Maradona vs Bielsa – Brandy, Blackboards & Karma

Broadly speaking, Maradona is the witch doctor, Bielsa is the scientist. The latter focuses on professionalism, discipline and theory, imposing the same ready-made tactical shape he had used previously to great effect with a free-scoring Argentina team on a deflated Chilean side and lead them to a second place finish in qualifying. Whereas Maradona holds firm to the idea that with players of this class, motivation is of prime importance. Indeed, his gushing about feeling the jersey and putting it on at times makes him sound like an uncouth tailor. Really, though, he’s closer to a lepidopterist


Bielsa instructs

He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.

Deuteronomy 10

Pegamequemegusta is in love. No, this is not yet another missive addressed to our obese, anti-tobacco campaigning cat, or even the long-suffering missus. Today to the focus of our amorous attentions is Chile manager, Marco Bielsa. Although we’ve battered our wifey keys thousands of times in sublimated acts of violent lust over the last few months poring over everything from Maradona’s magnificent beard to his personal hygiene, today el loco Bielsa may suck honey and oil from pegamequemegusta’s flinty rock.

The other day we were ready to pounce with a virtual headlock on anyone who dared trot out the tired old ‘Maradona is mad’ nonsense. And indeed, Argentina’s preparations continue to go well. None of the bizarre, extraneous things have gone wrong: things have been organised, there’s been no infighting to speak of, Palermo is far from the starting line-up and Messi has not declared for Spain.

But maybe it’s more about the kind of prep you do: maybe a different kind would be more successful. Maradona and Bielsa have two rather different approaches to preparing their teams. They’re both often referred to as mad but, broadly speaking, Maradona is the witch doctor, el loco Bielsa is the scientist. The latter focuses on professionalism, discipline and theory, imposing the same ready-made tactical shape he had used previously to great effect with a free-scoring Argentina team on a deflated Chilean side and lead them to a second place finish in qualifying. Whereas Maradona holds firm to the idea that with players of this class, motivation is of prime importance. Indeed, his gushing about feeling the jersey and putting it on at times makes him sound like an uncouth tailor. Really, though, he’s closer to a lepidopterist:

When the pupa has grown into an adult butterfly, it gives off a fluid which softens the shell. Then it expands its body and cracks the shell. Within half an hour, the butterfly has pumped air into its body, its blood begins to circulate, and it is ready to fly away. [From the big site of amazing facts]

To continue this endless list of gross simplifications, Bielsa’s an industry-nationalising red, while Maradona’s a raging prophet of the free market economy. Indeed, despite his humble origins, despite his Che tattoo and smoking cigars with Fidel, despite all his revolutionary talk on the ludicrous, pathetic Kosturica documentary, Diego is a smoke salmon socialist compared with fierce social critic, Marcelo Bielsa.Citizen Bielsa

Bielsa earned massive prestige in Chile following his success there and has duly travelled the country speaking to miners about discipline and fighting spirit; he’s delivered speeches to the economic leaders of the country, spoken out against demonising the looters in the aftermath of the earthquake and criticised a capitalist system that flogs plasma tvs on 100 instalment hire-purchase plans: “If I had the chance, i’d have stolen the TV, too.” It didn’t go down well, but Bielsa is a man of conviction.

For example, when the former president, Bachelet, who left office this year, heaped praise on Bielsa, saying that the country should take Bielsa as an example of diligence and hard work to bring about change, the Chile manager replied that, on the contrary, he just wanted to be for his players what Bachelet had been for Chile. Nevertheless, once qualification was secured, the then president was refused permission to visit the dressing room. Another time, perhaps, was the response; some things have to be kept apart.

Neither has it been one long presidential love-in: when the current head of state Piñero had the gall to say Chile was “the best country in the world”, Bielsa dismissed the remarks as “an outlandish lie” and asked for ‘self-criticism’ from Chileans to find a new way forward.

In the same speech at the University of Viña del Mar, he complained about the excess of triumphalism sweeping the country and rubbished the idea that finishing one place below Brazil in qualifying meant Chile could be considered in the same bracket. Besides, he says in the excellent documentary, Ojos rojos (Red Eyes) on Chile’s qualification for South Africa, “It’s in defeat, not in victory, that a player asks himself if he believes in the manager or not.” What a dreamboat.

Balls versus Steel (or something less cringeworthy)

And this, indeed, is central to this whole confidence versus tactics debate we’re trying to shed some light on. Cristian Grosso had an interesting article on canchallena on Monday arguing that it is the form in which so many of the Argentina squad arrive from their respective European triumphs that gives the team confidence, rather than any specific ‘tactical intervention’ by Maradona. The first paragraph goes something like this:

“Good morale can make an average player good and a good one great. Confidence can work miracles with regard to determination, physical well-being and even tactical awareness. This is what la Selección is all about these days. Diego Maradona trusts his message is best conveyed through emotional stimuli, through an incantatory alchemy conducted behind closed doors. Words serve more to impart spiritual fervour than tactical rigour. He believes more in the persuasive power of the postprandial chat than in lessons broadcast from the blackboard.”

After all, given the squad, and the discipline which has clearly been imposed somehow or other, maybe they do just need to be geed up. Who cares if you don’t have any full backs when, as Grosso says, in none of at least the last four World Cups have Argentina arrived with “a more razor sharp and pyrotechnic strike force.” Probably ever.

Nonetheless, as determiners of success, ‘motivation’ is a dubious enough concept. Pegamequemegusta thinks it’s fair to say that it would usually come pretty far down the list. Is that all you’ve got, Diego? A happy group? Fired up players? Is there nothing else that could’ve been done to bolster Argentina’s chances that little bit more?

Bielsa uses different coloured poles to represent the brain waves of opposition defenders

Bielsa and Benitez

Bielsa certainly seems to offer another approach. Chile have been a bit of a rent-a-squad for a few years now, but their World Cup preparations have been innovative to say the least. And this, indeed despite the fact that their preparations were interrupted due to a series of genuine tragedies this year – from the earthquake that devastated the country to the suicide of the late German goalkeeper, Robert Enke – which saw them miss several international dates.

To make up for this, as well as to prepare for playing games in quick succession necessary at the World Cup, they played two games in one day, in two different cities, against Northern Ireland and Israel. Chile won them both, with two clean sheets, racking up four goals all the while. Then on Wednesday they played an unusual friendly against New Zealand which consisted of three ‘halves’ of 30 minutes each, which they also won 2-0.

Maybe these are just gimmicks, pegamequemegusta can’t really be sure. What is certain, though, is that there is a clear emphasis on method, procedure and an all round attention to detail. What is certain is that the imposition of a definite and pretty much unique formation and strategy had unprecedented success.

Although Liverpool’s 2005 triumph was somewhat more chaotic in the final than Chile’s qualification, pegamequemegusta feels the comparison with Rafa Benitez is unavoidable. During training this week at their base in Nelspruit in northeastern South Africa, Bielsa was seen to be using a computer model which he used to convey aspects of a whole range of set plays and attacking movements to his players. The computer graphics aim to reinforce the players’ memory of what to do in almost every instance. News agency DPA report that Bielsa has a portfolio of 27 different kinds of throw-ins which he has been working on since his time as manager of Newell’s. Almost 20 years.

Unlike Rafa, though, arguably, and in spite of his intellectual caricature, Bielsa is regarded as an accomplished man manager. Combining these characteristics has enabled him to lead the team to the position all us condemned to support middle-to-low ranking teams aim for: being able to take on the best in the world with conviction and balls. Of course Chile got spanked by Brazil 3-0 in Santiago in the qualifiers, and they’ll probably lose to Spain, but some things are just beyond us.Argentina’s abject failure in 2002 was hardly ‘beyond the team’, we hear you say, yet the tough training régime has undoubtedly been designed with avoiding the mistakes of that tournament. Many of the Argentine squad arrived in bad physical shape yet made light of the seriousness of their condition and/or insisted on playing. Bielsa’s plan this time seems to be to insist on seeing the players in action as much as possible in order to be able to make a fully informed decision. (In this regard, it will be interesting to see how he handles Humberto Suazo’s race for fitness – will he be tempted or will he wait?). Several years later, in any case, pegamequemegusta can’t shake the impression that Bielsa is a wonderful man and the world would be a better place if he had a more central role in our lives.

The testimony

Many players have felt more or less the same way. A few days before that ill-fated 2002 debacle, Verón said “Bielsa’s our secret weapon”. Tevez was reminiscing fondly about the Bielsa era recently (“we got criticised then, too, even though we thrashed everyone!”) while Ayala and Milito have said that Bielsa was the best coach they ever played under, or at least learned most under. In a Gazzetta dello Sport interview last January, Milito said of Bielsa: “Even though I only ever had him as manager in la Selección, [Bielsa] was the manager I learned most from about how to be a striker.” Little Dutch boys have not had their fingers in faulty dams to hold back a similar gushing of about Diego.

In the same interview, Milito even had a little kick at his current coach. When asked whether Maradona was the right man for the job, Milito answered: “In football results dictate what’s fair and what’s not. Maradona’s the manager at the moment and we have to support him, not criticise him.” If that praise were any fainter, pegamequemegusta’d be reaching for the smelling salts and replacing consonants with apostrophes (syncope, boys).

The question

Yet our aim here isn’t just to denigrate Diego. Although we reckon Bielsa probably even matches Maradona in what’s supposed to be his one great asset, his man management cum cheerleading ability, the comparison between the two raised the following question in our fried little mind: in a WC is the power of incantation as or more important than tactical drills? Is a successful WC campaign more likely to come as a result of a slow patient build-up and strict discipline, as we saw Trap’s Ireland visibly grow in confidence as the qualifiers went on? Or is it possible to do so based purely on the class of your players, who’ll even do better once freed of the shackles of pestering coaches?

Maybe neither: Argentina came brilliantly prepared last time, looked like more or less the best team but went out against an inferior German team. Pekerman made some bad decisions throughout but the most significant element in the moribund Germans’ comeback was due to a moment of sheer bad luck when their keeper, Abbondanzieri, got injured.

Olé cover after exit in 2006: 'Died on our feet/Went out honourably'. The last line is 'And why did Messi play so little?'

In a rambunctious interview with Olé the other week, Crespo was raging about World Cup randomness, from Grosso’s stonker against Italy (“I’ve played with Grosso and he’s never scored a goal like that in his life before or since!”) to Anders Svensson’s fatal free kick in 2002. Rejecting the suggestion he was making excuses, Crespo exclaimed “Svensson. Svensson! Can you tell me who the hell Svensson is, where he plays! I swear that ever since he scored that free kick against us i’ve followed his career: he never scored another goal like that. We can speak as long as you want about styles and tactics but what do we get left with from a particular team at the end of the day. Do you remember if the ’86 team really played as well as they say they did? I don’t know, but they won. We’re so Argentine that the only thing we can get our heads around is winning.” Not just Argentina, Hernán. Winning’s bloody hard and, like this year’s Champo League final, on big occasions it rarely makes too much sense.

We mightn’t need to see el Diego have a meltdown for Argentina’s bid to collapse. It might just be too late for the team to suddenly bond and develop instant reserves of fortitude, concentration and discipline where there was none before. Even if they dominate and defeat the Tigers, Eagles and Goats of Group B, one of these afternoons this butterfly may yet get the pupa, as ol’ Witold would say, and find itself stunned and sucked into the vaporous vortex of a vengeful Svensson’s vuvuzuela. As Bielsa no doubt said once from behind those wonderfully furrowed brows, his cranium a-plex with the plight of ducks in the Atacama and the diet of miners in Antofagasta, ’tis a funny old game.

Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.’

Deuteronomy 35

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