The Bielsa Way

Returning to the old medium page, this time I’ll bring you guys a little analysis about who I think is the most odd and exciting Manager in Football nowadays. It started as an almost impossible task to do in the good ol’ Football Manager: Doing Bielsa’s 3–3–1–3 formation.

It has such uncommon features, as only two players originally in the midfield area, the unusual movements of the wingbacks and such. Combine that with a formation who looks to play a direct, attacking brand of football, yet filled with possession of the ball. It is the foundation of the Bielsista philosophy.

  • The Madman Philosophy

Bielsa is an attacking minded manager, known for its obsessive nature of making its players moving forward, pressing man-to-man on high areas of the field and adapting its formation to each opponent. The 3–3–1–3 formation may seem as an odd one, but it fullfills the most important features of the Bielsa philosophy:

— Zonal Man-marking: players must adapt to mark tightly whoever roams into their area of the game;

— A spare man at the back: If the opposing team plays with a front three, he’ll move to a 4-at-the-back formation. He can make it by moving one of the central defenders forward to the midfield area;

— High pressing: Forcing the opponent to get rid of the ball, so to recover as fast as it can and build another attack;

— A strong number 9: A need for a tall player upfront to get long balls forward and stop the play for the team organize its positional attacking phase;

— Inverted wingbacks: The Bielsista wingbacks must be able to work in the inside part of the midfield, especially in the 3–3–1–3 mentioned above.

Analysed the most common features of his philosophy, we can go forward and talk about the formation itself.

  • 3–3–1–3 and its movement.

So, to begin, lets remember the last two works of Bielsa in the football, on Athletic Bilbao and Olympique de Marseille. Both teams, at some point, used this formation, but with subtle differences, due to the players characteristics.

At Bilbao, Bielsa thrived in the first season making the finals of the Europa League and Copa del Rey with the Basque side, but suffering in the second season, especially after losing Javi Martinez and the problem with contract rebel Fernando Llorente. Nevertheless, the team played some exciting football, frustrating even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at San Mamés, in a game that ended 2–2, with Barcelona equalizing in the added time. When playing 3–3–1–3, Bielsa usually lined his team like this.

It is worth mentioning the job made by Oscar de Marcos, a midfielder with high work rate — to a point of continue playing a game and be the best on the field with a ruptured scrotum — and Iraola, both acting like inverted wingbacks, moving inside during the attacking phase and supporting the midfield. At some times, though, de Marcos would make a strange movement to give width on the left side, since Muniain cut inside with the ball, looking for pockets of space in between lines. He started his movement wide, would go inside to give numerical superiority in the midfield, and, when Muniain dropped between lines, he would again act as a left wingback, crossing for the attacking line.

After his tenure at Bilbao, Bielsa took some time without training, then returned to coaching at the traditional Olympique de Marseille side. With Les Olympiens, he was able to mount a bid to the title until the last moments of the league, when they lost momentum to a multimillionaire Paris Saint Germain. Bielsa would use the same 3–3–1–3 tactic at Marseille, but with subtle tweaks on the player movements, so he would exploit some of the players best habilities. For instance, he had wingbacks who tended to be good crossers, and making them play only in the inside midfield would be wasting the talents of Mendy and Dja Djedjé. He then tweaked and made, at some times, the wingers to come inside and back to get the ball, so to open the wing for a marauding wingback.

Thauvin moves into the midfield to work the ball and opens space for Dja Djedjé moving forward
3–3–1–3 of Olympique Marseille’s 2014–15 season under Marcelo Bielsa

Imbula was a key piece in El Loco’s team, having the ability to protect the line of 3 defenders, and also moving up with the ball to link the attack. He acted as a pivot, making a rhombus in the defense with the back three. Gignac and Payet had a great season, with the first being second best goalscorer at the Ligue One, scoring 21 “buts”, and the latter having lots of creative freedom, providing the team with 16 assists — 6 more than the second best , Javier Pastore from PSG with 10 assists— and also scoring 7 goals. Marseille finished the season with the second best attack, scoring 76 goals in 38 games, averaging 2 goals per game, and suffered 42 goals. He would leave Le OM after only one game in his second season, after a row with the board of directors.

  • The 3–3–1–3 movements — Defending

One of the hardest parts of the 3–3–1–3 working, is the synchronised movement of the defenders and the inverted wingbacks, so that open spaces would be shut as quick as possible. Since Bielsa plays with inverted wingbacks, during the defense phase their role is really important, knowing when to move towards the touchline to close the corridor, and when to defend the centre of the pitch.

In an hypothetical case of a 3–3–1–3 versus a 4–4–2, a possible mean of combating the wing attack is the Inverted Wingback defend the side with the ball, against the winger, while the opposing Inverted Wingback stays narrow, so to cover shadow both the center midfielder and the opposing winger and try to intercept a pass to that side.

Against a 4–2–3–1, the side could suffer if the markins are like that.

Against a 4–2–3–1 side, the team could struggle, especially if the team marks the wingers with its inverted wingbacks. The team would be stuck in the defence and would lose the midfield battle, with the wingers pinning the wingbacks deep in their half, and open in the lateral corridors. A solution could be a pendulating approach of the back 5, with the ball moving towards the side, the opposing wingback moves back to the defensive line, while the other maintain its centralized position. That way, there would be maintained a numerical superiority, with situational 4 defenders against the 3 attackers, while recovering a bit of the numbers in the centre of the pitch, making company with the pivot.

After recovering the ball, the movement of the players would be to build the game from behind, with lines of short passes. A Bielsa side would also ask the centrebacks to make long range passes towards a number 9, like Llorente and Gignac, so he could hold the ball upfront and give time for the lines to move forward.

Short passing lanes in the defensive line. Inverted wingbacks position themselves centrally, rather than wide, like most wingbacks. Pivot is the main line of link of defence and the number 10.
  • The buildup and the attacking phase

Since the wingbacks play an important role in Bielsa’s 3–3–1–3, their role is seen also in the build up play, with them making a diamond on the midfield with the defensive midfielder and the number 10. That way, its important to say that, at first, the players who have the responsability of giving width to the play are the wingers, who have the task to make take-ons against the opponent’s full backs and cross the ball into the area. This kind of lateral play is a distinctive feature in Bielsa’s game, especially with a strong number 9

A Diamond midfield on the build=up phase

Besides the inverted wingbacks, there are the roles of the wingers and the 2 insiders — the number 10 and the centerforward — . Since the wingbacks come inside to support the midfield, the wingers are incumbed of pinning the opposing full backs and give width to the team, receiving on the wing, dribbling the defender and delivering a cross towards the box. But the opposing winger can also appear to complete the cross, if needed, i.e. if the right winger crosses the ball, the left winger can enter the box in a diagonal to complete it.

The number 10 role is pivotal, since he moves in the central area to link the attack and midfield, risking through balls, shots from outside the box, and also directing which side the play should go, distributing the game upfront.

A role that not much was said is the deep lying playmaker, or the number 5, that has the duty to make a safe ball passing, intercepting ball clearances by the opposition defence, as well as switching the to the flanks, trying to get the opposition defenders without protection.

  • Maintaining the Bielsista philosophy alive at Football Manager

The biggest task in making this kind of formation in older versions of Football Manager is the absence of a proper working Inverted Wing Back, since the wingbacks tended to stay positioned wide and defended almost nothing in center midfield positions. This problem is partially solved at the new Football Manager 2017, making it possible to work with a proper 3–3–1–3 without losing the midfield battle. By that, it comes to remind I’m doing a revival of this kind of formation, but modelling it in the manner I find it more interesting of playing, specifically the number 9 and number 10 roles.

I tend to make my teams more mobile and less reliant on long passes and strong center forwards. For that, I use the number 10 role as an attacking midfielder in support stance, so he’ll move back and forth in the midfield line.

As number 9, I usually like creative and fast players, so I use a deep lying forward with an attack stance, so he can drop to get the ball and accelerate and link with other players, creating passing triangles, and not only being a goalscorer.

A good tip is to have players with high workrate and teamwork, so they will roam from their positions all the time, making it possible to maintain the shape of the team.

That said, this is a prototype of 3–3–1–3. In the future, I’ll post more of this type, trying to show it during the game and so. For now, a big thank you to whoever is reading, and a Happy New Year.