Exciting Times Ahead: What Can We Expect From Lille Under Marcelo Bielsa?
Change will be abundant in Northern France this season as cult hero El Loco takes over the helm at Lille.
On the 19th February it was announced that Lille OSC had organised their replacement for interim coach Patrick Collot. Franck Passi was to take over as caretaker until the end of the season, when Marcelo Bielsa was to take over permanently. Bielsa, or ‘El Loco’ (the crazy one) as he is affectionately known by fans, will be bringing his attacking, high-octane football to Northern France, but that is not the only change happening within the club.
On 26th of January it was announced that investor Gérard Lopez had taken over as majority shareholder and president of the club from Michel Seydoux. Lopez took no time to signal his ambition for the club claiming that
“I want LOSC to be one of those teams going for the title within two years, or at least, in the top three. Taking over at LOSC and not having ambition in Ligue 1 would be a lack of respect for the club.”
Lopez then backed up his opening statements with key appointments at the club that supported his aspiration. Not long after his buyout of the club, Lopez announced Luis Campos would be the new sporting director for Lille, after Campos had resigned from his role at Monaco. Campos brings both experience and success to the role at the club, being the man at Monaco who signed most of the youth prospects who this season rolled to the Ligue 1 title. Given Bielsa’s eagerness to play and develop youth, having a sporting director such as Campos should prove to be an exciting proposition.
Another boardroom signing from Lopez is bringing business associate Mark Ingla to the club. Ingla was the Vice-Chairman at FC Barcelona between 2003 and 2008 where he oversaw remarkable club development, as well as incredibly lucrative commercial deals.
Bielsa will not be walking into Ligue 1 a complete stranger, for the Argentine previously managed Marseille for the 2014-2015 season, as well as a farcical single game the following season.
Bielsa’s time at Marseille started off incredibly well, with his high intensity football taking Ligue 1 by storm. By December, Marseille were sitting atop the league, however the taxing style of play lead to a series of stumbles in the second half of the season, including a run of four consecutive defeats that lead to a, still respectable, fourth placed finish.
After relations between the board and manager began to sour, Bielsa used the post-match conference for the following season’s first match to resign, unknown to the squad or board prior to the conference.
Despite the manner in which he left the south coast there were rumours that he was going to be brought back to the club when Gérard Lopez was looking to purchase the club. As it eventuated Frank McCourt ended up purchasing Marseille, whilst Lopez bought Lille and took Bielsa with him there. Despite his return to the club not happening, ‘El Loco’ is still held in high regard by the Marseille faithful.
Bielsa’s teams play a style of football that endears him to fans and the neutrals alike. His teams press high, and maintain a seemingly impossibly high tempo throughout the match. He famously plays a unique 3-3-1-3 formation, with wing backs that tend to cut inwards rather than staying in wide positions. He enjoys playing “un enganche y tres punta”, a playmaker and three forwards, in what is invariably an attacking style of football.
Due to the high press and man marking, his sides are always quite vulnerable to the counter attack, which will be interesting to see how a side that conceded 47 goals this season adapts to the defensive duties of the new system. Bielsa’s Marseille team last time around, which was inarguably better than what he will currently have at his disposal, managed to limit the opposition to 42 goals, whilst scoring 76 of their own.
Bielsa is renowned for being an intense manager, giving his team incredibly strenuous training sessions. This has proved highly effective for short bursts, however his teams regularly suffer a drop in form late in seasons. This drop off was noticeable at both Marseille and Athletic Bilbao when the sides looked to be world beaters early in the season before an almost crisis-like drop off late in the season.
What really speaks volumes about both Bielsa as a person, as well as the style of football that he employs is the esteem in which he is held within world football. Jorge Sampaoli, Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola have all spoken on several occasions in glowing terms for Bielsa, and he is still held in almost religious fervour by fans of the clubs that he has managed. Why is this unusual? Many managers are treated as semi-divine, the difference here is that there is a distinct disequilibrium between the support for Bielsa, and his level of success, at least in terms of trophies won. A large part of the reason for this support is his football, fans love the fast, free-flowing football that his teams play, in an age of boring pragmatism he makes football enjoyable every week.
Bielsa got his first management opportunity with his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys in 1990, staying with the club for 2 years and winning the 1991 Apertura, and the 1992 Clausura before moving to several different roles across Mexico and Argentina.
A short stint with Spanish club Espanyol followed, before the two international roles where he really made his name.
In 1998 Bielsa took over the Argentine national team, despite some early exits in competitions, Bielsa’s squad eventually won Olympic gold, and were runners up in the Copa America, both in 2004.
His time with Argentina eventually came to a close, where he then moved on to coach the Chilean national team. Despite not winning any honours with Chile he was, once again, a fan favourite. Bielsa masterminded Chile’s first ever win over Argentina in an official match, as well as the country’s first win over Uruguay in Montevideo.
Bielsa also managed to lead Chile to qualification for the 2010 World Cup after a long absence from the competition. Despite only making it to the round of 16 before a brave loss to Brazil, the Chile fans started a campaign for Bielsa to stay when it was announced he would not be renewing his contract after the competition. Bielsa left a legacy for the national team by breaking a major competition drought, as well as blooding a series of youngsters that would go on to form the core for the team’s “golden generation” a few years later.
Later that year Bielsa was announced as the new manager at Basque club Athletic Bilbao. Bielsa once again, implemented his exciting, fast paced football and won many admirers for the style. Under his management Bilbao made an exciting Europa League run, famously dispatching Manchester United. They finally lost to Atlético in the final, but won a lot of plaudits along the way.
Another runners up medal that year, this time in the Copa del Rey, were his only honours in his two years at the club.
It was after a year off that Bielsa eventually made his aforementioned move to Marseille.
Whether Bielsa will be a success at Lille is anyone’s guess. What is for certain though is that the potential is there for Bielsa to make a good time of it; from the president to the sporting director to the manager, everyone has been brought together for this project. If Bielsa can get along with Lopez and Campos, which given early interactions seems as though it will happen, then perhaps the youth inspired renaissance that Lopez has suggested will come to fruition.
One key question that will need to be answered is whether or not a youthful Lille team will have the energy to complete the season under Bielsa’s strict, intense methods or will they suffer a late season drop off.
Interestingly, Bielsa has been given a two year contract, given that he hasn’t stayed with a club for longer than that, that may be an example of foreshadowing.
One thing that will be certain, with Campos recruiting the players, and Bielsa moulding them to his style, there will be goals and excitement. Attractive football is coming back to Northern France to reinvigorate a former power, if you needed a reason to watch Ligue 1 this season, this is it.