By 90Min
June 10, 2019

Marcelo Bielsa is number 50 in 90min's Top 50 Great Manager's of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next 10 weeks.


The dictionary definition of a cult hero, Marcelo Bielsa's journey from a stalling career as a player to one of modern day football's biggest influencers has been nothing short of outstanding.

As a player, Bielsa was forced to retire at the age of 25, but his deep and thorough understanding of the game saw him land himself at former club Newell's Old Boys, taking over as a manager in their youth system during the 1980s.

Like many, the Argentine was fascinated by the Dutch totaalvoetbal (Total Football), which was pioneered by Rinus Michels the decade earlier, taking further influence from Óscar Tabárez and later Italian legend Arrigo Sacchi.

Settling on a philosophy which mixed a more romantic approach (menottista) with a tactical one (bilardista) - popular methods in Argentina which were brought in by César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo respectively - Bielsa guided Newell's Old Boys to a Copa Libertadores final in 1992.

La Lepra won the first leg against São Paulo, but eventually lost the tie via a penalty shootout. Defender Cafu scored the Brazilian side's decisive spot-kick, and soon after their defeat at the Estádio Cícero Pompeu de Toledo, Bielsa resigned.


While at the club, Bielsa was allegedly confronted at his house by a group of Newell's Old Boys ultras following a 6-0 defeat. Legend has it that the Argentine was holding a grenade when he opened the door and he threatened to pull the pin.


After a brief stint in Mexico, Bielsa was placed in charge of the Argentina national team and went on to take manage La Albiceleste for almost seven years, appearing in the Copa América and World Cup.

But El Loco's biggest success with his country came at the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, securing the gold medal, with his side setting a record for winning every game without conceding a goal throughout the competition.


Career Honours

Olympic Gold Medal (2004)
Copa America Runner-Up (2004)
Primera Division Argentina (1991, 1992 & 1998) 
South American Coach of the Year (2009)

Losing a Copa América final to rivals Brazil and struggling to make an impact at the World Cup in 2002 didn't harm Bielsa's growing reputation but he did announce his resignation three years later, taking a two-year break before joining Chile's national team.


Although mainstream notoriety didn't come for Bielsa until he went back to management in club football at the start of the 2011/12 season, his exciting Chile side became a neutral's favourite, impressing fans most notably at the South African World Cup.


Just like with Argentina in 2005, Bielsa's decision to leave his post with Chile was made with a heavy heart, both for the head coach and the country's supporters.


As a young coach in Argentina, Bielsa is believed to have told defender Fernando Gamboa that he would cut off his own finger if it meant his side could win the game.


The now 63-year-old's next step on the footballing ladder would, for many, bring Bielsa to the forefront of European football, reportedly snubbing a move to Inter before being announced as the new manager at Athletic Club - more commonly known as Athletic Bilbao.


Former boss Joaquín Caparrós has guided the club to a sixth-place finish in La Liga before Bielsa was brought in in 2011, but the Argentine overhauled the squad and its tactics to help bring the best out of players like Javi Martínez, Iker Muniain and Ibai Gómez.

LLUIS GENE/GettyImages

But it was Ander Herrera's move from Real Zaragoza in a €7.5m deal which helped mould Bielsa's vision at the Basque club, with the midfielder playing a vital part in Athletic Club's attacking style right from the outset.


"When I joined Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa told me, ‘don’t complain ever again, because referees are there to help footballers, not to kill them.’ That was a lesson I had from him," Herrera told Graham Hunter about moving to San Mamés, touching on Bielsa's intense demands of his players. 


"It is quite a romantic view about football, but I can’t lie to you, in the last months we couldn’t even move.


While running in the dead of night at Argentina’s Ezeiza training complex, Bielsa was confronted by a dozen armed police officers, who had their guns drawn. Hiding behind a tree, he pleaded: "Don't shoot! I'm Bielsa!"


"Our legs said 'stop'. We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals. We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically f****d."


Herrera was far from blaming Bielsa. In fact, it was quite the opposite.


"We played amazing football," he added. "Marcelo Bielsa should always be in football, because the view he has about football is amazing."

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/GettyImages

Towards the end of Bielsa's two-year spell in Bilbao things started to unravel, but the Argentine still left the club with his head held high, having been personally praised by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson.


Two separate spells in France followed, split between a very brief stint at Lazio, but it was specifically with Olympique de Marseille where Bielsa's cult following took on a new level.


As French football expert Julien Laurens, for ESPN, wrote before his official announcement: "Bielsa in Marseille would be a marriage made in heaven. It would probably end up in tears, I give you that, but he is exactly the kind of manager that l'OM needs."


Assistant Jorge Griffa used to have to lock Bielsa in a toilet to stop the Argentine from laying into his team after defeats.


Bielsa's enthusiasm saw him quickly win over the Marseille fans, with the Argentine's personality as well as an uptick in results creating a real honeymoon period at the Stade Vélodrome.

In hindsight, however, it was perhaps Bielsa's departure from the south of France which has made his time there so memorable.

Following a defeat at home to Caen on the opening day of the 2015/16 campaign and before telling his players or even his own boss, Bielsa read out his resignation letter in his post-match press conference.

GABRIEL BOUYS/GettyImages

Fast forward to 2018 and Bielsa was brought in as a surprise appointment at Leeds United, guiding the club to a place in the Championship play-off place but being denied promotion at the hands of Derby County - the Rams lost in the final to Aston Villa.


Many expected the 63-year-old to leave, but a 12-month extension clause in his contract was activated as the club looks to end their 15-year spell in England's lower divisions.


Teams Managed 

Newell's Old Boys 1990-92
Atlas 1992-94
Club America 1995-96
Velez Sarsfield 1997-98
Espanyol 1998
Argentina 1998-2004
Chile 2007-11
Athletic Bilbao 2011-13
Marseille 2014-15
Lazio 2016
LOSC Lille 2017
Leeds United 2018-

With another season at Elland Road on the cards, Bielsa could cement his place in footballing folklore in the United Kingdom by bringing Leeds back to the Premier League, just like his has in other counties and continents throughout his 27-year career before.

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