Odd Men Out
Intense, controversial and pathologically honest: a comparison of Bielsa and Lars von Trier
In January 2019, Marcelo Bielsa called a last-minute conference. Its unexpected urgency gave rise to many assuming the worst – his resignation. It was, in fact, far from that. Bielsa, in a characteristically enigmatic manner, doubled-down on his adherence to his own managerial code of ethics which were, at least at the time, completely at odds with an ‘English Way’ of doing things, at least as dictated by the press and Great British groupthink.
Certain sections of the press were adamant that Bielsa’s decision to send a member of his coaching staff to spy on a recent Derby training session – the origin of the furore – warranted a multi-point deduction. Their unceasing advocacy of harsh justice filled fans of Leeds and Bielsa with a sense of dread, a swirling feeling in their stomachs that made them gulp – they’ve pushed him too far this time haven’t they? Bielsa had, after all, lasted only seven months at his previous appointment and the one before that a mere two days.
The Argentinian’s anxious and obsessive behaviour is often discussed in features on his idiosyncratic personality and style. It was easy to imagine that having a portion of the press pile into him after ‘Spygate’ would more than suffice for Bielsa’s notice to be left on his desk, flanked by deserted shelves the morning after. That wasn’t the case though. Instead of announcing his departure, Bielsa opted to bring people in, giving a 70-minute masterclass of analysis, of both himself and Derby County, to a room filled with journalists on a gradient from salivating to deeply confused.
It was also in a press conference that the controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier came to the attention of a wider audience. A favourite of Cannes Film Festival, where he has already won the Palme d’Or, Grand Prix and Prix du Jury for Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves and Europa respectively, von Trier was talking about his psychological drama film Melancholia in 2011 with members of the media.
When asked about his German heritage and the gothic and Nazi aesthetic of the film, von Trier stumbled over his words as he linked together its German romantic style with his own heritage, all woven through a devastating family trauma that he took for granted the audience knew of beforehand. On his mother’s deathbed, she revealed that his father wasn’t who he thought he was – a Jewish man and, because of that, a part of the director’s identity.
Rather, his father was actually a German Gentile. Trying to make light of the incident, von Trier stated that: “I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi.” An uncomfortable silence ensued after which, rather than closing the file, he chose to continue with the analogy that led to him saying, “I understand Hitler”, before giving a nod towards the art of the Third Reich by acknowledging its great architect Albert Speer and culminating with a wry smile, awkward laughter and deep breath saying, “OK, I’m a Nazi.”
His discomfort was understandable. Most will even be able to relate to it. The comments were clearly in jest, bad taste aside. It didn’t matter. He was chastised for his comments, sent through the wringer in the media and labelled persona non grata; for future Cannes festivals. So, besides their penchant for unconventional conferences, what do an Argentinian football manager and a Danish filmmaker actually have in common?
Outwardly, not a lot. But as I looked more at each man, their personalities began to merge like an optical illusion, my understanding most acute when looking at one to better understand the other. Both men are at the top of their professions. A few may be deemed better according to taste, but they’re certainly in the top stratum. Yet, it isn’t what they’ve done, nor exactly how they’ve done it that most immediately binds them, rather the effect that they’ve had. Bielsa and von Trier are both seen as cult figures, having become known for the intensity of their output and the iconoclastic paths they’ve carved – demanding the sort of attention few others do.
Although filmmaking and coaching share few commonalities, the role of management – across fields – does. This is where the two begin to coalesce. Both demand total control, are meticulous and obsessive over the details of their craft. Their challenging and groundbreaking natures seem to derive from a personality trait that both share – anxiety. In this trait, the pair share deep ancestry.
Both seem at times to act through compulsion. Take Bielsa. Although those inside the game have revered him since his days at Newell’s, in Europe he garnered attention as much for his behaviour on the sidelines and personality as for results. At Marseille, he began perching on a cool-box by the side of the pitch, an intellectual with grey hair and spectacles wearing a club tracksuit and in a state of deep contemplation.
Strange as it may seem to outsiders it was “just a bucket” to Bielsa, who has continued sitting on a plastic box at Leeds. So popular was it that Leeds-branded buckets are now sold in the club shop. Odder is his habit, particularly when his side is under pressure, of crossing his dug-out in precisely 13 steps. These can be seen as means of imposing predictability and offering a sense of control, a way of mitigating stressful incidents.
Controllability and predictability offer order, existing to manage chaos. Creative minds are particularly prone to disorder and thoughts can often become dissociated with one another. Managing this can become paramount for the obsessive or compulsive personality, allowing their energy to be focused on producing the results they desire.
These rituals for managing stress may be natural to Bielsa, but to fans and the press they add to his sage-like mythology. Von Trier isn’t any different in that regard. One notable aspect of his psyche is a serious aversion to flying. The filmmaker will drive from his house in Denmark each year to the Cannes Film Festival, refusing to board any aircraft. Even for films set in the United States, he will shoot them in Denmark or a neighbouring country for ease of access. Bielsa has a similar aversion to flying and, when working as youth coordinator at Newell’s, divided Argentina into 70 zones and visited each by car, driving 4,000 miles in his Fiat 147 rather than getting on a plane.
Relinquishing any control proves difficult for von Trier. The director also has quirks that help him overcome his anxiety. Unfortunately, though, and likely largely due to the nature of his work, von Trier’s most potent coping mechanism has been a fountainhead for many of the controversies he has faced.
In von Trier’s own words, alcohol is his tool that is “sadly, insanely effective”. Consuming so much of him, he admitted that one of the only things he’s ever had fun working on was his film Melancholia, mainly due to his lack of sobriety. Of the shooting process he said, “We were so drunk. It was a fantastic experience. We were all so drunk.”
Bielsa’s obsessive traits have boiled over too. Despite an incredible period in Bilbao, where his Athletic side overachieved, reaching the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals, he also had a run in with some construction workers at the side’s Lezama training facilities. Honing in on one, Bielsa recalled that he “got hold of him and shook him with force.” He also revealed more about his outlook when explaining the encounter afterwards. “When someone does not carry out what they have promised to carry out, for me, that is the same as a robbery or a fraud,” he said, concluding that “I knew he was trying to cheat me and the club.” As with ‘Spygate’, he was forthcoming in his honesty, handing himself in to the Spanish authorities afterwards.
The line is notoriously fine between genius and insanity, a notion backed up by psychologists and neuroscientists alike. It’s as much about chemicals as it is the perception of their effects. Bielsa and von Trier exhibit a different way of doing things, operating on an entirely different paradigm from the majority of their peers. They are theorists, abstracting reality down to unique combinations of thoughts and ideas.
Von Trier’s style and subject matter are probably best described as challenging. With his Depression Trilogy, von Trier utilised the three films Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac to examine his own fractured psyche and the effects of grief, addiction and depression on the main characters and those surrounding them. In doing so, he was truly recognised as an auteur, that is, a filmmaker with so much control that he may be considered a sole author. Regardless of what is in the film, a large part of the director is too.
Bielsa doesn’t have to be in the creative industries to earn a similar label. He too believes that total control is the best way to translate his theory into practice. A Bielsa team is recognisable from its propensity for high-tempo high-pressing football, being capable of launching attacks quickly from almost anywhere on the field in tactically complex, yet artfully orchestrated movements. It is a demanding style of play, something that has garnered its fair share of criticism and so, to make it function, he has used his obsessive eye for detail as a means of formulating a sort of functional footballing theory. When it is successful, Bielsa views this as being underpinned by his, and his players’, ability to adhere to his ideas.
Following von Trier’s thread of being a sole author, so Bielsa believes in the idea of a universal theory as a means of controlling the variable outcomes, harnessed controllability and predictability to quell any creeping thoughts of failure. “A lot of coaches will tell you that you must decide your philosophy based on the players you’ve got – I don’t agree,” he said. “It’s very hard to convince a player of something that you don’t believe in to the death.” Such devotion to one's own system requires a great deal of self-assurance. It’s reasonable to accept that one would develop such a sense through being a lifelong student of the sport as Bielsa has shown himself to be.
He’s also deeply honest about his philosophy. Admitting to being an “extremist”, Bielsa accepts an element of the criticism waged against him: “I manage according to how I feel. I don’t compromise – and I don’t say that as a virtue. It’s a defect.” To concede that it is a “defect” is to nod at it being a necessary evil.
Von Trier, who shares so many of Bielsa’s traits, has developed his own theory that he adheres to just as closely – the Dogme 95 Manifesto. In it, on Trier and Thomas Vinterberg created a cinematic “vow of chastity” that they claimed returned power to the film’s director. By so doing, they’re searching for a ‘pure’ version of film, devoid of special effects or heavy editing, instead seeking out a kind of atomic essence of film. It’s not hard to see the parallels between Bielsa’s and von Trier’s philosophies. These are both about control, yet not to confine as much as grant an idealistic freedom. They are, at their core, both idealists.
Adhering to rules seems to give Bielsa and von Trier a sense of meaning, with both making clear how serious their work is to them. While von Trier has been open in discussing his depression, stating that had he been given the choice, he’d never have been born at all (and suggesting that such a choice should be given to everyone before birth), Bielsa, perhaps less nihilistically, but equally illustrative of his perspective, asked his fellow Argentinian Jorge Valdano on a flight to Euro 96: “After losing a match, have you ever thought about killing yourself?”
Drive is, after all, something that both men nurtured through necessity growing up. Bielsa’s family are achievers, populated with lawyers and politicians. He gleefully turned away from that path, pursuing instead the one passion that drew from him the requisite intensity for his own intellectual freedom. Family life wasn’t quite the same for von Trier whose fractious relationship with his mother seems to have cast a lifelong cloud over his head and work, culminating in his infamous Cannes conference.
Devoted to their crafts, both have developed such an all-encompassing and successful mode of operation. Bielsa might not have as much silverware as von Trier, but he has amassed his fair share of disciples along the way and has excited fans the world over. At his current side Leeds, he’s galvanised a whole city. Amongst his fondest acolytes are such esteemed names as Pep Guardiola, who reveres him as “the best coach in the world”, and Diego Simeone, who said it was “Bielsa who taught me the most”. Not many have a football stadium in their hometown named after them. While von Trier has amassed many awards (more than 100, plus 200 nominations), he too is best measured in impact and influence.
Boiled down, it’s about a passion for their work, but also a proximity to it that helps them cope with personal issues. Bielsa’s extensive match preparation and research is both a means of satiating an over-active mind and of quelling a sense of creeping unease, strengthening as match day approaches. One way of limiting performance anxiety for many sufferers is covering as many bases as possible, limiting what could go wrong and planning for when it does. An audience can look on with a sense of awe at the magnitude of his intellect and determination to succeed, without considering the accompanying cost.
Both men have used their obsessive behaviours constructively, building an idiosyncratic approach and gaining a cult following as a result. However, there is a certain amount of overspill which allows for the maladapted aspects of their pathologies to come to the fore. For von Trier, it’s a self-destructive streak that has as good as defined his career and life; for Bielsa, unrealistic and unsustainable standards that his sides rarely maintain. Maybe neither has much time for press conferences, both shying away from interviews, but they are known as warm, personable people who manage to get the best out of those around them.
A single-minded desire for control has defined their philosophies, yet comes with downsides when they don’t get it. Bielsa left Lazio after only two days because they would not sign the player he wanted, wouldn’t submit to his way of doing things. Both men haven’t only given something to their fields, though, but to those of us looking on. Beyond challenging tired dogmas and asking questions of how things are and ought to be, they’ve also made us ask questions of ourselves. We too are obsessed by these figures, almost incomprehensible as each is. These compelling types are unpredictable, yet this volatility only draws us closer.
Could it be the case that we are looking too hard for missteps in their behaviour? That we want El Loco to be loco? Or for von Trier to act out and give baying writers the opportunity to fill the column space they have already reserved for him? In many ways, with such public figures, are we also complicit in their actions? Provoking them to live up to their name? Perhaps.
But they’re still largely misunderstood figures – yet ones we long to comprehend. As Bielsa himself said, “A man with new ideas is mad until he succeeds.”