Swansea City have never fit comfortably with the orthodoxy of English football in the Premier League era.
At a time when most commentators agree that finance has a bigger say in determining success than at any previous point in football history, the South Wales club’s achievement in pulling itself back from the brink of administration in the fourth division in 2001 and finishing in the top-half of the Premier League in May is almost unique.
Remarkably, Swansea accomplished this rise without the help of any major foreign benefactor, and the British government supervisory group Supporters Direct praised the club’s 20 percent fan ownership scheme as “the most high-profile example of the involvement of a Supporters Trust in the direct running of a club.”
Manchester City 2-1 Swansea City FT: Shots: 12-13 Pass acc: 90%-88% Chances created: 9-7 Aerial duels won: 29%-71% pic.twitter.com/hILwKNU870— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 12, 2015
Swansea have thus always done things their own way, and it is perhaps unsurprising that, at a time when the club finds itself on the edge of the Premier League drop-zone, having won one of their last 12 matches, chairman Huw Jenkins has flown to South America and is reportedly set to appoint a 60-year-old with little English and no Premier League experience as their new manager.
The football romantic could not help but be excited at the prospect of Marcelo Bielsa taking control at the Liberty Stadium, for just as Swansea City stand as something of an outlier in the ultra-commercialized world of modern football, so too does Bielsa.
Such a statement might seem counterintuitive when one acknowledges the profound tactical influence that the Argentine has had upon the shaping of the modern game. The Rosario native – who established his managerial credentials at club level in South America before managing the Argentine and Chilean national sides and Athletic Bilbao and Marseilles in Europe – is a devotee of the totaalvoetbal (“Total Football”) philosophy pioneered by Ajax and Netherlands coach Rinus Michels in the early 1970s.
Swansea's bid for Bielsa in the balance https://t.co/P7sHuofBEo— Chris Wathan (@ChrisWathan) December 16, 2015
Michel’s tactics were characterized by fluid positional interchange, the domination of possession via short and direct passing, the alternating use of 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 formations, and the pressing of opposition players in possession high up the pitch. Any watcher of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona or Bayern Munich teams would immediately recognize these traits, and the Catalan’s strategic approach was clearly influenced by his time as a player at Barcelona, where Michel’s captain, Johan Cryuff, has played a key role in moulding the footballing identity of the modern club.
Indeed, Guardiola was Barcelona captain under another of Michel’s most devout followers, Louis van Gaal, and the Manchester United coach and Bielsa can be accurately seen as having done more than anyone else to refine the totaalvoetbal philosophy and transmit it into the modern age.
The fact that Guardiola hailed Bielsa as “the best coach in the world” in 2012 is a testament to his influence, and the football historian Johnathan Wilson records how the Argentine’s devotion to studying and teaching football in new and innovative ways helped to pioneer the use of video technology at many clubs in Europe and South America.
“When he [Bielsa] interviewed for the Vélez Sársfield job in 1997, he took with him 51 tapes to explain how he would make the side better. Having got the job, he demanded an office with a computer that would enable him to take screenshots from videos—commonplace now, but unheard of at the time. Once, asked how he planned to spend the Christmas holiday, Bielsa said he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching videos. He has apparently developed the ability to watch two games simultaneously.”
Wilson’s anecdote, like a host of others, makes Bielsa’s affectionate nickname, “El Loco,” seem entirely apposite. However, the intensity of the Argentine’s approach is a large part of the reason why he has never managed any club longer than two seasons.
Marcelo Bielsa in the frame to take over at Swansea City. Sincerest sympathies to their media department in advance pic.twitter.com/oL00gYZxCy— Richard Buxton (@RichardBuxton_) December 15, 2015
Burn-out, many commentators have argued, is an inevitable consequence of the relentless Bielsa Method and, like so many innovatory thinkers, the former center-half has a track record of falling out with professional superiors and making rash decisions. It was only back in August, for instance, that the Argentine resigned as Marseilles coach following a 1-0 home defeat to Caen on the first day of the season and, he left the Chile job in 2011 owing to a disagreement with the Chilean Football Association president, Sergio Jadue.
Critics cite Bielsa’s largely bare trophy cabinet –three Argentine titles and an Olympic gold in 25 years – short temper, and inability to sustain success as reasons why he is overrated, and it may well be the case both Bielsa and Van Gaal are passed their sell-by date at the elite level of the modern game. It is also arguable that Swansea would be better served by appointing a manager with a proven track record of Premier League success to steer them away from the drop-zone.
Still, Bielsa’s lure is undeniable, and it is difficult to disavow oneself of the optimistic belief that South Wales could be the venue where one of modern football’s most unorthodox and innovative managers enjoys a late career renaissance.
To the football romantic, Bielsa and Swansea seem a match made in heaven, but it will require a leap of faith on Jenkins’ part to bring the “El Loco” to the Premier League.
[Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images]