Marcelo Bielsa’s teams are just different. If you’re watching a game with the Argentine manning the sidelines, it’s obvious within minutes. His sides run more and they run differently than any other team in the world. With his unique approach, Bielsa has influenced managers from Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola to Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. Chile’s current national team coach, Jorge Sampaoli, proudly counts himself as one of the most devout Bielsistas around, and his side was the most fun and most different team at last summer’s World Cup.
Since he’s such an influential brain, Bielsa’s philosophy often gets treated as if it’s a complicated work of genius, somewhere between the triangle offense and The Art of War. Except it’s not complicated at all. Bielsa’s game plans are built on an exceedingly simple premise: Man-mark and press the hell out of your opponent. It’s what allowed him to turn Marseille into contenders for the Ligue 1 crown, it’s what was responsible for his side taking a 2-1 lead against Paris Saint-Germain yesterday — and it’s also why they had nothing left for a comeback once they fell behind 3-2.
Man-Marking at All Costs
Allegedly, Marseille lined up in a 3-3-3-1 formation yesterday. That is an exceedingly odd and unrealistic setup of positions and responsibilities. The reality was something more like this:
Like every Bielsa team since the beginning of time, Marseille man-mark all over the field. Man-marking isn’t particularly novel, as most teams use it to a limited degree within a larger structure of a defense. It’s a component, not a philosophy — unless you’re Bielsa. His men run around tirelessly, chasing their assigned opponents in an attempt to force the opposition attack as far back as possible. As long as it’s where the guys they’re marking happen to be, it’s not at all unusual to witness six or seven Bielsa pawns flying into the opponent’s end immediately after losing the ball. It’s not complicated; it’s just incompatible with traditional tactical notation.
Sometimes that man-marking creates goals. For Marseille’s second against PSG, they pressed midfielder Marco Verratti deep in his own territory and the Italian made a bad decision, choosing a dangerous pass to a retreating Javier Pastore, who — surprise, surprise — was also being tightly man-marked. Pastore never really had a chance to control the ball, it bounced to André-Pierre Gignac, and — voilà:
However, just moments before Gignac’s goal, we saw the downside of Bielsa’s approach when Blaise Matuidi scored this beautiful right-footed curler.
Matuidi completely loses his man when he fakes with his left, which is understandable: The Frenchman is left-footed and frequently does awesome things with said foot. But after the defender goes flying, Matuidi suddenly has acres of space to line up his curler — even though he’s at the top of the box, an area that most normal defenses focus on crowding with bodies. As we’ve already noted, though, Bielsa’s defenses are anything but normal.
No Defensive Shape
Beyond the swirling, hornet’s-nest pressing, what was most noticeable about Marseille’s defensive approach yesterday was the total lack of structure along the defensive line. A set back three or four that does things like defend space, pressure and cover as a unit, or play an offside trap simply doesn’t exist for Bielsa. Instead, there’s just one guy acting as a free safety while everybody else mans up. The biggest problem with this approach is that when good teams, like PSG, start beating their individual markers in the midfield, it forces the free safety to come pick up the now-free midfielder runner, thus creating dangerous one-on-one opportunities all over the place. PSG’s winner came on a Jérémy Morel own goal, but it was caused by Morel being isolated in the center of the box with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And PSG’s third wasn’t a one-off, either: They managed 14 shots, 12 of which came from inside the box, often at point-blank range.
Four Four Two
In general, pressing is supposed to cut off the supply lines before an opponent can even get into position to take these high-value shots. Still, no press is perfect, so these teams are conceding that whenever the press is broken, they’ll allow more dangerous shots on average than a more conservative defense might. But this is extreme in both raw numbers and shot quality. They conceded three goals, but Marseille needed a great performance from keeper Steve Mandanda just to keep it at that.
Don’t Stop Running
Bielsa may look at his team’s performance and decide that his system operated as it was supposed to, only for execution to let his side down. Famously demanding of his players, the Argentine employs a system that essentially requires his side to run inhumane distances over the course of 90 minutes. As he’s said in the past, “Running is commitment, running is understanding, running is everything.”
This isn’t the counterpress of Borussia Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp, which is itself highly demanding, or the controlled, aggressive positioning of a Guardiola team. Much of the aim of both of those systems is to limit the amount of running a team has to do in defense. By employing heavy zone principles, they both seek to compress the field in the opponent’s half, to force them to give the ball back quickly, and to do it all without expending too much effort running up and down the field.
Bielsa’s system, however, is built on running more than the other team, eating them up and down the field in a helter-skelter track meet. When Bielsa was at Athletic Bilbao, Guardiola described his team as such: “They all run up … and they all run down again. Up, down, up, down, up, down. They’re fascinating.” It’s a great approach — as long as the players buy in.
As Bielsa’s time at Athletic Bilbao wound down, though, there were rumors that players were fed up with being asked to perform such herculean feats and then being blamed when their bodies couldn’t hold up. And as the game wore down on Sunday, it was clear that Marseilles simply didn’t have the legs to mount a comeback. Down a goal and with 30 minutes to go in the most important match of their season — a time when most teams would throw bodies forward in pursuit of a potential equalizer — Marseille looked completely spent. Only four of their 17 shots came in the last half hour.
Of course, much of Marseille’s late-game ineffectiveness stems from PSG’s ability to close down the match with sustained periods of possession and conservative defensive positioning. But then again, the whole point of the Bielsa method is to win back the ball quickly and overcome closed teams with waves of energy.
Ultimately, Marseille were brilliant for two-thirds of Sunday’s game before finally fading away. It’s reminiscent of their revolutionary Argentine manager’s career: Come out on fire, blow people away with your energy, and then flame out in a blaze of glory before reaching the finish line. It’s not that Bielsa’s methods don’t work; it’s just that, as Marseille found out yesterday, they don’t work for long enough.