Raphinha can make the team better, to make the team make Raphinha better: Bielsa before Spurs - The Square Ball 19/11/21


Written by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It’s Friday before Sunday at Spurs, time for the press to assemble with strong pliers and big boots, put Marcelo Bielsa in the chair, and get to tugging the deep-rooted tooth of injury news out from the concretised gums of the boss. ‘It’s subject’ — 1-2-3! — ‘to the’ — PULL! — ‘evolution’ — HEAVE!

In the end they got some success, but as always it’s the players you don’t ask about who surprise you with their absence come game day. I propose reading out a squad list and making Bielsa answer sí o no to each one, but for now anxious Fantasy Premier League managers will have to take their risks with the rest of us.

Here’s what we learned. Pat Bamford and Luke Ayling won’t play against Spurs. They are “progressing positively” and their “evolution” — DRINK! — is “controlled daily” so Bielsa wouldn’t like to put a timeframe on their return. Junior Firpo is “evolving” — SHOTS! — and “healthy” — he just needs minutes for match fitness. Jamie Shackleton is the same as Firpo, at “the end of his recovery”, while all we got on Joffy Gelhardt is that he’d probably play for the Under-23s against Chelsea today (he’s starting on the bench). Don’t forget Robin Koch! He’s “further away” than Ayling and Bamford. I prefer this comparative method to the evolution rubric and would like to hear Bielsa expand on this in future: Shackleton is nearer than Ayling but further than Firpo, Gelhardt is nearer than Firpo but not as close as Shackleton. Or maybe get the Guess Who? boards out. Does the injured player have a moustache, Marcelo?

Otherwise there was a lot about Antonio Conte, the new Spurs manager, a job that like Steven Gerrard at Villa I think we’re all regarding as his stepping stone towards one day managing Leeds. Bielsa, deeply influenced by legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi, put Conte in that lineage when he said he’s, “A genuine representative of his country in terms of managers, who has triumphed in every team he’s managed. He’s a reference in world football … who obtains very, very high performances from his players.”

The key characteristics of Conte’s teams are, “Intensity, collective sense. They attack with a lot of players but that doesn’t mean they defend with less,” and vice versa. That, says Bielsa, is very difficult to achieve, and that signifies how great Conte is. Marcelo didn’t seem to dig the idea when asked if Conte is an ‘innovator’, because there isn’t really any innovating going on in football. “The word innovative presupposes applying procedures, or how to achieve goals, and aesthetics within a team, in the way of playing and the style of play. In that sense it is very difficult to create things that have not happened before.”

Rather than innovation, what marks coaches like Conte is, “They manage to extract from the virtues of the players they train, because that demands how you prepare them and to convince them.” This has parallels with the way Bielsa has described his own work, of finding pre-existing qualities in players and convincing them that by believing in his ideas they will make full use of their virtues. To Bielsa, “I believe that in those two aspects, to convince and prepare them, Conte is a master.”

Are Conte and Bielsa comparable, then? Bielsa’s humility won’t allow much of that kind of talk. “It is enough to review the achievements of one and the other to clearly see the differences,” he said, a reminder of his first season when he gently corrected an interviewer who suggested he had a track record of winning. “I thank you for the generosity of your concept,” he said back then, “But people would have found out the truth very easily.”

The day’s other theme was Raphina, although nobody came straight out and asked him about Nicolas Otamendi smashing him in the face. Instead we got vague sort of queries around how good he can be and how he can deal with ‘attention’, a weak euphemism for a forearm swinging hard at your jaw. Maybe people were cautious about the Argentina versus Brazil thing, I dunno. Anyway, this section did elicit a neat summary of how to get the best from players like Raphinha, who can ‘unbalance’ opponents.

“More than what I do is what the player does,” and what his teammates do, says Bielsa. Players who can “unbalance individually” have an awareness of the different things they can do with different kinds of passes from their buddies. “What is most convenient for them is to receive a lot of balls, far away from their markers, receiving the ball in motion rather than standing still, and in places the opponent does not expect. No player that unbalances ignores how to solve all these needs, that allow them to get hold of the ball in good conditions.”

In other words, in a match, the way dangerous players like Raphinha get the ball is more important than their skill at beating players. Next time you see Raphinha glaring murderously at Jamie Shackleton for giving him a square ball in a crowd on halfway, now you know how come. And this anger is in fact vital to Raphinha’s improvement, and Leeds United’s improvement, as Bielsa explained off on a tangent when asked how much better Raphinha can become.


“He is sufficiently good right now.”

That’s sufficiently good for me. We could have left it right there!

“If you ask me how I imagine the growth and evolution” — SALUT! — “of the player, I would say that regularly maintaining performances like the ones he manages would be a great indicator. And the other great challenge to the players who stand out is to transfer that evolution” — PROST! — “to the teammates and the team. Raphinha will be much better if the team is better and if his teammates are better.”

I’m wary of this paragraph, because its last line could easily finish ‘…so we’re selling him to Liverpool to play with better teammates.’ But that’s not what he means! Thank fu—

“This is normal, what I say is not my own conclusion, but an observation that emerges from the reality of players who stand out. They start by unbalancing [opponents] by themselves, then they achieve that the teammates manage to facilitate the actions of their teammates with their assistance. And it is this development of the collective game that improves the team they belong to, and that process is a great challenge.”

Phew, okay, this is better. It’s back to shouting at Shackleton. A player as good as Raphinha will evolve — oh god, SLÁINTE — by educating the team around him to get the best out of him. The first few times training down the wing Shacks might have looked at Raphinha and despaired of this demanding menace asking him to give him the ball in ways that Helder Costa did never. But if the players can overcome the “great challenge” Bielsa talks about, Shackleton will learn how to give Raphinha the ball just how he likes it, and become a better player in the process. And it isn’t Shackleton alone getting the brunt of Raphinha’s demands for right passes, but the whole team, so they should all be getting better at helping him, so good, in fact, that with these players Leeds will win the Champions League and we’ll never have to sell Raphinha.

That’s the theory, anyway!

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