LOSC Lille are a club that have slipped under the radar to an extent in terms of transfer dealings this summer. Due to the excessive business done by the likes of AC Milan, PSG, AS Monaco and Manchester City, Lille’s shrewder business has received less of the spotlight. However, the minimal transfer attention they have received has been largely due to their new manager, the eccentric Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa is renowned in the footballing world for his unconventional character, outlandish approach to management and his forward-thinking attitude towards tactics. Although the Argentine has won titles in his home country, he’s more famed for his philosophical approach to football and coaching, as well as his recognizable work in charge of Bilbao, Marseille and the Chile national team. During those tenures, Bielsa’s teams produced a brand of football that represented their manager’s character – intense, proactive, unique and tactically radical.
Bielsa has four core principles – concentration, permanent focus, rotation and improvisation, and because he’s so specific, he needs a particular profile of player so that his teams can match his ambitions and play how he desires. In July 2016, Bielsa resigned from Lazio after just two days in the job with the reason for his resignation being the club’s failure to sign a single player, as he said:
“It had been decided and made clear that reinforcements were necessary. It was agreed, as an essential condition to the implementation of the work program, that we would sign at least four footballers before July 5, with the aim that they would participate in pre-season training. For my method of working we needed to have these players arrive in a timely manner to train.”
The quote above perfectly signifies how Bielsa values recruitment and how it has to be utilized in order to bring in his preferred footballers. In Lille’s current case, they’ve made a significant amount of signings so far but the players signed from South America are particularly interesting as they appear to be 100% Bielsa recommended. Below, I’ve looked into why these South American signings are suited to Bielsa as well as what they’ll bring to Lille and Ligue 1.
Player: Thiago Maia
Signed From: Santos
For me, the most interesting signing that Bielsa has made thus far is the 20-year-old Brazilian, Thiago Maia. The midfielder’s reputation playing at Santos has developed over the years, so to see how the player fares playing in Europe is going to be very interesting. Signed for €14m, Maia is a technical, flexible and smart midfielder who’s balanced enough to play a variety of roles largely in central areas, but don’t be surprised if Bielsa tests him elsewhere.
Bielsa’s teams are required to be tactically fluid with the ability to switch between systems, so work-rate and positional intelligence is a key component of a Bielsa player. Thiago Maia has those in abundance, as he’s a tireless player that can cover excessive ground with a solid base of tactical knowledge that Bielsa will only expand. At just 20 years old, Bielsa has a quality prospect at his disposal who’s young enough to mould and retrain depending on Bielsa’s vision for the player.
In possession and as shown in the video below, Maia is a strong passer of the ball and regularly demonstrates the ability to switch play. A lot of his time at Santos was spent playing as a defensive midfielder, so he’ll often simply recycle possession to his nearest teammate. As his technical ability and confidence has developed with age, he’s now more capable and likely to attempt more direct passes in his game, so his passing range is broad for his age.
Although Maia is productive in possession, his best work often occurs when the opposition have the ball. Maia is highly capable playing as a ball-winner by breaking up opposition attacks or shielding his defence and this is largely due to his positional sense, defensive ability and work-rate. In the video below, you’ll see a demonstration of Maia’s defensive work for his team, as he regularly provides protection and acts as a shield for the defenders behind him.
Player: Luiz Araújo
Signed From: São Paulo
Another very interesting signing is Luiz Araújo, who has also been signed from Brazil and has started well under Bielsa in his early performances at his new club. Lille paid €10.5m for his services, which can be viewed as a bargain considering the heights that the player may hit in Ligue 1 and the room for growth. If Araújo progresses well under Bielsa, which is highly probable, Lille could receive a significant return on their initial investment.
Araújo is an aggressive and energetic attacker who’s capable of playing in a variety of positions across the frontline. This is ideal for Bielsa, as he’s a manager that often demands a high pressing style of play which is initiated from the front by players such as Araújo. Predominately, Araújo was a left-sided attacker for his former club, and his speed, creativity and directness allowed him to be a goal threat despite not playing centrally.
The video below provides a demonstration of Araújo’s directness, speed and threat and it’s clear to see why Bielsa has looked to recruit him at Lille as one of his earliest signings. Araújo will be able to provide Bielsa’s team with penetration, intensity, work-rate and flair, and he’s very much a player with the type of profile that would’ve fitted ideally in Bielsa’s lively Chile side.
Player: Thiago Mendes
Signed From: São Paulo
The second Brazilian midfielder signed alongside Thiago Maia is Thiago Mendes. Although they’re both defensive-minded midfielders, they’re quite different in terms of their styles of play. Mendes is a much more agile player, and he’s almost explosive at times when making quick bursts or engaging in defensive duels. He’s a player that is more than adept with either foot, as is the case with many Brazilians, and his technical quality is apparent when attempting long-range passes or shots from distance as he often does.
When compared to Maia, Mendes is a more complete footballer at present in terms of aspects to his game, but that’s largely due to his five-year advantage in which he’s matured and gained experience. Mendes is slightly more attack-minded than Maia and is much more likely to shoot or arrive on the end of a cross. They’re virtually the same height, and have a similar work-ethic that Bielsa will no doubt admire.
Mendes is capable of playing centrally as well as on the right-flank which can’t yet be said for Maia, and that positional knowledge will be valuable to Bielsa due to his tactical fluidity and variation as mentioned previously. As shown in the video below, Mendes has the profile of a player that can definitely be used in a multitude of systems and in a variety of positions due to his physical ability, attacking contribution and defensive work.
After looking into each South American footballer that Bielsa has brought to Lille thus far, it’s clear that they all share some common traits. The first is that they’re all hard-working players that are clearly willing to sacrifice themselves and commit effort to the cause of the team. The second is that they’re players that support all phases of play almost as a form of Total Football whereby every player contributes and can play or slot into every position, as Maia, Araújo and Mendes are all proficient both when attacking and defending. The third is that all three are very tactically flexible with the ability to play more than one position, thus allowing Bielsa’s fluctuating tactical approach to thrive. And finally, they’re all players that have the potential to grow, improve and develop under Bielsa’s leadership, and ultimately be sold on if Lille choose to do so which makes their transfer business shrewd and sustainable.