The last 30 years of Leeds United have been nothing if not a story on how to be careful what you wish for. They were the last champions of England before the creation of the Premier League in 1992, with the last English manager to win the top flight. On their way to the Champions League semi-final in 2001, they beat Deportivo and took points off AC Milan, before losing out under controversial circumstances in Valencia against a team that boasted Gaizka Mendieta, Pablo Aimar and John Carew.
Then came the crash. Leeds’ dream was ambitious but built on sand. Financial mismanagement led to a meltdown, and a mass exodus of star names to teams all across the continent ensued. Alan Smith crossed the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, the white rose changing to red as Leeds went into freefall.
The team was relegated to the second tier for three years before eventually falling again, dropping to their lowest ever position in England’s League One. The madness carried on: point deductions, administrations, not having a penny, and being bought for a pound; there they existed for three long seasons until finally claiming second place as the wounded beast dragged itself back into the Championship.
Things had changed without them, however. The TV deals of the Premier League had soared and parachute payments gave relegated teams coming down into the Championship an easier life, saving them from what was now termed “doing a Leeds”. Italian owners, Bahraini owners and sometimes no owners have had the club in a mid-table slumber for years now. Fans left and crowds dwindled – what was happening on the pitch merely served as a balsamic for what was happening off it.
However, 15 years after the loss away at Bolton which sent the Whites down, the Leeds faithful are returning to wipe the dust off their seats at Elland Road. Marcelo Bielsa arrived as manager in June 2018 and has not only brought the Leeds fans back to their seats, but lifted them onto their feet in joy.
His team currently sit in the automatic promotion places of the Championship, having played some swashbuckling football along the way. The ex-Chile and Argentina manager’s style has encapsulated the minds and got the fans believing again. Johan Cruyff once said, “Give Leeds the ball and they will make you dance.” Those words are truer than ever, and ‘Bielsaball’ proves that pragmatism can meet sexy and play out as a perfect marriage on the football pitch.
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Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani originally had Bielsa down as fourth on his list of candidates after sacking Paul Heckingbottom at the end of last season. Antonio Conte, Claudio Ranieri and Roberto Martínez were numbers one, two and three but all had their own obstacles in the way which stopped them taking over the reins in the north of England.
After a chat with his director of football Victor Orta, Radrizzani was convinced to call Bielsa, an approach initially labelled “impossible” by the Spanish assistant. The owner called the Argentine, who didn’t answer, leaving a message to get in touch. When Bielsa returned the call the morning after, he had already watched seven Leeds games. This was just the beginning.
Convinced by his conviction, Radrizzani immediately boarded a plane to Buenos Aires and, during the 24 hours he was there, 10 of them were spent locked in footballing discussions in which the Argentine described the tactics of the team, providing details about every player from the first-team to the under-23s. The man they call El Loco signed after two weeks of contract negotiations.
His maiden voyage into the unforgiving seas of the Championship began at home against Stoke, wounded after a dismal campaign saw them finish with only seven Premier League wins. Despite turning 63 a month and six days after being appointed at Ellan Road, the perfectionist left no stone unturned in the preparation for the first game in the race for promotion.
Like greyhounds, the Leeds team shot out of their half on the opening whistle, blowing away the purple of the Potters in typical Bielsa fashion. The match ended 3-1 to the home side and Bielsa, who during the game sat on an upturned blue bucket instead of a cool-box, smiled politely as he conducted his post-match interview, famously a ritual always done against his choosing.
He is a workaholic who doesn’t seek the limelight and is meticulous in every aspect of his life. During his time as Chile manager, he would wake up during the night to build fences around the edge the training ground to avoid the cameras and recording devices of the journalists. But is he really as mad as he’s said to be? Not according to Athletic Club forward Iker Muniaín: “No, he is madder.”
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This attention to perfection and striving to do his best unsurprisingly reaches over into his personal life. Bielsa attended the Great Yorkshire Show in July, an annual festival of 60,000 people held in Harrogate on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales in which the local culture is celebrated. In his next press conference before a clash with Brentford, he proclaimed that the county “shares many similarities to the region I’m from.” Despite trying fish and chips, however, he still prefers asado.
His attention to detail makes him a unique character and a mentor for many, not least some of the world’s leading coaches. Mauricio Pochettino calling him “a father figure” may not have been enough for some Leeds fans, but most were convinced when Pep Guardiola labelled him “the best coach in the world”, adding “every match is like a present for the supporters.” He may not have the silverware to justify such bold claims but his knowledge of the game, passion and infectious desire to succeed is unlike any other manager in the world. He is utterly unique.
Honesty and humility, qualities scarce in the modern game, shape the way the Argentine lives. Other than his own national team, he has never left a job for money. At a routine pre-match press conference a few months back, the manager shocked the room when he gave an eight-minute monologue in apology to Hernán Crespo, repenting for having lied to him about his maturity over 15 years ago. Bielsa had been dishonest to Crespo, labelling the striker more mature than he was in order to build his confidence. He rarely forgets and he rarely shirks the truth, as evidenced by his stunning departure from Lazio two days after taking the job, citing broken promises.
It has been said that with Bielsa, some look for the madness first and the coach second. Perhaps his humility has been mistaken for madness. Indeed, making the Leeds squad pick up garbage for three hours to demonstrate the luxury of their life could be deemed as “mad”. For me, it’s humility – and he wants his players to behave accordingly.
Beyond his players, Bielsa’s patrolling of the touchline is unrivalled: he takes 13 steps every time he jumps to his feet, with an army of assistants barking instructions and routinely breaking the three-person limit of the technical area. Recently, a member of his coaching staff was spotted on the other side of the pitch, by the touchline, scoping out positions and taking notes for Bielsa to dissect within the hive of the dressing room.
Ex-Leeds striker, fan favourite and fellow countryman of Bielsa, Luciano Becchio, has expressed his opinion on the season for the Whites under their new stewardship: “As a minimum, I think the playoffs. Bielsa is a great coach who is well respected in Argentina and I like the squad he has got. There are good, experienced players as well as some young players, too.”
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Becchio also mentioned Bielsa’s work rate and praised the players for adapting so quickly to it. The statistics don’t lie: they win the ball back quicker than anyone else, give the least freedom to their opponents and then keep it for the longest period. An average possession rate of 64 percent is also typical of a Biesa team, with Leeds finishing just one game below 50%.
That match was at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United, a place that Leeds hadn’t won at since the Howard Wilkinson era. Famously, it was the game that handed them the title. Perhaps it’s coming full circle. It’s about time, the Leeds fans would say, and stranger things have happened.
There is, however, a rather exhausted elephant in the room. Bielsa’s trophy cabinet cannot be seen from space and there is a reason for that. Jonathan Wilson worded his influence on the game bluntly when he said, “No South American has had such an influence [on football] as Bielsa in the 21st century” – but the question still remains about his notable lack of silverware and whether or not he can do it at Leeds.
At Lazio he left after two days, furious about transfers he was promised that wouldn’t come to fruition. A rogue cup of coffee placed on his cool box that burnt his backside was the highlight for many during his reign at Marseille. The manager stepped down just a solitary game into his second season at the Stade Vélodrome after overseeing a raft of high-profile departures that summer. His Athletic team did reach the Europa League final but were outclassed by Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, who ran away 3-0 winners on the night.
Whatever you make of the above – and from one reader to the next, the views will inevitably change – Bielsa, to be considered the world-class coach that he is, needs to add some silverware to the mix. He may never get a better chance than now, at Leeds.
It still seems strange to say it: Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. It was odd on the first day, when the Argentine’s outstretched hand locked with Gary Rowett in a clash of personalities some thought they’d never see. Reservations aside, the small squad demanded by Bielsa has shone, both his 4-4-1-1 and 3-3-1-3 formations proving too much for the hustle and bustle of the Championship. With his bucket still perched on the Elland Road touchline and the faithful of a club many still consider to be one of English football’s biggest on board, all eyes are on Marcelo Bielsa to see if he can climb both his personal Everest and the club’s.
By Joseph Brennan @j4brennan