“I have to make decisions,” said Marcelo Bielsa, in a press conference held the week before his Uruguay side played Chile in a World Cup qualifier, held before he had even announced who would or would not be in his squad. “And the decisions I make, they cannot be explained to everyone, one by one, with all the reasons … on Friday and Tuesday, all this will have no value, that’s why I honestly consider it a waste of time. Anything I am going to say about my decisions is what happens on Friday and Tuesday.”
Friday came, and Uruguay’s game with Chile came, and a 3-1 win came with as many hallmarks of Bielsa as Leeds United’s 3-1 win in his first game against Stoke City. ‘I can’t remember the last time we played with such quick one touch passing and attacking constantly throughout the game’, said one Uruguay fan on Reddit. ‘Great start to the campaign. I don’t remember the last time I had FUN watching us play’, said another.
Bielsa is right so far. Everything he could have said last week was said on the pitch on Friday. Except that, like after his debut match with Leeds – or, to be accurate, after about half an hour of it – the question people still want answered is about how he can get Uruguay playing like this so quickly. Especially at international level. How can such a complex coach, whose ideas and methods are always described as being difficult, achieve such big changes in style and effect so quickly?
Well, Bielsa did actually give an answer to this last week, although it got lost amid his arguments with the Uruguayan media about Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. His stance on all that, incidentally, is very Bielsa in its logical obstinance. To cut this argument to its essence, Bielsa said in his first press conference he would listen to what Cavani and Suarez had to say, and then as weeks went by, the media started calling him a liar because he hadn’t phoned either of them up to chat.
But Bielsa told the press last week that, as an international coach, he needs to know three things about a player. One, what he has done in the past. “The antecedents of Cavani and Suarez are immense.” So that’s covered. Two, what he is doing now. “I observe them in each game they participate in, and when I talk about the present, I do not only refer to the game, but to comments each footballer makes about himself.” So that is covered too. Third, is he available for selection. “Since I started working, Cavani expressed that his time in the team had not ended, he expressed it publicly, and Luis Suarez expressed publicly that his time in the team had not ended.” So Bielsa had an answer to that as well. “So it seemed to me that it was not necessary to talk (to them, because) they informed me (in the press) that their cycle in the team had not ended,” he said. “I received that information, and they become selectable players, selectable for their past, for their present and because they want to continue playing. From there, what I have to do is decide when I select them and when I do not select them. That is the explanation.”
There was more, about how much Suarez and Cavani have said in the press about their condition – in Suarez’s case, “about competing twice a week, (his) tolerance to travel, the incidence of his discomfort in the knee, all that linked to the high demand (of matches) that he described”; and from Cavani, about his transfer from Valencia to Boca Juniors, “as he had to suffer the absence of pre-season … all the data that has to do with changing clubs, (shows that) changing clubs always for any player is an adaptation that puts at risk, in the immediate, the health of his musculature.” There are other players, Bielsa said, he has to speak to regularly, “because they do not offer the amount of information (in the press) that other players do offer.” And while this sounds like an attack on Suarez and Cavani, I’m reading it more as a rebuke to the press, whose obsession – in Bielsa’s view – with creating arguments for clicks about these two players has made it unnecessary for him to speak to them. He can just read their words every day in the media – the same media that’s outraged because he won’t ring them up.
So that’s the Suarez, Cavani, clickbait journalism stuff caught up on. The interesting stuff at the press conference – the football bit that briefly interrupted all that – was about how Bielsa was going to transform Uruguay into a Bielsa team, given he has almost no time with the players, and such a particular style of play to teach them.
I think his answer is also relevant to how he did it in six weeks at Leeds:
The truth is that what I can bring to a player, I do not think it is something that the coaches that direct them (at their clubs) do not tell them.
You know that a coach and a footballer talk about players. And about the ensemble between the style that is intended for a team, and the contribution that each player makes because his nature coincides with the style of the team.
So that is a very fluid dialogue. I have the obligation that the team that I lead plays in a determined (i.e. particular) way.
It will be imagined that I do not ignore that giving style to a team, without being able to train it, without being able to prepare it, is a complicated task.
What can be done, if one cannot train a player, (is to) talk (to them) about players, talk about styles, and try to generate coincidences that the footballer recognises. Nothing that he should (be asked to) contribute to the team (should be) something that is not in his condition of doing (i.e. his capability), which is a job of the coach.
Demonstrate to a player that he knows how to do something in particular, and tell him that what we have just seen proves that he is capable of doing what I am describing, and show it is necessary to contribute to the team.
And that is how a style is formed (at international level) … they will not be able to be a team because they do not have … the necessary time to make the team sensible. That is to say, if to prepare a game there is a training day, well, it is very clear that individuality is above (i.e. comes before) the design and the collective articulation.
Bielsa’s way of speaking plus translation does not make this sound as easy as I think it is, so here’s my interpretation:
Because there isn’t time at international level to train a team to play together, Bielsa works with the players individually. He shows a player examples of what he wants them to do. He explains to them how that fits with how the team will play. And he shows them examples of why he thinks they can do those things. And that’s it.
Although he’s talking here about how he has to adapt his methods to the short time available with players at international level, it fits with explanations Bielsa gave at Leeds. He once famously, confusingly said that his coaching wasn’t making Pablo Hernandez a better player, Pablo was making him a better coach. The explanation was that Bielsa never tries to get players to do things they can’t do. His coaching is designed to get players to do things they can do, at a high level. In Pablo’s case, he had so much ability that Bielsa felt challenged to come up with strategies to help him play. For another example, he never claimed to have ‘made’ Kalvin Phillips. He simply showed Phillips examples of how he wanted him to play, explained how it would help the team, and showed him why he thought Phillips could do that.
It’s an intense process. But it’s a simple principle. Which is a good way of describing Bielsa.
This is why the stories of Bielsa’s video library are legendary. It’s the reason for the anecdotes about him showing his Newell’s Old Boys players footage of Jari Litmanen before he’d even left Finland (or had his trial with Leeds). It’s why Leeds and Chile could score exactly the same goal, years and continents apart:
El Leeds ahora y La Roja de antes…
El sello de Bielsa….!!! pic.twitter.com/h2JZ4SYowT
— Tienda de Deportes (@Tienda_Deportes) April 2, 2019
And it’s how the highlights of Bielsa’s first competitive game in charge of Uruguay can look so familiar:
Even down to the finishing. ⬢