Monday, January 21, 2019

BIELSA HAS LOBBED A GRENADE INTO ENGLISH FOOTBALL

BIELSA HAS LOBBED A GRENADE INTO ENGLISH FOOTBALL

'Spygate' has for my money been the biggest story so far this season in England and it has not been in the Premier League.

Marcelo Bielsa has been one of the most renowned coaches in the world for some years so there was some excitement last summer when it was announced that the Argentine was coming to England, albeit to the second flight, his seventh national workplace if you include his two crazy days at Lazio.

Leeds FC


So far so good as Leeds United are top of the league, but if the media throng around the Premier League had only glimpsed Bielsa out of the corner of their eye, the news that one of his staff had been stopped by police with a pair of binoculars watching rivals Derby County's training session from an adjacent hill certainly woke everyone in English football up.

As the mist has cleared, more people are realising there is a canny cat out there amongst the staid old pigeons. With a little research it would have been clear Bielsa is probably the most meticulous manager in the game, a fanatic football man who at 63 is not about to slow down.

In Argentina he drove around 9,000Km in his car to scout signings for Newell's Old Boys and embraces player analysis like an eager addict, spending hours and hours analysing, categorising and classifying his opponents down to each player. No wonder he has built a bedroom extension to his office.

Former players of his such as Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone as well as coaches like Jorge Sampaoli sing his praises while Pep Guardiola no less has called him the best in the world.

Gabriel Batistuta's testimony is priceless, saying it was Bielsa "who taught me how to train on rainy days." He is certainly one of the first names on our lips when we talk about influential coaches. His alumni have become disciples.

But has Bielsa erred in not studying England's football culture and traditions? Some feathers were ruffled by the revelation of covert surveillance of Derby training. According to Bielsa, when Derby manager Frank Lampard spoke to him about the event, "He told me I didn't respect the fair play rules."

Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown has called for a points deduction from Leeds for instance.

"It's the wrong thing to do. Poking around and skulking around a training ground is not part of the game," he told the BBC.

While apparently unsportsmanlike, there is unlikely to be any sanction as no rule appears to have been broken.

The idea that Leeds, who won the resulting match between the sides, would have gained some killer advantage by watching the Rams in training beforehand, is also hard to believe given the treasury of information available to all clubs in 2019 through advanced computer programs like Opta, Prozone and Wyscout.

These performance analysis apps tell you everything you need to know about a side's behaviour and style of play and their players' abilities, leaving no surprises when it comes to match day.

You can easily focus on a particular player and bring up videos of all the headers he has made that season for instance. Statistics will inform you what phases of the 90 minutes teams tend to score, attack and defend etc so it is hard to see what having spies in situ can do.

As the furore died down, Bielsa to his credit defended his actions, inviting journalists into Elland Road last week for a Powerpoint presentation on his analytical methods, which are common practice in the professional game, albeit largely invisible to the watching public.

"We observed all the rivals we played against and watched all the training sessions of the opponents before we played against them," he confirmed, revealing the spying was routine. "I've been using this kind of practice since the World Cup qualifiers with Argentina."

He went on that he watched opponents because "it is not illegal" and "even if it is not useful it gives me peace of mind."

He then said they watched every game their forthcoming opponent played the previous season (using aforementioned software programs) and that each match analysis took four hours. For Derby last season that entailed Leeds doing 204 hours of study, covering 51 different games.

What a far cry from Brian Clough's "Let them worry about us" mantra.

It worked in the sense that Leeds beat Derby and top the Championship. If all clubs are using the same computer analysis it makes sense to keep up with the Jones but was watching training necessary? Surely all the hours of matchday evidence is enough to form one's plan of attack.

On the other hand, Leeds have lost four of their last five games, three in the league and one F.A. Cup tie, so how useful has the spying and statistics really been?

After 200 hours' work of video analysis, watching your side then lose to a lesser opponent must be galling.

Leeds might have observed Derby practising a particular set piece routine for which they could have prepared countermeasures, but the possible advantage was surely a slim one. Maybe they were rather trying to spot which players were not training i.e. who was resting or carrying injuries.

Clubs can often give out false information about the fitness status of players in the run up to big games to throw their opponents onto a false trail so there is an argument that advantages, however slim, can be gained by surveillance. Whether it is cricket or not is another question, one harder to answer.

It seems Bielsa was genuine when he says he never expected this furore. Pep Guardiola concurred.

"In other countries everyone does it," the Manchester City manager said. "In other countries they (training grounds) are open. In Munich there were people with cameras watching what we do."

Pochettino also backed his old boss:

"Here maybe it is a little bit weird," he said, "but...that happened 30 years ago in Argentina...it is not a big issue or a big deal."

Some years ago I was living in Italy and would watch one of the best sides in Europe at the time, Parma - Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla et al, training openly in the city's Cittadella park once a week before signing autographs for fans.

That season Arsenal went on to beat them in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final in Copenhagen. Master tactician George Graham probably did not need my insider knowledge anyway.

Liverpool's Melwood training ground is famously so open that Colombian university student Juan Carlos Osorio rented a room in an adjoining house to observe their methods. The same man went on to coach Mexico at last summer's World Cup where they beat holders Germany and is now manager of Paraguay.

Jurgen Klopp however said the last two training sessions before a match should be kept private.

"You change a lot of things, you train on the set-pieces, you use the players available for the weekend, it's not for anybody else" he said, sentiments echoed by Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson.

Swansea coach Graham Potter on the other hand disagreed. "I have no problem with it," he admitted "It's not something I am too bothered about."

"Watching teams on the sly is nothing new in football," agreed Alan Shearer, who said he deliberately placed penalties in the wrong places while training before overseas away fixtures in the host stadium because he was sure someone was watching him.

The Newcastle legend however drew a distinction between accessible training sessions and deliberately breaching or looking over erected privacy barriers, as happened at Derby.

Yet the revelation of Bielsa's practices does shine a little torchlight upon the hidden face of the sport, one of many practices which go on in the shadows and are not discussed in public. For that reason the reaction from those inside the game, ex-players and managers, has not been one of hysterical condemnation or demands for punishment.

The general consensus is that a man with binoculars on a hill was not quite within the spirit of the game and that someone should have a quiet word with Bielsa. At at the same time we ruefully acknowledge as Hull manager Nigel Adkins said, that "You can't keep secrets in football anymore."

From the tapping up of players to top stars sitting out cup games or mysteriously withdrawing from international duty, agents enticing managers to field their men, clubs tipping off loyal journalists in order to fulfil their ghastly media strategies or worst of all players accepting money from betting syndicates to influence outcomes, there are many things which happen in the shadows that the public simply does not witness.

For that reason alone, Spygate is the story of the season, a reminder that the game we think we know inside and out is not all that it appears to be.

Bielsa must be believed when he admits he is shocked by the reaction to his methods.

He should be commended for his honesty, although perhaps not his cultural sensitivity. Since the Derby revelation, 11 sides in the Championship have complained about spying by Leeds.

If we are all to accept this as part of the English game, there remains some convincing to be done, even if as universally accepted, no law has been transgressed.

If Leeds are playing Premier League football next season, the precious clubs of England's top division will doubtless be on the lookout for Bielsa's men and already heightening their walls, creating no-fly zones and planning to spike the Argentinian's covert operations with their own special forces.

Breaching the defences surrounding Manchester United's Carrington training complex will be like an attack on the Death Star, but be sure that Bielsa, like the young Luke Skywalker, will be up for the challenge.

In this age of cellphones, drones and the internet it is hard to believe there are any big secrets clubs can conceal in closed training sessions anyway. As Guardiola confirmed,

"Everyone is spying on everyone, on the personal lives of this man or woman. Everywhere is like this."

I actually do not live too far from Chelsea's training ground, and know the environs as I once did a junior coaching course there while it still belonged to the Surrey F.A.

If the weather is nice maybe I will pop down tomorrow with my bird-watching binoculars and see if I can figure out why Maurizio Sarri is playing Eden Hazard out of position and cannot motivate his team.

Bielsa has led the way again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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