Marcelo Bielsa’s Tactical Philosophy

Welcome to – what I should imagine is – my last tactical work before Football Manager 2018.

So far, I have enjoyed looking at some of the most exciting and interesting teams in football history and looking at how we can implement their playing styles in the Football Manager Tactics Creator and see it played out in the match engine.

As always – if you have yet to read along so far – I would recommend you start here as I will not spend too much time explaining already-discussed concepts.

In addition to tactical re-creations, we have also looked at some more general real-world tactical theories or Tactics Creator concepts.

Remember when I promised that Pep’s Guardiola was my last system based on the Very Fluid shape? :lol: I am sorry.

Before you think, “here we go again” and your eyes glaze over, this discussion is going to follow a new approach aimed at making the Tactics Creator cleaner, simpler and more rational when implementing your tactical ideas.

Resources on Marcelo Bielsa

My most common gripe about tactical content certainly applies to Marcelo Bielsa. There is an awful lot written, but not a lot actually said. There is a lot written about his eccentric character – obsessive, genius and nicknamed “El Loco” – or his “disciples”, but not much actual tactical content. Please feel free to recommend additional resources, and I am happy to share.

Tactical Theory

Before we look at the characteristics of Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics in more detail, let’s introduce a new format which should make it easier to relate real-world football to the Tactics Creator and on to the Match Engine.

Football can be broken down into 4-phases:

  • Defence
  • Transition from Defence to Attack (aka. Build-up)
  • Attack
  • Transition from Attack to Defence

Now, let’s think about Marcelo Bielsa’s approach to each of these phases:

  • Defence
    • Famously intense pressing and high defensive line
    • As a general rule, Bielsa maintains a one-man advantage over the opposition striker(s).
      -> Preferring a 3-man defence when facing a 2-man attack.
      -> And choosing a 4-man defence against a 3-man attack with a lone centre forward.
    • The rest of team press man-to-man against the entire opposition team.
  • Transition from Defence to Attack
    • Fast attacking transitions
    • Verticality or – for those not a fan of tactical jargon – passing the ball forwards.
    • Build-up play through Defenders comfortable on the ball.
    • Regular use of midfielders in defence, aiding build-play.
  • Attack
    • Attacking unit has been described as an “enganche y tres puntas” which means playmaker and 3-forwards.
    • Bielsa was one of the pioneers of Inverted Wingbacks, essentially acting as auxiliary midfielders in-possession.
    • Stretching the opposition defence using width from either wingers or wingbacks.
    • Runners from deep position support attacks and overload opposition defenders.
  • Transition from Attack to Defence
    • Typically employs 1-2 holding midfielders, protecting the defence from opposition counter-attacks.

Bielsa is famous for his ‘loco’ approach to the game and his 3-3-1-3 formation but also uses 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 as illustrated thanks to the tactical diagrams from Zonal Marking and Konzeptfußballberlin.de.

In Football Manager 2017

Step 1: Team Mentality

Team Mentality is – in my opinion – the single most influential component of the Tactics Creator, determining:

  • Base individual mentalities across the team
  • Base levels for:
    • Defensive Line
    • Closing Down
    • Tempo
    • Time Wasting
    • Width
    • Passing Directness (to a smaller extent)

Quite simply no other instruction influences – anywhere near – as many aspects of a team’s play.

In order to simplify our decision, we can group these aspects into 3-core factors which relate to the phases of play outlined earlier.

  1. Base individual mentalities across the team
    => our overall, collective strategy
  2. Defensive Line and Closing Down
    => Defensive strategy
  3. Tempo, Width, Time Wasting and Passing Directness
    => Transition from Defence to Attack / Build-up strategy

Later on, we will assign individual Player Duties and use Team Instructions tailor each of these to our exact requirements.

Let’s apply this theory to the characteristics of Bielsa’s play, outlined above.

  1. What is our overall, collective strategy?
    • Bielsa advocates pro-active, high-intensity (Spoiler Alert! :D) attacking football.
  2. What is our defensive strategy?
    • Intense pressing and a high defensive line.
  3. What is our build-up / attacking-transition strategy?
    • Fast-attacking transitions, verticality etc.

Team Mentality: Attacking

Step 2: Formation

Re-visiting the quote on formations from Jonathan Wilson:

Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities.

The application of this is that we use formations which facilitate our overall strategy:

  1. Facilitates intense pressing, positioning players across the entire pitch.
  2. Facilitates quick-attacking transitions, allowing players to quickly get into attacking positions.

Given Marcelo Bielsa’s flexibility in his approach to structuring his teams, we need to employ a 3-3-1-3, a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1.

We will come on to Player Roles and Duties later on.

How do these formations facilitate our strategy?

  1. High-intensity pressing:
    • Wide 3-man attack means we can effectively press opponents in their own third.
    • We have different midfield options depending on our opponents set-up.
    • Option of either a 3 or 4-man defence, allowing us to maintain a 1-man advantage against our opponents attack.
  2. Quick attacking transitions:
    • We have 3 or 4 players in attacking positions ready to attack quickly when we turn over possession.

Note: The only aspect which requires any basic knowledge of the Match Engine is positioning the positioning of the Wingbacks in the 4-3-3 due to the issue with a Half-Back playing with a 4-man defence.

Step 3: Core Team Instructions

Having determined our Team Mentality and Formation we can use Team Instructions to tailor our game plan, exactly as we would like it.

The Team Instruction screen throws a lot of information at you. It helps me to divide it down into 3-areas:

  • Core Team Instructions
    => Instructions relating to our Team Mentality:

    • Defensive Line
    • Closing Down
    • Tempo
    • Time Wasting
    • Width
    • Passing Directness
  • Team Shape (covered later)
  • Auxiliary Team Instructions:
    • All remaining instructions.

In the instance of Bielsa, we can use these core Instructions to:

  1. Optimise intense-pressing
    • Higher defensive line
    • Close down more
  2. Match passing directness to suit attacking-transitions
    • More direct passing
      => has the side-effect of a minor increase in tempo and width.

Step 4: Team Shape

Team Shape is the final element of our collective strategy, and determines:

  1. How individual players prioritise Team Mentality vs Individual Duty.
  2. Collective level of Creative Freedom across the team.

Individual Mentality

The individual mentality is determined by three primary factors:

  1. Team Mentality determines a base Mentality level, according to the collective team strategy.
  2. Player Duty determines whether an individual is responsible for attacking, defending or supporting in relation to the collective mentality.
  3. Team Shape determines to what extent the individual focuses on the Team Mentality vs. their individual Duty.

Given that we have already chosen an Attacking team mentality, we can see that a Flexible –  instructs individual players to balance Team Mentality and individual Duty equally – team shape gives us the following Mentality distribution:

  • Defend:

Balancing a Defensive duty with an Attacking team mentality gives us a Neutral balance between attacking and defensive tendencies. Interestingly, the Attacking mentality description does hint towards this but is very easily overlooked:

  • Support:

A Supporting duty balanced with an Attacking mentality gives us a 70-30 preference towards attack. In a Standard mentality system, this level of individual mentality would be considered attacking.

  • Attack:

  • Attacking duty in an Attacking team mentality = all out attack. More than 80-20 in preference of attacking.

Team Shape allows us to alter the balance between Team Mentality and Individual Duty, with more Structured shapes prioritising the individual duty and more Fluid shapes prioritising the Team Mentality.

Applying this back to Marcelo Bielsa:

  • One of the reasons behind the ‘el Loco’ nickname is the focus on a collective, attacking mentality.
  • Bielsa’s teams attack and defend as a unit.
  • Bielsa typically gives players a high level of collective creative freedom.

Team Shape: Very Fluid

Step 5: Player Duties

Having determined our team mentality and shape, assigning individual player duties will now allow us to:

  1. Set individual Mentality
  2. Structure our attacking movement

Individual Mentalities

In the context of an Attacking team mentality and a Very Fluid shape, we can see the individual Mentality assigned to each duty in the Player Instructions screen.

  • Defend

=> Marginally above neutral. Positive, yet sensible play. In a Standard mentality, this mentality would be associated with a Support role.

  • Support

=> 70-30 preference for Attack. In a Standard mentality, this would be classed as an Attack duty.

  • Attack

=> Heavy preference towards attack. Attacking player in an Attacking system. All out attack.

Attacking Movement

Going back to the 4-phases of football:

  • Defence
  • Transition from Defence to Attack
  • Attack
  • Transition from Attack to Defence

We have already defined our strategy for defence and the transition from defence into attack.

Player duties influence our attacking shape in 2-ways:

  • More attacking mentalities will – other factors remaining equal – take up more attacking positions on the field.
  • Roles associated with different duties have different profiles for attacking movement.
    • Roles associated with an Attack duty are more likely to get further forward.

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    • Roles associated with a Defend duty are more likely to hold their position.

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    • Roles associated with a Support duty are typically open to customising.

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How does this influence our Attack and Transition from Attack to Defence phase?

  • Attack
    • Instructing players with Support or Attack duty to get forward more determines the Attacking shape.
      => Next, we’ll use specific Roles and PIs to get players into specific positions.
  • Transition from Attack to Defence
    • What happens in the key moment we are attacking – with players committed forward in our attacking shape – and we lose the ball?
    • Instructing players with Defend or Support duty to hold position means they remain in their defensive position guarding against opposition counter-attack.

Understanding this we assign players duties depending on:

  1. Whether they should be:
    • Positive yet, sensible.
    • Attacking
    • All-out-Attack
  2. Whether they should:
    • Get forward in attack
    • Stay back

Implementing characteristics we see employed by Bielsa, we can implement:

  • Aggressively commit players forward with attacking runs from deep.
  • Attacking players wide, stretching the opposition and creating width.
  • Use a holding midfield shield to circulate possession and protect from counter attacks.

Across all three formations, players perform similar duties despite taking up different positions on the pitch.

  • Central Defenders (Defend or Cover)
    • Positive yet sensible mentality
    • Stay back in attack
  • Wingbacks (Support)
    • Attacking mentality
    • Get forward in attack, providing width
  • Inverted Wingbacks (Support)
    • Attacking mentality
    • Neutral movement, naturally moving into midfield.
  • Holding Midfielders (Defend)
    • Positive yet sensible mentality
    • Stay back in attack
  • Advanced midfielder (Support)
    • Attacking mentality
    • Get forward in attack
  • Wingers (Support)
    • Attacking mentality
    • Get forward in attack, providing width
  • Inside Forwards (Support)
    • Attacking mentality
    • Get forward in attack, naturally coming inside
  • Striker (Support)
    • Positive yet balanced mentality
      -> Strikers on Support always have a lower mentality than other players on Support. Conversely, Strikers in Attack are more attacking than others.
    • Move into channels creating space

We avoid Attacking duties in an Attacking mentality as:

  1. We want to attack as a unit.
  2. The mentality is simply too extreme. Chasing a lead maybe but playing all-season trying to score at all costs is an unnecessary risk.

Step 6: Player Roles and Instructions

Player roles are the icing on the proverbial cake. Player roles are simple. They are nothing more than a pre-set combination of Player Instructions, the name is just a label.

In most cases, after selecting Duty you will be left with a handful of options. Your decision simply comes down to:

  • Do you want this player to be a Playmaker / Target Man?
  • Do the Player Instructions associated the role, suit the player and fit your tactical requirements.
    • If not, are they customisable?

Not sure we need to walk through every decision, but let’s give one example.

We already know that my Striker is going to be in the Centre Forward position and playing a Support role, which leaves me 5-options:

  • Deep-Lying Forward
  • Target Man
  • Complete Forward
  • Defensive Forward
  • False 9

The process of elimination:

  1. Do I want a Target Man?
    -> No, I tried it and don’t like the long-balls.

    • Target Man.
  2. Do I want my Striker to Dribble More?
    -> No, my primary striker is 35, and his dribbling is 11.

    • Complete Forward
    • False 9
  3. Do I prefer more or less risky passes?
    -> More, as he is drifting off and has attacking runners all around him.

    • Defensive Forward

Hello, Deep-Lying Forward + Move into Channels.

Don’t forget to set your Goalkeeper distribution. In this case, to the centre backs! ;)

Step 7: Auxiliary Team Instructions

If the last step was the icing, these are the candles.

Finally, we have the remainder of the Team Instructions screen which we bypassed earlier.

  • Offside trap?
  • Tighter Marking?
  • Tackling Instructions?
  • Passing Instructions?
  • Retain Possession?
  • Creative Freedom?
  • Final 3rd instructions?
  • Crossing?
  • Dribbling?
  • Freedom of movement?

There are two issues people trip over with Team Instructions:

  1. Lots of them are redundant, ignored or unspecific?
    -> In an Attacking / Very Fluid system, is more creative freedom going to do anything?
    -> How much is more, anyway? 2 is more than 1, so is 999,999,999.
  2. Lots have unclear side effects.
    -> Retain possession and play out of defence change passing and tempo settings.
    -> Focus passing through the middle and look for overlap impact the individual Mentality of related players.

My advice:

  1. Treat them as an intermediate level area of the Tactics Creator.
    => Employ them if you know what you’re doing
    => If you’re struggling then keep it simple
  2. Watch a few games first.
    => Do you need to employ a particular instruction to improve play?
    => If yes, watch a few more games and see if it does the trick.

In this case, our Attacking mentality meant that players were prone to shooting from long range more than I liked during pre-season, so I added Work the Ball into the Box.

Overview

There we have it. We have used the tactics creator to create:

  • Marcelo Bielsa’s high-octane attacking football.
    • Fast-attacking transitions.
    • “Verticality”
    • High-intensity pressing.
  • Applying this style in 3-variants:
    • 3-3-1-3
    • 4-3-3
    • 4-2-3-1

Apologies for a long post. The purpose is to explain decisions in a simple way that people can apply to their own tactics. Look at this as a walk-through ahead of a guide I intend to put together around the release of Football Manager 2018.

Due to travel commitments, I am out of time for now, but the next post is reserved for:

  1. Match engine analysis
  2. Info on the squad

For those who like inverted wingbacks and 3-4-3 diamonds, here’s a preview:

8 thoughts on “Marcelo Bielsa’s Tactical Philosophy

  • I really like the clear, step-by-step approach to your whole post, especially the part about choosing the striker role. That’s something I often struggle with, so I will review my current tactic as a result of this post.

  • Very good work here! Thanks a lot for interesting reading. Unfortunately I think you have to have really, really good defenders/retrained midfielders in the defence.. with 15+ positiong, agility and speed. Otherwise the opponent will always exploit the high defence line.. I tried to recreate Bielsa many times myself (not so well like here 🙂 ) and always had problems with it.. I tried this incarnation with three different teams, with max familiarity and my opponents had 3-5 clear cut chances on average every match.. I played 6 matches at home against slightly weaker teams and all of them ended in draw, one was won by me, but still opponent had too many good chances and my only luck was to have goalkeeper in best form ever.. Any ideas how to make the defence more solid, but not violate Bielsa ideas?

    • U can try not changing anything and play same style, but try to change mentaliy to counter. If u play short pases, the team will continue to play like that, but will take less risks when atacking. I play on countet many and my team still controls match like 60 possesion, but defensivly more solid

  • Michal u might have allready tried this, but try putting the defensive line a notch deeper. I had the same problem with one of my tactics, i was dominating the play but the counter long balls always necked me. I put the defensive line 1 step lower and it made a big difference. Another trick is, once u are in the lead to change to controlling instead of attacking, that usually works well for me to. But i’m not a pro, i just can relate and this is what worked for my specific tactic.

  • Thank you for the time spent on this and being simple yet clear with the process and break downs.

    Been playing FM for at least 8 years and still always glad to be able to learn more.

    Thank you again. A follow up of a season or 10 games would be nice and final thoughts?

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