Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most influential managers in the modern game. He has helped to shape the philosophy of many of the worlds top coaches, and is regularly praised by football journalists for his pioneering ideas.
It is easy to see why Bielsa receives such adoration within certain circles. His teams play football which is at times breath-taking in its sheer intensity.
Watching his Athletic Bilbao side dismantle Manchester United on their way to the Europa League final in 2012 was joyous, and in that same year they also reached the Copa del Rey final. His Chile team also impressed at the 2010 World Cup, reaching the first knockout round.
This season, his Marseille team were the early frontrunners in Ligue 1, and there was excited talk of upsetting the odds to finish above the country’s dominant team, Paris Saint-Germain.
What is notable about each of these Bielsa highlights is that none of them involve actually winning anything; indeed, both 2012 finals with Athletic Bilbao ended in 3-0 defeats, and Brazil knocked Chile out of the 2010 World Cup by the same score-line. These are emphatic losses, suggesting it is not merely bad luck that is keeping Bielsa away from the major prizes.
There is an immense intensity to Bielsa, both in terms of his personality and in his style of play. It is hard to imagine he is an easy man to work with, whilst the high-pressing, attacking philosophy he demands from his players is extremely taxing both on the body and the mind; this means that to play in one of his sides requires an enormous level of physical and mental stamina which seemingly cannot be sustained for an entire season.
During his last months in Bilbao this was apparent as his team won just two of their last nine league matches in 2012-13, burnt out by two years of Bielsa-ball. Bela Guttmann cited the third year as the point when teams tend to go into decline and grow too weary with their coach, but this process is accelerated by Bielsa’s extremism- in fact, he has never even managed to last three years at any club.
The problem is recognised by Bielsa himself in his famous statement that if footballers were robots, his teams would win and, it could be added, if a league season was half the length, they’d probably fare rather better as well.
Indeed, the trophies he has won came in Argentina, where the season is split into two shorter competitions, surely his greater success there is no coincidence. In 1990-91, his Newell’s Old Boys team won the Apertura – the first round of fixtures – but finished eighth in the Clausura; the following year, they finished a lowly 18th in the Apertura, yet won the Clausura.
Seemingly it took the team a year to recover from the exertion of winning the initial Apertura. This could be put down to mere inconsistency, but when placed alongside Bielsa’s time in Spain, a pattern starts to emerge.
This is not to deny Bielsa’s genius. Certainly he is a great coach, and his principles have influenced managers from Pep Guardiola to Diego Simeone. Yet those who have succeeded most are those who have modified his ideas to accommodate the imperfections of their players.
Bielsa himself seems too tied to his ideals, in spite of the glorious failure which they seem to almost inevitably lead to. Despite the obsessive attention to detail and almost scientific coaching methods of the man, there is a dogma at the heart of his managerial philosophy which will stop him being regarded as one of the true managerial greats.
At Marseille, the cracks are now starting to appear. Since the turn of the year, just two out of eight league fixtures have been won. Admittedly there have only been three losses during that run, but every point counts in such a tightly fought title race, and each point dropped could be crucial come the end of the season, especially given the fact they are fighting not just PSG but also Lyon for the crown.
Of course, it is hard to see Marseille being in this position in the first place without Bielsa, so this is no argument that Bielsa is a failure; rather that he is not a winner.
Football is a finer sport for the mad genius of Bielsa, and the excitement his sides provide, however briefly, gives a glimpse of a more perfect vision of the game.
Yet quite simply, it is difficult to imagine L’Hexagoal heading to the Stade Velodrome in May as Bielsa sides seem unable to manage nine months playing at such intensity. That is surely something worthy of consideration when debating the merits of victory versus beauty in football.