Marcelo Bielsa: Exploring The Genius Of “El Loco”

Marcelo Bielsa AKA El Loco

March 8, 2012. Marcelo Bielsa had led Athletic Bilbao to Old Trafford for their Europa League Round Of 16 tie.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had endured a disappointing exit from the Champions League that season. But, they were still front runners in the Premier League title race.

So, Bielsa’s side had entered the fray as obvious underdogs. Nevertheless, 6500 travelling fans from Bilbao basked in sheer ecstasy as they witnessed their team playing the Red Devils out of the park.  

Los Leones won the match 3-2 and won the return leg at San Mamés 2-1 to complete a 5-3 hammering of a star-studded Manchester United

It was a tactical masterclass from Bielsa, which saw him overcome one of the greatest football minds of all time in Sir Alex Ferguson. 

The 64-year-old has garnered somewhat of a mad scientist status in football because of his unique philosophies and eccentric behaviours.

During his managerial stint at Vélez Sarsfield, he turned up in his player Martín Posse’s wedding with a VHS tape of a match he wanted the forward to study.

When he was managing Newell’s Old Boys, he locked himself up in a hotel room for 48 hours to grieve a 6-0 defeat to San Lorenzo. His nickname El Loco translates as “The Lunatic” in English.

Apparently, he got the name when he threatened to chop off Newell’s defender Fernando Gamboa’s fingers if they lost.

The enigmatic Argentine stole the limelight once again as he orchestrated Leeds United’s return to English top-flight after 16 years.

Today, we will take a brief look at his career and relive some of the craziest Marcelo Bielsa stories.

Early Days

Marcelo Bielsa Young Football player

Bielsa realized at an early stage in his playing career that he would not make it as a footballer. So, he hung up his boots at the age of 25 and focused on a managerial career instead.

He was obsessed with football tactics and had subscriptions to 40 football publications. Arrigo Sacchi was his earliest inspiration for pursuing football management. Bielsa’s football ideology is heavily influenced by the Italian great. 

His first gig as a football coach was at the University of Buenos Aires. He had famously scouted 3000 players to build a 20-man squad there.

Later on, he took the reigns of Newell’s Old Boys youth team, where he scouted and signed the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Gabriel Batistuta.

Eventually, the club appointed him as the senior team manager. He won the Torneo Clausura (Argentine first division) with the club in 1992.

They also reached the final of Copa Libertadores that year but lost to Brazilian giants São Paulo. He then spent some time in Mexico coaching Atlas and Club América.

After returning to Argentina, Bielsa won the top division again in 1998. This time he was managing Vélez Sarsfield.

He received Espanyol’s offer to get his first coaching job in European football.

However, he left immediately when the Argentina Football Association approached him for the national team position.

Coaching Argentina And Chile

Ex Argentina Coach Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo Bielsa

La Albiceleste played two Copa Americas and a World Cup under Bielsa. In his first major assignment for Argentina, Bielsa saw his team lose 3-0 to Columbia at the quarter-finals of Copa America 1999.

Three years later, Argentina failed to progress the World Cup group stages despite being touted as one of the favorites to lift the trophy. 

However, the AFA still had its trust in Bielsa. In 2004, Argentina made it to the Copa America final playing some scintillating football along the way. But, they lost to arch-rivals Brazil in the final.

The same year, Bielsa took Argentina to the Athens Olympics and won the gold medal. He resigned a few months after the competition.

Chile then signed him up, hoping for a return to the World Cup after missing out in 2002 and 2006.

Bielsa prioritized on identifying younger talents and implementing a more attacking playing style.

Under Bielsa, Chile recorded their first-ever competitive win over Argentina and also avoided defeat for the very first time playing away in Uruguay. 

La Roja qualified for the World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Bielsa and his Chile side earned rave reviews from pundits for their performances in the tournament, despite a Round-of-16 exit to Brazil. 

Managing In Europe

Because of his ideological differences with newly elected Chilean Football Board President Jorge Segovia, Bielsa left Chile in 2011 and moved to Europe.

He took charge of Athletic Bilbao in 2011 and reached a Copa del Rey final and a Europa League final with them. Agonizingly, he lost on both occasions.

Athletic Bilbao chose not to renew Bielsa’s contract after the Basques finished 12th in La Liga 2012/13 season.

In 2014, Marseilles announced they have signed Marcelo Bielsa as their new manager.

Les Phocéens topped the Ligue 1 table halfway through the season. But, they lost momentum and finished the season 4th.

Following a fallout with the club hierarchy, Bielsa walked away from the club right after the start of the 2015/16 season.

In 2016, Bielsa left Lazio just two days after signing a new contract with the Serie A club. Bielsa claimed that the club didn’t follow up on its promise to deliver the players he had wanted.

He was also unconvinced that Lazio would have given him the freedom he required to flourish.

He had a brief stint at Lille, where the club terminated their arrangement mid-season after a string of below par results.

Marcelo Bielsa At Leeds United

El Loco (Marcelo Bielsa) At Leeds United

Leeds United made a surprise announcement in 2018 that they have appointed Marcelo Bielsa as their new head coach. 

Bielsa started strong as he became the first Leeds boss to win all of his first four matches.

However, controversy continued to shadow the Argentine as he had sent one of his coaching staff to spy on Derby County training.

While Bielsa refused to admit he didn’t do anything wrong, the EFL imposed a hefty £200k fine on Leeds.

A series of injuries derailed the West Yorkshire club’s Championship campaign in 2018/19. They finished third and were knocked out from the play-offs by Derby.

However, Bielsa guided Leeds to Championship glory this season and earned them a place in the Premier League 2020/21 in the process.

Craziest Marcelo Bielsa Stories

Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most eccentric characters football has ever seen. There are countless insane stories about the one of a kind manager. We have featured some of them here.

Stripping Off After A Game

Chile national team stars Jose Pedro Fuenzalida and Mark Gonzalez relived a hilarious but embarrassing Marcelo Bielsa story when they appeared on Chilean TV program Abrazo de gol.

The duo recalled that after a Chile loss, Bielsa came inside the La Roja dressing roomand stripped naked all of a sudden.

‘’There was another dressing room at the side of us. Suddenly, we went in it and he had stripped off. He was on a stretcher as if he were going to be operated on. He was like that for about half an hour, completely nude.’’

Gonzalez recollects.

Jose Pedro Fuenzalida harked back to a similar incident as well when Chile lost the final of the Esperanzas de Toulon tournament to Italy in 2008. In his words-

“After losing the Esperanzas de Toulon tournament, something similar happened. We went into the dressing room and got totally surprised by Bielsa. He had taken his clothes off and he kept walking around.’’

Jose Pedro Fuenzalida

Chasing Ultras With A Grenade

Back in 1992, Newell’s Old Boys ultras had surrounded Bielsa’s home after the club’s humiliating 6-0 defeat to San Lorenzo in a Copa Libertadores semifinal.

The angry mob was protesting in front of his house and demanded that Bielsa came out and answered their quarries in person. When Bielsa did come out, the Barras Bravas fled the scene in sheer terror.

Bielsa steeped outside with a grenade in his hand. He threatened to take the pin off if the mob hadn’t dispersed immediately. The crowd scattered as soon as they saw the grenade.

Eyewitnesses claim Bielsa had chased them down the street with the grenade still clenched on his palm.

“The madness sparkled in his eyes. Nobody could look at Bielsa, only at the grenade in his hand. We imagined he would face us with a shotgun, not a grenade.”

One of the fans told Kaiser magazine

Pep Guardiola’s Pilgrimage

This is not a typical Marcelo Bielsa anecdote full of insanity. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating one that all football romantics would love to know.

In his Marcelo Bielsa book The Quality of Madness: The Life of Marcelo Bielsa, author Tim Rich narrates how a visit to Bielsa’s Rosario farm had inspired the football ideology of one of the most successful managers in history. 

When Guardiola was nearing the end of his playing career in 2003, he was plotting a future in management. He was playing for Roma back then alongside the likes of Gabriel Batistuta.

The legendary Argentina striker had advised Guardiola to consult Bielsa before partaking in football management.

Three years later, Guardiola decided to take up on Batigoal’s advice. He embarked on a 5000-mile journey to meet Bielsa on his Argentine countryside farm.

The would-be Barcelona manager took a mutual acquaintance along as an icebreaker. His travel companion was prominent Spanish film director David Trueba. 

Cinema is one of Bielsa’s most favorite pastime activities. Rich writes that Bielsa would go on to watch two films a day when the workload is light.

The former Argentina coach welcomed the duo with a special Argentine barbecue named asado. Guardiola was fascinated to see Bielsa’s personal library, which contained no less than 10,000 books and videotapes on football. 

In a conversation that stretched on for hours, Guardiola picked Bielsa’s brain about his football tactics and managerial beliefs. Besides on-pitch matters, he also asked him about the roles he needs to play off-pitch.

The heart-to-heart chat they had that night had a massive influence on Guardiola’s views both on and off the pitch.

Threatening To Cut Off Gamboa’s Finger

Before the derby encounter with Rosario Central in 1990, tensions were flying high in the Newell’s Old Boys camp. Marcelo Bielsa was desperate to get the better of their local rivals and was conducting his notoriously exhausting pre-match training drills.

Bielsa took aside his defender Fernando Gamboa and told him that he would not settle for anything but a win.

Gamboa echoed the sentiment of his coach but failed to impress him. Bielsa asked Gamboa if he was willing to give up a finger if it guaranteed a win. Did he wanted to win that much?

Unsurprisingly, the young defender was unsettled by this question. Bielsa threatened to cut off one of his fingers if they failed to win the derby.

The intimidation worked wonders as Gamboa scored the first goal for Newell’s in an exhilarating 4-3 win.


After putting an end to his bittersweet spell as the Argentina manager, Bielsa joined a covenant and lived three months at a remote Argentine monastery. He had no access to television or telephones.

He completely detached himself from the outside world. This was his way of seeking penance for not being able to achieve greater success for his motherland. 

He didn’t return to normal life after leaving the monastery. He still wanted to live under the radar, so he temporarily retired to his farm where he lived in obscurity for three more years.

But, all this time, he never went away from the game he lived. He kept on studying football and worked on evolving his tactical approach.  

Signed Mauricio Pochettino In His Sleep

Former Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino got his break as a footballer via Marcelo Bielsa. Pochettino had played under Bielsa in Newell’s Old Boys youth setup and the senior squad afterward.

Pochettino attributes his development as a player to Bielsa. However, he still breaks out in laughter, reminiscing the bizarre occasion when Bielsa had signed him.

In 1985, Bielsa was in charge of the Newell’s Old Boys youth team. He and his colleague Jorge Griffa visited the Pochettino family. They traveled to the Murphy, Santa Fe, where the Pochettinos lived.

Scouts meeting the player’s family before signing are common practice. However, very few of them would show up at a player’s house at 2 in the morning!

Pochettino was long asleep when Bielsa and Griffa came to his house. They didn’t want to wake him up, but Bielsa rather strangely asked for permission to inspect Pochettino’s legs.

His parents were dumbfounded by the peculiar request, but they obliged. Bielsa saw his legs and felt convinced that he would be a good footballer.

He finalized the contract right there with Pochettino’s parents. The former Argentina defender didn’t even know that he had signed for Newell’s Old Boys until the next morning.

Mistaken For A Kidnapper

The Argentina national team camped at the city of Ezeiza in 2001. At that time, kidnappings were on the rise in the area. So, the AFA arranged for additional security around the camp to make certain Bielsa and the players remain safe.

Bielsa would often go out for a run at night, and when he did he carried a portable CD player with him. He had burned CDs full of tactical details and used to listen to this on his Discman.

One night, he went out for a run at 2AM. He had a woolly cap on and his ears were plugged with headphones. He cut a suspicious figure from the distance, so the police on duty thought he broke into the area to kidnap someone.

They ordered him to stop, but he couldn’t listen because of the headphones. When the security chased him down, Bielsa realized what was going on. He put his hands up and nervously started to scream “Don’t shoot! I’m Bielsa!”

Marcelo Bielsa Tactics

Marcelo Bielsa Attacking Tactics

Marcelo Bielsa formulated a unique 3-3-1-3 attacking formation while coaching Newell Old Boys. His Leeds United side starts the match in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

During attacking transitions, they resort to signature Marcelo Bielsa tactics and assume the 3-3-1-3 shape.

Doing so, they flood the opposition half with their players, and fullbacks push forward to provide more width.

The central midfielders bear the most responsibilities in such a dynamic system.

They dictate the tempo of the game, shields the defence from counter-attacks, and weave an intricate passing network to destabilize the opposition defence.

Marcelo Bielsa Quotes

“You can choose to become the best left-back in the world. But by choosing that you would be taking time away from your wife, from your friends, you will be quitting parties and fun. You have a big problem – a very, very big problem. You have a lot of money but you do not have time to enjoy the money you have got and what the money can give you in terms of happiness.

I know it because I have seen it many times throughout my career. You would like to buy time with all the money you have. You would pay for time as any person would do if given the chance. So, being successful in your job does not imply at the same time that you are going to be happy. And that is a choice you should make.

I want him to know that. But you can choose not to be the best left-back in the world, and what would be the problem with that? There is no problem at all.”

Marcelo Bielsa to his former player Benjamin Mendy about the priorities of life.
Marcelo Bielsa Quotes
Marcelo Bielsa Quotes

“I die after each defeat. The week that follows is hell. When the mistakes are of such a grotesque magnitude, the conclusion has to be that the manager is responsible.”

Marcelo Bielsa opens up about his feelings after losing a game.

“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.”

Marcelo Bielsa on his unorthodox ideas.

“Attacking football is the simplest way to victory and success. In Argentina, we are aware of this, which is why we play open, attacking football.”

Marcelo Bielsa explaining his obsession with attacking football.

”Everyone who is a part of this business that football has become is replaceable. The only people who cannot be replaced are you, the fans. The people who don’t ask for anything in return, only emotions.”

Marcelo Bielsa on the role of fans in football.

Final Words

Marcelo Bielsa didn’t have a trophy-laden career. But, he cemented his name in football folklore with his visionary ideas.

He has morphed the football philosophies of many modern-day managers-Pep Guardiola (Manchester City Football Club) and Mauricio Pochettino to name a few.

Football fans wait to see what the maverick manager has in store for them in the Premier League next season.

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