SPIRO: Bielsa should be cherished

Ligue 1 Conforama > Spiro Blog

Lille have had a dreadful start under Marcelo Bielsa, but Matthew Spiro wants 'El Loco' to be given the time he needs to work his magic.

Watching Marcelo Bielsa during Lille's nerve-wracking penalty shootout win over Valenciennes, it was difficult not to feel sorry for the tormented Argentine. Perched on his haunches, head bowed, face crumpled, hands clasped together as though praying to a higher power, Bielsa couldn't even bear to look. It seemed like his life depended on the outcome of next 12-yard kick. If truth be told, the coach cut a rather pathetic figure. This, after all, was a Coupe de la Ligue last 16 tie against second tier opposition, not a World Cup final.

Yet for Bielsa it doesn't seem to make a difference. Losing any match is unthinkable. An unbearably painful notion. "I've rarely seen someone suffer like he does after a defeat," Lille president Gérard Lopez says in a superb documentary screened on BeIN Sports.


Former Newell's Old Boys youth-team coach Jorge Griffa, who is considered Bielsa's mentor, recalls the stormy days when 'El Loco' was in charge. "After certain defeats, I had to lock him in the toilets so that he could calm down," Griffa explains. "I had to be careful because we simply didn't know what he was capable of doing." The legend which claims Bielsa once confronted angry Newell's fans outside his home armed with a hand-grenade and threatening to use it remains unconfirmed. But there is no doubting his volatility.

"The slightest hitch can take him over the edge," points out Thomas Goubin, the author of 'El Loco Unchained', on the same programme. "He's like a time bomb and he can explode at any moment."

Dark days

The feeling in Lille is the time bomb will explode sooner rather than later. If Bielsa cuts such a tortured figure right now, it's because Les Dogues have not won since the opening day. A promising 3-0 triumph over Nantes was followed by five defeats and three draws that have left the 2011 champions second bottom. Hence the tension on Wednesday night. The hosts had laboured their way in to a 2-1 lead when, in added time, a below-strength Valenciennes won a penalty and levelled. Although Lille pulled through in the shootout, the performance hardly inspired confidence ahead of the visit of Bielsa's former club Marseille on Sunday.

Whispers are now being heard of unrest in the dressing room. Several players reportedly informed the coach they are unhappy with his methods and, in particular, with being played out of position. Bielsa could not have liked that. How dare anybody question 'El Loco'! The Lille project - which was hatched by Lopez earlier this year and depends greatly on Bielsa's demanding methods and high-tempo football paying off - is now in danger of imploding.

The plan

Lopez, it should be said, succeeded in laying impressive foundations by recruiting the ex-Barcelona chief executive Marc Ingla, former Monaco sporting director Luis Campos and of course Bielsa himself. Yet the experiment is extreme. Players over 25 have been discarded, and the team is now made up entirely of fast, fit, young talents - players who will adhere to Bielsa's demands and who will be capable of running, pressing and then running some more for 90 minutes.

Lille have been running but they have not been winning. At times like these - when confidence is low and fans are on your back - you need wise old heads. You need players who are capable of talking and leading on the pitch, players who can channel the youngsters' energy. Bielsa doesn't seem to believe that though; his decision to ask the 18-year-old midfielder Boubakary Soumaré, who had come on to make his senior debut minutes earlier, to take to Lille's decisive fifth penalty proves that age is no barrier to the former Argentina boss.


But, however questionable they may be, Bielsa's methods invariably work and for me he merits faith and patience. This is a man who is probably worshipped by more supporters than any other coach in world football. His critics point out that he hasn't won many trophies, but I'd counter that by pointing out firstly that he hasn't managed elite clubs, and secondly that football isn't just about trophies. It is also about generating emotion, both on the pitch and in the stands. And with Bielsa life will always be an emotional rollercoaster.

What Bielsa achieved with Marseille gets dismissed by many 'experts' in France these days. Unfairly in my view. OM were top of the league at Christmas, then faded away badly, shipping too many goals and looking exhausted and rudderless. But ask a Marseille fan what they think of Bielsa, and a nostalgic smile will break out. He spent only 15 months at the Vélodrome, but they were 15 thrilling months.


Personally, I don't think I have ever seen a coach impact a football team as radically as Marcelo Bielsa did in Marseille. They were an average side going nowhere when he arrived. The Vélodrome had become a depressing, soulless place. In the space of a few weeks, Bielsa transformed them in to a team of warriors who would blitz their opponents, press relentlessly and attack in waves.

At a time when top-level football is becoming increasingly homogenous, Bielsa is a breath of fresh air. Lille fans may not think that right now, but I am one person hoping the 62-year-old turns it around. Ligue 1 is a far richer and more entertaining place with Marcelo Bielsa in it. So let's cherish him while he's here. I know I will.


>> PREVIEW: Bielsa reunited with Marseille in key clash

>> COACH PROFILE: Marcelo Bielsa


>> More by Matthew Spiro

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