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The Square Ball Week: Love Burning Out


Marcelo Bielsa started the same eleven players in three games in six days, and will start them again at Bristol City. Using the same players against West Bromwich Albion after the midweek defeat at QPR felt like a provocation. He was asked by the press after the QPR game about “burnout”; he was photographed, slumping apparently exhausted, in one of Loftus Road’s corridors. Despite Bielsa’s bored dismissal of the thesis — “Your question does not have any basis” — the journalist wrote about burnout anyway; despite the heavy load on his players, Bielsa used them all again. Demolishing West Brom on Friday night, the players scoring as fresh a goal in the last sixteen seconds of the game as they did in the first, proved Bielsa’s gambit.

Now that Bielsa can name the same eleven for a fourth match, the selection against West Brom feels less like a response to the burnout stories in the media last week, and more like maintenance of a standard. In his press conference this week, Bielsa declined to talk too much about being able to choose the same team without new injury worries; “The invitation to reflect on positive things is an invitation to make these positive things stop being positive,” he said. He didn’t want to tempt fate.

Framing a consistent eleven as a positive, after almost a season of selecting players from fitness rather than form, hints at a principle; if Bielsa never had to change his starting eleven due to injuries or suspensions, he wouldn’t. He likes a small squad and he likes a clearly defined hierarchy: the first team, the reserves, replacements from the U23s. It takes a lot for him to drop a player, and it takes a lot for a player to keep delivering over 46 games. Ezgjan Alioski and Mateusz Klich might do that this season — if they don’t burn out first.

24 players have started every game in the Championship this season; seven of them are goalkeepers. Eight play for either Birmingham or Rotherham, two clubs with severely restricted resources. Neither Norwich City or Sheffield United have an ever-present outfield player, and that’s aligned with accepted wisdom for teams chasing promotion at the top of one of world football’s most gruelling leagues. They’re also, presumably, not keeping office hours at the training ground or taking part in eleven-a-side practise matches Leeds United’s players call ‘murder ball’. They’re not, in other words, being run into the ground by a maniac with a track record of burning players out by a season’s end.

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As others have pointed out, that track record doesn’t necessarily tell the tape’s true tale. Rather than burn out, Bielsa’s teams tend to either fade away from a leading position, like Marseille, or lose in one-off finals, like Athletic Bilbao. Tiredness would have been a factor, but Salim Lamrani has catalogued the refereeing decisions that cost his beloved Marseille more points than any burnout Bielsa caused, while finals are finals, contests with their own conditions. Don Revie used to structure player bonuses at Leeds based on reaching finals, not winning them, because one was a long-term manageable achievement, the other was ninety minutes of unpredictable sport.

What has not been pointed out as much is that, while football media has been obsessing over form guides from the closing months of Bielsa seasons, the meaning of ‘burnout’ has changed. The discussion around Bielsa is still hitched to Kurt Cobain, quoting Neil Young that “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away” when he decided to shoot himself, definitively, out of being. But as Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her recent feature for Buzzfeed, ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’, ‘burning out’ is no longer an ending. For people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s — encompassing Pablo Hernandez, born 1985, to Jack Clarke, born 2000 — burnout is, says Petersen, “not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives … Burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; it’s our permanent residence.”

Petersen’s article traces the history of changes in work and society that have changed our understanding of jobs and leisure, and increased the input an average person has to deal with, but not the capacity for dealing with them. As an old millennial, I can remember a time before email when letters would land on my doormat once a day. In 2019 my doormat has been replaced by a phone that received 48 separate messages during the morning I spent writing this, a new one arriving before I’ve had chance to do anything about the last one. I don’t even have a high-stress job to explain such a barrage that, to many people, probably sounds low — ‘Only 48?!’. The pings for attention have simply become more insistent for everybody as work/life barriers collapse and social media raises lifestyle expectations at the same time as the economy makes an Instagrammable life harder to attain. Nobody feels any sense of accomplishment when one message replied to, one task completed, is replaced by the arrival of three more; what they feel instead is burnout, but it isn’t the end. Petersen quotes a psychoanalyst, Josh Cohen, on the difference between exhaustion — beyond which a person can go no further — and burnout: “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.”

Petersen does not offer a solution to any of this, because short of restructuring society, there isn’t one. Nobody has come up with a method that satisfactorily combines unplugging to a cabin in the woods with keeping a job. ‘Mindfulness’ apps add another notification you don’t have time for; you have to work more hours to pay for the yoga classes that promise to make the hours of work easier. Rather than trying to hack our lives to ‘cure’ burnout, Petersen writes of burnout as “a reality I can acknowledge, a paradigm through which I can understand my actions … a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimising it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”

As it usually is, football is another paradigm that explains the world. Unlike individual sport, that limits careers by age or physical condition, or team sports like rugby union that nobody really cares about, football has combined an infinite inherent structure with hyperactive media since the Football League was founded in 1888 and accelerated the game’s transformation from a winter pastime to a year-round pursuit of ceaseless achievement. A player who wins the Premier League can become a failure within a month when their team is knocked out of the World Cup. A manager who propels a team to promotion in spring can be fired the following winter if the club looks likely to return to its previous normal level. A player who finishes one season as top scorer can be written off as finished for not scoring in four games. What was the core of Howard Wilkinson’s speech to the city when Leeds won the First Division in 1992, for the first time in eighteen years? “It looks as though we’ll have to go and try and win it again.” The perpetually shifting horizons of accomplishment that make burnout the permanent millennial condition have been inherent in football for decades. It’s not Bielsa’s teams that are burned out; it’s the game.

Bielsa does, of course, see this more clearly than the observers haranguing him about burnout. A few weeks ago Guillem Balague asked Bielsa how he balances his enjoyment of the processes of coaching with the need to deliver success.

“Nowadays, nobody has patience and the positive things you’ve done before are forgotten immediately. People are always expecting positive things,” said Bielsa, citing an article he’d read about Real Madrid, regarded as failures for only winning four out of five Champions Leagues, not five out of six; about television producers not receiving the gratitude of the viewing public when they make a popular show, but instead hearing demands for another season.

“Not making the link between the final result and the path you choose is the only way to survive in this profession,” said Bielsa. Or, as Anne Helen Petersen put it, by accepting that the conditions that create burnout are out of our control, she can feel accomplishment by trying to, “be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good.” Living, not striving.

Rather than working his players into oblivion, Bielsa provides the structures that make millennial burnout easier for them to handle. His training focuses on repetition of in-game situations until the actions that solve problems become natural, enabling his players to function while feeling the same burnout as any modern footballer. The eleven that played Bolton, QPR and West Brom were able to score after the 270th minute of their working week because Bielsa had replaced the necessity to think with the muscular responses that would carry out his best ideas about the game. Howard Wilkinson had this idea too; he drilled his players in the simple parts of the game until they could perform them without thinking, so they could think on a higher plane when the situation demanded it. They had rehearsed 90 per cent of the situations they would face in a match, so they could give the remaining 10 per cent 100 per cent of their thought.

In 1992’s title run-in, Wilkinson told the players, they just had to trust their swing. They knew what to do; he’d taught them and they’d learned. They just had to keep practising and keep swinging. There was nothing new to take in; Wilkinson’s task at the end of the season was to remind the players how to play to the level they had at the start of the season, within their own proven capabilities. He was a great believer that if you performed as you could, you would get the rewards you deserved. “I told them that provided they performed to their own standards to the end of the season they could not fail.”

There’s some fatalism in both Wilkinson’s and Bielsa’s approach. Had Leeds performed to their own standards in 1992 and finished second, Wilkinson would have accepted it; he never asked more of his players than what they were capable of, so if that was their maximum, that was that. Football is rarely satisfied with that sort of acceptance, but Bielsa is.

“I can’t say I’m only interested in winning,” he said this week. “I’m interested in winning because this is the main thing, but I’m also interested in the way we build the victory.”

He went on:

“Human relationships … which mean to love and being loved, and to respect others and being respected [are] more important than winning and success. When you work with groups that were successful, we talk mainly about the human part of it, we don’t remember the games won, but we remember the behaviours, the anecdotes. We remember those we learned to admire, how to admire. Or others we didn’t admire that much.”

While recognising the importance of success to the fans — “We do this job for many reasons and the most important thing is the happiness we can bring to those who have more difficulties to find happiness in all the moments that are not football” — Bielsa recognises that success does not provide any guarantees. His club coaching tenures are short because success is momentary and soon forgotten; long success leads to failure, as Real Madrid are discovering this week. But what Bielsa builds in his short time at a club lasts for years after him, regardless of trophies, because he leaves behind behaviours, anecdotes and memories we admire; poetry, really, if we accept William Wordsworth’s definition of it as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” originating in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In other words, five years from now when we remember how it felt to beat West Brom last week, we’ll be reading the poetry Bielsa left behind.

We’ll also, hopefully, be in the Premier League, experiencing the pinnacle of the modern game and the real heat of permanent burnout, the exhausting whirl of social media, tabloid sensation, 24 hour television and internet news, punctuated occasionally by games of football. But if we’re not there, and haven’t been there, it won’t be because Bielsa trains his players too hard, or because his methods are too tiring, or because the players can’t maintain the performances he demands.

Bielsa is synonymous with burnout, but aren’t we all, nowadays? But Bielsa is misunderstood. His atomisation of work into accomplishable tasks, his neurotic search for comforting answers to questions his players may never ask, his concentration on human relationships and happiness ahead of trophies that have to be given back, all build a structure for coping with burnout, not causing it.

“As football has become an industry, it has become worse in all meanings,” Bielsa said this week. “And the only one that hasn’t become worse is the one who loves the club.” He was talking about the fans, but it’s a feeling he tries to develop in the players and staff, much as Don Revie did in the 1960s. Bielsa might not lead us to the Premier League, but he’ll lead us to love. Looking at the draining husk of top flight football, his way might do us more good. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)

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