Could Marcelo Bielsa Be A Potential Mikel Arteta Replacement?
By James Whiffing
Following Arsenal’s recent Europa League exit and poor league campaign, the pressure has been mounting on Mikel Arteta, who has been heavily criticised for his poor team selections and tactics in the last few weeks. It seems as though the majority of Arsenal fans have turned on the 39-year-old now. Names such as Massimiliano Allegri, Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini, Maurizio Sarri, Antonio Conte, and more, are all being mentioned as potential suitors for the Arsenal job.
However, I realised that the names above will be very hard to attract to the club following the evident decline that we have been on over the past few years. Therefore, we should be aiming for managers who are closer to our current level, but can still do a decent job with the players and budget that we have. This is when I began to explore the prospect of bringing in Marcelo Bielsa. In the summer of 2018, Bielsa joined Leeds United and was tasked with the huge challenge of taking the Whites back to the Premier League. Ever since the Argentine’s appointment, Leeds United have massively exceeded expectations, with the club sitting comfortably in 9th position in the Premier League table at the time of writing this article. The side remains where they are whilst also being one of the most exciting teams to watch in England.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, how does Bielsa set up his team when they don’t have the ball? His dynamic and unpredictable side are not exactly famed for their defensive sturdiness, so many that are unfamiliar are surely wondering. Frequently this season, we have seen Leeds adopt a 4-1-4-1 shape when out of possession, with the main tactic being to counter-press immediately after losing the ball.
Aggressive man marking is also something that Bielsa implements at Leeds; when the opposition have the ball, the players make sure to stay tight to their man in order to cut off short passing options, which forces a long ball. Leeds don’t have a specific trigger which sets off their press; instead, each player must apply pressure to their man whenever he receives the ball.
Bielsa's press tends to leave pockets of space in the middle of the park at times, allowing the ball to be fizzed in to the opposition’s midfield/attack. Defensive midfielder Phillips is very good at winning 1v1 duels, however sometimes he can sweep up in midfield and win the ball back for his side. Thomas Partey has similar ball-winning abilities, so he could be a good option for Bielsa to build his system around as he does the Englishman. Another flaw to this system is the amount of energy it will take out of the players. Playing this type of system every game will be tough for players to keep up and will require extremely good levels of fitness to maintain for every game. Considering the fact that Arsenal have several players who are injury prone, this system might take some time to master, although, once fitness levels are better, the system could work very well for the Gunners. In terms of building attacks with the ball, Bielsa plays a 2-3-2-3, with the full backs coming into midfield with the defensive midfielder while the two midfielders (acting as ‘free 8s’ or ‘mezzalas’) and the front three push up. Bielsa tries to get his team up the pitch via passing triangles out wide with the winger, full back and midfielder, with third man runs also being utilised by the 65-year-old.
Within these triangles, Bielsa seems to want his players to rotate, which in turn draws out the opposition and creates more space for them to attack.
These triangles work so efficiently for Leeds since the players involved in them are so comfortable on the ball. This is how the likes of Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pépé could operate on the left; they are all comfortable with the ball and are capable of finding each other with their passing abilities.
On the other hand, I feel that the triangle of Hector Bellerin, Thomas Partey and Bukayo Saka could prove to cause some more issues. Particularly in recent games, we have seen Bellerin give away possession frequently; it is clear that he is not too comfortable with the ball and does not have as good as passing range as his left sided counterpart Tierney. This is an area where I believe Bielsa would try and improve, with targets such as Achraf Hakimi and Tariq Lamptey (both full backs who are comfortable on the ball) being linked to a potential move to Arsenal in the past few weeks. The triangles usually begin with the winger dropping to receive the ball to their feet; this, in my opinion, is a better way to play than how we currently play under Arteta, with the likes of Pépé and Saka seeming to be very isolated once they receive the ball. Players such as Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock, in the Europa League and on loan at Newcastle, have also proved time and time again this season that they are capable of making third man runs. Said trait is synonymous with Aaron Ramsey, who would score many goals from his trademark late runs into the box; this could be crucial to the way that Bielsa sets up Arsenal should he come in. If the triangles aren’t working, Leeds rely on their deep-lying playmaker once again, who has an exceptional passing range that helps him to find a teammate virtually anywhere on the pitch. Partey and Xhaka also possess a superb passing range; they could both be influential in an Arsenal team managed by Bielsa, with the pair most likely both being used in the triangles and for their passing range.
In conclusion, I feel that Bielsa would be a great replacement for Mikel Arteta, albeit most likely a short-term one to get the club back to challenging for the Top 6 again. After the last two seasons, I feel as though Arsenal have lost some of their identity in terms of the way they play, which involved free-flowing, mesmerising football that was entertaining to watch and would even destroy the opposition at times.
Bielsa, I feel would bring some identity back to this lacklustre Arsenal side and would make us not only good to watch again, but also more competitive.
That all being said, in order for us to be competitive again, a change of ownership needs to happen too. There is only so much a manager can manage with a certain, and typically stringent budget, therefore if Daniel Ek’s takeover is eventually successful, we could see a rebuild of Arsenal. The much needed shift back to greatness could start with a manager like Bielsa in order to steady the ship.