There’s a popular anecdote about an influential rock band, The Velvet Underground, coined by producer Brian Eno’s words in a 1982 interview.
“My reputation is far bigger than my sales,” Eno told the Los Angeles Times. “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in secondhand ways.”
If there’s a soccer equivalent, it has to be Marcelo Bielsa.
“El Loco” is your favorite manager’s favorite manager, his ideas and aura admired and adopted by global elites like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and many others. From Argentina and Chile’s national teams to far smaller stages across the planet, his teams’ relentless, risky pressing and aggressive attacking mindset sets them apart, charming supporters and neutrals alike, as does Bielsa’s intellect and maverick ethos.
The cult icon just departed Leeds United after an illustrious three-and-a-half-year tenure highlighted by the proud club’s long-sought return to the English Premier League after a 16-year exile in the lower divisions, but ending in an injury-wracked squad leaking 21 goals in his final six matches in charge, perilously perched just above the relegation zone.
An American, Jesse Marsch, has been tabbed as his successor. It's a somewhat unconventional pick for an EPL relegation battle and a surreal development for many North American observers who witnessed Marsch’s time in MLS as both player and coach. Yet there are more common threads linking Bielsa to the league than you might realize.
Bielsa’s obsessively particular methodology – to say nothing of his unique personality – is difficult, nigh impossible for anyone to fully replicate. But in recent years a range of MLS clubs have used key elements of his model, driven in no small part by the arrival of coaches who've grown up in the modern footballing world he’s helped shape.
“Marcelo, I think he’s a coach that has a big impact all around the world,” FC Dallas head coach Nico Estevez told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Because the way that he transmits his ideas and the passion that he has. He's always trying new things and innovating new things and also the way that he convinces the players to believe in an idea, I think that is a huge approach from a coach. … And how he has changed the mentality of the team that he has coached, the way that they have played, and also the fans and the people around the club.”
A Spaniard who worked at CF Valencia during Bielsa’s stint in charge of Athletic Bilbao a decade ago, Estevez witnessed the Argentine master leave a significant and lasting impression on La Liga in general. Though they fell short at the final hurdle, Bielsa unexpectedly led the Basque side to the finals of both the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Europa League in 2012, and “he changed the mentality there for a lot of coaches,” in Estevez’s words.
The athleticism of North American players and the frenetic pace that is traditionally common at the upper levels of the US and Canadian landscapes seem to have contributed to a hospitable environment for “Bielsista” concepts in MLS, even if many doing so are hesitant to compare themselves to the legend.
“I don't know him personally,” D.C. United head coach Hernan Losada, who turned heads with his pedal-to-the-metal shift in the capital club last season, told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I'm just a big fan of his mentality of going out there and playing always to win, how dynamic the teams are. Not only the pressing style but how vertical they get when they recover the ball. And I think Guardiola mentioned that a few weeks ago, that only Leeds, Arsenal and Liverpool were teams who are probably not parking the bus every time they play against Manchester City.
“[Bielsa] leads the team who wasn’t playing in the Premiership for 16 years, he came there, he put the team in the first division and playing the same way against bigger opponents with bigger budgets, just because he wants to play always to win and to entertain the fans, well, he deserves a lot of respect. That's why I like him.”
Various riffs on pressing, counter-pressing and expansive positional play can be spotted in use at FCD, D.C., Charlotte FC, LAFC, New York Red Bulls (where Marsch began his current trajectory), San Jose Earthquakes, Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC. Perhaps the most successful interpretation came at Atlanta United during Tata Martino’s time in charge there – a post that was very nearly filled by Bielsa himself, as The Athletic reported last year.
“[Bielsa] likes a high-tempo type of game. He wants to attack, he wants to create situations where the players can break lines and advance, create goal-scoring opportunities,” noted Estevez, who crossed the Atlantic to join the Columbus Crew in 2014 and later worked under Gregg Berhalter on the US men’s national team’s technical staff.
“And if you look at this league and the profile of players in this league, the speed of the game in this league and the spaces, it’s something that you can take from him and introduce to your players, to your teams and do it in the games.”
Perhaps Bielsa’s defiant outlook meshes best with MLS teams aiming to punch above their weight in a league where entertainment has always been a priority and escalating roster spending is now a trend. El Loco’s closest MLS tie is probably also his most faithful ideological heir: San Jose’s Matias “Pelado” Almeyda, who played for Bielsa on the Argentine national team and often utilizes his radical man-to-man marking system.
“I think Marcelo Bielsa is one of the best coaches in the world. I had the chance to be coached by him for four years. He taught me a new methodology of working in football that many have copied,” said Almeyda on Wednesday.
“What I like most about him is his way of thinking, how he sees life in football. And he has never been a part of the system in football where people go to a certain place to be known, but he is always taking on projects where he can be himself and develop a true project.”
Pelado might well have been communicating on multiple levels with that last part. The former Chivas Guadalajara boss was the reigning Concacaf Coach of the Year when he joined the Quakes after their woeful 2018 season, surprising many. Despite being the subject of constant interest from suitors abroad and making no bones about his frustrations with what he perceives to be his club’s limited spending, Almeyda has stayed by the Bay and is on course to complete his original four-year contract.
The “AlmeydaBall” Quakes have epitomized the risks and rewards of core Bielsista ideas, producing exhilarating soccer at their best, getting eviscerated at worst, often at the hand of game plans custom-tailored by opponents to exploit vulnerabilities in the system. The Red Bulls – coached by Gerhard Struber, who earned Bielsa’s praise when his Barnsley met Leeds in the English Championship in 2020 – used their more pragmatic version of the high press to do just that at PayPal Park in Week 1.
“I thought [New York] had won with very little. They were using a certain form of pressing, were taking advantage of our mistakes and counterattacking, had defenders that defended well but didn't want to get too involved in the game,” said Almeyda of that 3-1 result.
“Those are different ways of playing football, and it's a way of reading the game and looking for results. I tell my players that I'm the one running a risk because I want my defenders to win, my midfielders to have mobility and risk making difficult passes, because that's how I think we will have more positive results than negative ones.”
Almeyda’s insistence on making few compromises to his style even in the face of one-sided results is also evocative of Bielsa, and therein lies a key factor in many of his MLS colleagues’ preference to borrow and adapt rather than dive in completely.
“For the profile of players that we have and the opponents that we play, it will be difficult for us to sustain a man-to man,” said Estevez. “We maybe could do it some moments, but not all the time. For us, it will be difficult to use that. But for example, the third-man [runs] and the speed of play to create quickly and get behind the opponent backline, we can take.”
Losada – who has also shifted the culture in D.C. while lobbying heavily for more aggressive spending – offered a similar caution.
“I like a few things of his philosophy. I like also things from Simeone or [Thomas] Tuchel from Chelsea. You pick ideas from those world-class coaches, and then you add a little bit of your ideas, and you try to make your own game model and your own style of play,” said the 39-year-old Argentine.
“It's about also the pieces that you get and the kind of roster that you have to see if you can implement those principles or not. I think the coach is the one who needs to adapt to the roster to see what he's capable to do with those pieces. So not always you can play like Bielsa or like Tuchel, like Guardiola if you don't have the right players to play that way.”
This is in large part the task in front of Marsch, just the third U.S. manager in Premier League history, faced with simultaneously replacing a club icon and steering Leeds away from relegation in a matter of weeks.
“Now it's about how he can adapt to that league, to the players and to try to find, inside his style of play, a way that the players can function together to get results,” said Estevez.
“It's always difficult to be in a different country,” he added. “And I think Jesse will figure out how to introduce his ideas, but also understanding the league and understanding the players that they have and the culture and see how they can use that to together win games.”