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Chilean Romanticism

The fate of attacking football in this tournament largely rests with Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile. Like so many other teams in these opening games, they should have probably run up a much higher score today. (A point-blank header into the arms of the goalkeeper didn’t help.) But it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about Chile’s contrarian methodology.

There's lots of talk about Bielsa being a nutter, and, how this explains Chile's unique approach. I suppose the nickname “El Loco” will tend to generate that line of chatter. But, as I’ve argued, this doesn’t do the great man justice. The key to understanding Bielsa: He is an ideologue--not uncommon among Argentine coaches.

The great divide in the Argentine managerial ranks is represented by the warring figures of the seventies and eighties, César Luis Menotti (the romantic) and Carlos Bilardo (the hard-nosed pragmatist), both coached the national team to World Cup triumph. Biesla lines up clearly on the Menotti side of the divide. In fact, he despises Bilardo; and romanticism is very much part of his personae. He has a strong sense of honor—nobility is a word that he likes to throw around--and rails against negative tactics that shift the focus to snookering opponents. Or as Menotti once put it, “I don’t give into tactical reasoning as the only way to win rather I believe that efficacy is not divorced from beauty."

While Bielsa shares the Menotti worldview, his system is borrowed from the Dutchman Luis van Gaal and the 3-3-1-3 that he used at Ajax in the mid-nineties to great effect. It hinges on constant attack and pressing high up the field. Chile did this spectacularly well today. As Zonal Marking notes, the team used tactical fouling and placed midfielders wide to protect against the counter-attacking threat that is inherent to pushing so far forward.

Of course, the accounts of Bielsa’s eccentricity aren’t imagined. Indeed, they do help explains his worldview, to an extent. At times, Bielsa has resembled a Howard Hughes character, living great distance from epicenters of conventional wisdom. For stretches, he has squirreled away in his remote farm, watching his massive collection of football video. He is said to have some 3,000 performances on file. And when he arrived in Santiago, he set up his VCR in a gardener’s shack next to pitch at the federation’s training complex. If players don’t understand his tactical instructions, he extricates them from the field and brings them to the shed to illustrate his point. As one Chilean player has described it, “He has prepared the tape by writing down the hours, minutes and seconds when the move appears on the video. Then we go back to the pitch and repeat the move until we get it right.” How obsessive is he about drilling his tactics? He insists that players repeat scenarios, until they can be replicated blind-folded.  

Bielsa resembled nothing more than an old-fashioned luftmench. He is highly paid, but too distracted to cash his large paychecks. He is so devoted to his work that he must be tended by an old woman who insures that he is fed and completes quotidian tasks. All of which suggests that his project is other-wordly and, therefore, tragically doomed.