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Arguably the biggest advocate of intense pressing in the modern game, Marcelo Bielsa sets his team up to entertain. The Argentine manager is known for his energetic sides who pressure the ball at every opportunity, regardless of the opponent, and regardless of the situation. In fact, he once set up his Athletic Bilbao side to press Pep Guardiola's Barcelona for 90 minutes, resulting in a fascinating game. Bielsa's medal collection might not be the largest out there, but his brand of football is enjoyable.

.Refresh the page to view the image Marcelo Bielsa in charge of Athletic Bilbao 

Somewhat strangely, the Argentine has just come off 2 sudden resignations. The second, at Lazio, was mere days into his contract, albeit due to unfulfilled transfer promises. The first, over an year ago, is far more significant in the context of his career. 

Bielsa's resignation from Marseille was shocking, to say the least. Marseille had just come off a season in which they led the Ligue 1 table for half a season. The manager's resignation came days after he announced that he was happy with the situation at the club. 

Its also worth noting that El Loco's resignation came in the aftermath of a defeat to newly promoted Caen. This was despite his side dominating possession and creating plenty of chances. The match was Marseille's to lose. And lose they did. The question is, what went wrong?


For starters, lets take a look at his managerial career:

  • Newell's Old Boys:  1990-1992
  • Atlas:                        1992-1994
  • Club America:          1995-1996
  • Velez Sarsfield:        1997-1998
  • Espanyol                  1998
  • Argentina:                1998-2004
  • Chile:                       2007-2011
  • Athletic Bilbao:        2011-2013
  • Marseille:                 2014-2015

Patterns? He hasn't managed a single club team for more than 2 years. His stints with national sides have been far more sustainable. Bielsa also tends to leave posts on his own terms- most of his tenures have ended due to his resignation, not because he was sacked. Far from the mainstream in philosophy and technicality.

As the title suggests, Bielsa's resignation likely points to a deeper problem in his footballing 'philosophy' as it stands. What gives him such a short lifespan at clubs? Why does he resign when the chips are down? To dig deeper, we must look at a limitation of most teams that play a heavy pressing game. The 3 year rule.


The 3 Year Rule

For a deeper look into this footballing theory, click here, and to go further click here

(Jonathan Wilson's articles explain this rule extremely well, but in the context of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona side. I recommend that you read both. Below I give you a summary)

     The 3 year rule, in essence, suggests that great teams last for no more than 3 years (or seasons). After this, things simply don't work out; particularly when the core of the team(s) remains the same. Complacency sets in, players are less hungry for success and rivals successfully pick their tactics apart. Philosophically, physically, technically and mentally, great teams decay.

Here are some historical examples:

  • Bayern Munich 1974-1976
  • Barcelona 2009-2011
  • Dynamo Kyiv 1966-1968
  • Ajax 1971-1973
  • Milan 1988-1990

The majority of the teams above are known for playing an intense pressing game. As Wilson says in his article, the 3 year rule applies particularly to sides that play a heavy pressing game. How does this make them more 'prone' to this rule than other sides? Its a combination of factors, but the heavy physical toll which such a playing style imposes on the players is a primary reason. Footballers are still human. There are physical limitations. For pressing sides, most of the decay takes place due to tiredness and fatigue. Rigorous training no longer strengthens the players, but eats away at their remaining strength. 

Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United(s) easily surpassed the 3 year rule's limitations. But Ferguson continuously evolved the Manchester United squad, keeping the select few that could maintain their competitiveness. 


A Lack of Sustainability

     Sustainability is a fundamental aspect of any strategy. Particularly in football. One doesn't have to look further than Real Madrid in 2014/15,the side ran itself into the ground during the first half of the season, going on a 22 match winning streak. The second half of the season saw tired legs and injuries ruin hopes for silverware. (Still, a problem that could have been solved by rotation).

The biggest problem with Marcelo Bielsa is that he can't engineer a sustainable method of pressing. All the problems, all the resignations and lost finals: everything can be streamlined to sustainability. While his sides start strong and perform at incredible levels, they burn out at some point within 2 seasons, rather than 3, illustrating Bielsa's extreme physical demands.   

This explains why Bielsa is more suited to international management- his players simply won't burn out in the short span of a Copa America or World Cup (even that is changing as players are fatigued after draining seasons at club level). And that is why his tenures at international sides are the only ones that last longer than 2 years. 

There's no doubt that the Argentine is one of the most influential managers alive, but his dogmatic style means that he will never be able to win meaningful silverware like his disciples in Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and even Jorge Sampaoli. What's strange is that his resignations acknowledge this fundamental weakness, of unsustainability, yet he does nothing to change. 

Recommended Article: The Art of Replacing A Manager

Published by Siddharth Ramsundar