Lessons from the mad man: Bielsa’s 2002 World Cup Argentina Team

A note before we begin: this article is an extrapolation of a full piece I’ve just written on that team, the reason’s it struggled and its legacy on argentinian football; if you fancy a read, here’s the link.

A Bit of Background

Ask any number of argentinian football fans who is, in their opinion, the most overrated manager in the country’s history and you’ll likely hear one name more often than any other. Ironically, it’s the name of one of the most revolutionary and influential managers in the last 30 years, who inspires world-wide respect: Marcelo Bielsa. Guardiola has said he is the best manager in the world, Pochettino called him his “football father”, and renowned tactics and football historian Jonathan Wilson wrote that no other south american has ever had such influence on the world of football since the brazilian sides of the late 50s.

And yet, many in his home country consider him a vende humo (a fraudster), and a man whose career and fame are not held up by his achievements. You could argue that near misses have been the constant in Bielsa’s career, from his loss on the 1992 Copa Libertadores final, with a Newell’s side featuring 23 home grown players out of the 25 men squad, to the wonkers and unpredictable 4-2 at Elland Road that denied Leeds a spot on the Playoff finals last season; none, however, has hurt his reputation quite as bad as the Group Stage exit on the 2002 World Cup with Argentina.

From the outside, it’s easy to understand why it is hauled as such a disaster for the Argentinian Men’s Football National Team. They went into the 2002 World Cup as one of the favourites, and there were good reasons for it. For one, most of the players were at the peak of their powers, thriving on the european club stage, and the core members of the squad formed a tight, cohessive and close knit group of professionals. Add the well oiled tactics smarts of Bielsa and you have a world class-team; they finished top of the Conmebol qualifiers that featured eventual winners Brazil and 2001 Copa America champions Colombia, with 12 pts. gap to 2nd place Ecuador and featuring the best attack (42 goals in 18 matches) and tied 2nd best defense of the tournament.

Now let’s all go ahead and admit from the get go that the 2002 World Cup was a bit of weird one. Title defenders and European champions France went out on the group stages without scoring a single goal, locals Korea beat european powerhouses Italy and Spain amidst accusations of corruption, and went on to become one of two unlikely semifinalists (the other being Turkey), and player of the tournament and goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn gifted a sitter to Ronaldo in the final, right before conceding another for good measure. It was the Twilight Zone version of the World Cup.

Caught in all of this drama was an Argentina team that had all the pieces necessary for going all the way but fell short;why? Most often cited culprit is probably good old luck, or lack there of, to be more precise: “It’s all about that month”, captain and defense leader Roberto Ayala said, “You have to be sharp on that month, physically, tactically, technically, and we didn’t have that”. Let’s take a look into how his Argentina team played, to understand what worked for them during the Qualifiers before we anylize what unforseen problems they faced in Japan.

The Bielsa 3-3-1-3

Leading to the 2002 World Cup and during the tournament, Bielsa switched between a 5-3-2 and a 5-2-3, both of which morphed into his now renowned 3-3-1-3. The team looked to create overloads on the wide areas combining marauding wingbacks with the movement of players attacking from the sides and from deep.

A solid back 5, usually consiting of Sorín, Samuel, Ayala, Vivas and Zanetti provided both the means to hold the opponent, as well as width and build-up on the attack. The main threat coming from behind were the deep runs of left wingback Juan Pablo Sorín, who often crossed from deep and combined with the strikers and wingers, with Zanetti doing a much more conservative effort on the right flank, helping the midfield press and linking with whomever occupied the right wing. The centrebacks were responsible of build up from the back, feeding the midfield and offering passing options, but were not afraid to pass it long to break the opposing press. Defensively, those on the side would press higher, while the central man, often Ayala or Samuel, stayed deep and acted as a sweeper of sorts.

1) Placente drives forwards with the ball to initiate play; Verón and Kily Gonzalez drop to offer pass options while the wingbacks Sorin and Zanetti begin to push high to widen the pitch. 2) Samuel, playing as a stopper, wins the ball high-up and drives forwards to initiate the attack.

The midfield had two men on key roles: Juan Sebastían Verón and Diego Simeone. Verón was the orchestrator, often roaming from position to find pockets of space from which to drive from deep or play a long pass. He had total liberty to move around, sometimes switching up with Zanetti to cross from the wings, other times staying more central and operating as an enganche. Simeone, on the other hand, had the sole responsability of breaking up opposing plays and offering defensive cover for his teammates; he would usually stay back, look to recover the ball and then lay it off to someone on an attacking position, most likely Verón or the wingbacks.

1) Verón switches positions with Zanetti to attack down the right flank and cross from deep 2) Verón drops back to take the ball on the build up and move forwards vs. England

The main difference between the two shapes was from who and from where the attacks came from. On the 5-3-2, a classic number 9 (often Crespo or Batistuta) worked to keep the opposition’s centreback busy while a smaller, more mobile attacker (generally Claudio “el Piojo” López) drifted around from behind him and hunted for gaps in the defense he could exploit, and the third midfielder, usually Cristian “el Kily” González, roamed wide starting from the centre mid and looked to attack the space in behind the defense. With the 5-2-3, on the other hand, Bielsa employed two wingers helping the sole striker, with “el Kily” or “el Piojo” starting from the left and Ariel Ortega on the right; they would often cut inside to make room for the wingbacks or stretch the defense wide providing gaps for deep attackers to explore.

1) Claudio López drops wide to receive the ball and run forwards 2) Kily González attacks a deep position from the inside and makes room for a Sorín run. 3) Similarly to #3, Kily González drops wide to explore the gaps left behind him. He would later turn and attack the box to score the first goal in a 3-0 win vs. Colombia.

However if there is one concept Bielsa has made famous (and became famous for) is the press. His brand of football always comes with an intense, physically demanding style of full pressing, and his Argentina side was not exception. The left and right centrebacks jumped into midfield to close down the man on the ball, acting as stoppers pushing forwards and closing down gaps in the midfield, while the midfielders would alternate between rushing forwards to press the rival defenders and dropping back to create a midfield press, opening spaces behind the opposition lines to exploit via long pass. The team also played a narrow, intensive brand of defending, with players cramping the pitch to make it harder for opponents to play their way out of trouble.

1) Argentina presses high up vs England 2) When the opponent had greater control of the match or had been sitting to deep, Argentina’s press drop in order to invite the rival out of their lair 3) In occasions Argentina would counter-press, to regain control of the ball after it had just been lost, though not always. 4) Argentina’s narrow defense against Colombia

Where Bielsa’s planning failed was in relying on just one playmaker. After Verón’s form dropped vs. England, Argentina was left with no one capable of filling his shoes. Others might’ve stepped up from time to time, but as Verón stopped making the team work you could see he was, in truth however, part of a larger problem: Argentina’s creative block was exhausted and out of ideas. Bielsa’s team looked like one who had no clue as to how break up the dense, counter-attacking deep blocks set up by their opponents, nor the energy to figure out how to do so.

1) Veron falls victim to England’s press and gives up the ball. From this comes a counter that ends up with a Michael Owen shot hitting the post. 2) Scholes defeats Argentina’s press and moves the ball forward; the englishman ruled midfield that day. 3) Ortega struggles to find a passing option vs. Nigeria; it was a repeated play throughout all 3 matches. 4) Claudio López tries a desperate pass into the striker, but finds nothing.

Bielsaball on FM

As always, recreating a real football tactic on FM is a thankless task. Real world tactics, particularly those which have been worked on for years rely on an amount of complex mechanisms which can’t be represented by a set of simple instructions. However, I’ve tried my best to recreate the best aspects of what one might call “early Bielsaball”. I’ve focused on the 5-3-2 as I think it produces the most interesting combination, looking for a faithful representation of Bielsa’s scheme, and see what we can take from that. Let’s see what we have.

From the get go, the mentality and roles should encourage expansive, attacking football. As some key roles, the left WB-A will get forward and attack from deep as Sorín did (could also be a CWB-A), with his right flank counterpart doing a much simpler work. I opted for a RPM for Verón’s role so to see that marauding nature, taking part in every step of the way. Ever since I saw Kily González attack the wide spaces from deep as Sorin cut inside I knew I wanted a MEZ-A on the left to test defences with that double hit; maybe it makes the left side a bit too attacking, but that’s bielsaball for you. To ensure everything doesn’t get out of hand, the CM-D does the Simeone role; he’s been instructed to pass short, take less risks and hold position. Up front, the Poacher will make sure the opposing centrebacks keep busy, though the position does require a strong player. I wanted a Raumdeuter for “el Piojo” López’s position but sadly you can’t have those on the AMC strata, so I opted for an SS to feed of balls bouncing of the number 9.

On possession, I left everything as is since the Positive mentality already ups the tempo enough. Play Out of Defense was a must though I’m not so sure about Work Ball into the Box; it should be unticked if attacks become a bit stale against defensive sides. Same goes for Pass into Space, though in the opposite direction: turn it on if you’re lacking punch.

In transition, Counter was a very much needed, with the Counterpress being another of those optional, match-to-match things. distribution to the BPDs should ensure measured yet aggresive build up.

Finally, for defense, the Bielsa trademark: high, intense press. I tried not to go overboard though bielsaball’s pressing has been… extreme at times; push harder at your own risk. We defend narrow and no offside trap cause we have an old-school libero and we love him. Let’s see how it all works out.

As we can see, the MEZ-A and the SS are occupying the half-spaces, helping create overloads when the WBs push high, with the RPM holding the key to everything that goes on. The last graphich shows possession gained. Having won the ball more than half of the time on the opposition’s part of the pitch, it’s safe to say the high pressing is doing its thing.

“So what?”, you may say, “You’re telling us how to play as a failed team? Thanks a lot!”. Well, yes and no. Even as I think there is a lot to be learn from what Bielsa’s 2002 team did right (the exploiting of the spaces left open by the opposition, the widening of the play, the usage of half-spaces and position-switching), there is surely a lot to be learned from its failures as well. Here’s my “fixed” version of the 2002 5-3-2 tactic.

As you can see, there’s only a few changes, albeit important ones. Firstly, the Poacher becomes a CF-A. This will give him the opportunity to drop back and become part of the playmaking instead of staying marooned up top as he was in the last version, plus the moving of pieces makes any brave centreback who follows him an easy catch for the MEZ-A to exploit his abandoned spot. The only other change in position is the CM-D who becomes a DM-S; this is because as you probably spotted by now the team is now officially counterpressing which means we’re gonna be caught of guard more often than before. The extra space affords him an extra couple of metres to regain his spot, plus now as a support role he’s expected to offer something extra on attack.

Let me know if you give this or any variation a go, as I could only afford a few trial matches with the national team to set it up and check it was working as intended, so I’m interested to find out what your takes on it are.

As always, thanks for reading.

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    […] National Team on the road to the 2002 World Cup failure (and that team’s legacy) and a short(er) FM version which tries to apply some of that team’s tactical concepts to FM, which forms the basis of […]


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