The story of their legendary meeting has surfaced again, as it does whenever their paths cross in football.
The story of Marcelo Bielsa — mentor, maestro, manager — and Pep Guardiola, a recently retired player, beating a path to his ranch retreat in Rosario, Argentina, and receiving tablets of wisdom as they roasted haunches of meat together on an open fire, in 2006.
The almost comical intensity of their supposed 11-hour talk that day — with Bielsa’s computer being used to check facts and settle arguments, and Guardiola’s film director friend David Trueba being positioned between two chairs to act out a tactical move at one stage — has given rise to the assumption that tactics dominated the talk.
Marcelo Bielsa enjoys an almost mentor relationship with Man City boss Pep Guadiola
But Guardiola’s favourite Bielsa axiom is about how to deal with winning and losing. It is said to have been the first thing he scribbled, in black marker pen, on the whiteboard positioned between a Noel Gallagher caricature and a framed verse of the musician’s song Rock ‘n’ Roll Star in his manager’s office at Etihad Campus.
And it seems incredibly relevant to the meeting of their Leeds United and Manchester City teams in Yorkshire, on Saturday.
‘The moments in my life when I have improved are closely related to failure,’ reads the Bielsa maxim. ‘The moments in my life when I have regressed are closely related to success. Being successful deforms us as human beings. It relaxes us. It plays tricks on us. It makes us worse individuals. It feeds our egos. Failure forms us, makes us more solid, brings us closer to our convictions. It makes us more coherent.’
That’s a lot of words and you wonder whether Guardiola really did scrawl out the entire thing, as his friend and writer Lu Martin suggests in his book about City, The Making of a Superteam.
But Bielsa knows that the man 16 years his junior will have viewed last weekend’s 5-2 home defeat by Leicester through that kind of prism and spent the last six days looking for answers.
‘Above all he is imaginative,’ Bielsa said of Guardiola, through his translator in Leeds, this week. ‘He is able to instantly create solutions to problems he comes across. And what he proposes, he is able to implement. We imagine football in a narrow way. Guardiola imagines football in a free way.
‘I do not feel like his mentor. That is not how it is. Here is a manager who is independent in his ideas. The ideas are his own and not just because I say there is a way of playing.’
The pair have not spoken this week. They are a generation apart — Guardiola currently doing for tapered cargo pants what Bielsa is not achieving for baggy tracksuit bottoms — but they share the same philosophy about pressing the ball high up the pitch.
Pep Guardiola will be desperate to bounce back from the his sides 5-2 defeat to Leicester
In one of the few detailed discussions of the Rosario barbecue, in the 2016 book Pep: The Evolution, Guardiola says that the meeting was key to him developing the idea of the press in the first place.
‘I started to play with this idea after a chat with Marcelo,’ Guardiola tells author Marti Perarnau, to whom he granted exceptional access for this and a second book. ‘We met up to talk football. It’s important to spend time with people who talk so much sense.
‘Obviously if even one or two of your players can’t handle it, then forget (the system). But if they’re all willing and able, then I’d love to force the other team back into their area and not give them even a sniff of the ball for the whole 90 minutes.’
Sunday’s catastrophe against Brendan Rodgers’ team revealed that not all Guardiola’s players were ‘able’. The side lacked muscularity and fundamental alertness. Rodri, failing to close down in central areas, once more looked a shadow of the player Fernandinho has been when shielding the defence against sides who seek to counter-attack.
Guardiola will be hoping the £64m arrival of Ruben Dias will add aggression to his backline
‘To imagine playing this way doesn’t mean footballers are going to act in the same way,’ Bielsa said of the pressing system.
This was not a criticism of City. ‘I never find it very comfortable to talk about an opponents’ weaknesses,’ he said. ‘The season is very short and it is very hard to make conclusions as to whether they are weaker than before.’
But while his own players might lack the individual technical excellence of Guardiola’s, on current form they look far more incisive. It is eight years since Bielsa’s last meeting with Guardiola — his Athletic Bilbao side lost the Copa del Rey final 3-0 in Madrid, which marked a winning end to the Catalan’s era at Barcelona. But Bielsa looks the more effective of the two when it comes to moulding raw material at his disposal.
Jack Harrison, loaned out to Leeds by City and absent on Saturday under the terms of that agreement, has improved hugely under his coaching. So, too, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich — both players reborn, even though they receive his verbal instructions through a translator.
Sources suggest Bielsa also told Guardiola in Rosario that spotting good players was one thing but improving them within the system a far greater skill. Guardiola, who has claimed 24 trophies to Bielsa’s three as a coach, has worked at wealthier clubs where the need is less, though he can point to Seydou Keita at Barcelona and Raheem Sterling among those he has transformed.
Against Liverpool three weeks ago, Bielsa had five players operating high up the pitch to bypass the best pressing side in the Premier League and emerged with three goals. That tactic could damage a City central defence which still hasn’t recovered from Vincent Kompany’s departure and is reinforced on Saturday by Ruben Dias.
The 23-year-old, whose £65million arrival from Benfica has taken Guardiola’s spending on defenders to more than £400m, carries the weight of City’s system on his shoulders. The club have struggled to develop the elite centre halves needed to prevent their ambitious high line leaving them wide open at the back.
Marcelo Bielsa has guided Leeds to two wins from their opening three Premier League games
But Leeds have looked defensively vulnerable, too, with Robin Koch yet to settle. Bielsa says he takes no encouragement from the fact that City would operate with a false No 9 on Saturday, removing the same central attacking threat that Liverpool and Fulham posed.
There are symmetrical philosophies and weaknesses, then, though all the pressure resides with the man who came looking for some answers that day on the plains of north-east Argentina and who is now in need of more.
‘I don’t see him quite as much,’ Guardiola said of Bielsa on Friday. ‘I don’t see him every week. But when I do get the pleasure to spend time with him, it’s always inspirational for me. I think he is probably the person I admire the most in world football, as a manager and as a person.
‘Nobody can imitate him. The value of the manager does not depend on how many titles you have won. My teams might have won more but in terms of knowledge of the game and many things, I am still far away from him.’