FEATURE | Marcelo Bielsa at Lille – first impressions

With president Gérard Lopez’s avid support and backing, Bielsa seems to have found a new environment to leave his mark and work his methods. As is tradition with the team that he joins, Marcelo Bielsa’s return to Ligue 1 has shaken things up, and brought about a positive and exciting change to French football on multiple levels.

As could be expected, the players immediately noted the Argentinian’s training methods and insistence on tactical analysis sessions. The likes of Farès Bahlouli and Kevin Malcuit have already attested to it, confirming the intensive and detailed training regimes, stating that they can already sense the progress made.

Bielsa has also changed the faces of some of the important members of the club. He almost immediately replaced starting eleven players including Vincent Enyeama and former club captain Rio Mavuba, with new young players including former Paris Saint Germain man Mike Maignan, ex Angers player Nicolas Pepé, Brazilian Thiago Mendes and Paraguayan Junior Alonso.

While they remain largely unknown for the time being to Ligue 1 followers, Bielsa’s tutelage could unveil promising new faces to Lille and to French football. Lille’s pre-season gave us a preview of what we could expect from his team on the pitch.

Make of pre-season what you will, but there are some very interesting takeaways from their summer preparation. The club’s summer 2017 track record remains promising with five matches played (three wins, one draw and one loss) against French clubs like Reims and Rennes and even Italian team Atalanta. Those were the headline opponents, but pre-season represented a good opportunity to play against an assortment of sides – Ligue 1 rivals, European teams, and Ligue 2 outfits that they might come up against in cup matches.

What did Lille put on show tactically during these games? Bielsa often switched between a 3-3-3-1 (or a 3-3-1-3) and a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opponent, all while focusing on elements and instructions that he is known well for: pressing, pressing, and pressing. If there is one thing that is characteristic to Bielsa, it is the high pressing, which changes from the possession and defensive style that Lille was known for during these last couple of seasons. The introduction of the high press also changed the positioning and shape of the team during these matches.

Instead of remaining compact and sitting back like LOSC used to, Bielsa’s players can move about more due to the high press. The centre backs can spread out with the full-backs who push up very high to provide support and width. The midfield did provide a certain tranquility, and there is a technical improvement to be noted. For example with former Lyon player Yassine Benzia, who has been given freedom to drift. Between Lille’s front four and midfield, there are also more one-twos, quick touches and an overall livelier movement and play.

The first match of the season against Claudio Ranieri’s was a joy for all Les Dogues fans. Before the game even started, the exchange between both managers complimenting each other left fans euphoric. On the pitch, Bielsa came out on top, with the involvement of their full-backs helping to set up all three goals. The likes of Mike Maignan and Kevin Malcuit made L’Équipe’s team of the week, even though the whole team played well. Mike Maignan’s heroics helped him make the team of the week against Nantes, but his antics against Strasbourg the week received the opposite reaction.

After Bielsa had used all his subs before the half-time break, Maignan was sent off at the 63rd minute for violent conduct, meaning that forward Nicolas de Preville would have to play in goal for the rest of the match. Despite making a few saves, Nicolas de Preville and Lille were defeated to Thierry Laurey’s recently promoted Strasbourg side 3-0; a game that Lille fans will not be soon to forget.

Today against Caen should be another interesting test with Mike Maignan suspended and Thiago Mendes, Hamza Mendyl, Adama Soumaoro and Kevin Malcuit who are still injured. It remains to see how he will adapt for Sunday afternoon.

Even though Bielsa is known for his craziness and unpredictability, his experience at Lille seems fulfilling for him. Sometimes criticised for his relationship between him and those around him, Bielsa seems to fit the project very well, and that is also due to Gérard Lopez helping him be in the best conditions to work.

Beyond what the club and the players can gain from Bielsa’s arrival, this is a big statement and event for the French league. A mid-table (anywhere between sixth and tenth place more or less) can now attract a great coach to help their teams progress, and give their fans something to look forward to and be happy about.

Despite the one outrageous slip up, Bielsa’s first impressions have been positive overall — but more tellingly, he has brought about excitement to a club, which seemed a bit lost during the constant transitioning of coaches and presidents.



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