It’s quite remarkable what a difference 11 months can make at a football club.
Nearly a year after Marcelo Bielsa’s hiring at Lille gave Les Dogues’ supporters reason for optimism, the manager is long gone, while the club will fall to the second tier just eight seasons after capturing a domestic double.
Contentious exits and diminishing returns at Marseille and Lazio had already made the Argentine a facile scapegoat. The Lille sacking – which came after a club imposed sanction and saw “El Loco” watch his side lose 3-0 to Montpellier from a local restaurant – was his first traditional dismissal in a run of short managerial tenures.
But Bielsa isn’t entirely to blame for his late-career decline, nor for Lille’s current status.
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Nothing is ever easy with the 62-year-old, and unsurprisingly, his eight-month stay at Lille prior to Christophe Galtier’s hiring in December wasn’t as straightforward as he’d hoped.
Former Lotus F1 Team owner Gerard Lopez’s purchase of the club paired with the appointments of ex-Barcelona vice president Marc Ingla and Monaco technical director Luis Campos gave reasons for hope. Those hires – combined with Lopez’s desire to remodel the club into a side rich in emerging talent – initially appeared to fit well with Bielsa’s hiring.
However, the relationships were complicated and soured from the jump. There were a slew of club signings in the January 2017 window, which were followed closely by February rumours of Bielsa’s move to the Hauts-de-France region. That set the table for the Argentine’s official hiring in May and a summer transfer window that capped the year’s transactions at 22 exits and 17 arrivals. Matters become even murkier when attempting to discern which signings were Campos’ doing, and which had Bielsa’s blessing.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Last season’s leading scorer, Nicolas de Preville, was curiously shipped to Bordeaux, a decision that was surely due to Campos, and a host of budding talents were lured to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, with only defensive mid Thiago Mendes sticking out as the work of Bielsa. Naturally, a young, unfamiliar squad was going to face obstacles in acclimating quickly to the new manager’s ethos, and Lille’s campaign was doomed from the start despite an opening-day 3-0 victory over Nantes. Les Dogues then went nine matches sans victory in the league and found a spot in the bottom three that they’ve inhabited for much of the campaign.
Frustrations among fans came to a boil in March. A pitch invasion following a 1-1 draw with Montpellier – stemming less from the particular result and more due to anger that had been brewing since Lopez’s takeover – symbolised the ire of the fan base, while supporters’ attempts to attack players were narrowly thwarted by quick-thinking stewards. Algerian forward Yassine Benzia offered, “We cannot accept that there are players on my team who have been assaulted. In the locker room the players were scared. We have a quite young group and it is not every day we see this kind of images.”
It had been a long time coming.
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Campos’ additions haven’t worked, nor did Bielsa’s appointment or his stubborn preference for a 3-3-3-1 setup that often forced players out of position. But that’s not to say Lille’s decline has been limited to this season. The Eden Hazard era and the double-winning campaign, two third-place finishes, and Champions League berths in 2011-12 and 2013-14 have been followed by mid-table finishes and a brief flirtation with the top four in 2015-16. Lopez’s acquisition was made with an eye toward turning Lille into a profitable venture with repeated successes in hopes of transforming the club from a selling entity into a destination for emerging players.
Instead, the change in Les Dogues’ ideology has been an exhaustive failure, and while arguments that contemporary football has passed Bielsa by have some merit, the Argentine is not entirely to blame for Lille’s fall from grace. Managers often become the scapegoat for a club’s missteps, but due to puppet masters pulling strings behind the scenes – often working against the boss’ ambitions – Lille’s current status is far more complicated than simply being the result of Bielsa’s gaffes.