Reading this article from Mike Goodman on Grantland got me wondering about Marseille. The common thinking on Bielsa is he pushes his players too hard and can be hard to handle so after 2 years or so he moves on. Goodman titled his piece “Bielsa Burnout” and said that Bielsa’s hard-pressing, heavy-running strategy was why Marseille “had nothing left for a comeback” against PSG on the weekend in what was a crucial win for the Paris side. He said the Bielsa philosophy is to try to pin the opponent back as far as possible and this is consistent with what we see on the pitch and from most other articles about the man seen above on a a cooler that just has to be full of mini-Powerades, likely red. In the Blizzard issue 5, Jonathan Wilson said: “Although he accepts other schools of thought exist, Bielsa’s vision is non-negotiable. Repetition on the training ground translates into constant pressure and attack in matches.” On fusion.net this year Wilson said “The ideal Bielsa game will feature most of his players in the opposition half most of the time. That’s why he often uses a back three: to get as many players as possible, as high up the pitch as possible, so the pressing can be as focused and as potent as possible.”. Wilson also mentioned the inevitable burnout that comes with the early highs: “But then, a few months in, the trip comes to an end. Players find themselves mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.”
I love watching Marseille and hate that my bet on them to win the league is fizzling out so felt it’s time to investigate this. Goodman’s statement about Bielsa’s strategy leaving nothing in the tank didn’t ring true to me, as teams who are conditioned to play high-pressing game surely should have an advantage as time ticks away as their opponents are tiring after having to deal with a relentless swarm they are not used to. Not satisfied with my admittedly basketball-influenced half thought, I took to Excel to see if I could tease out any answers.
The Bielsa Press
First, I wanted to see if this legendary mythos about the Bielsa press was really true. It’s been mentioned so many times by so many respected writers, it should be true, but I wanted to see for myself. The first metric I looked at was takeaways in the opposing half. Tackles won + interceptions. Simple enough.
4th in the league is solid, but seems low based on the acclaim the man gets. Seeing Evian so high, I figured they fact they concede so much possession might be inflating their numbers so I looked at % of takeaways in opponents half next.
Still nothing amazing. I looked further upfield to see if maybe Bielsa’s high press is a really high press. I looked at all interceptions within the oppositions third.
On twitter, Paul Riley said that I may be missing something by only counting what OPTA deemed interceptions and successful tackles and not counting ball recoveries. There is no overlap between the three categories from a visual inspection and I originally did not include ball recoveries because the description sounds like it can sometimes be counted if a pass gets deflected and the passing team recovers it. Some googling has turned me over to the camp that is is used to register a change in possession. So, thinking this might dynamite the whole thing I added them in:
Marseille actually drops further. Is the Bielsa press not as fearsome as we thought?
Not so. Maybe it’s PSG who should be getting the plaudits for the high press. Despite Marseille not getting the takeaways we would expect from the plaudits they get, maybe there is still something to the man-to-man full-field pressure they apply that wears down opponents early in games and then eventually leads to Marseille running out of gas late in games and late in the season.
The Bielsa Burnout
First let’s look at how their press changes as the game goes along. To do this I looked at the average distance a takeaway is made at. I compared these numbers in the opening 30 minutes, middle 30, and final 30 minutes of games. If Marseille’s energy is sagging late in games due to so much running throughout the game I would expect their takeaways to start coming closer to their own goal.
I added the rest of the top 4 to see if score effects are responsible for some of this and to provide context. Marseille certainly fall back as the game goes on, they start off taking the ball away a yard and a half further up the pitch than an average side and wind up equal at the end of a game. They fade more than the average team, but nothing that is shocking. Similar to Monaco.
Up next I looked to see if their defense is sinking back over the course of the season. If the cumulative effect of the running is large, then we should see Marseille falling back as the hard miles pile up on the likes of Ayew, Imbula and Romao. I broke the season down into thirds, games 1-10, 11-20, and 21 on.
We see that once again Marseille have fallen from a team who presses higher up the pitch than most to a league average team at this point in the season. Once again, it was noticeable but not shocking. Now I looked to see how the effects combined. If the cumulative effect is wearing them down, and they tire quicker than most teams during games, it makes sense that as the season goes on the later stages of games will become exhausting. The next chart is a breakdown of the just the last 11 games (not 10 as the title says) and where the takeaways come from as the game goes along.
This chart is the strongest evidence of a “Bielsa Burnout”. They have had 3 losses and 4 draws during this time so it’s unlikely to be a game-state problem. Marseille start off pressing slightly higher up the pitch than the league average team, but by the end of the game they are winning the ball back nearly a yard behind the average team.
With ball recoveries added in and the data broken up further we can see some more interesting things:
And we can look at takeaways in the opposing third by time bucket as well
This looks like the press builds and builds until the hour mark at which point Marseille stops winning the ball back deep in the oppositions side.
How does this effect the big stats
It’s not a big deal if you are winning the ball back closer to your own goal if you aren’t allowing shots or goals, but the burnout is starting to effect Marseille’s defense in those areas as well.
This chart means that at the start of the season they were holding their opponents to just over 80% of their normal expG totals. In the more recent stretch, opponents are getting nearly 120% of their average expG totals when they play Marseille. This chart comes before the PSG game which would make things look even worse.
If it was this simple, we could wash our hands and say boy Bielsa shouldn’t push them so hard, there is nothing left for the end of the season. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be because the other side of the ball is thriving.
Marseille are improving their expG totals in their last 10 games, not what you’d expect from a team dead on their feet. To complete the head-scratcher they improve as the game goes on, scoring 63% of their goals in this most recent 10 game stretch after the 60 minute mark and deserving it:
Over 50% of their expG total comes from that time period as well. Maybe this is unrelated to the defense (Batshuayi sub effect?) but it is a puzzler.
What have we learned?
The Bielsa Burnout might be a thing. Marseille are sagging deeper defensively and have trended downwards both during the game and during the season, with the end of games recently seeing them deeper and deeper in their own half. At the same time, their offense has been overpowering during that same time period, scoring 12 goals in 10 games after minute 60. If the defense is dead on their feet and the offense is scoring at will, is Bielsa using his subs to open the game up at the end and trying to hit on the counter? The games have certainly opened up, as they have allowed 7 goals in that post-6o minute zone as well over the last 10 games to make it 19 totals goals in just over 300 minutes of game time. It’s made for thrilling viewing and fascinating analyzing. We now know their press is fading late, will the late offensive output pick up the slack enough to see Marseille into the Champions League? It will be fascinating to watch and find out.
If that’s not a sure enough conclusion for you, I apologize. As with most soccer data experiments, the game is much too complex to figure out in Excel. I understand Marseille more now than I did before this and have ideas for future experiments (Athletic in Bielsa’s era is first up) and something else to watch in the upcoming games. I hope you do too.