It is still relatively early days, of course, but the impact that has been made by the Baggies’ new head coach, Carlos Corberán, is certainly much more than a “new manager bounce”. Despite defeat to the league leaders on Friday evening, the Spaniard’s record of nine wins from twelve league games is remarkable for a team that had won just nine games in their previous forty league matches.
His approach and methods are so far removed from those of his predecessor as to seem to be from a new philosophy, but they have their roots in the Argentina of the 1980s. Corberán is our very own bielsista, one of a group of almost exclusively Spanish-speaking coaches that have taken inspiration from one of the most influential coaches in the world, Marcelo Bielsa.
Born in Rosario in central Argentina, Bielsa was a failed professional footballer and, like Corberán, took up coaching in his early twenties. With his local club Newell’s Old Boys, Bielsa won two league titles and won another with another Argentine team, Vélez Sarsfield. An academic at heart, Bielsa became a student of the game and, when he took over as manager of the Argentinian national team in 1998, he claimed his coaching principles as taking the best from bilardisme, the functional football of Carlos Bilardo that won Argentina the World Cup in 1986, and menottisme, the inspirational style of César Luis Menotti that did the same eight years earlier. In reality, while his defensive drills may have taken much from Bilardo, and his commitment to attack was close to that of Menotti, he took coaching to a new level using analysis of countless hours of video footage and an almost obsessional attention to detail.
He described his philosophy in four terms: permanent focus, mobility, rotation and improvisation – the last term is an unsatisfactory translation of repentización, which is used in music to mean “sight-reading”, playing a piece without having seen it before. As Jonathan Wilson says in his excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, “it’s the key to the whole Bielsa philosophy: it demands players repeatedly do things for the first time, a paradox that perhaps suggests the glorious futility of what he is trying to achieve.”
Bielsa himself once stated that his “great principle is not to concede too much space” which can be most easily understood in his teams’ desire to win the ball as far forward as possible thereby stopping attacks before they have begun and creating your own attacking opportunities immediately. It is commonplace today, but the Argentine was one of the first to use it and has remained almost religiously devoted to it ever since.
Bielsa’s principles are not merely about tactics, his demands on players are legendary such is the intensity he expects them to both train and play with; he once claimed that if his players weren’t human, his teams would never lose. At Leeds, he rarely used new signings until they had acclimatised to his training methods for several weeks, but he does have a track record of improving players. Benjamin Mendy, Dimitri Payet, Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Pépé are just a few of the players that have credited the Argentine with a dramatic impact on their development.
As much as Bielsa is lauded in the world of football coaching, his trophy haul is hardly impressive. After his league titles in Argentina, he won the 2004 Olympics with the U23 national side and his next trophy was the 2020 League Championship with Leeds United. Some put this down to his unwavering belief in his methods and an unwillingness to change despite obvious failures (reminiscent of a certain recent occupant of the Albion hot seat), while excessive demands on his players has also been cited. Another factor was perhaps uncovered in an interview shown on the Take Us Home documentary on Leeds’ 2018/19 season, ironically after their 4-0 win over the Baggies, when he said “I can’t say that my only interest is winning. What also interests me is the way we build to the victory.”
While Bielsa seeks perfection in his methods, those who followed his ideas, the bielsistas, have largely been more pragmatic and achieved greater success as a result. Jorge Sampaoli won the Copa América with Chile in 2015, Gerardo Martino took Paraguay to the final of the same competition in 2011 while Diego Simeone has made Atlético a real force in Spanish football winning the two Spanish titles, two Europa Leagues and reaching two Champions League finals. Former Spurs and PSG boss, Mauricio Pochettino, described Bielsa as his “football father” having played for him at Newell’s and taken much from his coaching philosophies.
The most successful of the bielsistas is, of course, Pep Guardiola, who started coaching with Barcelona B shortly after finishing playing in 2007 implementing his vision of Bielsa’s favoured 3-4-3 formation. After a hugely successful first season, he was announced as Frank Rijkaard’s replacement as head coach of the first team. Guardiola realised that the style would only be successful if there was 100% commitment from his entire squad and in the subsequent years, the likes of Hleb, Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Ibrahimović were all offloaded having been deemed unable to meet the required standards. The results speak for themselves.
Guardiola’s vision was not pure Bielsa, of course, there were elements of his former coaches at Barça, Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff, and he also consulted his former coach in Mexico, Juanma Lillo, who later worked as Pep’s assistant at Manchester City.
While not an acknowledged bielsista, Lillo had been setting his sides up to win the ball deep in the opponents’ half in the early nineties at Leonesa in the Spanish second division, and he was one of the coaches that a young Carlos Corberán had been studying. That led him to meet Raúl Caneda who had worked with Lillo at a number of different clubs and, following a recommendation from Guardiola, Corberán became Caneda’s assistant at Saudi side Al Ittihad, helping them to the semi-final of the AFC Champions League.
When Corberán took up the role as Leeds United U23 coach in the summer of 2017, Bielsa was not yet at the club. Such was the impact the Spaniard made in his first year at Elland Road, Sporting Director Victor Orta and Chairman Andrea Radrizzani consulted Corberán about who Paul Heckingbottom’s replacement as head coach should be. Bielsa was their first choice and Corberán accompanied the two directors on the trip to Argentina to persuade him to take up the role.
Corberán has described working with Bielsa as a “marvellous experience” and his two years under him is evidently the cornerstone of his coaching development. While working with Juan Carlos Garrido at Villarreal and Caneda in the middle east and studying the work of coaches such as Lillo and Guardiola gave him a fantastic grounding, his time at Elland Road was pivotal. In an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, he said “With Marcelo, you can only learn. He questions and analyses everything to a microscopic degree, and that enhances your development.”
As our very own bielsista, Carlos will hopefully have understood the flaws of pure bielsisme and adopt an appropriate level of pragmatism. I was cautious of expecting too much too soon – the level of change that is required to properly implement a Bielsa-style philosophy takes time, and it doesn’t always work. Guardiola would not count his time at Bayern as successful and it took him a season to get things right at City with virtually unlimited funds. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta has only just got Arsenal going and he is into his fourth season at the Emirates.
Nevertheless, Corberán does have a talented squad for this level, irrespective of what fans were saying in the early weeks of the season, and the remarkable turnaround in form suggests that they are buying in to his philosophies. The squad is certainly better on paper than the one he took to the play-offs with Huddersfield Town last season, albeit that took him a season to get them into shape.
All the signs are that Carlos Corberán is a fantastic appointment for Albion and, while it may not necessarily happen this season, with the right support from those above him, this great club should be on its way back to the Premier League.