Bielsa fascinates on Marseille debut
Saturday night in Furiani, North Corsica. Marseille have just thrown away a two-goal advantage at Bastia to end Marcelo Bielsa's first ever Ligue 1 game as a 3-3 draw. The referee has blown the final whistle a good 10 minutes ago. All the OM players are back in the dressing room. So are the Bastia players and Claude Makelele, their manager. The fans have also started to leave the stadium. But Bielsa is still sitting in the dugout. He has not moved in the last 10 minutes. He is alone, probably lost in his thoughts. Do you know any other manager who stays 10 minutes on his bench after the game finished? No. Only Bielsa. That's why he is such an enigma. That's also why he fascinates so much. Obviously, this first Marseille league game of the season was all about the Argentine.
A few days before the match, and almost two months after his arrival in the South of France, Bielsa gave his first news conference. His assistant, Franck Passi, a former OM player and Spanish speaker after a few seasons at Celta Vigo, translated the words of his boss, including the last sentence: "I don't like to talk. Look, we have talked for 45 minutes to say nothing!" Thank you, Marcelo. He doesn't seem to like the media, but the media love him, because he is so different than anyone else we have seen.
Because of Bielsa, Bastia versus Marseille was shown all over the world. In Italy, where Serie A has not started yet, all the talk was about his debut. Same in Spain, South America and France obviously. Bielsa, nicknamed"El Loco" (the crazy one) was the star of the opening Ligue 1 weekend. And he didn't disappoint. He looked impatient, upset at times, not giving much away sitting on a blue cooler or squatting, which is the "typical Bielsa position."
The language was clearly an issue, and he seemed to struggle to communicate with his players. The best, though, was when Andre-Pierre Gignac scored his first goal of the night, to level the game at 1-1. He ran towards the bench to see Bielsa looking at the other side and turning his back to him. At least, when APG netted his second, he didn't make the same mistake and went to celebrate with the fans.
Bielsa's signing is a great coup, in terms of image and media-wise, for Marseille. But he needs results on the pitch. On Saturday, his choices were under a lot of scrutiny. Like during the preseason friendlies, he decided to play with three at the back. Nothing is wrong with that, even if we are not used to seeing much of this formation in France (apart from at Toulouse). What is more surprising, though, is that the team played in 3-3-3-1, which left the holding midfielder (Gianelli Imbula on Saturday) too isolated. Bielsa also decided to give a Ligue 1 and professional debut to Stephane Sparagna after being impressed with the 19-year-old during preseason. He left the much more experienced Lucas Mendes on the bench, only for Mendes to replace Sparagna at half-time.
What about his coaching during the game? When Marseille went up 3-1 just after the hour, you would've expected him to make changes to close the game down and keep the result -- but he didn't. Neither at 3-2. Clearly the balance of the game had shifted towards Bastia then, but he didn't react. More than one game is needed to judge his work, and he clearly has a lot to do defensively to help his team improve.
However, at least Bielsa has given new hope to the fans. They even dare dreaming of upsetting the Paris Saint-Germain superstar machine when the two arch rivals meet (in Paris on Nov. 9 in Week 13 and in Marseille on April 5 in Week 31). However, in case of a Marseille hammering, I would advise fans not to gather outside Bielsa's home in protest. The last time some supporters did that was in 1992. "El Loco" was managing Newell's Old Boys at the time. He led the club to back to back titles in 1990 and 1991. But the team had been destroyed by San Lorenzo 6-0 away. The fans were not happy and neither was Bielsa. He reportedly came out of his house to confront them with a grenade in his hand. L'Equipe quote him as having said: "If you don't leave, I will blow you all up." At least, the OM fans have been warned.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.