The time stamps gave it away. Marseille’s players were bowled over by the attention to detail shown by their new coach in his extensive video analysis sessions at their Commanderie training base, but they couldn’t help but notice that many of the videos they were watching had last been edited by someone who had been up working until three or four o’clock in the morning. The Marcelo Bielsa era had begun, and it was to be like nothing the club had ever experienced before.
It was always likely to be a sulfurous combination – the singular, cerebral Bielsa, nicknamed El Loco, and France’s most volatile, combustible club – and so it proved, right up until the moment, minutes after Marseille’s 1-0 loss at home to Caen on Saturday, that the Argentine walked into the press conference room at Stade Vélodrome, sat down and stunned the assembled media by announcing his immediate departure. The Marseille president, Vincent Labrune, did not learn of Bielsa’s decision until the press conference was already under way. In the changing room, the players’ smartphones began to bleat and vibrate incessantly. They gleaned the news of the coach’s exit either from social media or via calls and text messages from family and friends.
Marseille were drifting to a disappointing sixth-place finish under interim coach José Anigo when Labrune announced Bielsa’s arrival in April 2014, electrifying France’s most football-mad city. He was acclaimed as a hero from the moment of his arrival and while his track record meant the locals were quickly seduced, he was not afraid to bare his teeth. In an early press conference he lambasted Labrune over the club’s recruitment of the Brazilian centre-back Dória, which he had not authorised, saying that the club “doesn’t have the structure necessary to evaluate the qualities of a player who doesn’t play in France”. Marseille’s press officer was photographed hiding her face behind her hand. Dória, an €8 million signing from Botafogo, had captained Brazil to victory in the Toulon tournament in 2013 and 2014. He did not play a single minute of the 2014-15 season.
Marseille made a slow start to the Ligue 1 campaign, drawing 3-3 at Bastia and losing at home to Montpellier, before things suddenly clicked into place. Employing Bielsa’s trademark 3-3-3-1 formation and a system of aggressive man-marking, Marseille began to play with dizzying, relentless verticality, pressing high up the pitch, streaming forward in numbers and attacking in asphyxiating waves. Players like André-Pierre Gignac and Dimitri Payet, the latter operating in a new central role, excelled and the remodelled, expanded Vélodrome, echoing even more loudly beneath its undulating new roof, became a fortress. Marseille recorded 11 straight victories there, the ninth of which – a 2-1 success against Lille in late December – saw them crowned ‘autumn champions’ for the first time in 11 years. In a league renowned for its defensiveness, it felt a bit like a revolution. “Bielsa has changed the face of the team,” said the Lyon coach, Hubert Fournier.
Perched on his cool box by the side of the pitch, a picture of inscrutability altered only by occasional volcanic goal celebrations, Bielsa became a national celebrity and was soon immortalised on Les Guignols, France’s answer to Spitting Image, where he was depicted as a truculent perfectionist, unable to enjoy a single second of his team’s success. Footage of him accidentally sitting on a cup of coffee that had been placed on his ice box by an assistant during a win over Toulouse in October went viral. He was idolised by Marseille’s fans, but as so often with Bielsa’s teams, it couldn’t last. Having run themselves into the ground in the first half of the season, Marseille’s players ran out of puff in the second, losing four matches in a row in April and missing out on a Champions League place.
Marseille’s supporters had already begun to fear that Bielsa would leave, uniting around the slogan ‘Bielsa no se va‘ (‘Bielsa don’t go’), which Chile’s fans had chanted in 2010 towards the end of his tenure as their national team manager. It began to appear on banners and T-shirts at the Vélodrome and spread as a social media hashtag. With Bielsa reluctant to sign an extension to his contract, which was due to expire in 2016, the saga rumbled on into the summer.
In continuation of what has been dubbed Marseille’s ‘Projet Dortmund‘, the club moved on a host of senior players – including Gignac, Payet, André Ayew, Giannelli Imbula, Rod Fanni and Jérémy Morel – whose places were to be taken by up-and-coming young talent from across Europe. Bielsa returned from Argentina two weeks after his depleted squad had embarked on their pre-season preparations. Marseille’s fans held their breath. Last Thursday, two days before the start of the season, he gave a media conference during which he praised the club’s recruitment strategy and announced that he had decided to sign a new contract. Barely 48 hours later, he was gone.
Explaining his decision to leave, Bielsa, 60, said simply that the club had tried to renege on an agreement in his contract. He refused to provide further detail, but rejected reports he was leaving to become the new coach of Mexico. Initially gobsmacked by both the manner and timing of his announcement, Marseille hit back in a statement a day later, saying that the club “cannot be prisoner of the demands of someone who puts his personal interests well above those of the institution”. Fans have spoken of “betrayal”. Players brought to the club at Bielsa’s behest, such as Lucas Ocampos and Javier Manquillo, who has signed on loan from Atlético Madrid after a disappointing season at Liverpool, find themselves stranded. For Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra, both of whom have joined Marseille in the hope of resurrecting their careers, there is only uncertainty. Whoever takes over will inherit a squad conscientiously shaped to fit Bielsa’s exacting specifications.
While Marseille turn to the task of finding a successor – Jürgen Klopp has already ruled himself out of the running – it will take some time before the impression left by Bielsa begins to fade. But his time at Marseille had been destined for a messy conclusion from day one and as he himself had warned after being pressed over his refusal to commit his future to the club: “He who says he is staying leaves the following day.” He would be true to his word.