respect for his friend and partly out of respect to his current employers.

It is therefore fitting that these two sides will meet in the Copa Del Rey final in May. On Exactly what date or at what venue is ridiculously yet to be decided; but what can be stated for sure is that this is the match the “football purists” wanted to see. Athletico Bilbao are a team with their name in history having won the Spanish Cup twenty three times, the last of these coming in the double winning year of 1984. Along with Villareal’s decline meaning that a fourth place spot (and Champions League qualification) is open, a good showing against his pupil in the Copa Del Rey final and speculation linking Bielsa to the Barcelona job may no longer be just that.

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