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Could Marcelo Bielsa be coming to Fiorentina?

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It’s only speculation at this stage, but the volatile Argentine known as “El Loco” could be an ideal fit for a team trying to rediscover its identity.

Leeds United v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Although Giuseppe Iachini remains under contract, his work so far has been consistent with his coaching career - that is, a firm hand to steady the ship, but one with a negative mentality ill suited for a club that allegedly has ambitions for more than survival.

The long break has given the media plenty of time for gossip and speculation, and it appears that Fiorentina’s plans for the summer involve not only players coming in and out but potentially also a new manager. Notably, most of the names popping up suggest a return to a more attacking style of football, in line with fan expectations and the guarded ambition promised after Rocco Commisso bought the club a year ago.

While some rumored names such as Luciano Spalletti are evergreen topics of speculation, the name Roberto De Zerbi has seen momentum lately, and he does check off all the boxes - Italian, young, has an attacking philosophy not afraid of possession, and even coaches Sassuolo, a recent favorite coaching launch pad of the Viola brain trust.

Perhaps the most left field name mentioned, although one not out of character, is that of El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine journeyman is a cult legend, a one of a kind visionary who has served as an influence across the stylistic coaching spectrum, including Pep Guardiola, Jorge Sampaoli, Mauricio Pochettino, Geraldo Martino, even Diego Simeone.

After a successful spell coaching in Argentina (with less successful excursions into Mexico), most notably with Newell’s Old Boys, where he is so beloved they named their stadium after him, he was given the keys to the Argentine national team, who he coached between 1998 and 2004. During his dramatic spell in charge, Argentina were consistently one of the most exciting national teams in the world, although they failed to win any silverware, with Bielsa somewhat blamed for the team’s implosion in the 2002 World Cup.

He followed this by taking over rivals Chile between 2007 and 2011, where he is credited for implementing the philosophy that would lead to the golden age of the Chilean national team most fully realized under disciple Sampaoli, as he left Chile following the 2010 World Cup.

Bielsa has since returned to the world of club football, having had memorable runs in Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, and Lille that have all ended prematurely following disputes with management, and an infamous two day role at Lazio that he immediately quit after it became clear management would not provide him with any new players. His last two years at Leeds United have been relatively harmonious, where he has helped revive the club’s fortunes and has found another country to make him a cult hero, but of course it wouldn’t be like Bielsa to be content at one job for very long. Verona based newspaper L’Arena has reported in late May that Bielsa wants to give Serie A another shot, with the two names mentioned as expressing interest Hellas Verona and Fiorentina.

One of a kind attacking philosophy

Although Bielsa is definitely an attack minded coach whose obsession with pushing men forward is rivaled only by Zdeněk Zeman, he’s no Guardiola or even Vincenzo Montella on the attacking side, rejecting deliberate passing for fast, aggressive, vertical play. His favored formation is a 3-3-1-3 that converts to a 4-2-3-1 without the ball, requiring players capable of playing across the pitch.

With the ball, the 3-3-1-3 is compact and vertical, emphasizing the ability of players to shift possession and get forward in numbers. The back 3 need to be capable of starting counters. The midfield include two inverted wingbacks and two more central midfielders. The midfield “3” have the most exhausting jobs in this formation, and it’s where Arturo Vidal cut his teeth playing under Bielsa - this includes a libero central defensive midfielder/center back hybrid who becomes part of the back line on the defense, classically a converted midfielder (such as Javi Martinez at Athletic), as well as two wingbacks. The wingbacks are required to be athletic, well rounded players who can cut in the midfield and rapidly retreat to defend the flanks. One could easily see Bielsa utilizing strong midfielders such as Erik Pulgar (who seems especially suited to this style) and Sofyan Amrabat, as well as wingbacks like Dalbert and Pol Lirola suited to this style.

Above them, Bielsa favors un enganche y tres punta or one playmaker and three forwards (usually one central and two wide). The enganche serves as a free roaming playmaker (though with less roaming than the traditional Italian trequartista), expected to operate centrally deep inside the opposition half, linking the wingbacks and midfield with attack - a role perfect for, for instance, Gaetano Castrovilli. Above the enganche is a trident, usually with one strong central forward able to hold up the ball but also keep up technically (Fernando Llorente and André-Pierre Gignac for instance, thrived under Bielsa), and two fluid players on either side capable of making runs into the box with or without the ball.

An aggressive defense

Although an attack first coach, Bielsa’s legacy might be even greater on the defensive end. El Loco’s requirement for flexibility serves on the attack to enable the midfield to support the forwards to create an element of unpredictability; on the other side it enable the midfield to merge with the back three when the ball is lost. The 3-3-1-3 shifts to a more conservative 4-2-3-1 as needed, with the libero looking more like a center back than a defensive midfielder against stronger teams, and the wing backs able to block the flanks.

This is necessary because Bielsa plays with an aggressively high line. The philosophy of pushing into the opposing half doesn’t end when the ball is lost - instead every player is expected to aggressively press. This is combined with man-marking so intense that the formation becomes further blurred, and individual battles take place all over the pitch.

Although this aggression has been praised as inspiration from the likes of Guardiola and Simeone, it can be both the strength and weakness of Bielsa football. It can be a terror to play against and make it difficult to come back from, but is exhausts the team implementing these tactics as much as it does the opposition. This is one reason Bielsa has a history, in league play, of starting off strong only to fade as the year goes on, and could also explain why Bielsa’s Argentine and Chilean squads eventually collapsed in the World Cup after looking like potential contenders during qualifying.

Conclusion

Marcelo Bielsa is a one of a kind visionary; he’s also a huge gamble and a polarizing figure who will inevitably run into conflict with the board at whatever club he ends up at next. At 64, it’s unlikely the man deservedly known as El Loco will change his ways - what you see is what you get, and he’s not someone who will sacrifice what he believes in for any reason. I could only imagine what would happen if he coached Fiorentina under the Della Valles. When you hire Bielsa, you don’t assume he will win you trophies or stay for a long time, instead you enjoy the ride.

And realistically, Fiorentina is a club right now that needs a vision more than one that is going to win anything significance for at least the next few years. You turn to Bielsa for that vision, to bring an identity and confidence to a team that has been chasing its own tail for far too long. The risks are real, but also the possibility of what Bielsa could do for players like Pulgar, Castrovilli, Chiesa, Lirola, Cutrone, and Agudelo, especially if given some resources to tweak the squad with.

While it is likely that the link between Bielsa and Fiorentina is speculation, or at best exploratory, it is something to dream about. I always hoped to see what Bielsa would do in Serie A, and for Fiorentina it would show a willingness to really swing for the fences, a rejection of the fear that has characterized too many recent moves by this club.