Ask any number of Argentinian football fans who is, in their opinion, the most overrated manager in the country’s history and you’ll likely hear one name more often than any other. Ironically, it’s the name of one of the most revolutionary and influential managers in the last 30 years, who inspires world-wide respect: Marcelo Bielsa. Guardiola has said he is the best manager in the world, Pochettino called him his “football father”, and renowned tactics and football historian Jonathan Wilson wrote that no other South American has ever had such influence on the world of football since the brazilian sides of the late 50s.
And yet, many in his home country consider him a vende humo (a fraudster), and a man whose career is held up not by his achievements, but rather by his fans and the sympathy of a section of the press, who acclaim him for the way he speaks and the things he says, and underestimate his failures on the pitch.
You could argue that near misses have been the constant in Bielsa’s career, from his loss on the 1992 Copa Libertadores final, with a Newell’s side featuring 23 home grown players out of the 25 men squad, to the bonkers and unpredictable 4-2 at Elland Road that denied Leeds a spot on the Playoff finals last season; none, however, has hurt his reputation quite as bad as the Group Stage exit on the 2002 World Cup with Argentina.
Nothing to do differently
From the outside, it’s easy to understand why it is hauled as such a disaster for the Argentinian Men’s Football National Team. One of the first two World Cup finalists and a perennial FIFA World Rankings Top 10 member, Argentina’s early exit on the 2002 tournament is its worst overall performance in any World Cup, and probably the most controversial since the 1958’s Desastre de Suecia (Swedish Disaster), where they crashed out of the tournament after losing 6-1 to Czechoslovakia, prompting their worst result ever on a World Cup. That team, however, had been the first Argentinian side to feature in a World Cup in 24 years, and manager Guillermo Stabile had been questioned after leaving out the squad international stars Maschio, Angelillo and Sívori. In 2002, however, it was all a bit different…
After what had been a good quarter finals run in the last tournament, Argentina went into the 2002 World Cup as one of the favourites, and there were good reasons for it. For one, most of the players were at the peak of their powers, thriving on the European club stage, and the core members of the squad formed a tight, cohesive and close knit group of professionals. Add the well oiled tactics smarts of Bielsa and you have a world class-team; they finished top of the Conmebol qualifiers that featured eventual winners Brazil and 2001 Copa America champions Colombia, with 12 pts. gap to 2nd place Ecuador and featuring the best attack (42 goals in 18 matches) and tied 2nd best defense of the tournament.
It was a well drilled, talented, and close team, led by one of the sharpest minds at the forefront of the football training world; “You see him work and you think ‘It’s impossible things go wrong for him‘” said playmaker Ariel Ortega. So what went wrong?
Let’s all go ahead and admit from the get go that the 2002 World Cup was a bit of a weird one. Title defenders and European champions France went out on the group stages without scoring a single goal, locals Korea beat European powerhouses Italy and Spain amidst accusations of corruption, and went on to become one of two unlikely semifinalists (the other being Turkey), and player of the tournament and goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn gifted a sitter to Ronaldo in the final, right before conceding another for good measure. It was the Twilight Zone version of the World Cup.
Caught in all of this drama was an Argentina team that had all the pieces necessary for going all the way but fell short; why? Most often cited culprit is probably good old luck, or lack thereof, to be more precise: “It’s all about that month”, captain and defence leader Roberto Ayala said, “You have to be sharp on that month, physically, tactically, technically, and we didn’t have that”. He himself got injured on the Friday before the first match, which was on Sunday. “We had too many important players running on fumes”, Ayala insists, “Bielsa kept us going the best we could, but we would’ve needed at least an extra month of preparation to get sharp.” Another key member of that squad, and current Atlético de Madrid manager, Diego Simeone agrees: “We had terrible luck; Ayala who was a key player for us got injured, Veron wasn’t fit, Caniggia and Almeyda got injured a little time before. Had the World Cup been a year earlier we would have all been fit.”
Argentina got drawn into what The Guardian called the “group of death” with England, Nigeria and Sweden. After a narrow win against Nigeria, courtesy of a Batistuta header (incidentally, his last for the Argentina National Team), they faced their toughest opponent and arguably the only reasonable candidate to take the 1st Place from them, England. After a controversial 1998 matchup that saw 2 red cards, 2 penalties and a shoot-out definition, it was a heated duel with a lot of history behind it.
The Three Lions, however, hadn’t had such an easy time getting into the tournament. A stoppage time Beckham free-kick against Greece helped them avoid a playoff in the last match of the qualifiers, and casted some shadows over Sven Goran Eriksson’s side. After drawing with Sweden, England took on the match vs. Argentina as a potential make or break face-off, with the swedes beating Nigeria earlier that day to take 1st place temporarily.
Be that as it may, that lack of sharpness showed in the match, and after conceding a David Beckham penalty, Bielsa’s side never looked like taking over the match. Eriksson set up a deep line that Argentina could never break, and Scholes ruled the midfield. It was a bitter pill to swallow and a warning of what was to come.
Nevertheless, from a points angle Argentina looked relatively safe. A win against Sweden granted them qualification, maybe even the 1st spot if Nigeria could manage a draw or better versus England (as they eventually would). Argentina started the match on its front foot, attacking, as always, confident in what they knew, in their game. “In the dressing room at half time, Bielsa said there was nothing to change, nothing to do differently, we were doing everything we needed to get the result“, says Claudio Husaín, “In two years with him at Velez Sarsfield and four at the National Team I had never heard him say that. By the end we had sixty crosses and eighteen clear chances”. Ultimately, however, all hope was crushed. The Albicelestes struggled to break up yet another tight, focused defensive effort, with only a reflection from an 88th minute scored by Crespo saving them from the loss. They were out of the 2002 World Cup.
It’s safe to say the Argentina players weren’t thrilled about the way in which they were driven out of the tournament: “We knew we faced the toughest group, all of the teams we played looked to react to what we did”, said Zanetti after the match, “It’s very painful but I’m proud of what we did. Argentina tried everything we could”. Goalkeeper Germán Burgos wasn’t as polite: “England and Sweden won their qualification with 11 players in their half”. Even after all was said and done, Bielsa’s side was eliminated with a 4 points tally, the same as four of the eight 2nd Place classified teams, including semifinalist Turkey. “The World Cup is like this; one distraction, one mistake, and you’re out”, said Juan Sebastián Verón.
The great schism of Argentinian football, without a shadow of a doubt, is not that of Boca Juniors v. River Plate or that of Buenos Aires against the Interior (the provinces), but that which splits romantics and pragmatics, flair and sacrifice, the road and the finish line: Menotti versus Bilardo. Even now, almost 15 years since either of them last managed, and more than 30 years since they laid hands on any silverware, they easiest way to get a notion of what an argentinian manager wants of their players is to find out whether he identifies as a “menottista” or a “bilardista”.
So where does Bielsa stand? Well, as journalists Jonathan Wilson and Alex Stewart have pointed out, somewhere around the halfway point. Of course it would take someone of Bielsa’s determination to find middle ground between two of the most opposed and mutually exclusive ways of understanding anything in life, let alone football.
Bielsa’s respect for the process, the form of things, the idealism of the amateur spirit and the “right way the game should be played”? That’s Menotti, through-and-through. His borderline obsessive fixation with preparation, analysis, and physical sharpness? Hardcore bilardismo. He takes two ways of conceiving the sport and takes lessons (and weaknesses) from both. Menotti once said: “Tactics are programmatic. Therefore, as everything programmatic in the world of action, where the unexpected can happen, they don’t make much sense. You build a tactic for the day, but something unforeseen appears and your tactics go to shit”. Bielsa’s obsession with tactical preparation and opponent analysis is then, clearly, part of his bilardista background. Let’s take a look into how his Argentina team played, to understand what worked for them during the Qualifiers before we analyse what unforeseen problems they faced in Japan.
Leading to the 2002 World Cup and during the tournament, Bielsa switched between a 5-3-2 and a 5-2-3, both of which morphed into his now renowned 3-3-1-3. The team looked to create overloads on the wide areas combining marauding wingbacks with the movement of players attacking from the sides and from deep.
A solid back 5, usually consisting of Sorín, Samuel, Ayala, Vivas and Zanetti provided both the means to hold the opponent, as well as width and build-up on the attack. The main threat coming from behind were the deep runs of left wingback Juan Pablo Sorín, who often crossed from deep and combined with the strikers and wingers. Zanetti on the right flank did a much more conservative effort, helping the midfield press and linking with whomever occupied the right wing. The centrebacks were responsible of build up from the back, feeding the midfield and offering passing options, but not afraid to pass it long to break the opposing press. Defensively, those on the side would press higher, while the central man, often Ayala or Samuel, stayed deep and acted as a sweeper of sorts.
1) Placente drives forwards with the ball to initiate play; Verón and Kily Gonzalez drop to offer pass options while the wingbacks Sorin and Zanetti begin to push high to widen the pitch. 2) Samuel, playing as a stopper, wins the ball high-up and drives forwards to initiate the attack.
The midfield had two men in key roles: Juan Sebastián Verón and Diego Simeone. Verón was the orchestrator, often roaming from position to find pockets of space from which to drive from deep or play a long pass; everything Argentina created passed through his feet. He had total liberty to move around, sometimes switching up with Zanetti to cross from the wings, other times staying more central and operating as an enganche. Simeone, on the other hand, had the sole responsibility of breaking up opposing plays and offering defensive cover for his teammates; he would usually stay back, look to recover the ball and then lay it off to someone in an attacking position, most likely Verón or the wingbacks.
1) Verón switches positions with Zanetti to attack down the right flank and cross from deep 2) Verón drops back to take the ball on the build up and move forwards vs. England
The main difference between the two shapes was from who and from where the attacks came from. On the 5-3-2, a classic number 9 (often Crespo or Batistuta) worked to keep the opposition’s centreback busy while a smaller, more mobile attacker (generally Claudio “el Piojo” López) drifted around from behind him and hunted for gaps in the defence he could exploit. The third midfielder, usually Cristian “el Kily” González, roamed wide starting from the centre mid and looked to attack the space in behind the defence. With the 5-2-3, on the other hand, Bielsa employed two wingers helping the sole striker, with “el Kily” or “el Piojo” starting from the left and Ariel Ortega on the right; they would often cut inside to make room for the wingbacks or stretch the defence wide providing gaps for deep attackers to explore.
1) Claudio López drops wide to receive the ball and run forwards 2) Kily González attacks a deep position from the inside and makes room for a Sorín run. 3) Similarly to #2, Kily González drops wide to explore the gaps left behind him. He would later turn and attack the box to score the first goal in a 3-0 win vs. Colombia.
However if there is one concept Bielsa has made famous (and became famous for) is the press. His brand of football always comes with an intense, physically demanding style of full pressing, and this Argentina side was not exception. The left and right centrebacks jumped into midfield to close down the man on the ball, acting as stoppers pushing forwards and closing down gaps in the midfield, while the midfielders would alternate between rushing forwards to press the rival defenders and dropping back to create a midfield press, opening spaces behind the opposition lines to exploit via long pass. The team also played a narrow, intensive brand of defending, with players cramping the pitch to make it harder for opponents to play their way out of trouble.
1) Argentina presses high up vs England 2) On occasions Argentina would counter-press, to regain control of the ball after it had just been lost, though not always. 3) Argentina’s narrow defence against Colombia
In all, it worked as a fantastically well oiled machine; when a talented set of players are convinced by a tactically astute manager that his methods are the way to go, you end up with a team that not only wins, but plays to the highest level and entertains the public in doing so.
Injustices that balance in the end
So how could it all fall apart so quickly? Menotti, in a way, gave us the clue. Bielsa’s team depended on everyone doing their job to their best; if one piece failed, the whole set up suffered.
In Argentina, the accusation of (unexpectedly) dropping the ball and letting the whole team down fell on arguably its most important player, Juan Sebastián Verón. The basis for this theory comes down, as it often does with public opinion lynch-mobs, from a simple thing: his appalling match against England. Those only accustomed to the English top flight might not be aware of it (because of his terrible spells at Manchester United and Chelsea), but as any late-90’s Serie A fan can tell you, Verón was one of the best playmakers of his generation. In that match, however, he could not place a pass to save his life, and some of his mistakes proved costly. Public perception was that, as a Man. United player at that time, Verón soothed his employers by giving up the match, which meant the rivalry between the two nations was seen as nothing short of treason. It is, of course, absolute bollocks. Verón was a consummate professional and had been a key member of that squad; to suggest he would give up one of the most important matches of his career just to please his bosses is not only ludicrous, it’s malicious.
He was, in truth however, part of a larger problem: Argentina’s creative block was exhausted and out of ideas. Against Nigeria but particularly versus England and Sweden, Bielsa’s team looked like one who had no clue as to how to break up the dense, counter-attacking deep blocks set up by their opponents, nor the energy to figure out how to do so. Claudio López struggled to create any semblance of danger v. Nigeria and was substituted by Kily González in the match, to little effect. After his dismal 1st half display v. England, Verón came off for Pablo Aimar and still Argentina could not improve. Batistuta looked drained of energy and was marooned up top all tournament long, with Crespo looking only a bit sharper if anything. Only the efforts of Ortega and Zanetti on the right flank gave the albiceleste any hope of survival v. Sweden, with all other avenues of attack proving useless.
1) Ariel Ortega struggles to find a pass to break Nigeria’s low block; it wouldn’t be the last time such a play would be seen 2) “Piojo” López tries to find Sorín with a pass into space, but is rejected by the Nigerians
In the end, it came down to that feeling of exhaustion, to those injuries accrued and the build-up of tension and fatigue; not even the last few drops of football left in so many great players could amount to enough to overcome it. “It was like fine-tuning a guitar”, goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero said, “We tightened the strings so far it snapped; we arrived at the World Cup over-stressed and exhausted”.
The consequences, nonetheless, weighed heavily on Bielsa and the team. “It was the hardest dressing room I was ever in”, said Cavallero. Bielsa’s usual stern look could give the idea of a man to deeply hidden in his own mental tribulations to show the hurt, but the players found a him shattered by despair; “Maybe people think he didn’t care about it”, said Kily González, “In the dressing room he was crying like a kid, his face full of snot; it was hard to see”. Ariel Ortega adds: “I was the first to enter the dressing room, and I saw [Bielsa]; I could not believe it, he was broken. I didn’t know what to do so I thanked him. He was wonderful, a guy I’m very fond of”.
As always, however, “el Loco” had to find an answer. All that weight had to find somewhere to fall. “The night after the match vs. Sweden, Bielsa went ahead and rewatched it, so he would understand why it went like that“, comments Husaín; his obsession for preparation not harmed by the cruelties of unpredictability, his dedication to his work, absolute.
It is probably that everlasting dedication to his passion, to football, that has made Bielsa’s memory endure so much amongst his former players. In every club he manages you see players finally stepping up to realise their potential, or learning new things about what it takes to be a professional, to be the best. “Bielsa convinced me that the most important thing is for the manager to talk the players that his way is the way to win”, said Pablo Aimar years later, “and that the most important thing is the process; that what you learn from a manager is far more important than any title“.
Back from the 2002 World Cup failure, and when most of the Argentinian public cried for his sacking, Bielsa’s contract was renewed. Rumours say it wasn’t because of the AFA’s leadership undying faith in his work, but rather due to the other candidates unwillingness to work under their terms. A loss at the 2004 Copa América final furthered claims that his tenure should’ve by then been ended but a little over a month later Bielsa’s vindication (and arguably his greatest achievement as a manager) came along: the 2004 Olympic Gold Medal. Some famous figures and a sector of the public opinion saw it as a consolation prize for the 2002 disaster, but players disagree: “Don’t take [the Olympic Gold] away from my trophy cabinet; it’s the most important thing I’ve won in my career”, said Kily González “I’ve won many European titles but no one is taking that one away from me”. Less than a month after that win, Bielsa would leave the Argentina National Team, citing differences with the AFA. That Olympic Games side, which included names like Mascherano, Tevez and Heinze, would go on to become the basis of the team that came ever so close to a World Cup Semi Final two years later.
Ironically, his next job would also take him to the helm of a South American national side, the Chilean National Team, where he would prove highly successful and the kickstarter of arguably the best ever Chile side. His former players, now his rivals, however, still held him close to their heart: “I’m very happy about [Bielsa’s success with the Chile National Team]”, said Ariel Ortega, “[He] has been through a lot of bad things. Argentinian journalism has been very cruel with him. I’ve read some very ugly things they’ve written about him, and it hurts because I’ve shared a lot with him.”
That is ultimately el Loco’s legacy; one that he’s still building, but one that has already touched so many great players: “Bielsa really marked my career”, 2nd all time Argentina goal scorer Gabriel Batistuta asserts, “He taught me everything”. And it’s the players who often praise him when his reputation falls under fire: “We valued [Bielsa] too late”, said Zanetti years later, “We [Argentinians] realised what a great manager he was when we saw what he did at Chile”. “Not many players have won a title with Bielsa”, Aimar insists, “I have won them with other managers, good ones, but the best I’ve had is Bielsa”.
What little we know of what his players mean to Marcelo Bielsa, due to his distant relationship with the press, we know through said players. Speaking about a weird but endearing phone call he received from his former coach after a surgery, current Atletico de Madrid assistant coach Germán Burgos said: “Bielsa doesn’t forget about his players”. Even for those who have won it all, that is an important thing. “I accidentally bumped into him and it was one of the nicest surprises I had in the last times”, said Batistuta, “I gave him a hug. Bielsa educated me, he taught me about the professional’s life. I’m very fond of him”.
Bielsa once said that all injustices balance themselves out in the end, that all which is taken from you will be repaid at a later date, should you work for it. So far, some of his more hurtful failures as a manager have not been repaid on the pitch; but maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. For every bitter pill taken on the sidelines, for every injustice done to his teams, the lives and careers he touched repay him, his faith in the process yielding much later the fruits it could not pick after the 90 minutes. Only time will take him there. None, however, of those heartbreaks, must’ve hurt as much as what happened almost 20 years ago in Japan.