Marcelo Bielsa: The strange fascination 

ROSARIO in Argentina has given the world a number of noteworthy people; rebel leader Che Guevara, avant garde jazz musician Gato Barbieri, World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti, the one and only Lionel Messi and a certain Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera.

There are few coaches in the modern game that are talked about as much as Bielsa. He cuts an eccentric figure, sitting on his blue bucket, sips coffee, looks down as if he still cannot get used to his vari-focal specs, and his post-match interviews, aided by a translator, are demure and to the point. 

In an industry that is renowned for its hubris, Bielsa has a somewhat humble image that endears him to so many people. There’s an assumption that all that goes on inside his head is intellectual, very considered and full of colourful theory. He is seen as an oddly exotic creature, but at the same time, his ordinariness makes him lovable.

There’s no denying Bielsa is a much-loved figure in the game, why else would his record, which is far from the win-at-all-costs ethos of coaches like José Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, be tolerated by Leeds United, a club whose history includes a decade of ultra-professionalism, between 1964 and 1974 that divided the football world.

Bielsa is seen just as important as the Velvet Underground were to the development of rock music. Success is not necessarily measured by the number of trophies (or gold discs) won, but by the impact made. His methods have been replicated by proteges and observers and virtually every major coach in the game will reference him as a major inspiration.

In this age of data-driven analysis, a win rate of 48.8% would not be seen as a rip-roaring success, but stats do not always tell the whole story. There’s no doubt that some clubs would not be impressed by such a record and that would mean a taxi to the airport. But Bielsa’s advocates delight at what he can do for a club. At Leeds United, he took them back to the Premier League and in their first season, they finished ninth and won over audiences with their high energy style. 

Although Leeds United’s board will be aware that any move to unseat Bielsa, bucket or no bucket, would be a catastrophic PR event if handled badly, the team’s form in 2021-22 is a major cause for concern. Leeds have struggled, largely because Bielsa operates with a relatively small squad and also, the absence of England midfielder Kalvin Phillips has cost them dear. They have also been without leading marksman Patrick Bamford and consequently, have struggled to score goals.

Phillips has certainly left a hole when he has been sidelined. He’s missed seven games and they’ve won just one of those and lost five. When Phillips has been in the side, Leeds have lost three times in 12 Premier games. Some of the results have been dreadful, such as the 7-0 demolition at Manchester City and a 4-1 home defeat against Arsenal. Bielsa himself has said he is not immune to the sack, but there’s an assumption Leeds will not actually show him the door, but his personal ethics might force him to resign if he felt things were not going to get better. As journalist and Bielsa fan Jonathan Wilson, said, Bielsa has a certain degree of integrity and humility – characteristics that would surely let him know when the goodwill had run out.

Before Bielsa arrived at Leeds in 2018, a lot of football followers in Britain would have been forgiven for not knowing too much about the avuncular figure in a tracksuit with glasses dangling around his neck. At fan level, football is essentially all about winning trophies and players, coaches come and go these days with alarming regularity. Yet read any article about Bielsa’s past players and nobody has a negative word to say about him, in fact, the affection is overwhelming. Generally, they believe he makes players better and has innovative ideas that often border on the bizarre. Interestingly, he has never managed an elite club, perhaps because theory gains respect, but not always silverware.

In Britain, we have a weird fascination for Argentina that probably started in 1966 when Sir Alf called their team, “animals”. Then there was Estudiantes and Manchester United, Eva Peron and the musical that dominated the late 1970s, the Falklands War, Maradona and the “Hand of God” and of course, little Messi. 

Bielsa may also be seen as a “hipster affectation” by some sceptics, but he’s arguably the most interesting foreign import since Eric Cantona. Those same doubters might also look at a 7-0 defeat and Bielsa’s almost suicidal style as signs of a stubborn coach with limited vision, but it may also just be because the quality of coaches in the Premier League is so high now competition has become so brutal. Leeds may have overperformed in 2020-21 with a wage bill that was among the lowest in the Premier League, so was 2021-22 always going to be an anti-climax?

Bielsa is not a long haul employee, either, and his 162 games at Leeds represent the biggest stretch in a job with either a club or country. After the 2020-21 season, some Leeds supporters might have hoped for a stab at European football, but the current campaign is going to be all about survival, unless something dramatic changes in the next few weeks.

Although his achievements at Leeds are acknowledged and the fans appreciate the identity Bielsa has given the club, there are critics who would like to see him depart Elland Road. Ultimately, the results will determine how much of a future he has at Leeds, but calls for more conventional, “slug it out” bosses to be employed would not only turn out the bright lights that have shone at Elland Road, but would also make Leeds just another club outside the top six. At this moment, they have to decide which path to follow if the current situation badly deteriorates. One thing is certain, though, Bielsa has been very instrumental in the rebirth of Leeds United and he will be spoken of long after his time in Yorkshire.

It’s getting messy over Lionel

LIONEL MESSI is a free agent. That news would normally spark off a wave of transfer speculation, interested parties circling the Camp Nou and non-stop media coverage. Nobody seriously expects Messi to leave Barcelona, least of all the club’s president, Joan Laporte. 

The recently-appointed top man at Barca urges fans to keep calm and assures everyone that talks are in progress and going well. Should Messi go, it would be a travesty for a club low on confidence and liquidity. The family silver – and there’s plenty of it at Barca – may have to be pawned in order to keep him in the Catalan capital. 

Where would he go if not Barca? The Manchester Evening News said Manchester City have nothing to lose if they make a bid to take the Argentinian to the Etihad. They list Messi among possible signings such as Harry Kane and Jack Grealish. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror said Paris Saint-Germain are monitoring the situation, but they also have eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba. 

Spanish football expert Guillem Balague told the BBC Barcelona had raised the level of urgency over contract talks, but there are complications. “They want him to sign as soon as possible, but the timing will be dictated by tax issues, Messi’s wages and fitting a new contract within La Liga’s financial fair play rules.” Apparently, Barca have to reduce their wage bill by € 200 million. 

Copa, what Copa?

Messi is currently in action in Brazil, playing for Argentina in the very low-key Copa América. The wisdom of playing the competition in a covid-19 environment that has seen 465,000 deaths is one thing, but the 11th hour switch to Brazil, the timing and the format really do raise questions about CONMEBOL. 

Two groups of five, playing four games apiece in order to reduce the field from 10 to eight. Brazilian senator Renan Calheiros has been opposed to the Copa taking place, calling it the “Championship of death”.

Not surprisingly, coverage of the Copa América has been scant, even though the BBC have been showing the games. For Messi, it’s another chance for him to win something with his country, but who will notice? 

The trials of Rafa

Rafa Benitez has accepted the job as Everton coach and fans are protesting about the former Liverpool boss being named as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor. Benitez remains one of football’s most employable managers, but it isn’t the first time complaints have poured in following his appointment. At Chelsea, his arrival was greeted with jeers and banners referring to his time at Liverpool. 

Yes, Benitez was manager at Anfield and won the Champions League, but that doesn’t make him forever a red, even though the famous “small club” comment about Everton has never been forgotten. 

Benitez won the Europa League with Chelsea in 2013 and did a good at Stamford Bridge, but he was constantly abused and largely unappreciated. 

He can expect similar at Everton from some Goodison regulars judging by the early reaction. In a few months, they may start to realise that they have secured a top-class coach who knows the game inside out. He told the Liverpool Echo: “I am here, I will fight for my club, I will try to win every single game, and it doesn’t matter who the opponents are, or the rivals. It is something you have to do, it is your nature, that you have to try to do your best.”

The newspaper added: “While it is wrong to say Benitez is a busted flush in terms of management, undoubtedly his recent record has been one of diminishing returns. And, as his old foe José Mourinho is discovering, the game moves on.”

The spirit of Nuno

Finally, Spurs got their man, or rather, got a man. Nuno Espirito Santo is a decent fellow, likeable by all accounts, but he’s no more proficient than the men they let go over the past two years, Mauricio Pochettino and José Mourinho. It has been a struggle for Spurs and this may have been due to a lack of available candidates as well as the club’s lack of success.

Daniel Levy, speaking to the Guardian, said he was keen for Spurs to revert to “our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football” and that Nuno as the man to do it.

With 60 years now passed since they won a league title, Spurs are in desperate need of a trophy, but then so is Nuno. He has yet to win a major honour as a manager. Perhaps they can break new ground together?

Sources: The Guardian, CNN, The Daily Mirror, BBC, Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News.

@GameofthePeople
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South American appeal may grow in Brexit Britain

WITH Britain now divorced from the European Union, the early indications suggest it will be a little harder for FA Premier League sides to sign players from some of their traditional markets. At the same time, in the new order, South America could become a more accessible market. Anyone thinking that leaving the EU may give young English players a better chance of making the grade could be mistaken. The transfer market is an industry in itself, those who work in and around it will ensure activity continues in some shape or form. Wherever there are hurdles in business, there’s a sub-industry that works on solving the problems.

South America is already an attractive market for European clubs. Across the main leagues, there are some 200 players from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and other countries. There are just under 50 currently with Premier League clubs, half of which are Brazilian.

Global force

Spain, Portugal, England and Italy are the biggest European takers of South American talent, but Brazilians can be found all over the world, even in the most remote places. In fact, Brazilians constitute the only truly global force in the football labour market. According to CIES Football Observatory, there are over 1,300 Brazilians playing across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Players from Argentina and Brazil represent just under 10% of all recruitments across the big five leagues in Europe.           

England’s big six clubs have, over the past 20 years, been increasingly interested in Latin American talent. Firstly, they are technically superior to many European players and secondly, they offer good value for money. Thirdly, they are marketable and can produce good returns in player trading.

In the past, South Americans were rare in English football and often, they struggled to adapt. Of course, the most high profile arrivals in the pre-Premier era were Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, who joined Tottenham in 1978 just weeks after being part of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad. Ardiles was a success, but Villa struggled at times. Others, such as Alberto Tarantini (Birmingham), Juninho (Middlesbrough) and Mirandinha (Newcastle) had mixed fortunes.

Adapted

In the modern era, South American players have adapted better, largely because of the global nature of football and also a reflection of how the English game is now played. Television has made South Americans less of a mystery package, but climate and culture still means there can be an adjustment period.

There’s another important factor and that’s the commercialisation of player movement from South America to Europe. The number of expatriate Brazilians and Argentinians tells you there is an established trade route and a system in place to take young talent from these countries to Europe’s major clubs. Portuguese clubs have been especially adept at acquiring players from Brazil and other countries and making good profits when trading them at a later stage in their careers. Portugal, especially clubs like Porto, Sporting and Benfica, has become a stepping stone for many players.

Porto, for example, have spent € 150 million on Brazilian players and generated income of € 307 million over the past 10 years. Barcelona have spent € 542 million on Brazilians, while the biggest buyer of talent from Brazil in England has been Manchester City (€ 252m) and Chelsea (€ 212m). As for Argentina, the Italians lead the way, Inter spending € 217 million and Juventus € 190 million.

In the same timeframe, Porto’s total income from the transfer market has topped € 1.12 billion and their net balance was € 526 million. Benfica, their big domestic rivals, have generated € 1.18 billion with a net balance of € 637 million.

At the same time, selling players has been a vital source of income for South American clubs. River Plate and Boca Juniors, over the past decade, have enjoyed positive transfer market balances of € 303 million and € 216 million respectively, and in Brazil, São Paulo (€ 222m) and Santos (€265m) have had healthy surpluses.

Values

There’s good money to be made in taking players to Europe. A prime example is Lautaro Martinez, the 23 year-old Inter Milan forward, who was signed from Racing Club Buenos Aires for € 25 million and is now valued between € 80 and € 100 million. Richarlison, is another player whose value has shot up, signed for € 12.5 million by Watford from Fluminense and, under a year later, sold to Everton for double that price. He is now valued at upwards of € 60 million.

There’s an added competition to the traditional trade route in that the US is now appealing to young South American players and by 2019, there were 100 registered on Major League Soccer (MLS) rosters. One of the big attractions is the financial stability of MLS – wages are guaranteed and in South America that isn’t always the case.

However, there’s more South Americans among the top English clubs than at any time in the past 20 years. The “big six” have 23 on their books at the moment, a decade ago it was just 15 and in 2000-01, it was five. Tottenham have half a dozen at the moment and all the others have at least three.

The Football Association has issued a lengthy document on the rules concerning the signing of overseas players. It makes clear that from the start of 2021, clubs cannot sign players freely from the European Union. There are now major restrictions around how many players can be signed and how many signings can be under-21 years of age. Also, it is clear that players under the age of 18 cannot be signed. Like the immigration rules, the FA is operating a points-based system. Players will have to meet the required number of points to gain a Governing Body Endorsement which allows them to work in England.

The prospect of South Americans playing in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga still excites the fans. Brazil and Argentina may not be the powerful forces they once were on the world stage, but football is still a second religion in these countries. They can still produce brilliance in abundance.

@GameofthePeople
Photos: PA Images