Marcelo Bielsa upstaged Frank Lampard in "Spy-Gate" and added to his sizable coaching legend
Whatever happens next, Marcelo Bielsa has won the battle for hearts and minds following "Spy-Gate."
A story that began with Frank Lampard talking about some "undercover" person hiding in bushes "on... hands and knees" with "pliers and bolt cutters" has since been turned around 180 degrees.
The man Bielsa sent to watch Derby County's training sessions was outside a perimeter fence and wasn't trespassing. The fence was undamaged. If he had "pliers and bolt-cutters" with him, he likely swallowed them to destroy the evidence because none were found. Far from ghosting in like a ninja, he turned up in a Leeds United official vehicle.
On Wednesday, six days after the fact, Bielsa took it upon himself to embark on a remarkable 70-minute lecture that saw him painstakingly recount all the analysis -- video and tactical -- that he and his 20-strong team of assistants go through ahead of each match. (Rather mischievously, he scheduled it for two-and-a-half hours before Derby's FA Cup replay against Southampton.)
This wasn't exactly rocket science: after all, many top-flight clubs do much the same thing. Indeed, anybody who uses WyScout for video and statistical analysis would be halfway there. But "Spy-Gate" left many staggered by Bielsa's meticulousness and obsessiveness. Suddenly the conversation became about the way Bielsa works and his unorthodox decision to share it all in public. He went so far as to talk about a game against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona when he was the boss at Athletic Bilbao. Bielsa lost 3-0 (and, he says, only because Barca took it easy on him) but afterward Guardiola came up to him and said: "You know more about Barcelona than me!"
At the news conference this week, Bielsa made the point that all this research and analysis probably doesn't make much difference to the outcome. "So why do I do it?" he asked rhetorically. "Because I think I am stupid."
Game. Set. Match.
Bielsa accumulates and processes as much information as he and his staff can assemble because he simply wants to know as much as possible. Even if it only moves the needle a tiny bit, football folk believe in marginal gains. Besides, he couldn't live with himself if he knew there was one tiny stone left unturned.
And suddenly, the conversation turns. Despite some tabloid blaring out headlines that said Bielsa "admitted" to "spying" before every game, what sticks is just how hard the guy works, how that work is driven by humility and an admission of ignorance, and how he does all this knowing that, in most games, it will be irrelevant.
Given this context and knowing that no laws or rules were broken, nobody trespassed or damaged property or even went out of their way to be incognito, you can't help but wonder: Why was Lampard so bent out of shape about this?
My guess -- and I haven't spoken to him -- is that he isn't. My guess -- Lampard is an intelligent, well-traveled guy whom everybody seems to like -- is he realizes that he overplayed his hand with the accusations and ultimately lost the PR game.
Lampard may be right in saying that sending scouts to watch a rival's training sessions isn't part of the culture of the English game, and for this reason Bielsa has said he won't do it again. But it's not as if this is a bolt out of the blue. When Jose Mourinho rocked up to coach Chelsea in 2004, the team trained at a university sports ground and, on most days, anyone could watch. Mourinho changed all that. He wrote to the fans explaining that for the good of the club, they'd now be training behind closed doors.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, virtually every top club's training sessions take place far away from the public eye. Without a doubt, Bielsa knows the reason why managers work away from prying eyes: they fear that "stuff" -- arguments and embarrassing moments between teammates, sure, but also tactics and injury news -- might leak out. If the "cultural norm" of not finding out about rivals' training sessions were that entrenched, there would be no need for high walls and security patrols around the perimeter of training grounds.
Is Bielsa right in arguing he didn't gain any significant advantage by "spying" on opposing clubs? It's a question of degree, frankly.
There's only so much you can learn from training sessions unless a coach plans on revolutionising the side. The most valuable aspects are set-piece movements and, perhaps, a gauge of the physical state of some players: who's injured or who's carrying a knock. But unless you actually happen upon a session where something new is introduced or a player gets injured, most of that will already be in the public domain, either through watching video of previous games or simply reading news reports.
What is not in question is that what Bielsa did wasn't illegal, nor was it unethical. It might have been if his emissary had misrepresented himself, if he had trespassed or used some kind of spying equipment like drones or high-powered mics. That didn't happen.
So what are we left with?
Bielsa says he'll be respectful of the "cultural norms" and won't do this again. In the meantime, he has only fueled his legend further. It's hard to imagine most managers making such a fuss about this, but that's Bielsa: he knows his audience. And that includes both the admirers who have followed his career from Argentina to Spain to France and the Leeds United hardcore, who love nothing more than a bit of siege mentality.
Lampard might well feel a little silly. He never cited this as an excuse for Derby's defeat, but his critics will see this as a bit of whingeing. And he gave Leeds, one of his rivals for promotion, a bit more ammo next time around. He was no doubt being honest in his bewilderment at what happened, but that doesn't mean he helped himself.
Call it a bump in the road for a young manager in his first season. Also, call it a savvy backpedal and ju-jitsu for an experienced manager who knows how to get both the media and his own fans to eat out of his hand.