West Ham are set to shake up the club by looking past Sam Allardyce when his contract runs out this summer. Instead, they are reported to be looking for someone new, and that man might just be the polar opposite of Big Sam.
According to the Daily Mirror, West Ham are considering Marseille’s Marcelo Bielsa to replace Allardyce. The Argentinian tactician is a bona fide philosopher of football, and would certainly represent a change of direction from the last few years the Hammers have spent under Sam Allardyce. Even if this is only paper talk, this appointment would be wonderful news to anyone who wants to see excitement and drama in the Premier League next season.
Here’s what you need to know about Bielsa: he is mad.
At least, that’s the persona. He may not be as mad as we think he is, but there are signs of madness, and the man nicknamed ‘El Loco’ – ‘The Madman’ is nothing if not passionate about the game.
Anyone who knows South American football however, knows that it’s nothing particularly special to be nicknamed ‘El Loco’, there are several ‘El Loco’s. But Bielsa has the stories to back them up.
As coach of Athletic Bilbao, Bielsa’s team charmed English football by the way they so gracefully disposed of Manchester United in the Europa League in 2012. But the Argentinian’s coaching methods were very much under scrutiny in the Basque country. For two reasons: one, because he is a man known for his thorough coaching and tactical methods and two, because he was getting results. Bilbao were playing wonderful football – and getting to the final of the Europa League while selecting players from only the small Basque region attests to this. It was a great feat.
But speaking of ‘great feet’, one story to come out of this scrutiny of Bielsa’s coaching was when the coach drew on his shoes to show his players which part of the foot they should kick with. He then proceeded to walk around for the next few days with the marks still on his feet!
Bielsa is so driven to study the game – he watches DVDs of players and of games for hours a day – and to get his teams to play exactly as he wants them to. So micromanagement of this sort is hardly surprising.
He clearly knows exactly what he wants from his players, and is so sure that his coaching methods will make them bend to his will that he names his teams for big matches on the Fridays before games.
But all of this is enough to get the press on his back somewhat. His devotion, his pride and his obsession are portrayed as a madness, a pathology. A journalist in Spain once asked him in a press conference why he continuously took 13 steps from his technical area to the bench during the game. Over and over again he’d repeat this ritual, this rosary. Bielsa didn’t even know he was doing it. But worse still, there was someone sitting there actually counting how many steps he was taking. Just sitting there on the lookout for a story, an example of madness.
But then there are times when he hands them something to write about on a plate. He once confronted a group of angry Newell’s Old Boys fans with a hand grenade when they came to his door demanding explanations for a 6-0 defeat. He retreated to a convent for three months while out of work, abstaining from all modern conveniences and simply read books about football from morning until night.
So Bielsa is certainly a colourful character. But he would be more than just a punchline if he came to England. To West Ham, at least, he’d be more than just a jester of a coach, there to give the newspapers something to write about or to do something funny to entertain us all. He’d be the defender of the faith, so to speak, the man who would bring attacking, beautiful football back to East London.
Although they may have had good reason, for West Ham fans it’s been years of whining about Big Sam’s ‘long ball’ approach. The Upton Park faithful would love to see a manager who is so passionate about playing football in the right way, a man who lives and breathes the game and has a theory on the right way to play. If there is one English club that a man like Bielsa could thrive at, it must be West Ham.
The fans are so starved for success that there’d be no unrealistic expectation, no demands of silverware. Just a few seasons of attractive football is all they would request. And Bielsa could certainly provide that. He’s the very antithesis of Sam Allardyce, so how could the fans fail to fall in love with him?