Drills from Bielsa

Just about all the 'modern' principles behind designing and delivering a drill do not apply to Marcelo Bielsa's working method. His drills are static, there is hardly any learning to deal with chaos and if there is no resistance from opponents (except scrimmages), it is often passive. Yet Bielsa is always very successful. Whether this is despite or because of his way of training remains a matter of course, because there are more ways to influence players than training. But it is certainly interesting. An insight into the Bielsa Method.


Marcelo Bielsa (Argentina, 1955) stopped playing football at the age of 25 to focus on his coaching career. After ten years with the youth of Newell's Old Boys, the club appointed him as head coach. In the three decades that followed, his career took him through Atlas, América, Vélez Sarsfield, Espanyol, the national teams of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, Athletic Bilbao, Olympique Marseille, Lazio SS, LOSC Lille and Leeds United.

His nickname is El Loco and for good reason. Bielsa is busy with football 24/7, has his teams train long and hard, and pays attention to every detail. In a presentation for Leeds United, then still in the Championship, he said that his technical staff analyzes dozens of matches of each opponent. Bielsa is obsessive about football and is very headstrong. After all these years abroad, he still doesn't speak a word of English and he observes matches in his characteristic posture: crouched, with a frowning look, carefully recording every action.

The adoration for Bielsa among top coaches is immense. For example, Pep Guardiola said about his teacher: 'He makes players so much better. I have never met a player who has spoken negatively about him. Everyone is grateful for the influence he has on their careers. He is the best coach in the world.' Diego Simeone agrees. 'I learned a lot from coaches like Sven-Göran Eriksson and Alfio Basile, but I learned the most from Bielsa.' Johan Cruijff praised Bielsa at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa because, according to him, Chile played the most attractive football of the tournament.

Being free

Underlying many of the patterns that appear in Bielsa's passing is his theory of being free. He distinguishes five ways, each of which he explains in a presentation in the Johan Cruijff Arena. 'I have looked at hundreds of situations and I have come up with these five ways (image 1). If anyone else sees a sixth, please let me know. In any case, I don't see him yet.'

  1. Approaching the ball explosively
  2. Going deep and receiving a through ball inside
  3. Release in width after a zigzag running action
  4. Cutting in front of the opponent
  5. Receiving a chip pass over the defender

This way of thinking characterizes Bielsa, who dissects and unravels as many aspects of the game of football as possible. He also distinguishes ten different formations, all of which he developed against the other nine formations based on match images and tactical drawings.

Passing drills

Two players

Many trainers who opt for isolated drills in which players pass the ball to each other, focus on passing. With Bielsa, the emphasis in such exercises is on the movement. Not so much conditionally, but mainly in terms of direction. In terms of the type of drills and the coaching in those drills, he focuses very much on the correct running lines, in which the different ways of being free that he distinguishes are reflected in a structured manner.

An example is the exercise in image 2. This is a drill for two players. When the pass chain is over, the next pair starts immediately. The red player sprints to the left, around the cone, then up, around the cone, and presents himself in the middle of the box. The blue player dribbles to the bottom right goes around the cone, and passes his teammate (left in the drawing). The red player bounces the ball toward blue's starting pylon and moves on, outside around the pylon at the top right of the drawing. The blue player sprints back to his starting cone and immediately passes the ball to his teammate. Once again he moves to the other side and receives the last passing drill red (on the right in the drawing), after which the pair joins the back of the line again.

Four players

Bielsa also regularly chooses drills for four players that you rarely see anywhere. An example of such a drill can be seen in Figure 3. Two players on the same side start with the ball. On the other side, one player approaches the ball, shortly followed by the other player, who temporarily acts as a passive defender. After receiving the ball, the 'defender' moves back, around the middle (smaller) post, and receives the ball from the other passer. After a few times, both players switch roles.

In the format in Image 4, foursomes also work together, with two players on either side. A blue player passes to the other side, and a red defender starts behind his direct opponent and then comes in front of him (left side of the image). He receives the ball, makes a one-two with the front blue player, and passes the ball to the other side. Now the blue player behind comes in front (right side of the drawing). He makes another one-two with the player on the other side, and so the form continues. The key is recognizing the right moment to pass, although again this is not competitive because he already knows when and how this pass will come.

In short, these are three very atypical drills, in which seemingly illogical movements are combined with illogical passes. Yet this element fits within Bielsa's style of play and the movements and passing lines are trained in detail. There is no resistance from opponents, as is often the case with his training, but certain patterns and fixed agreements become very clear to the players. The (crucial) next step is to apply them at the right time in matches when there are opponents who strongly influence the right time to execute the fixed patterns. Bielsa probably influences his players a lot with images, because it is barely visible on the training field, except for scrimmages.

Finishing drills

Bielsa's finishing drills start sometimes from the side, with crosses, but usually in the center, with players finishing after runs in behind. They usually receive a pass through the air, over a wall of players that form the imaginary last line. In these drills too, the focus is again on the fixed patterns that Bielsa wants to see in the depth game.

Weak side

An example of such a drill can be seen in Figure 5. Player A plays the ball backward to player B, who takes the ball forward. At that moment, player C runs in behind. He stays in front of the offside line when the pass comes and finishes with two ball contacts, a take, and a shot. Then red performs the same pattern but on the other side.

Ball side

In a variation on this drill, a player goes deep on the ball side, after a combination of three players (image 6). Player A passes player B, who bounces the ball to player C. He immediately takes the ball forward. In the meantime, player A has moved on after his pass. He receives the ball through the air in depth from player C. As in the previous form, he has two touches to score.

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