READING, ENGLAND – MARCH 12: Marcelo Bielsa, Head Coach of Leeds United looks on prior to the Sky Bet Championship match between Reading and Leeds United at Madejski Stadium on March 12, 2019 in Reading, England. (Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images)
Written by Enzo Karema
“Football rests on four fundamentals, as outlined by Óscar Tabárez: one, Defense; two, attack; three how you move from defense to attack; four how you move from the attack to defense. The issue is trying to make those passages as smooth as possible.”
“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph”, Marcelo Bielsa once said. This explains his strange 3-3-1-3 formation which later became his favorite. It might sound very unconventional, but when analyzed in-depth, it makes for an interesting debate.
The Bielsa Way is a philosophy. While the opponents have the ball, Bielsa’s team applies pressure, always trying to cut off the play as close as possible to the opponent’s goal; when they recover the ball, they look to play with dynamism and create space for improvisation. This idea wasn’t that common and started out as a difficult theory to put to practice for any football manager. When studied well and executed properly, it always had the potential to reap rewards and put oppositions under the cosh. It’s an inherently attacking tactic and involves pressing high up the pitch to utilize as much space as possible. It’s quite entertaining when implemented well and it is Bielsa’s go-to strategy.
The Fundamental idea
Football is constantly evolving. And naturally, so are football tactics. The idea of playing with the same number of defenders as attackers is a byproduct of systematic planning and the implementation of coaching routines devised over many years. Lots of managers have used conventional 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations to win domestic trebles, Champions Leagues, etc. Bielsa has never been one of them. He has always opted for a more expansive and risky strategy. He basically introduced ‘The Madman Philosophy’ in modern football.
The 3-3-1-3 formation was pioneered by Van Gaal. Unlike Cruyff’s 3-4-3 which had a considerably flatter and wider midfield, Van Gaal’s variation allowed a link man (playmaker/ attacking midfielder) to combine with the front three. This would go on to be the basis on which Marcelo Bielsa modeled his formation and philosophy.
He’s an attack-minded manager known for his obsession with making his players move forward and pressing the opposition in their half higher up the pitch. The number 10, in this case, has a pivotal role, linking the midfield and attack while contributing defence-splitting through balls, shots from outside the box and generally directing the overall play. The center-backs’ role is to block the opponent’s shots and give them little space to work in. Marking with fluidity would cause some disorganization in the midfield. It would give less space to operate in for both teams.
He instructs his players to force the opponents to get rid of the ball, and build counterattacks. The Inverted wing-backs in bielsa’s teams must be able to work in the inside part of the midfield, especially in the 3-3-1-3 formation. During his time at Marseille, he used a center midfielder acting as a pivot having the ability to protect the line of 3 defenders and moving up with the ball to link the attack. Not exactly a pivot but they used to make a rhombus in the defence with the back three.
Another aspect of Bielsa’s philosophy focuses on defenders and inverted wingbacks making synchronized movements so that free open spaces can be shut as quickly as possible. This aspect of the formation is one of the most difficult to implement during in-game situations. In the defensive phase, their role is to know when to move towards the touchline to close the corridor, and when to defend the central part of the pitch. While playing vs a 4-4-2 formation, the inverted wingback stays narrow, trying to intercept the opposing wingers runs or passes made to players on the flanks.
Against a 4-2-3-1 side, the team would struggle, especially if the opposing wingers are marked by the inverted wingbacks. The opposing wingers would easily open lateral corridors by pinning the wingbacks deep in their own half. To tackle this problem, Bielsa devised a simple solution – he asks his wingbacks to drop from the midfield area.
After recovering the ball, Bielsa’s players build the game from behind, with lines of short passes. Wingbacks also build up the play by making a diamond in the midfield with the defensive midfielder and number 10. That way, it’s important for the players to give width to the wingers, who have the task to make take-ons against the opponents’ full-backs and cross the ball into the area. This type of lateral play is a distinctive feature of Bielsa’s game.
The deep-lying playmaker has the duty to make safe passes, intercepting play by the opposition’s defence, as well as switching play to the flanks.
The difference makers
In this tactic, the positions with the most important roles are the inverted wingbacks, the number 10 and a strong number 9. Intense ball playing is very modern as lots of managers these days tend to emphasize on counter-attacking football and don’t bother studying the game. The Bielsista strategy is very complex and cannot just be executed with mediocre short or long passes and simple dribbles.
Bielsa is an architect. He prefers his players moving and rotating constantly to achieve numerical overloads. He instructs his players to begin the team’s build-up play from the back often, which results in rapid, incisive counter-attacks even from deep. His teams always believe in retaining possession and breaking on the counter with pace. Marcelo Bielsa’s hugely influential approach to football is undoubtedly revolutionary as he re-innovated the 3-3-1-3 formation to suit his way and his style of play.
Edited by Anubhav
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support!