We like to think of Marcelo Bielsa as a romantic, a philanthropist, an artist. But the artistry of the football his teams play is not possible without a streak of aggression, whether through the frenzy with which they harass the opposition, the constant barrage of screams from the dugout, or the punishing physical demands Bielsa puts upon his players.

An image of Alex Sabella looking great in the red and white stripes of Estudiantes
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

In Argentina they credit Cesar Luis Menotti for the beauty. A chain-smoking bohemian, he managed the country to their first World Cup triumph in 1978, encouraging attractive, inventive play based upon his political philosophy of “left-wing football”. As for the beast, we have Carlos Bilardo to thank. The antithesis of Menotti, Bilardo was no less successful, also winning the World Cup with Argentina in 1986. His style of play, Bilardismo, promotes pragmatism, using meticulous tactics to nullify the opposition’s strengths, coupled with supreme fitness and ceaseless fight to overcome them. Diego Maradona scaling peaks few other footballers have reached always helps, too.

Bielsa is credited with combining the two prevailing schools of thought in Argentinian football to create a third approach. We’ve been enthralled by the virtuosity of the football Leeds have played under Bielsa, but watching seven players sprinting to stop a Wigan attack, or the team pouring forward trying to score a fourth at Aston Villa in stoppage time, can be equally thrilling.

The grit of Bilardismo is always going to be appreciated in Leeds. Perhaps Alex Sabella’s career at Elland Road would have been different had he played for Bilardo before he signed, rather than after he left Yorkshire to return home in 1982. After joining Estudiantes, Sabella was part of the midfield that won successive titles under Bilardo, the club’s first honours in over a decade.

Arguably the greatest example of the club defining Bilardismo came after Bilardo left Estudiantes to manage the national team in 1983. Estudiantes were hosting Brazilian side Gremio in La Plata in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. The format featured two groups of three teams, with the winner of each reaching the final. It was a tense time for an international football match. A year on from the Falklands War, British ships and planes had arrived at Rio Grande do Sul, the Brazil region where Gremio is based, much to the disgust of Argentina.

“We knew about the Falklands War,” Gremio’s Tarciso told ESPN. “We stayed in Buenos Aires, in a hotel further away, however we only felt the atmosphere on the field when we arrived at the stadium, everyone screaming and a hostile environment. We commented in the locker room, before entering the field, that we needed to play for Brazil, not just for Gremio and for Rio Grande do Sul. We had to be warriors.”

Determined not to be intimidated by the occasion or either team, Uruguayan referee Luis da Rosa booked Estudiantes attacker Marcelo Trobbiani before the game had even kicked off for encroaching the centre circle. Gremio’s Tita kept the atmosphere simmering by beckoning Trobbiani forwards to confront him again.

Trobbiani was one of two Estudiantes players sent off within a minute of each other in the first half. An initial free-kick was awarded in the forward’s favour, only for him to kick out at the offending defender. As both sides were surrounding the referee in the aftermath, Da Rosa was pushed in the back by an Estudiantes player and he promptly gave Jose Ponce a red card too, despite claims he had sent off the wrong player. Police were running onto the pitch to try to calm things down, joined by reporters and photographers trying to get the best angle. When Sabella finally took the free-kick Estudiantes had been awarded four minutes earlier, the ball was headed back across goal, where Sergio Gurrieri volleyed into the net, giving what were now nine men an unlikely lead.

Unsurprisingly, the lead did not last, Gremio scoring three times by the 64th minute. Estudiantes were further reduced to eight players when Julian Camino was sent off following another melee. Everyone was focusing on a linesman being bandaged up after being struck by an object thrown from the crowd, but whatever Camino was up to with the Gremio players in the other half of the pitch was enough for Da Rosa, and for the officials and photographers crowding the field. Undeterred by the carnage, Edgardo Geoffroy flew into a challenge twenty minutes after coming on as a substitute, and that meant Estudiantes were down to seven men, as well as two goals behind.

“It wasn’t a normal game. It was a field war,” Tarciso said. “We were treated like traitorous Brazilians. They weren’t aiming for football, they only had hatred against our team. It was all Argentina against Gremio. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Bilardo may have left the club, but the spirit of Bilardismo hadn’t. Sabella struggled to fit in at Leeds amid the perception he was a luxury player not suited to the rough and tumble of England. In La Plata, he could be seen everywhere, taking the ball from his crowded team-mates, twisting and turning to find space among the three or four Gremio players surrounding him every time he got possession. The game was now looking like the recent video of Kalvin Phillips playing football against 40 children.

Yet Estudiantes were still creating chances, making it 3-2 when Gurrieri somehow missed an open goal with a Gary Kelly-esque diving header, but trapped the ball between his two feet and forced it over the line just in time. With four minutes to go, Sabella was cornered by four Gremio defenders, keeping the ball until he was helped by a team-mate. One cross and a series of ricochets and deflections later, the seven men of Estudiantes were level, Miguel Russo the scorer.

“It’s impossible to explain,” Estudiantes defender Claudio Gugnali said years later. “I always talked to Sabella. ‘How did we do it? How were we positioned?’ It was a 2-2-2 and the goalkeeper. Sometimes people ask why there weren’t five more minutes of extra time. I think if there had been, Gremio would have won 7-3.”

Watching the game, I’m reminded of Bielsa’s attitude when Kalvin Phillips was sent off at Nottingham Forest in his first season in charge. Leeds were losing 1-0, but Bielsa responded by leaving Pontus Jansson on his own to deal with Forest’s strikers, urging the rest of his players to attack, attack, attack. Forest scored three goals in seven minutes to win the game, but only after Leeds’ ten men bludgeoned their way into a 2-1 lead, refusing to sit back and die a slow death. It wasn’t The Battle of La Plata, but Bilardo and Sabella would no doubt have approved. ◉

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