Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina: Lost chances and broken hearts

Over the last few weeks, Marcelo Bielsa has been in the spotlight over his new role as Leeds United’s manager. A man whose character often draws comparison to a great philosopher rather than a football persona, his radicalism and man management is worthy of any admiration in football. But long before Leeds United, 2 decades ago to be precise, El Loco was in charge of Argentina. Following their exit from the World Cup in France 98, Daniel Passarella had stepped down from his post. Prior to this, the 1978 World Cup winning captain had put together a team that was brimming with excitement.

The Asociación del Fútbol Argentino were in search of a replacement and it lead them to one compelling figure. From the outlook, this man had a complete different Weltanschauung. He was not a Bilardismo though it is hard to say he was even Mennotismo. He is somewhere in between but leaning more towards the latter. His approach was shocking and beautiful at the same time. Audacious but still retains some of the pensive narrative. A qualified physical education teacher, Bielsa is a revolutionary tacticians in his own way. A man who has great visions of what football could become if the implementation works right. He had a ferocious approach to his management style which would consist long hours of video analysis, statistical studies and gung-ho practice sessions.

Up until that point, he remained an unknown quantity outside of Argentina and Mexico. It was in the latter’s country, where his work saw bearing the most fruits. His work encompasses many aspects including extensive scouting system, youth set up and meticulous training. He had a tremendous desire to take this approach across the Atlantic. So, when Espanyol came knocking on his door, he couldn’t say no. But Bielsa couldn’t move his Spanish adventure into gear one. Less than a month after settling down in Catalunya, he received a call back home. He knew in himself, it was the job he had dreamt about all his life. He was offered the role as the head coach of Argentina. As much he would have wanted to remain in Spain, it was a chapter that he had to put on hold for the time being.

Embed from Getty Images

Now that Argentina had a head coach, it was time to get to work. Bielsa’s first assignment was the 1999 Copa America. He wasn’t able to call on his best attackers but instead a make-shift side consisting of Boca Juniors front three of Juan Roman Riquelme, Martin Palermo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto were brought in. Argentina were knocked out from the quarter-final by Brazil. Overall, the entire tournament was an embarrassing outcome for Bielsa and his team. In a group match against Colombia, his side were humbled by three goals. To make matters worse, Palermo missed three penalties, a world record for a single game. Upon returning back to Buenos Aires, Bielsa had a bust up with Jose Calderon at the airport over team selection issues.

There was some redemption in the next few months. This included wins against Brazil, Colombia, Spain and holding out England at Wembley. The signs were looking good. The only setback was a Rivaldo hat-trick in 4-2 friendly loss. Then came the most important business for Bielsa during his time as Argentina’s manager. The World Cup qualifiers was due to begin in the early 2000. For a start, he was given the assurance that the best players will be present. With the qualifiers stretching over the next 20 months, Bielsa had plenty of time to implement his ideas.

Bielsa’s signature formation has always been the 3-3-1-3, a formation which requires strong three Centre-Backs with one acting as a sweeper. A defensive midfielder in the middle with two wing-backs, supporting the defense & attack and moving in the middle as well. Supporting the attack from the middle is an Engache. The front line will have a single striker supported by the wide forwards or wingers. In goal, Bielsa had to deal with the premature retirement of Carlos Roa, one of the best goalkeepers in the world back then. Roa hung up his gloves due to his religious beliefs. As a result, Bielsa opted for German Burgos. Ironically, Burgos was the first choice replacement of Roa at Real Mallorca. Despite being erratic at times yet consistent, Burgos maintained his place as Argentina’s first choice. But Bielsa still had other options as both Roberto Bonana and Pablo Cavallero were also up to the task.

In central defence, the players that Bielsa had picked at the beginning were Roberto Ayala, Jose Chamot and Nestor Sensini. Not convinced with Chamot’s ability to cope with pace, Bielsa opted for a player that he was well familiar with from his days managing Newell’s Old Boys, Mauricio Pochettino. When veteran Sensini retired in 2000, Bielsa already had a rising star in Walter Samuel of Boca Juniors ready to step in.

To facilitate on the wing-back area, Bielsa already had the perfect candidates. Javier Zanetti and Juan Pablo Sorin were made for this role on the right and left respectively. Diego Simeone was deployed in the centre as he was capable of covering the defense and be the focal point to launch an attack from the middle. Juan Sebastian Veron, at this point, was among the world’s elite midfielders who held the Engache role. Bielsa built his attack around him due to Veron’s visionary ball delivery and defence splitting passing. The Engache is one position which transcends other roles in Argentine football. It is kind of ironic to think that in 2018, Argentina is struggling to produce a high calibre player for this role. In 2000, that wasn’t the case at all. In Riquelme, Pablo Aimar and Andres D’Alessandro, Bielsa had plenty of aspirants for this role.

Ariel Ortega and Claudio Lopez were in command of the right and left wings respectively. While Ortega was floundering at Parma, Bielsa had a solution to this problem with Argentina. Lopez was then pushed to play on the right in order to give way for Kily Gonzalez on the left. As his formation only allocated one place for a No. 9, Bielsa had a dilemma. A big one in fact. There was Argentina’s leading scorer Gabriel Batistuta who had found a new home in Rome and not too far off was the world’s most expensive footballer, Hernan Crespo of Lazio. Both were raking up goals in the Serie A goal scoring chart. Any sane manager would have started both up front but Bielsa could only choose one of them. Some might say it was a wasted luxury.

Argentina kicked off their World Cup qualifier against Chile in Buenos Aires on the 28th of March 2000. Right from the start, Argentina’s form was like a Ferrari engine. They collected maximum points from their first six games. Bielsa’s boys were on a roll and bulldozed every opponent with relatively ease. Only Brazil and Paraguay gave them credible scare. The Seleção provided Argentina’s only loss in this campaign, beating them 3-1 in Sao Paolo. Paraguay were the only team that managed to prevent them from winning in either of their encounter. Even the altitude of La Paz proved it wasn’t a match up for Bielsa’s Argentina. It was perhaps the best fixture of these qualifiers. Bolivia raced to 3-1 lead with nine minutes left at the Estadio Hernando Siles. But goals from Crespo and Sorin in the last four minutes, leveled the score to 3-3. Right after that, Argentina were back to cruising mode, and didn’t look back.

By the time the qualifying round was over, they had amassed a total of 43 points in 18 matches. That remains a FIFA record to this day. They scored a whopping 42 goals while their nearest rival Brazil only managed 31. With a goal scoring deficit of 27 goals, Bielsa had built a remorseless side that got everyone’s attention. Argentina established themselves as one of the best attacking line-ups in world football. Crespo emerged as joint top scorer with 9 goals followed by Batistuta, Lopez and Veron with 5 goals each. When the World Cup draw was due to be held, Argentina were at the top of the FIFA rankings at number one, a position they shared with France. That made them the joint favourites to win the tournament. Perhaps what Bielsa & co weren’t expecting was a draw that would go on to test their endurance at the highest level.

As one of the seeded teams, Argentina were placed in Group F. The first team to be drawn out was Sweden. Next was England. The reaction of the crowd inside the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center was enthralling. Every football fan knew that a classic match was on the cards as one could never forget every moment of the game when both these sides played in St. Etienne four years ago. The last team to be drawn was Nigeria officially making Group F, the group of death of the tournament.

When asked for his thought about the outcome of the draw, Bielsa’s response was a typical fashion of an army general. He was unfazed by the challenge that awaited them. In his view, this was good for Argentina as they won’t be playing against teams who tend to sit back against them. Such confidence might be considered overweening but then again, Bielsa’s record so far spoke for itself. Argentina emerge unscathed during the World Cup qualifiers. They garnered 48 points and Bielsa assembled what was regarded the most complete squad Argentina ever had.

So good was the team that there was no place young starlet, Javier Saviola and playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. The only questionable inclusion was 35 year old Claudio Caniggia, back in the fold after a 6 years absence. Riquelme’s omission was somewhat expected by certain fans. Despite of his relaxed and elegant playmaking style, it didn’t sit well with Bielsa’s aggressive approach. But leaving out Saviola is regarded by many as a response to truancy. The young striker had a terrific debut season with Barcelona. If anything, he deserves a spot more than Caniggia.

Argentina’s first game was against Nigeria at the Kashima Stadium in Ibaraki. Knowing that the next game was against England, Argentina needed to start things on the right foot. On paper, Bielsa’s team looked good. The only setback was an injury to Ayala. Diego Placente was used as a makeshift centre-back. Placente had a fabulous year with Bayer Leverkusen prior to the World Cup. Argentina dominated the game on all fronts. They didn’t look threatened despite some good effort from the Super Eagles. The only scary moment came when Jay Jay Okocha was dancing through the middle, fired a superb curl from outside the box. Cavallero’s quick reaction saw him parry the ball away for a corner. Apart from that it was all Argentina. The goal eventually came in the 63rd minute when Batistuta headed home from a corner. Argentina kept on the pressure and should have added more than one goal. But Ike Shorunmu was having the game of his life and kept Nigeria to a single goal deficit.

Embed from Getty Images

Next up was the game which got everyone talking for months. It was almost as if the whole world had its eyes on this game more than the final itself. But this game had a different undertone that the historic games that preceded it. But the game was not short of controversy. Just about two months back, David Beckham was injured after being tackled in a game against Deportivo La Coruna. The culprit was Argentine Aldo Duscher, known for his reputation of tough playing. There were screams of foul play already gliding in the press. Beckham missed the rest of the season but recovered just in time for the World Cup. When he slotted home the penalty just before half time, Argentine fans’ feeling of consternation had come true. After all, this game had all the ingredients of redemption.

The defeat left Argentina in a must win situation against Sweden. Bielsa had to tinker his central midfield pairing as both Veron and Simeone had a dismal game against England. Aimar was deployed as the Engache. Matias Almeyda was chosen to take up Simeone’s position, marking his first appearance in this World Cup. Against England, Argentina had looked livelier going forward with Aimar. Bielsa was hoping that he could capitalize on him against the Swedes. Argentina played with a lot of conviction but lacked the final jigsaw in every attempt they created. Sweden had taken a lot of pointers from Argentina’s previous games. Deep down, fans could really sense it all coming to an end.

As Argentina were exhausting themselves for a goal, Sweden earned a free kick in the 59th minute. Andres Svensson’s Herculean strike went straight into the top corner beyond Cavallero’s reach. From then on, everything that Bielsa had prepared for this World Cup was coming to an end. Crespo scored from a rebound off of Ortega’s missed penalty in the 88th minute but it failed to rekindle any hopes. A few minutes later, it was all over. Argentina bid farewell from the group stage. It was a hard reality for many to digest. Back then, many truly believed that this was Argentina’s finest chance to win a third World Cup. At one point, the team built by Bielsa looked untouchable.

But there are several reasons for things going wrong for Argentina. But first, let us fast forward to 2018. Bielsa is regarded as one of the pioneering coaches and a highly respectable figure in world football. Many of his former protégé, from Simeone to Pochettino became top managers in their own right for having played under him. Even Pep Guardiola has gone on to declare him as the best manager in the world.

Rewind back to 2002, it was an entirely different story. At first, the media began to scrutinize the players, with Veron being the number one target. Eventually, the focus shifted on Bielsa and his approach. Some argued that he may have been naive and had a shallow approach when dealing with the different opposition from the group stage. Against Nigeria, Argentina were perfect in every sense going forward. Veron came to the World Cup after having a torrid year with Manchester United. His debut season was disaster after failing to live up to the hype and price tag that the Red Devils paid for his service. But on that afternoon in Ibaraki, the world saw what they had been craving from him. Veron had one of his best games in a long time. Every pinpoint pass from him tormented the Nigerian defence. There were plenty of Coup d’œil moment from his time in Italy that made him United’s record breaking signing. Argentina’s front line may have been the culprit but the Super Eagles had a lot to thank their goalkeeper for. Shorunmu kept the score line at bay. It didn’t come as a surprise that he was named as the man of the match.

However, against England, there wasn’t going to be any thunderbolt occasion. Three Lions manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, knew Veron too well from their days at Lazio. He had the perfect remedy to annihilate Argentina’s approach. The answer? Nicky Butt. Veron’s teammate from United. Eriksson had already set up England to play a counter attacking game in order to defuse Argentina. But his master plan, was instructing Butt to be Veron’s shadow on that night in Saparro. Butt did a terrific job in suffocating Veron’s movement. Argentina asphyxiated with Veron unable to direct his team’s game play.

Bielsa was lambasted for not dropping Veron as soon as it was clear that things were not going to plan. Critics felt that his lack of analysis and evaluation of England’s strategy lead to Argentina’s defeat. Veron walked into a trap that was specially designed by Eriksson. Bringing Aimar much earlier, if not starting him in the game, might have worked. But as you will find, Bielsa’s direction had other problems too.

It is worth noting that in Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 system, there was only room for one striker. The lone ranger policy up front meant either Batistuta or Crespo were being taken on by Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand for the most part. It was painful for Argentina fans to watch that considering the fact that Bielsa could have played both of them. Left without a target man, Argentina were forced to look for other options going forward. Bielsa begin to formulate an attack from the wings. Unable to crack the opponents’ full-backs, Ortega and Gonzalez had to start playing those typical English crossing game. This only made their game plan more predictable. The likes of Campbell and Ferdinand had it easy to head out every single attempt from Argentina. The critics began to wonder that Argentina looked more like a European team rather being themselves.

In Argentina’s last game, Sweden didn’t need to look elsewhere for pointers. The Sweden camp implemented the same pattern of display that was devised by their countryman in-charge of the English dugout. A tight back four marshalled by Johan Mjällby and Tobias Linderoth supporting from midfield, did the trick.

Argentina’s problem going forward was one thing, their defense had its own pitfall. Against Nigeria, Bielsa’s team looked flawless because the Super Eagles were also on the offensive. But England and Sweden opted an opposite approach. Argentina’s weakness certainly became visible. In every counter attacking situation, Argentina looked exposed at the back. Against England, Cavallero had to pull out crucial saves to stop Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes. If it wasn’t for the post, Sweden could have killed the game off as well.

The three man Centre-Back also had trouble subduing pacy strikers, in particular Michael Owen. Owen’s speed had been a problem for Argentina since France ‘98. Four years later, the sight of him running past Chamot brought nightmares even for Bielsa’s defense. It is an asset which Eriksson had exploited to its full effect. In Henrik Larsson, Sweden too had a striker with enough speed to cause plenty of problems for Argentina.

Despite the failure, Bielsa managed to keep his job. This was partly due to his record during the qualifiers which spoke volumes. But the critics back home were still not convinced with his overzealous approach. These censure intensified when Argentina lost the Copa America final in 2004. Bielsa did finally achieve glory when Argentina took the country’s first Olympics gold medal in 52 years. The happiness was short lived though as Bielsa announced his resignation by the end of the year.

For several years Bielsa remained away from the spotlight. It took years before the world began to acknowledge his work. Chile became the biggest benefactor of his high intensity approach. Across Europe, clubs like Barcelona took his gospel of possession based and high pressing game to new heights. As a football fan, one cannot help but wonder that, if Bielsa had remained in Argentina long enough to work with Lionel Messi, something extraordinary could have happened. But some things are best left undiscovered.

To Top