Marcelo Bielsa marrying his risk-rich vision with traditional Uruguay cynicism

In an impassioned soliloquy before gathered reporters ahead of Uruguay’s Copa America quarter-final against Brazil last weekend, Marcelo Bielsa eloquently articulated his fear that the beautiful game is dying a slow and very public death.

“Football has more and more spectators but is becoming less and less attractive,” he said.

“No matter how many people watch football, if you don’t ensure that what people watch is something pleasant, it will only benefit the business. Because the business only cares about how many people watch it.

“But in a few years, the players who deserve to be watched will be less, and the game produced becomes less enjoyable, this current artificial increase in spectators will end.

“Football is not just the five minutes of highlights. Football is much more than that, it is a cultural expression, it is a way of identification.”

Just as many devotees of the global game, the football purists, have long identified with Bielsa’s tactical and philosophical approach, so too are Bielsa-coached teams easily identifiable for the non-negotiable principles to which they adhere: intense high pressing, fast and direct attacking play and, often, some variation of a 3-3-1-3 formation.

Bielsa’s signature style has brought him widespread acclaim from fans, players and coaches. He is a doyen of the coaching world, with some of the most respected managers – Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino – counted among his devotees. For the enormous sphere of influence he has generated, though, Bielsa has not always been as successful at the highest level as many of the coaches who have borrowed from his playbook.

👉 American idiots? Did USMNT botch it with former Leeds boss Jesse Marsch?
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Through a dogmatic dedication to the minute specificity of his vision, the attractive and vastly entertaining football his teams produce hasn’t often led to silverware; the 68-year-old has three top-flight titles to his name, all won in Argentina and all in the 1990s. The Uruguay job is his third international post, after six years in charge of Argentina in the late 90s and early 2000s and a spell with Chile between 2007 and 2011. His only international honour to date is a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.

Now, though, in what could be one of the final posts in one of the most unique, influential and enigmatic coaching careers in modern football history, Bielsa is on the cusp of his crowning glory. And the ultimate guardian of the game’s spirit has got there by embracing football’s ugly side. Uruguay will face Colombia in the semi-final of the 2024 Copa America hoping to continue a run through the South American championship that has seen the old dog in charge demonstrate a new trick or two.

Against Brazil in the quarter-finals, a red card for Nahitan Nandez forced La Celeste to play with 10 men for the final 16 minutes of the game. Bielsa’s side dug in and clung to a 0-0 draw before progressing on penalties. It wasn’t only while they were short-handed over the closing stages that Uruguay discovered a need for pragmatism, either.

In an apparent effort to disrupt a sub-standard Brazil team who were without the suspended Vinicius Junior, Uruguay committed a total of 26 fouls and registered just one shot on target in the match.

This is not to suggest that Uruguay are now the South America equivalent of mid-2000s Stoke City or that Bielsa has suddenly morphed into the most cynical, conniving version of Jose Mourinho. The 15-time Copa America winners have, by and large, been an extremely entertaining watch since the Argentinian tactician took charge in May last year. They have recorded emphatic recent victories in World Cup qualifiers against Argentina (2-0), Brazil (2-0) and Bolivia (3-0). They thrashed Mexico 4-0 in their final pre-Copa warm-up friendly and were the leading scorers in the group stage of the tournament, with nine goals in three games. They are, unequivocally, a Bielsa team.

And among the greatest success stories of the manager’s tenure to date is how he has moulded Darwin Nunez from the gifted but frustratingly erratic striker seen with Liverpool over the last two seasons into the deadliest marksman in South America, with 10 goals in his last 11 international games.

Bielsa is still Bielsa.

“If you’re asking me whether there are risks [with my playing style], yes there are risks,” he said before the Brazil game. “[But] if you’re asking me how to attack best, taking risks or not taking risks, it’s better to attack taking risks.

“You can’t say to a player, you have to go out and play, but it’s impossible for you to make a mistake.”

In overcoming Brazil to book a place in the last four of the 2024 Copa America, the Uruguay boss at least showed a willingness to mitigate against risk, to minimise the potential for mistakes.

With Colombia, who are unbeaten in their last 27 games, up next before a potential final against Argentina, risk will be abundant and mistakes could cost Bielsa a shot at his greatest triumph. Unless he is again willing to negotiate on his non-negotiables.

👉 American idiots? Did USMNT botch it with former Leeds boss Jesse Marsch?
👉 Pulisic fails and USMNT dumped out of Copa America; Berhalter must be sacked this time
👉 Copa America power rankings: Transformed Darwin Nunez takes Uruguay top


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