Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds: An Unforgettable Journey
“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.” – Marcelo Bielsa.
A mentor to coaches, a professor to players, a hero to fans. A saviour for a club.
Principled and humble, his perfectionist approach, coupled with an arsenal of quirky idiosyncrasies and radical approach, made Bielsa more than just a manager. He was an outlier, an anomaly, a legend.
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Hailing from the same city as revolutionary Che Guevara, Bielsa was to Leeds United what the guerrilla was to Central America: a man whose ideas and image became so ingrained within the culture that they became the culture.
Bielsa, though no doubt too humble to even entertain the idea, challenged the status quo of English football, ripping up the rule book of what was possible, even whilst the game traversed further and further from the supporters’ game into a quagmire of cynical, corporate, soulless capitalism.
Keen to remind players of the lengths supporters go to to ensure they can cheer on their side come Saturdays, Bielsa sent his Leeds squad out litter picking for three hours early in his tenure at the club.
“I think that it was to get an understanding and the meaning behind it. I don’t think it was just picking up litter – he maybe wanted to bring us down back to earth. It was good and the whole place got a little tidy up as well,” explained forward Kemar Roofe.
The players bought in. Results followed.
“This Leeds pressing isn’t even funny anymore,” read the BBC’s live coverage of Bielsa’s first league game in charge against Stoke. “If Mateusz Klich forces poor Joe Allen any further back, he’ll be in 2016 and playing for Liverpool again.” 3-1.
A rollercoaster of a season would ultimately end in heartbreak, but a second bite of the cherry the following season saw the Argentine succeed where so many before had failed; ending the Whites’ 16-year exile from the Premier League.
A club often at war with itself, Bielsa had not only steadied the ship; he had transformed a stricken vessel into a first-class cruiser.
Leeds were back and Leeds were United.
An enthralling display at Anfield saw the EFL champions go toe-to-toe with the Premier League champions, trading blow for blow before Liverpool landed a last-gasp knockout moments before the bell. 4-3.
An admirable showing on the day wasn’t enough for this swashbuckling group of misfits commanded by El Loco; they weren’t there to simply take part.
High pressing and killer finishing saw Leeds rise up the table.
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“They want it to be like a basketball game,” muttered every manager. “They’ll burn out after Christmas,” remarked every click hungry pundit. They didn’t.
59 points was the most for a newly promoted side in nearly two decades as Bielsa steered his team to a ninth-place finish.
Patrick Bamford, with 17 goals and 7 assists in England’s top-flight, was knocking on Gareth Southgate’s door; something that even the latest Hollywood script writers would have struggled to conjure up during his struggles in the Championship.
He wasn’t alone though. Kalvin Phillips, a mediocre and rash second division player had been transformed into an England starter, playing almost every minute in the subsequent summer’s European Championships as the Three Lions reached the final.
Often used as an eight or ten, Phillips himself never knew his best role until his first encounter with Bielsa.
Phillips, now England’s reigning player of the year, was the most important piece of the puzzle. This campaign, the midfielder has missed 14 games. Leeds have lost ten. Nine games absent last season, seven defeats.
Similarly, for the 20 games Bamford has had to watch on from the touchlines this year, the West Yorkshire outfit have picked up just 19 points from a possible 60.
In an injury-ravaged season like no other, Bielsa was forced into naming 12 different starting centre back partnerships in the league alone, with further changes often required in game. In Leeds’ promotion-winning season, first-choice duo Liam Cooper and Ben White started alongside one another in 38 matches.
Suspensions and COVID outbreaks only further added to defensive instability, with Bielsa’s stubborn preference for a small number of players meaning a depleted squad often heavily relied on academy prospects simply to fulfil the fixture.
Whilst others looked for the easy option and had matches postponed at the slightest hindrance to them, the Argentine stuck to his principles.
As Leeds welcomed Arsenal to Elland Road, all eight substitutes were under the age of 21, with 15-year-old Archie Gray’s involvement ensuring the Whites’ bench had an average age of 18. The visitors meanwhile had German international Bernd Leno, England star Emile Smith Rowe and £72m man Nicolas Pepe to call upon.
Injuries has forced Bielsa’s hand into giving nine youngsters their Premier League debuts this campaign. Whilst it was only a matter of time before the likes of Joe Gelhardt, Charlie Cresswell and Crysencio Summerville broke into the side, this reliance on inexperienced youth not only highlighted Leeds’ issues but questioned the ex-Newells’ manager’s compact squad ideals.
Not having Bamford as the focal point of the club’s attack has expectedly seen a large drop off in the side’s attacking output, unsurprising considering the former Middlesbrough forward has scored the most goals of any player under Marcelo Bielsa. His tally of 45 eclipses the likes of Fernando Llorente, Hernan Crespo and Aritz Aduriz.
Brazil winger Raphinha, who has recently endured his most challenging spell at the club since joining from Rennes, has still been a constant threat on the flank for the Whites, creating 19 chances in his previous seven games – the second most in the league behind Bruno Fernandes.
Those 19 chances have earned the attacker just one assist. In Bamford’s absence, Bielsa has opted to use winger Dan James or the much-maligned Tyler Roberts often as the lone striker, rather than playing Spanish international and club-record signing Rodrigo in his favoured position or unleashing highly-rated youngster Joe Gelhardt.
Whilst Bielsa’s faith in certain players and unwillingness to change his style were key architects in Leeds’ changes in fortunes, it undoubtedly played a role in his departure from the club.
The 2020 Best FIFA Men’s Coach Finalist’s principles was that ‘Plan B was to do Plan A better’, yet patience had worn too thin for the Leeds hierarchy as a string of heavy defeats saw Bielsa lose his job.
Considering injuries were playing such an unwanted part in team selection, transfer activity this campaign, or lack of, raised eyebrows amongst supporters.
The summer after promotion, the club spent well over the £100m mark, acquiring Spanish internationals Rodrigo and Diego Llorente, Germany defender Robin Koch and future Brazil star Raphinha for just £17m, amongst other singings.
Chairman Andrea Radrizzani and Director of Football Victor Orta were far more conservative the following summer, adding long-term target Daniel James, Barcelona left-back Junior Firpo and back-up goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson to the first team squad, as well as finally landing Jack Harrison on a permanent move from Manchester City.
With the Whites’ looking over their shoulder for much of the season, fans were eager to see additions in the January transfer window, but these hopes never came to fruition, as Leeds tried, and failed, to sign Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Brenden Aaronson. The squad, already stripped to the bone, became even thinner as exciting right-back prospect Cody Drameh joined Cardiff City on loan.
Bielsa, content with the squad at his disposal, thanked those above him in keeping the likes of Raphinha and Phillips and added that “with respect to no signings coming in, the possibility to improve the squad wasn’t there”.
In a recent fan poll conducted by The Athletic, 12% of supporters believed that transfer business was the most significant contributor to Leeds’ struggles this campaign. 63% put the form down to injuries.
The side’s continued nose-dive in form prompted change and efforts were made to accelerate former RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig boss Jesse Marsch’s appointment, months prior to his expected managerial takeover in the Summer.
The American, known for a similar high-pressing and eye-catching style has made a very good first impression to the Leeds faithful in his press conferences and with the side’s display at Leicester; unlucky to lose 1-0 despite having recorded a season-high expected goals difference in the match.
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Perhaps the hardest job in world football right now, Marsch isn’t simply replacing a manager. He is taking over the reins from a club icon who awoke English football’s sleeping giant and took Leeds on an unforgettable ride.
Gracias Marcelo. Vamos Leeds Carajo.
By: Jack Douglas / @JDouglasSport
Featured Image: Jon Super / AFP