The Bielsa influence: How ‘el loco’ helped mould Tottenham’s manager

BERGAMO, ITALY - JULY 26: LOSC Lille coach Marcelo Bielsa shouts to his players during the pre-season friendly match between Atalanta BC and LOSC Lille at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on July 26, 2017 in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
BERGAMO, ITALY - JULY 26: LOSC Lille coach Marcelo Bielsa shouts to his players during the pre-season friendly match between Atalanta BC and LOSC Lille at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on July 26, 2017 in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images) /

Mauricio Pochettino played under Marcelo Bielsa for three different sides and it’s hard to imagine anyone having a greater impact on the Tottenham manager’s career.

The first meeting

The tale of how Bielsa scouted Poch is almost mythical. Bielsa had just taken a role working with Newell’s Old Boys youths and was scouring the country for untapped talent. He was holding trials in the small city of Villa Cañás when he heard of a boy, who failed to show up, living 50 kilometres away.

Bielsa and Jorge Griffa decided to head to the source of such acclaim, and after an evening of canvassing the area, eventually made it to the Pochettino’s farmhouse at around 1am.

Still half asleep, Poch’s parents welcomed the two strange men inside and brought them up to Mauricio’s bedroom. Upon Griffa’s request, Poch’s mother pulled back the bed sheets before both  men proclaimed he had footballer’s legs, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Poch under Bielsa

Poch and Bielsa enjoyed great success together at Newell’s, both graduating to the first team where they won Argentina’s Premier Division, as well as reaching a Copa Libertadores final.

Years later the pair linked up at Espanyol but the reunion was not all Pochettino famous hugs and cups of mate. Poch admits he sunk deep into a comfort zone, a stark contrast to the hungry youth at Newell’s Bielsa had known, and Marcelo let him know in such a blunt manner it reduced Poch to tears.

However, Bielsa clearly still rated Poch and called him up to the Argentinean squad. Just six months into his tenure in Catalonia he left to take up the national post.

Videos Analysis

There is more than a vestige of Bielsa in Pochettino’s methods. One trait that can undoubtedly be traced back to Bielsa is his advocacy of video analysis.

After taking his first managerial role at Espanyol, Poch immediately called upon his old Newell’s defensive partner, Miguel D’Agostino (Miki), to film training sessions, as recalled in Guillem Balague’s Brave New World:

"“We built a tower made from scaffolding pipes so Miki could start filming. It is still there. Gusts of wind would always be blowing and there was Miguel clinging on for dear life while recording.”"

Miki has remained with Poch and holds a similar, albeit smaller, role at Spurs where everything from warm ups to gym work are recorded and dissected by the Argentinean coaching staff.

Poch regularly calls his players into his office to go through videos, preferring to screen clips on match days to communicate instructions rather than using a traditional board and marker.

Poch was first exposed to video analysis at Newell’s. Bielsa would give his player’s homework assignments to study upcoming opponents; he was a pioneer in this particular field, and to this day there is probably no other manager as meticulous.

With an almost non-existent playing career, Bielsa approached the game from an academic standpoint, relying on extensive reading and video analysis and not experience and hand-me-down training ground knowledge.

In Inverting the Pyramid, Johnathon Wilson caricatures Bielsa’s obsessive nature regarding videos:

"“When he arrived for his interview with Velez Sarsfield in 1997, he brought 51 videos with him to explain his ideas to the club’s directors. When he took the job there he insisted on a computer with the capacity to take screenshots from videos – something that was revolutionary at the time. Once when asked how he planned to spend the Christmas and New Year’s vacation, Bielsa explained that he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend fourteen hours watching videos.”"


The main tenets of Bielsa’s tactical philosophy are possession and pace.

He regularly plays midfielders or full backs in central defense, believing they are better equipped to play a high line and pass it out from the back. While laterally he deploys buccaneering full backs to optimally stretch the opposition.

Offensively Bielsa plays an old school enganche (playmaker) to provide the artistry in his preferred 3-3-1-3 formation, although sometimes reverting to a 4-2-3-1.

The latter is more similar to Pochettino’s tactical manifesto, who opts for a double pivot.

A high line, pressing, and possession are all watchword’s for Pochettino’s side, but his team has no place for a classic enganche. Dele Alli would act as a modern equivalent, with the added responsibilities of tracking back and penetrating the opponent’s defensive lines with late runs.


Both managers are notorious for gruelling training sessions.

‘El loco’ has always gone to extreme lengths to prepare his sides for upcoming seasons; most recently, at Lille, he built small bungalows around their training complex and relocated his players during pre-season.

Such preparation is necessary for a player to commit to such a high-octane, pressing game. That sort of intense training regime can lead to burnout, though. Fernando Llorente, then of Athletic Bilbao, turned up for national team duty so exhausted that Vicente Del Bosque refused to play him.

Having suffered under Bielsa, it is no wonder Pochettino’s brutal training methods caused such intrigue when he arrived in England. His students regularly speak with dread of pre-season regimes like the ‘Gacon test,’ – a beep tests consisting of 15-second intervals between 45 seconds of running with the distance and speed steadily increasing.


From Newell’s Old Boys to Lille, Bielsa is not shy to cast aside more experienced figures in favour of fledgling talent. This was a decisive factor in Lille’s pursuit of Bielsa. He fielded a starting XI with an average age of just 23 in his first game in charge.

Pochettino also has a stellar record of tutoring young talent, as the English national side so often portrays. He is a chairman’s dream, and Daniel Levy’s eyes must swell with voluptuous bliss every time another academy player is promoted to the first team squad.


Both Bielsa and Poch have won more admirers than trophies. Bielsa is one of the most revered managers in the game, yet has won just two Argentinean Championships and, most recently, a 2004 Olympic Gold.

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the lack of silverware, but perhaps I’ve already alluded to the main causes.

"“If players weren’t human,” Bielsa once said, “I’d never lose.”"

But unfortunately for Bielsa his players are human and often tail off towards the end of campaigns. In an era when sports science was not as advanced as it is today, Bielsa’s quest for utopia made him push his players beyond their limits.

Furthermore, while showing faith in youth is admirable, it is not the quickest way to glory.

Like Bielsa, Pochettino is no stranger to flirting with glory, bringing Spurs close to the league title on two occasions, as well making a cup final appearance in 2015.

Next: Is Bale really coming back to Tottenham?

The youth argument is valid but Poch has scattered long-term success seeds. He has certainly sprinkled a little Bielsa in the mix. Tottenham fans can only hope a silver-spangled harvest is on the near horizon.