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Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical influence on Mauricio Pochettino | Tactics

This article was written by Jed Davies at the start of the 2013/14 season looking at Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics. We thought it would be worth a re-publish now that he’s been appointed Head Coach at Tottenham Hotspur.

The list of former pupils who attended the school of Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa appears to be doing quite well these days: Barcelona’s Gerardo Martino and Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino are both amongst that long-list. In hindsight it would have been an obvious choice to back ‘Poch’ by using the William hill promo code and tip the manager to reach the top of the game in a short space of time.

So when Mauricio Pochettino was appointed Southampton manager last season, there were high hopes and he quickly won fans over with a high pressing game and an emphasis on fluid movement – two of the attributes that make up the Marcelo Bielsa approach; Pochettino’s philosophy is certainly one that satisfies the ‘taste’ of those football fans than look for football to be played in this way and for most fans, Pochettino comes from the same vineyard as Bielsa.

In the words of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, “taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste”. This article is to question whether Mauricio Pochettino really does look to emulate El Loco’s tactical methods or whether we have all become ignorant because we think we know that Pochettino is directly inspired by Bielsa – as we tick off the high pressing and fluid movement boxes from the checklist – blinded to the remainder of the checklist due to our ignorance.

It’s unlikely that the Southampton manager will ask teenage boys to climb trees near the opposition’s training ground and spy on the upcoming opponents (reminder: “El Loco” isn’t a nickname to take lightly) but, by comparing how the two set up with their positional systems and look to build up out from the back, we can draw a more meaningful comparison.

Bielsa’s preferred approach is one that looks to overload the defensive third with his ‘spare-man philosophy’ when in possession and in the final third Bielsa is known to employ an un enganche y tres punta (one playmaker and three forwards) system. The former Chile and Athletic Bilbao tactician also looked to cut the time taken in transition (the time in between the two formations – (1) defensive and (2) attacking), an idea that Pep Guardiola took from Bielsa (who Guardiola called “the best manager in the world” – 2012) and implemented at Barcelona.

[quote]“As you will be aware, during a game, FC Barcelona tend to excel when in ‘transition’. However, La Masia coach Sergi Domenech informed me that FC Barcelona try to avoid playing in transition. FC Barcelona see transition as time lost. FC Barcelona are either attacking or defending and are not in transition.”

Gareth Richards, youth team football manager – reference 1[/quote]

Therefore by analysing Bielsa’s two positional systems and comparing the outcomes to Southampton’s approach vs. Sunderland from this weekend, we can begin to understand how his high pressing methods are applied, how he treats particular areas of the field and just how Bielsa cuts the transitional times down to the minimum. The following images are the author’s own analysis from two different games: Malaga vs. Athletic Bilbao (September 2011) and an international fixture with Chile in 2010 – both are examples where Bielsa employed near identical positional systems. While Bielsa also employed a formation with four defenders (leaving two at the back as the team pushes forward), Bielsa’s principles are better portrayed by explaining his 3-3-1-3 formation


BIELSA IN-POSSESSION FORM: 3-6-1 (central overloads and attacking 1 vs. 1’s) vs. 4-4-2 formation. This formation was also used as the high-pressing positional systems when immediately out of possession (the defensive transition).

Source: own image. Jed Davies’ interpretation of Bielsa’s attacking set up for Chile 2010. Image supported with notes related to annotations
Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 17.54.25
Notes taken from the author’s own document


  • Three pressing players with an attacking midfielder. This means that the wide midfielder should look to cover in central midfield until the number ten can fall back into the defensive block from the attacking form. Bielsa is a big believer in winning the ball high up the field and therefore will press aggressively for the majority of the opponent’s possession in their own half, before falling back – it is therefore important that the pressing trio and their immediate support/cover are proactively positioned before they even lose the ball
  • Pressing triggers apply when the ball enters the middle third. In the opponents first third, the triggers are instead a matter of being well positioned – if the players are there, then pressing to win the ball is applied. In the central third pressing may be used as a way of delaying the opponents, as Bielsa’s team fall back into the defensive block
  • High tempo patterned movement is the cornerstone to Bielsa’s high pressing approach – high levels of football fitness are imperative


5-3-2 (imbalanced for delays) vs. 4-4-2 formation. Note the number of vertical passing options for when the ball is won (the attacking transition) – achieves options on both wings and offers two angles on the half way line at a minimum. 

Source: own image. Jed Davies’ interpretation of Bielsa’s defensive set up for Chile 2010. Image supported with notes related to annotations
Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 17.57.37
Notes taken from the author’s own document


  • The central forward and attacking winger are key players in the fast transition moments. These players should be immediately supported by the midfield’s movements, and only if these components are in play should the fast vertical transitional passes be played long and flat to feet.
  • The central forward and attacking winger should look to work with the pattern of fast five to eight yard sprints, away from their defenders, and work in pairs so that their movement is complimentary
  • Should the attacking winger or attacker be one of the two players involved in winning the ball back when in a defensive block, the immediate option has to be to find a way of playing out of trouble and looking to build and probe through the central overloads
  • The vertical balls thereafter may be to either winger or any advanced player who has found space and has immediate support – where a short passing and possession mentality will be kept.
  • The whole pitch is to be used while in possession.

AN IDENTICAL 3-3-1-3 SYSTEM vs. MALAGA (September, 2011)

Possession formation: Muniain falls back into the midfield central trio in defence, before joining in as a late arriving player in the attacking areas – finding himself space centrally. The flanking attackers would also be expected to take part in the deep defensive block – but in the high block, the same pressing principles apply as in Chile 2010.


Bielsa’s approach really does come down to the details in his approach and his obsessive approach to details overarch every aspect of his philosophy – he even explains every aspect of play to his players as they have to sit through hours of analysis and try to grasp each detail Bielsa throws at them.

[quote]There are 36 different forms of communicating through a pass.

Marcelo Bielsa[/quote] 

  [quote] At first he seems tough and he may even annoy you with his persistence and don’t-take-no-for-an-answer resilience, but in the end he is a genius.

Former Athletic Bilbao Striker, Fernando Llorente



POCHETTINO IN-POSSESSION FORM vs. Sunderland (24th August 2013): 2-4-1-3 vs. 4-4-1-1 formation. This formation was also used as the high-pressing positional systems when immediately out of possession (the defensive transition).


Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 18.03.59


Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 18.06.00


  • High pressure while still in the attacking form.
  • The front four players are expected to immediately press upon losing the ball. Nearest man presses, next two support the pressing player, while team mates further back look to cover.
  • Full-backs are the first to drop back and pressure is a mixture between pressure to delay and pressure to win the ball.

POCHETTINO OUT-OF-POSSESSION FORM vs. Sunderland (24th August 2013): Deep block

Lines detail the relationship of 'in-possession' positions
Lines detail the relationship of ‘in-possession’ positions


  • Rodriguez/Osvaldo were often the last to drop back into the defensive block. Enabling Southampton to play on the counter attack should the ball be won (when Rodriguez/Osvaldo hadn’t yet dropped back).
  • It wasn’t often that Southampton had to fall back into their defensive shape given their high percentage of possession.


The attacking changes in the second half brought Pochettino’s Bielsa-like methods to life through positional play and the fluidity of the attack. Like Bielsa, Pochettino employed three principles: always have at least one man spare when building up from the back, play many vertical balls, rather than just side-to-side possession when building up from the back or through the middle and an identical shape (to Bielsa’s preferred formation) in the final third, comprising of an attacking midfielder and three players ahead of him (un enganche y tres punta).

Southampton’s 67% possession is by no means a product of having better players alone, the positional systems that both Bielsa and Pochettino employ allow for overloads in advanced areas – resulting in the opposition playing a deeper defensive block. While the four moments discussed in this article are intriguing, it was the fifth moment of the game (set pieces) that produced both the goals in the match.

Like Bielsa, Pochettino isn’t afraid to set his team up for the crossing game because he knows he can get players in the box through his positional system. Against Sunderland, Southampton made 27 crosses and had a high 37% cross completion rate for the high number of crosses (a 25% cross completion rate is generally considered to be good – Ward-Prowse put in 7 accurate crosses from 14 attempts, mostly in the first-half). Southampton also played 56 accurate long passes (from the 77 attempted) in the game which showed that Pochettino’s approach to vertical passes is different from other possession-based teams in the league; Arsenal, for example, only made 37 accurate long passes (from 54 attempts) against Fulham on the same day of Premier League action – in fact, no other team in these first two weeks of the Premier League has played more long balls than Southampton against Sunderland, apart from, Southampton themselves, against West Brom in their opening fixture; in that game, they attempted 83 long passes. These aren’t long balls pumped up field, they’re Bielsa inspired vertical passes, or “fast transitional passes” which statistically have been recognised as long passes.

Mauricio Pochettino has certainly been inspired by the genius of Bielsa and the half time changes show that like Bielsa, Southampton’s manager isn’t afraid to experiment and try new things. The total fluid positional inter-exchanges between the front four is certainly unique to the Premier League at the moment and I can’t remember the last time I had so much trouble trying to figure out who was playing where in the final third! Lambert dropped deep, picked up the ball out wide on both flanks and played as a central figurehead in the front four – as did all four other players.

There is no doubt about it, Mauricio Pochettino has been influenced by all aspects of Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy of play – far beyond just the pressing approach. We may never see Marcelo Bielsa in the Premier League, so it’s about time we all started to enjoy the closest thing we will get to him: Mauricio Pochettino.


Gareth Richards’ quote from a personal interview for my upcoming book. Richards is a former Chester Football Club Development Manager who was invited to spend some time to study Barcelona’s La Masia as well as spending some time at Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Espanyol.

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: http://shop.soccertutor.com/Coaching-the-Tiki-Taka-Style-of-Play-p/st-b019.htm Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - jeddavies.com | Writer on several websites as well as Liverpoolfc.tv and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or www.Facebook.com/JedDaviesFootballCoaching | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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