The Marcelo Bielsa effect? Man-to-man marking showing signs of a resurgence

Just before 1:45pm on June 21, 1970, in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Brazil midfielder Clodoaldo picked up the ball in his own half of the pitch. The World Cup final was coming to an end, Brazil were beating Italy 3-1 and the result was already secure. But Clodoaldo and his Brazil team-mates were not satisfied.

Clodoaldo weaved his way past three Italy players and fed Rivelino, who had come deep to receive the ball. Rivelino turned and passed it up the line to Jairzinho, who had wandered over to the left from his starting position on the right. Jarizinho played it inside to Pele, who, seemingly without looking, rolled it to his right.

Into the television picture came Carlos Alberto like a steam train at top speed. He battered the ball with the outside of his boot and well, you know the rest.

It was, ostensibly, a triumph of skill and technique – if we are venturing into the realm of the cliche, then it was the crowning moment of Brazil’s samba parade to glory. But as well as a demonstration of supreme ability, the goal was the fruit of exceptional physical and tactical preparation.

In the build-up to the World Cup, the Brazil squad had spent three months at an intense physical training camp, readying themselves for the altitude and heat of Mexico City. And in the build-up to the final, Brazil coach Zagallo had sent his opposition scout Carlos Alberto Parreira to watch the semi-final between Italy and Germany.

In his autobiography, Brazil centre-forward Tostao wrote that before the game: “[Parreira] showed us, with dozens of photos in a sequence, as if it were an animation, how Italy played and, mainly, how they marked. Four defenders marked man-to-man and one player, called the libero, stayed behind the defenders, covering.”

“The game,” Tostao continued, “did not have surprises. On the contrary. Italy marked man-to-man, left the libero to cover the four defenders and tired in the second half, as is frequent with teams that use this strategy. At half time, when it was 1-1, we talked and all of us agreed that in the second half, spaces would appear for us to win the game, as happened.”

As stated, Brazil’s was a victory of skill, but also of tactical superiority. Man-to-man marking was the prevalent form of defending in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in Italy. The specific Italian system was pioneered and perfected by Nereo Rocco, who won 10 major trophies with AC Milan, and by Helenio Herrera, who was similarly successful with Inter.

But, as Brazil had demonstrated to such devastating effect, the man-to-man system had its weaknesses. As they were more and more frequently exploited, man-to-man marking fell out of fashion, replaced by the zonal systems of Nils Liedholm then, more significantly, Arrigo Sacchi.

However, as Q-Tip quite rightly pointed out on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album The Low End Theory, “things go in cycles.” And in the same way that Bobby Brown was ampin’ like Michael in the early ’90s, and Q-Tip’s old man said hip-hop reminded him of be-bop, man-to-man marking might be making a return five decades after Brazil wiped the floor with the Azzurri and their ‘marcatura a uomo’. Why? Let’s shift our focus from the Azteca to Elland Road.

This season, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were a joy to watch. They ran and battled and scored and conceded and generally had a bloody good time. With the squad at Bielsa’s disposal, ninth was quite an achievement. And a significant part of that success was something of a throwback – what Obi-Wan Kenobi was to the Jedi arts, Bielsa may well be to man-to-man marking.

Like all things, though, the re-emergence comes in a slightly adulterated form. The Italian Catenaccio system was renowned for the dour, defensive games it engendered. Former Netherlands manager Ernst Happel once said: “If you mark man-to-man, you’re sending out 11 donkeys.” Yet Bielsa’s football is altogether more exciting. His teams pile forwards in numbers and attack at every opportunity. No donkeys, just thoroughbreds.

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READ: ‘El Loco 2’: Firebrand Sampaoli has found the perfect home in Marseille

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To combine man-to-man marking with an attacking style, he necessarily uses a suffocating press, a press which is in turn made easier to organise by going man-to-man. Clever, that.

When it comes to man-to-man pressing, Bielsa is not the only one. Bayern Munich marked man-to-man high up under Hansi Flick; Louis van Gaal’s Holland team in the 2014 World Cup used some man-to-man marking in their press. The difference, though, is that those two – and there are many other examples – are hybrid systems.

When the ball gets closer to the defence, they revert to the more modern, supposedly safer, zonal marking option, with each defender staying in a pre-defined space. With Bielsa, his defenders and attackers and midfielders follow their man right ’til the bitter end.

There have been instances where it has blown up in Bielsa’s face. Remember that game at Old Trafford in December 2020 when Scott McTominay looked like Bobby Charlton? Well, yeah. But over the full course of the season, Leeds’ dedication to their ’70s throwback has worked surprisingly well. Perhaps they’ll take it a step further next term and turn up to training in Ford Cortinas, wearing flares and lamb chop sideburns.

Anyway, before our imagination runs away with us, let’s get to the actual point. Might Bielsa’s revival act inspire other teams to look back for inspiration? He is, after all, the most inspirational coach in modern football, according to the coaches in modern football. Pep Guardiola loves him, Mauricio Pochettino views him as a second father, Jurgen Klopp praised Bielsa’s “great footballing brain”. And now his man-to-man tactics have worked in The Best League in the World™.

Of the many Bielsa disciples, however, most have eschewed the man-to-man element of his nutty professor teachings. In 2020, Pochettino spelled out the differences between his team’s and his mentor’s.

“It’s about being brave, and to play a high defensive line. If you’re successful and you recover the ball, you can attack quickly, and of course, that’s the result when the coaches or managers are prepared to press high… but it depends how you’re going to behave if they break your first press, it depends how you behave if you are going to follow man-to-man, or if you’re going to behave in a similar organisation.”

Even Bielsa has admitted his system’s weaknesses. “For me,” he told Sky in 2020, “the advantages of applying pressure sometimes justify the defensive resources that goes into man-to-man marking. But I always dream of achieving a system where pressure can still be maintained with every player in the right place to nullify the rival, without having to match our key players up.

“The man-to-man system is perhaps a shortcoming of my own teams. It’s something I’ve not been able to find the perfect solution to across 30 years as a manager so I doubt I’ll be able to resolve it now!”

But there might be another strand of the Bielsista influence about to emerge on a European coaching front, one that uses man-to-man marking just as effectively as Bielsa. Jorge Sampaoli is now in place at Marseille. His Universidad de Chile, Chile, Santos and Atletico Mineiro teams all included an element of wildly intense man-marking, but he has little previous experience in Europe – just two-thirds of a season with Sevilla in 2016-17. If he is successful in the south of France, it will corroborate the validity of the Bielsa approach.

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READ: Crespo: ‘Making history’ by combining the best of Argentina & Brazil as boss

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Likewise, Hernan Crespo, who played under Bielsa and had a love-hate relationship with him, is now a coach. He’s won two trophies with two clubs in four months at the start of 2021, which suggests he is becoming a very accomplished coach at that. And in his Sao Paulo team that won the Campeonato Paulista title in May, there was a very definite element of that Bielsa influence.

Apart from when they were pressing, not all Crespo’s players were man-marking. But there were certain players – like his defensive midfielder Luan in the final against Palmeiras – who were very clearly tasked with following their opposite number all over the pitch, ’til the bitter end. If Crespo continues his success, it will not be long before he is recruited by a European club looking for an ambitious (and rather dashing) manager. And if he comes, he’ll likely bring that man-to-man marking influence with him.

Will other managers now start to follow? Will a retro tactical blip become a trend? It remains to be seen, but now they’ve at least got a blueprint set out and proof that man-to-man marking can still work at the very top, even against the best dribblers and passers in the world.

If others want to follow the man-to-man blueprint, though, they’ll have to take another leaf from the Bielsa coaching manual. As Tostao said, teams that use the strategy tend to tire as it requires such high levels of physical effort and concentration. So if managers want to employ it and glean the advantages it brings when pressing, then they’ll need to get their teams as fit as Leeds are. That, rather than man-marking, may prove the hard part.

By Joshua Law.

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