“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.”
In a summer that was low on intrigue in the transfer market and devoid of any kind of meaningful drama in the top tier of English football, Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment as Leeds United manager came as a bolt from the blue. The union of a coach best known for his obsessive attention to detail and the tendancy to walk out of a job at the drop of the hat and a club that has been a basket case for the past fifteen years was as shocking as it was intriguing. The chemical equation was potentially explosive, with pundits wondering if the Argentinian would even outstay Brian Clough’s forty-four days in charge at Elland Road, given that he resigned just forty-eight hours after becoming Lazio boss in 2016. Heading into this weekend, Bielsa’s Leeds sat top of the Championship, unbeaten with fourteen points from six games, and playing the kind of football that Whites fans have been deprived of for too long. Finally, something is stirring in West Yorkshire.
It’s fair to say that the twenty-first century hasn’t been kind to Leeds United supporters. The first two seasons of the new millennium saw David O’Leary’s side fighting for the Premier League title and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, but hopes of a team regularly challenging for silverware were quickly squashed when it emerged that chairman Peter Ridsdale had taken out loans against the club’s future success, a decision that spectacularly backfired when, the following season, Leeds finished fifth. From then on things spiralled out of control, as two relegations in three years left the club languishing in League One, with sadistic grandfather figure Ken Bates as owner and Dennis Wise as manager. An upturn in form under Simon Grayson saw Leeds return to the Championship and finish just outside the play-off places the following season, though a return to mid-table saw the former Leeds youth graduate sacked. In 2014, Italian entrepreneur Massimo Cellino purchased a controlling stake in the club, and the pantomime at Elland Road welcomed a new character. One of Cellino’s first decisions was to appoint Forest Green Rovers boss Dave Hockaday as manager, despite the former Hull City winger having no experience of league football. Needless to say, the experiment failed, and what followed was a two year managerial merry-go-round, as Darko Milanič, Neil Redfearn, Uwe Rosler, Steve Evans and Garry Monk all took their turn in the impossible job. Then, in 2017, businessman Andrea Radrizzani burst through the Yorkshire clouds to put an end to Cellino’s madness, taking ownership of Leeds United and re-purchasing the freehold to Elland Road. A disappointing season followed, as both Thomas Christensen and Paul Heckingbottom failed to live up to expectations in the dugout, and after relieving former Barnsley boss Heckingbottom of his duties, Radrizzani met with Sporting Director Victor Orta to discuss replacements.
“When I decided to change Paul, I didn’t have any doubt that I wanted to have a manager with charisma and leadership which everybody else in the organisation would follow,”
The last few years of Bielsa’s career have been chaotic to say the least. Suspended by Lille after thirteen games following a poor start last season, the Rosario-born coach saw his contract terminated before Christmas. The Lille debacle had followed those infamous two days in charge at the Stadio Olimpico, which had seen Bielsa resign as Lazio manager over the club’s transfer policy. Disagreements with club hierachy have become a running theme in the 60-year old’s career as, after one game of the 2015/16 season, Bielsa stepped down as head coach of Marseille, reputedly due to conflict over player sales. But beyond the eccentricity and unpredictability that has earned the Argentine the nickname ‘El Loco’, there lies one of the great modern football coaches.
Brought up in an affluent family in the port city of Rosario in Argentina, Bielsa learned the value of hard work from an early age. While his father worked as a laywer, and his brother and sister both held roles in the government, it was his mother that provided him with inspiration, thanks to her strong work ethic and disciplinarian nature. He recalls, “For her, no effort was sufficient.” An indistinguished playing career saw Bielsa represent his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys, though injury curtailed his career at the age of 25. After qualifying as a PE teacher, Bielsa took his first steps into management with the University of Buenos Aires men’s soccer team, before accepting an invite from Newell’s to return to the club as a youth coach and talent scout, where that dedication and obsession for the game first began to shine through. In a bid to ensure La Lepra recruited the brightest young players in Argentina, Bielsa traversed the country in his Fiat 147, clocking up over five thousand miles to uncover the likes of Gabriel Batitstuta and Mauricio Pochettino. A spell as manager followed and, after an appearance in the Copa Libertadores final, he took his hometown club to the Clausara championship playing a revolutionary high-press that opposition players described as ‘suffocating’.
That distinctive playing style and complete belief in the system has defined Bielsa’s career, with his time in Mexico epitomised by his walking out of Club Atlas after the players had complained of burnout after a season of playing high-intensity style of football, before a disagreement with club management over media duties at Club America saw his fiery nature earn him the sack. At Argentina, consistency gave way to absurdity, as La Albiceleste lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous, reaching the Copa America final and winning gold at the 2004 Olympics, while also exiting the 2002 World Cup at the group stage. His short, intense spell at Athletic Bilbao, too, brought success without silverware; defeats in the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals saw Athletic Club finish the season with six defeats in a row, with players citing exhaustion.
“We were physically finished and lost two cup finals. We used to always play with the same team and finally our legs said ‘stop’.”
It was his work with the Chilean national team that earned Bielsa the worldwide acclaim he enjoys today, with the extent of his obsessive nature and his reputation as a stickler for perfection laid bare. Upon taking the job, Bielsa moved into a modest room at the national team’s training ground, all the while taking work as a guest speaker at events across the world in order to fund improvements to his team’s facilities. During his four years in charge, he took La Roja to their first World Cup for twelve years, earning plaudits from his hero Johan Cruyff for playing “the most attractive football” in South Africa. His dedication to developing youth continued too, giving Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and the rest of the Chilean ‘Golden Generation’ their first caps, and providing the groundwork for successor Jorge Sampaoli to win Chile’s first Copa America in 2015. It’s for these reasons Leeds United supporters were so excited when Bielsa’s appointment was first announced.
Radrizzani had originally wanted to appoint Antonio Conte, but when Orta suggested Bielsa might be the more obtainable option, the Leeds owner sanctioned a meeting. Within minutes the club’s representatives were spellbound as, having asked the Argentinian how much he knew about the Championship, Bielsa produced a dossier on Bolton Wanderers vs Burton Albion from last season. He’d also compiled notes on the formations of all twenty-four teams in the league, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each. Proving himself not so much a student of football as teacher’s pet, almost immediately he’d talked himself into the job. By the end of his first press conference, the new manager had won supporters over, declaring “I think I’m at a club that’s bigger than I deserve”. Not to be confused with false modesty, Bielsa’s humility is genuine, in spite of his achievements.
To prepare for this season, the football-addicted manager watched all fifty-one of Leeds’ fixtures from last season, as well as two post-season friendlies. He pored over the blueprints of the training complex and advised on changes – a dormitory and games room for players, and a bed for him, of course. Before the start of the season, the average work day at the training ground was lengthened considerably. Ten hour days became the norm, with double training, video sessions, and one-to-one briefings with each player. Every morning the whole squad would be weighed to check they were on track to meet Bielsa’s meticulous planning. Physical fitness is paramount to The System.
“I have gone down four kilos and lost a lot in body fat, which for him is basically the beginning to start playing”
The Argentinian’s tactical blueprint relies on relentless pressing, constant movement, risk-taking, and extreme width. Full-backs are expected to contribute heavily to attacks, while centre-backs are encouraged to play the ball forwards whenever possible. With increased jeopardy at the back, the value of quick turnovers high up the pitch is drilled into his players. Usually found switching between a 3-3-1-3 and 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition’s formation, Bielsa began to mould his squad to play a flexible 4-3-3, able to switch to a 4-5-1 where necessary, a far cry from the rigid formation played under Heckingbottom last season. With transfer funds at a premium, the new manager was forced to rely on his contacts and reputation in the game to bring in Jack Harrison from Manchester City on loan, with Pep Guardiola only to happy to allow the youngster a season of learning under the coach that convinced him to go into management. Chelsea’s Lewis Baker also found the prospect of working under the fabled Bielsa too good an opportunity to turn down, taking a pay-cut to spend a season at Elland Road. What budget there was for recruitment went on Patrick Bamford – a useful striker at Championship level – and Barry Douglas, among the most creative players in the division last season, with fourteen assists for Wolves down the left-hand side. Beyond these few new additions, it was left to Bielsa to sculpt a side that won just four games in the second half of last season into a promotion-chasing team.
His first port of call was to make Kalvin Phillips the fulcrum of his midfield. Brought through the youth-ranks in the anchor role, Bielsa has encouraged the 22 year old to work on the technical side of the game, spraying passes out to the on-rushing full-backs, and slotting into defence as a sweeper when his team-mates bomb forward. Kemar Roofe, August’s Player of the Month, has been charged with defending from the front, playing a more direct role in the centre of an attacking trident and reaping the benefits with four goals from his first six games. Meanwhile Samuel Saiz, who often flattered to deceive in his first season in English football, is emerging as one of the most talented players in the second division. Not only a radical tactician, Bielsa is able to evaluate weakness and improve it. In the opening game of the season it was Saiz that teed up Mateusz Klich for the opening goal, as Leeds went for the throat of pre-season favourites Stoke City in a rousing 3-1 victory, with the new boss perched on his bucket on the sidelines, giving himself the best vantage point possible to scrutinise the action.
“With his help, I learned how to watch video for the details. I became very interested in video and tactics. That was his effect on me. I always tell people: Bielsa woke me up.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the league leaders in the opening weeks of the season, having to come from behind twice at Swansea to snatch a draw in a performance that fell way below the manager’s expectations. Bielsa’s substitutions in the match – withdrawing Phillips after 28 minutes, Gjanni Alioski at half-time, and Roofe on the hour – typified a coach unafraid to make bold decisions. The post-mortem in South Wales lasted an hour, and the manager didn’t hold back. Four days later, Leeds went to Carrow Road and dismantled Norwich City with breathtaking football, before cleaning the away dressing room at the behest of their manager. The virtue of hard work is being hard-wired into Bielsa’s squad both on and off the pitch, with the players expected to carry out menial tasks at the training ground to encourage empathy with the average supporter. If it weren’t so dazzling to watch, you might confuse the whole operation for a cult.
The statistics, though, speak for themselves. Averaging 2.1 goals per game, Leeds are second top scorers behind West Brom, courtesy of The Baggies 7-1 debagging of Steve McClaren’s QPR. They sit top for possession (56.7%), pass success rate (78.6%), goals from open play (13), and short passes per game (410 – almost a hundred more than they were averaging last season). Despite Bielsa’s cavalier approach to attacking football, they’ve conceded the sixth fewest shots per game, thanks largely to a defence that sits third for tackles (19). In almost all of those categories Leeds finished bottom half last season. It’s impossible to deny that The System is working.
Naturally, there are concerns. With the joint smallest squad in the league, the Whites are only ever two or three injuries away from a crisis, as witnessed at Swansea, where Bielsa was forced to field a back four containing three full-backs and an eighteen year old midfielder. Still, the madcap master found a way around it. The propensity for Bielsa’s teams to burnout is also a worry – five finals on his CV reaping just one medal points to an overstretching of resources. In his one full season at Marseille, Les Phocéens flew out of the traps, embarking on an eight-game winning streak and heading into the winter break at the top of Ligue 1, before faltering and fading in the second half of the season to finish fourth. Remove the two-week break and add a further eight games and you’ve got a recipe for total exhaustion. Whether the manager has the fortitude for the long slog of a promotion push is also up for debate – this is his first time outside the top flight after all.
Leeds fans, too, will be wary of false dawns. After a tricky start under Gary Monk, they watched their team spend the majority of the 2016/17 season in the playoff positions, before a late collapse saw them finish in seventh. Last year, Thomas Christensen won five and drew two of his first seven games, before a defeat at Millwall sparked the beginning of the end for the Spaniard. By the time he was sacked at the beginning of February, Leeds had fallen from the automatic places into midtable, never to return. This weekend’s visit to The Den was the litmus test for their new manager, particularly with an injury list that featured Roofe, Pablo Hernandez, Gaetano Berardi and Bamford. Though not always convincing, watching their team escape south London with a point for the first time since 2012, courtesy of Jack Harrison’s first goal for the club, will provide more evidence for Leeds fans that this is their year. There’s comfort to be found in the performances of their team as well as results, with four of their fellow promotion hunters already successfully side-stepped. Christensen’s run to the summit was always laden with caveats, whilst his successors’ suggests the best is yet to come.
“My desire, my wish is that I hope he changes the reality of Leeds, brings them to the Premier League and does a fantastic job there.”
There were suggestions pre-season that Bielsa would struggle adjusting to the Championship. In fact it appears the Championship is yet to adjust to Bielsa. Those of a less studious nature may struggle to understand what the fuss is all about, but the esteem with which El Loco is held at many of his former employers should tell the whole story. Newell’s Old Boys, one of the great teams in Argentina in the early 1900s before the rise of River Plate and Boca Juniors, named their stadium after their hometown hero in 2009. Athletic Bilbao, who went head to head with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the early 1980s, revelled in the spotlight during Bielsa’s brief spell in charge. Marseille supporters mourned the loss of a coach that brought back memories of their early 90s dominance. There were tears at the Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos, as Chile’s fans laid on a display of appreciation during his last match in charge. Now, at Elland Road, the despair and disconsolance of the last fifteen years has been replaced with promise and pride. Marcelo Bielsa has awoken the sleeping giant of Leeds United; what happens next is anyone’s guess.