How Bielsa's honesty and hard work re-energised Leeds United
In the winter of 1995, when Arsenal were four years into their glacial, functional period and seemingly lost in incoherence under Bruce Rioch, stranded in purgatory between past and future, a cry of consolation would ripple from the North Bank to the Clock End at Highbury. It wasn’t a song of commemoration for any specific deed or a chorus consisting solely of one man’s name, merely a statement of bald fact. Over the next decade it would become a triumphant boast but for now it served as both comfort and stimulus. Above all, though, it spoke to Arsenal fans’ sense of exceptionalism. “We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp,” they sang. It said for all the shit we’ve been through, for all the shite we’re in, we’ve got Dennis Bergkamp and, crucially, you haven’t. He symbolised the essence of their idealised version of the club and their ambitions for it, a figure commensurate with their assessment of Arsenal’s stature in the game. It wasn’t about entitlement or gratitude, purely that they could identify with what his signing represented, that it was not only apt but just that a player of such class would adorn their club. Leeds United fans felt exactly the same when, in the summer of 2018, before the start of their 15th year of exile from the Premier League, the club appointed Marcelo Bielsa as head coach. At last, we thought: they, meaning the board, get it.
The 63-year-old Argentinian was regarded as the most influential philosopher-coach in football, extolled and obsessed over by the great innovators of the tumescent superclubs. He was feted by Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, as well as tactical evangelists everywhere, as a pioneer of enlightenment and a stoic sage. Yet, like the film director Michael Powell, who was venerated as a genius in the seventies and eighties by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for a trailblazing portfolio of classics yet could not get his own films made anymore, Bielsa would have preferred to be working than idolised but cloistered away in Rosario.
Since leaving the Chile job in 2011, he had spent two years with Athletic of Bilbao, a season with Marseille, two days with Lazio and a handful of games with Lille. Bielsa’s successes with his presiding passion, Newell’s Old Boys, as head coach of his own national team and their neighbours across the southern Andes, had been based on humility, a fierce work ethic, positional rotation and whirling movement. He demanded intensity and commitment but had no airs. He spoke with precision, using simple language, and stuck to his principles. Bielsa was stubborn rather than intolerant, certain only that he did not know it all. He was as hungry to learn as he was to teach. Evidence from his previous three jobs could be twisted to portray him as difficult and prickly yet he had a profound sense of honour, his loyalty was not for his employer but to his ideas and the supporters he was driven to serve. If he felt that honour was being betrayed he went home, where coaching pilgrims would once again beat a path to his door. And now he had agreed to become the 36th manager of a club that had won only four games since the turn of the year.
Finishing 13th was no nadir alongside Leeds’s struggles of the recent past, but it had punctured the optimism inspired by new ownership, a lightweight, autumn charge to the top of the league and the repurchase of Elland Road. The most recent manager, Paul Heckingbottom, had been recruited from Barnsley in February when they had been 11 places below us. He was a decent man even if his coalfield accent made him sound like Our Jud from Kes. When his ancient quips about his childhood hatred of Leeds came to light, it was too tempting, if unfair, to echo Billy Casper and call him “a big bleedin’ bastard” who “wants puttin’ in t’bin”. He wasn’t a bastard, of course. He was simply dull. Heckingbottom was the manager who was supposed to wake us up to the truth of our plight. He was Leeds’s Pauline Campbell-Jones from The League of Gentleman without the sadism… or the pens. Salvation lay in grim toil on the long road back and the recruitment of established Championship scufflers. To switch from Heckingbottom to Bielsa in a month was like emerging from the blacking factory. We had come into the light.
Leeds United as a “project” rather than a cause, which is how it was sold by the owner, Andrea Radrizzani, and sporting director, Victor Orta, was not without obvious attractions to Bielsa. Kenny Dalglish had initially piqued Radrizzani’s interest by speaking fondly of a club whose potential had been starved but not quashed and eulogising the passion of its broad fanbase. Bielsa was intrigued enough to do his own research before meeting them. He watched every match they had played the previous season, analysed Leeds’s players and the opposition in exhaustive detail and somehow managed to get hold of plans of the training ground at Thorp Arch which he modified to meet his requirements. What he wanted to know was whether they understood what hiring him would entail and whether he could trust their resolve. He agreed a £6m-a-year salary for him and his regiment of staff and joined a club which for a long time had been able to pride itself on having won the title more recently than Liverpool and three times since Spurs were last champions. To paraphrase something Howard Wilkinson said on his appointment in 1988, a Rolls Royce in the pending pen at the breaker’s yard is still a Rolls Royce.
Bielsa arrived to a public that was desperate to be charmed and longing for a head coach with vision, someone who could shape a generation and the culture of the club just as Don Revie and Wilkinson once had. He was the 11th full-time manager of Leeds in six and a half years, the hack phrase “permanent manager” never more redundant in this age of volatility. Not all had been duds but each of them – the adequate and the utterly intolerable – were undermined either by their own pinched horizons, the impatience of a succession of capricious owners or the perennial problem of clubs living from season-to-season: squads rammed full of players bought by former managers who were too cosily rewarded to leave and could not be smoked out by a long spell in the stiffs. None of them had completed a second season; seven hadn’t finished a first.
A man of Bielsa’s reputation and aura, then, could not have found more receptive supporters anywhere. We were tired of living hand-to-mouth, paying Premier League prices to watch dross and sickened by the biannual sale of the best talents. We had endured years of constant conflict with Ken Bates and GFH Capital and feeling nervous whenever the volcanically erratic Massimo Cellino was in the country. Dignity had departed long before six of the Italian’s servile signings got off scot-free after double-crossing a manager he was trying to ease out by throwing a sickie.
That’s OK, dignity is overrated, but a club cannot survive without integrity and that was only salvaged when Radrizzani bought shares in 2016 and a majority stake the following June. His first year in sole control was a dispiriting, false start, sticking to the template that if they built the correct structure, all they needed was a pure coach with limited scope. Yet once Thomas Christiansen and Heckingbottom had failed to find a winning formula from their trolley-dash squads, he commendably changed tack. Bielsa was as much their redeemer as ours. A significant element of why we took to him so warmly is that we were crying out for someone like him.
Not that there’s anyone quite like Bielsa, as the players soon found out when they were summoned to training two weeks early and put through the most demanding pre-season of their careers. They were at Thorp Arch for 12 hours a day, taking naps there in newly-constructed pods between fitness work and tactical seminars. Diets were changed, strength and conditioning programmes tailored and when they emerged for friendly matches it was evident how much leaner many were. Flexibility became the norm for midfielders and wide players who took up new roles to broaden their outlook. Bielsa’s reputation as ‘El Loco’ preceded him and many feared the worst when he sent out nine of the players who had finished 13th the previous season for his first match against Stoke City. Leeds tore them to shreds with a tornado of movement, passing, pressing and overloading. They were even better against Derby County and Norwich City. Kalvin Phillips, a gifted and inconsistent attacking midfielder, sat deep and augmented the centre-backs to allow rapid switches of formation and the endlessly inventive Pablo Hernández probed away, facing up defenders and dribbling past them. Up front the elusive Mateusz Klich surprised defences with the timing of his runs and Kemar Roofe, a square peg in a round hole out wide in the previous two seasons, became a tireless pest of a centre-forward, running the channels, turning and spinning, holding his own up tight against centre-backs.
Despite a spate of injuries they lost only three of 24 games before Boxing Day, dominating possession and clocking up seven victories in a row in resounding fashion. They fought back from 2-0 down against Aston Villa to win 3-2 in the 95th minute two days before Christmas and from 2-1 behind against Blackburn Rovers after 90 minutes on December 26 to earn three points with another 3-2 victory. All three stoppage-time goals were scored by Roofe, who ran ecstatically into the corners, stopped only by the confines of the stadium. Every single outfield player Bielsa inherited had been undeniably improved by the coaching of him and his staff. They stumbled after Christmas and as an appalling chance conversion rate and the limitations of his preference for a small squad of 18 senior players began to bite, they were overtaken by Norwich and Sheffield United and finished third. After three victories over Derby County, they lost in agonising fashion from 2-0 up in the semi-final tie and, for the fifth time in five play-off campaigns, Leeds failed to make promotion.
Before all that, though, Bielsa became embroiled in two controversies which exercised critics and rivals to clutch their pearls in hysterical, borderline xenophobic condemnation. When ‘Spygate’ blew up he immediately took responsibility for it. There was no dissimulation or cover up. On his insistence the club accepted the Football League sanction – for a breach of “good faith” rather than for breaking any existing regulation – without complaint and he settled the fine himself. Similarly, as soon as he was made aware that the goal Klich had scored against Aston Villa was deemed to have fallen foul of a gentlemanly code, he made instant reparation by letting them walk in an equaliser. Bielsa twice found himself on the wrong side of the illogical rectitude of certain unwritten English football conventions, apologised and made amends as best he could. Neither action endeared him more to Leeds United supporters but in massing to defend him from the snarkers and those who championed Frank Lampard, of all people, as a beacon of moral probity, it made us even greater upholders of his virtues.
This season he has continued to make some of his charges who looked League One standard in 2017 appear capable of playing in the Premier League, particularly against teams such as Arsenal who will give them the space to play instead of the typical Championship suffocation. Seven successive victories again drove them up to first place before another New Year wobble was thrillingly arrested with a second-half mauling of Millwall. Not much has changed – the players appear more comfortable switching between 3-3-1-3, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 than before and they attack teams for 90 minutes, performing at the very extremities of their impressively enhanced stamina and capability. He has wrung every ounce of talent out of them and their only failings – inefficiency in front of goal, imprecision and occasional lack of composure – are a hazard of refined but highwire tactics in the absence of genuinely top-class players in every position.
Bielsa is loved because he has behaved at all times with unpretentious grace and courtesy, whether disturbed while pottering about in Wetherby or in his divergence from the custom of deflecting responsibility by disparaging referees or opponents. But he is far from perfect. His exasperation is palpable at times both on the touchline and while undertaking his media duties and he can be dogmatic about not compromising his approach. In the Championship, assets can be flaws and adherence to his values rather than the pursuit of victory by chucking on an extra central striker alienates some supporters, particularly after a galling defeat. The way Leeds play makes them vulnerable to being mugged for the points in games they have superficially bossed. His teams are sometimes guilty of the sin of over-elaboration, too few goals come from the midfield, they are staggeringly inept at defending and attacking from corners, the standard of finishing is slapdash and they haven’t had a truly reliable goalkeeper since Bates forced Kasper Schmeichel out against his wishes in 2012.
All that is easily pardoned because we have taken to him and he has taken to us. We admire his intellect, workaholism and the paradox of this scruffy man being interested only in beauty. His modest manner, the way he listens intently to every question and frames answers respectfully, even if he sometimes directs them at his shoes as he avoids eye contact, is engaging. By not saying much he benefits from us projecting a kind of righteousness upon him which he protests he does not warrant but is powerless to prevent. Yet we also know that he is far cannier than he lets on, far more fluent in English than he is prepared to declare and far more ruthless with unsuitable players than most of his peers.
Above all, though, he has been embraced because for 18 months we have been treated to exhilarating, mostly winning, football. We’ve had managers in the recent past who have made it all about themselves, exploiting the club’s limelight for personal promotion, banging on about their mission. This one, who is fundamental to everything, makes it all about his charges who go out and play with a style that feels like the reward we deserve for suffering Dennis Wise, Neil Warnock and Steve bloody Evans. Will it hurt if we don’t go up? Of course. Would it pollute the legacy of two years of dazzling football? Everyone should be so blessed. “We’ve got Marcelo Bielsa.”
Rob Bagchi’s The Biography of Leeds United will be published later this year.