This feature is part one of two parts exploring Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. Read Part Two: The Art of Perseverance online now.
And with that, the dream had died. An entire season of idealistic, attacking brilliance in which anything had felt possible for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United erased in one kamikaze half of football at Elland Road. The story had looked so different 45 minutes earlier, with the hosts cruising to a 2-0 aggregate lead in the second leg of their Championship playoff semi-final with that season’s nemesis, Derby.
With fans tempted to book their train tickets to Wembley, one disastrous defensive mix-up between defender Liam Cooper and goalkeeper Kiko Casilla allowed Jack Marriott to pull a goal back on the stroke of half time. From there, all hell broke loose.
With everything from goals to red cards exchanged during a wild second stanza, the game would ultimately be decided in the 85th minute, when a Derby counter-attack was once again finished by Marriott, handing the visitors a 4-2 lead on the night and a 4-3 aggregate victory.
A year of exhilarating, often exhausting drama both on and off the pitch would end not in glory for Leeds, but with the sight of their opponent’s manager Frank Lampard and his players celebrating exuberantly on the pitch as the familiar Joy Division taunt echoed around the stadium: “Leeds, Leeds are falling apart, again.”
With failure having become an all too familiar destination for Whites fans over the last 15 years, it was the heady romance of the journey under Bielsa that made this defeat so heartbreaking. After a generation characterised by mismanagement, stagnation and endless disappointment, the bespectacled maverick from Rosario had transformed the club seemingly overnight and dared fans to dream once more.
Bielsa’s arrival alone in the summer of 2018 had sent shockwaves through the game. What business did one of the most revered, influential coaches in world football have at a meandering club in the English second tier? And how were the club able to pull off this most unprecedented of coups? Closer inspection into the history of both the club and the former Argentina boss, however, showed that the marriage was not quite as crazy as many in the press believed it to be.
Perhaps the ultimate sleeping giant of the English game, a strong argument could be made that Leeds were yet to truly recover from their financial collapse in 2004. Having scaled the heights of the Champions League semi-finals three years previously, the club were relegated from the Premier League after hugely overspending in their pursuit of glory.
Three years later, devastation turned to humiliation as the three-time league champions were relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history, with ongoing financial difficulties placing the club on the brink of extinction.
Read | The gripping rise and crushing fall of Leeds United at the turn of the 21st century
While they would return to the Championship in 2010, the optimism of this mini-resurgence quickly gave way to anger and apathy as fans were forced to endure a slew of thankless owners and a revolving door of managers doomed from day one thanks to the club’s shaky foundations. Nevertheless, when Bielsa was approached about taking the job at Elland Road, he saw something quite different from the tired institution who had been treading water for the last decade and a half.
The quintessential football romantic, Bielsa looked at Leeds and saw history and potential. After all, this was the club of Revie, Bremner, Wilkinson and Strachan, a club that had dominated in the 1970s, tasted glory in the 1990s, and still possessed one of the largest, most fervent supporter bases in English football.
This mentality was typical of a man who had been previously seduced by such noble prospects as returning glory to the Vélodrome with Marseille, restoring regional pride with Athletic, or revolutionising the playing style of the Chile national team. Having previously gone on record stating that his main duty as a coach is to provide strong emotions for fans, the euphoric potential of ending Leeds’ 14-year top-flight exodus was not lost on the man they call “El Loco”.
The men behind the masterplan to bring Bielsa to Leeds were chairman Andrea Radrizzani and director of football Victor Orta. Having acquired full ownership of the club in the summer of 2017, Radrizzani had brought a semblance of direction and ambition back the club – his repurchasing of Elland Road following its debt-motivated sale 13 years earlier served as a statement of intent to drag the club out of the doldrums.
While affairs off the pitch were undoubtedly healthier than they’d been in some time, the Italian would experience teething problems on the field in his first year at the club. After a promising start under Cypriot manager Thomas Christianson, the club would ultimately limp to a 13th-place finish, with Orta drawing the brunt of the criticism for his perceived failure in the transfer market. Having sacked Christianson mid-season, the chairman would also relieve replacement coach Paul Heckingbottom of his duties at the end of the campaign.
Believing a dramatic change was required to move the club forward, Radrizzani would ask Orta to suspend realism and suggest to him his perfect coach, with the latter later recalling: “I was in a car with Andrea Radrizzani and he said, ‘If you have all the money, if you can choose any coach, who would you choose?’ I told him Marcelo Bielsa and he said, ‘Call him’.”
To the surprise of both Orta and the rest of the world, Bielsa was receptive. A meeting in Buenos Aires was arranged with managing director Angus Kinnear joining Orta and Radrizzani on the trip for what was essentially a job interview. Keen to ascertain how much Bielsa knew about the Championship, the trio would be left stunned as the coach delved into his arsenal of notes and began dissecting a fixture from the previous season between Bolton and Burton.
By the end of the response, the 63-year-old had detailed every formation the two sides had used throughout the season before preceding to offer the same analysis about every other club in the division.
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With Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear firmly sold on the Bielsa as their number one candidate, it would be their turn to sell the job further to this most particular of managers. Having somehow acquired land registry documents for the club’s Thorp Arch training ground, Bielsa outlined a series of required upgrades that were essential if he were to take the reigns at the West Yorkshire club. These included everything from the building of a running track around the pitch to the creation of a games room and sleeping pods for players who were going to be worked to the bone under the coach’s notoriously gruelling training regime.
Enticed by the Leeds dream and satisfied that the club would accommodate most of his demands, Bielsa signed the contract to become the club’s manager on 14 June 2018. While nobody could question the club’s ambition, the appointment proved polarising both amongst fans and those within the game.
For every glowing reference from Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, there was a slew of dissenting punditry voices lamenting Bielsa’s lack of silverware and questioning how his romantic philosophy would hold up in the harsh, unforgiving setting of the Championship. Where some praised the club’s bold decision in hiring a man who had taken Newell’s and Chile to unimaginable heights, others gasped at the appointment of a manager who’d most recently departed Lille in the most volatile of fashions.
But who was the real Marcelo Bielsa? The dreamer and visionary who won titles in Rosario and hearts in Marseille? Or El Loco, the crazed coach who sued the owners of Lille, brawled with builders in Bilbao, and signed and resigned from Lazio in the space of 24 hours?
As with most caricatures, the reality was somewhere in between. Uncompromising and unorthodox though Bielsa’s methods were, he could never be faulted for demonstrating a lack of transparency in his demands, with problems arising in instances when the coach had felt let down by his employers. At Elland Road, however, the Argentine would find a regime prepared to back him to the hilt and the results proved spectacular.
By the time of his first press conference, the Bielsa myth was already in full swing. With rumours rife that he’d ordered his new squad to pick up litter around Thorp Arch for three hours in order to appreciate the sacrifice fans make to follow the club, the coach took centre stage.
In a speech that served as the antithesis to José Mourinho’s infamous “special one” introduction, Bielsa, with the aid of translator Salim Lamirani, declared: “Leeds is a bigger club than I deserve. My goal is to show I deserve this opportunity but also that I’m not a demagogue.” Bielsa then concluded with the most prescient of sentences: “I hope my work with Leeds will be full of emotions.”
After a gruelling pre-season of endless running alongside Bielsa’s signature ‘Murderball’ training sessions, Leeds’ refreshed squad would open their campaign against promotion favourites Stoke. To the disillusionment of many fans, Bielsa had made few additions to a squad who’d finished miles off promotion in the previous campaign.
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While the purchases of striker Patrick Bamford (£7m) and left-back Barry Douglas (£3m) from Middlesbrough and Wolves were cause for optimism, these proved to be the only permanent summer signings, with Bielsa implicit in his desire to work with the players he already had at his disposal.
On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon on 5 August 2018, 37,000 buoyant fans packed Elland Road and marvelled at their side’s best performance for a generation. In just one game under their new boss, this largely unheralded squad demonstrated all of the hallmark traits of Bielsa’s greatest sides – from the indefatigable work rate to the relentless pressing and free-flowing possession play – as they stormed to a 3-1 victory. With a squad made up of largely Premier League-level players, Stoke were overwhelmed by a Leeds side who attacked with ferocious intensity.
Determined to prove the performance was no flash in the plan, the galvanised players would go one better in their next game as they outclassed Lampard’s hotly-tipped Derby in a 4-1 win at Pride Park. Fans could scarcely believe the overnight improvements many of the players had made under their new boss.
Academy graduate Kalvin Phillips had been transformed from a box midfielder into a formidable holding player in Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 system, his combative presence and cultured passing making him a vital cog in the team’s front-foot style. Elsewhere, previously maligned centre-back Liam Cooper looked reborn under the new regime, the captain’s consistency and comfort on the ball marking him out as a completely different player to the one fans had grown accustomed too.
Most surprising of all was Mathius Klich; the Polish midfielder who’d flopped the previous season was now at the heart of Bielsa’s system, his industrious passing, clever late runs and eye for goal making him the perfect foil for Spanish playmakers Pablo Hernández and Samu Sáiz.
Propelled by the goals of striker Kemar Roofe and the creative brilliance of the ageless Pablo, Leeds would continue their impressive form for the rest of the year. A grounding 4-1 away defeat to West Brom in November was followed by a seven game-winning run that placed the club atop of the Championship at Christmas. If the style wasn’t impressive enough, Leeds demonstrated substance in two exhilarating comeback victories against Aston Villa and Blackburn.
While the football remained thrilling, the second half of the campaign would be remembered as much for the off-field dramas as for the on-pitch entertainment. Firstly, Sáiz was allowed to move on loan to Getafe in January, with the attacking midfielder seeking a return to Spain for personal reasons. With Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown – signed as direct competition for Sáiz – injured long-term, and Pablo predominantly playing out wide, this left the club with no direct replacement for their departed playmaker.
Brown was rarely without company on the treatment table, with marquee signings Douglas and Bamford, as well as Roofe, midfielder Adam Foreshaw and defenders Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi all enduring extended periods on the sidelines. While the impressive deputising offered by academy prospects Jack Clarke, Jamie Shackleton and Leif Davis drew plaudits, there was no denying that Leeds were beginning to bear the brunt of their manager’s small squad policy.
The January transfer window would provide more chaos, with the exciting signing of Real Madrid goalkeeper Kiko Casilla being overshadowed by the club’s dramatic failure to sign Dan James from Swansea – the Welsh club relented on the deal at the last minute with James sat at Elland Road having already been pictured wearing the Leeds shirt.
Having lost back to back games at the turn of the year, Leeds entered their home fixture at Derby needing a statement of intent; what they got instead was a media frenzy. In the build-up to the fixture, it emerged that a Leeds employee had been caught “acting suspiciously” on the premises of Derby’s training ground before being removed by police. Later that evening, it was confirmed by the authorities that the man had been sent by Leeds to secretly observe the Rams’ pre-match preparations.
When the story became public, Bielsa was remorseless. Not only did the former Athletic manager admit to personally sending the employee to observe Derby’s training, he then confirmed that he’d implemented the exact same approach for every opponent so far that season. The press had a field day.
Dubbed “Spygate”, the scandal would shine a light on the most sanctimonious and hypocritical elements of the British football media. With everything from sackings to points deductions being touted as worthy punishment for the club by exasperated pundits, Leeds battered their opponents under the bright lights at Elland Road.
If any manager had been rattled by the scandal, then it was Lampard, not Bielsa, who seemed to have his focus taken away from the task at hand. After lamenting his opposite numbers behaviour as “bad on a sportsmanship level”, the Chelsea legend could only sit back and watch as his side were outclassed in a comprehensive 2-0 defeat, with goals coming from Roofe and winger Jack Harrison.
While Leeds would ultimately be punished with a £200,000 fine – a fine which Bielsa insisted on paying himself – the club had much more important issues ahead in the form of the Championship promotion race. With the Whites in a three-way battle with Norwich and Sheffield United, their consistency began to falter.
After beating both sides in away victories earlier in the season, Leeds would fall short in the vital return fixtures, their 3-1 defeat to Norwich and narrow 1-0 loss to Sheffield United placing their automatic promotion credentials in serious jeopardy. At their best, like in the 4-0 demolition of West Brom in March, Leeds looked a cut above anyone else in the division. Frustratingly, these performances were being followed too often by tired, insipid displays against the likes of QPR and Birmingham.
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Worse still was the side’s growing inability to convert chances. While Bielsaball was undoubtedly easy on the eye, fans were becoming increasingly accustomed to the sight of their team failing to take advantage of their endless dominance in possession. With both Roofe and Bamford plagued by injuries, albeit at different times, the team was becoming too reliant on the individual quality of Hernández to get them out of trouble. Thankfully for Leeds, the Spanish magician was in the form of his life.
Having scaled the heights of LaLiga, the Premier League and the Champions League earlier in his career, Hernández, at 33, was enjoying his most impressive season yet. By March, he was one of only four players to have registered double figures for both goals and assists across the Championship and Europe’s top-five leagues, the others being Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard and Birmingham’s Lukas Jutkiewicz. Never was this more apparent than in the barnstorming 3-2 win against Millwall, where Hernández single-handedly dragged his team back from the brink of defeat with two goals and a majestic second-half performance.
A 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday meant that Leeds would enter the final four games of the season in second place with a three-point lead on Sheffield United. With supporters finally daring to dream, disaster would strike on the Easter weekend.
With a routine victory expected against struggling Wigan on Good Friday, Bielsa’s side would implode in the most spectacular of fashion. Leading 1-0 and with their opponents down to ten men, Leeds buckled under the weight of the nervy Elland Road crowd and fell to a 2-1 defeat thanks to a Gavin Massey brace. Failure to secure automatic promotion was all but confirmed the following Monday with a 2-0 away defeat to Brentford but, in reality, the hammer blow had been dealt by the Latics.
With the squad now sure to be contesting the playoffs, fans would have been forgiven for expecting a subdued end to the season proper. Instead, the penultimate game against fellow playoff contenders Aston Villa served up an industrial-strength dose of El Loco drama.
After 77 goalless minutes, chaos would descend on the game thanks to a controversial Klich opener. With Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia down injured, the Pole incensed opposition players by continuing an attack and scoring with the static Villa team expecting the ball to be put out of play. With both players and coaches at each other’s throats and match officials flailing like leaves in the wind, Bielsa took definitive action.
To the shock of the stadium, the coach ordered his team to allow Villa to walk the ball into the net and equalise from the kick-off. Having had his sporting morals questioned just months earlier, this incident would see Bielsa and Leeds win that season’s FIFA Fair Play award.
Read | How Marcelo Bielsa reinvented Leeds United, part two: the art of perseverance
And so came the playoffs. In a season of unparalleled theatre, it was fitting that the club would be pitted against Derby once more after their sixth-place finish. With the season’s events amping up animosity between the two clubs to levels unseen since the days of Don Revie and Brian Clough, Leeds took the pitch at a frantic Pride Park for the first leg.
If Bielsa’s side were demoralised by their failure to make the top two, they didn’t show it. For the third time that season, the visitors outplayed a Derby side who had no answers for their opponent’s movement and creativity in a 1-0 win. The goal that day was scored by Roofe, the striker resuming his role as tormentor-in-chief to Derby captain Richard Keogh as he took his season tally against the Derbyshire club to four. In a decisive twist, Roofe would be ruled out of the second leg with a knee injury.
As players took the pitch for the second leg on the evening of 15 May 2019, they were greeted by an Elland Road crowd on scintillating form. Like in the League One playoff semi-final against Millwall a decade earlier, however, the passion in the stands would provide the backdrop to an evening of heartache.
The game seemed to be going to script when Stuart Dallas’s rebounded 24th-minute finish strike sent the stadium into overdrive – but the drama was just beginning. Even at the time, Derby’s equaliser at the end of the first half felt like a sliding doors moment. Coming out of nowhere, the combination of Cooper and Casilla’s joint mistake and Marriot’s open goal finish at once energised the away side whilst robbing Leeds of all composure.
Within seconds of the second half, Derby were level in the tie as Mason Mount finished off an attack straight from the kick-off. Smelling blood, Derby continued to take the game to the hosts and would take an aggregate lead in the 58th minute thanks to a Harry Wilson penalty. Although a defiant Dallas would level the tie four minutes later, Leeds were dealt a fatal blow in the 78th-minute when Berardi was sent off, before Marriott put the nail in the coffin with his second.
And so a season of unparalleled hope for Leeds fans would end in the familiar confines of disappointment. With his enigmatic combination of idealism, principle and humility, Bielsa had embedded himself into the fabric of the city in the shortest of times and brought pride and entertainment to a success-starved fanbase.
As has been so often the case both in the history of Leeds and in Bielsa’s own storied career, however, the team had run out of gas in the final stretch. In a cruel twist of irony, it was the joy generated by Bielsa and his side throughout the campaign that caused this failure to be felt more acutely than ever before.
So what next? Leeds fans could scarcely comprehend starting again without their eccentric leader, and one only needed to look at the endless selfies of the Argentine with fans around the city to see that El Loco had found his second home. But would Marcelo Bielsa and his squad, after the most emotionally draining of seasons, have the stomach for one more shot at glory?
By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92
This feature is part one of two parts exploring Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. Read Part Two: The Art of Perseverance online now.