Can Marcelo Bielsa Make Olympique De Marseille a Superpower Again?

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2014

Marcelo Bielsa captured the imagination at Athletic Bilbao.
Marcelo Bielsa captured the imagination at Athletic Bilbao.Associated Press

Ligue 1 has not always been synonymous with glamour, but after the additions of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Radamel Falcao and the rest, it looks as if the first managerial superstar of this glitzy new era is on the way. Marcelo Bielsa is, it seems, coming to Olympique de Marseille.

It has been on the cards, with the Argentinian coming to see his potential new side in person twice in recent weeks. After Sunday night’s uninspiring 0-0 draw with Lille, OM president Vincent Labrune said that the club had “an agreement in principle” with Bielsa (by L'Equipe, in French), with just a few contractual issues to iron out.

“I can say that we will have a great coach for next season,” added Labrune. A two-year deal is expected to be inked imminently, as per L’Equipe (in French).

The 58-year-old certainly fires the imagination. His Athletic Bilbao side of 2011/12 proved that it could work for him in European club football. A short-lived spell with Espanyol was his only experience here before Athletic, with his time in Catalonia truncated by a call to take the reins of Argentina.

Bielsa’s Athletic were worth the wait. They brushed aside teams including Manchester United, Schalke and the coach’s soon-to-be-rivals Paris Saint-Germain in stunning style on their way to the 2012 Europa League final. The inspired victory over United, in particular, got Europe’s tongues wagging.

There is much to love about Bielsa’s immersive methods, and he clearly loves the game like few others. His attention to detail is legendary, taking in forensic examination of his vast library of match videos, his epically long press conferences and even eccentricities such as checking pitch dimensions with a tape measure.

The time is certainly right for revolution at the Stade Velodrome. The club has been in a tailspin for months, with a poisonous atmosphere at matches reaching a lowpoint in recent weeks. Low attendances for the recent home games with Ajaccio and Lille yielded increasingly personal attacks made by a section of fans on caretaker boss (and sporting director) Jose Anigo.

Labrune’s reasoning in hiring Bielsa is sound. OM can’t afford star players (and big earners such as Andre-Pierre Gignac and Steve Mandanda are expected to be on their way this summer), so they are getting in an exciting coach and one that is enthused about working with young players.

Florian Thauvin is one of the young Marseille starlets that Bielsa is keen to work with.
Florian Thauvin is one of the young Marseille starlets that Bielsa is keen to work with.Claude Paris

Marseille have a few of those, with transfer policy last summer focusing on bringing in players with big futures like Florian Thauvin, Mario Lamina and Gianelli Imbula. Bielsa is said to be keen to work with these three in particular (see La Provence here, in French).

We should not, however, underestimate the commitment that Bielsa requires. He is an intense individual, and he can initially struggle to get his message across. He could easily have been sacked in his first few months at Athletic before it all clicked.  

His methods are physically and mentally exacting. This journalist has rarely seen such a broken set of players than Athletic’s after the 2012 final defeat in Bucharest. An especially enduring image was seeing Athletic’s press office leaving the dressing room with two handfuls of runners-up medals, left behind by the players.

Bielsa never quite managed to pick his players up after that disappointment. Some of his second season problems at the San Mames were out of his control, such as the forced sale of Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich or the freezing out of Fernando Llorente as the striker’s contract inched towards expiration.

Also recognised for his eye-catching Argentina and Chile sides, Bielsa faces a different challenge now. Coaching Athletic is very much like coaching a national team. With only Basque players used, there isn’t the requirement to balance cultures and mentalities as tends to be the way in modern club management. Marseille don’t have the most diverse squad in Ligue 1, but even so, it does contain players of eight different nationalities at present.

He plainly had a superior squad at Athletic than he will find on his first day at Marseille’s La Commanderie, too. Crucially, Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta, Oscar de Marcos and even Martinez were not just talents but supple young minds ready to receive Bielsa’s message.

Thauvin and Imbula are gifted youngsters too, but they may not be so easily moulded by Bielsa. They are not academy products but big-money signings with strong wills—as Thauvin showed last summer when he dug in his heels to get his move from Lille completed, to much public distaste in France.

In short, Bielsa needs to work fast. He can’t afford much of a bedding-in period if OM hope to make life even slightly uncomfortable for champions-elect (and bitter rivals) PSG. Whether his project sinks or swims, there will surely be fireworks, anyway.