Marcelo Bielsa has created a Leeds side which is enthralling to watch, even after getting promoted to the Premier League. Throughout his managing career, the Argentinian has inspired some of the world’s greatest managers, won trophies, revolutionised clubs, and had fallouts with players and board more than once. This is an article about working in McDonalds, checking out Mauricio Pochettino’s legs at 2 in the morning, and leaving Lazio three days after signing. This is El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa.
It started with two seven-goal thrillers against defending champions Liverpool and fellow promoted side Fulham. What followed was a narrow win against Sheffield United, and an unexpected draw against Guardiola’s Man City. After losing against Wolves, Patrick Bamford scored a hattrick for Leeds to crush unbeaten Aston Villa. Three wins out of their first six games, the first newly promoted side to achieve the feat since Hull City in 2013. After 16 years, Leeds United are finally back in the Premier League, and in ecstatic fashion.
The exponents of this thrilling side aren’t big money signings Raphinha or Rodrigo, but former Chelsea prodigy Bamford, Portuguese winger Hélder Costa, former MLS superstar Jack Harrison, and local boy Kalvin Phillips. Not your usual superstars in the money-splashing Premier League. All previously written off for football at the highest level, all revived by an Argentinean madman. Marcelo Bielsa gave the city of Leeds the redemption they had been craving.
Leeds had spent the last 16 years in the dungeons of English football, after financial mismanagement made them spiral down to the Championship, and in 2007 even to League One. Just six years after losing a 2001 Champions League semi-final against Valencia. That side featured names like Robbie Keane, Harry Kewell, and Rio Ferdinand. One of the country’s biggest clubs, in full decline.
After waving goodbye to the Premier League, it took 5 owners, 16 managers and numerous new dawns, but in 2018, chairman Andrea Radrizzani finally found the right man for the job with Bielsa. In his first season at the club, he transformed the club with his demanding, high intensity style, called the ‘Bielsa Press’. Leeds unexpectedly collapsed in that first season, with one eye on the prize, but last year Leeds dominated the Championship once again, winning the league by a landslide. Now, the only goal is to immediately return to Europe, just like in the glory days.
The Bielsa Way
Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most influential football managers in history, maybe just behind Johan Cruyff. I know, it might surprise you. By having a quick look on Wikipedia, you’ll notice that Bielsa had never won a trophy in Europe, before winning the Championship with Leeds. This despite stints at Athletic Club, Marseille and Lille. But Bielsa had a deeper impact, at every single one of his former clubs: he managed to leave the mark of revolution.
The thing with Bielsa is, he believes in his style of play, and never changes it. He believes results are merely a consequence of the perfect execution of his game plan. He wants his players to play at the full 100% every minute of every game.
Many players embrace his style. Others, who don’t want to give it their all, are being left out of the squad and leave in no-time. That doesn’t happen too often though. The Argentinian has the quality of inspiring players like no other. Playing for Bielsa is fitness, it’s speed, it’s intensity, but most of all, it’s passion.
But that heart, that passion, that vigour, might also be the reason why Bielsa’s teams end up empty-handed so often. At all of his clubs, his teams experienced a decline when the season progresses. Players can’t handle the high-intensity style and can’t push that hard all year. They burn out and injuries occur. Marseille experienced it in Bielsa’s first season. Leeds did too, but in his third season you would expect the players to be used to the intensity, even in the tough Premier League.
Marcelo Bielsa’s preferences for players who fit his system aren’t always beneficial for the relationships with his clubs, though.
In 2014, just after the illustrious manager arrived at Marseille, it imminently became clear that he wouldn’t get the signings that were promised. Repeatedly, Bielsa was being totally left out of decisions. He wanted Toby Alderweireld, but the board signed young defender Doria. The Brazilian ended up not playing a single second all season, with Bielsa unwilling to compromise.
After a good start to the season, topping Ligue 1 with 8 wins in a row, the manager was spotted analysing their win against Toulouse in… a local McDonalds. Surely that could have waited until he arrived home? Not for Bielsa. Despite his frustrations, he sat through the season, trying to get the best out of the squad. Marseille finished fourth in a dramatic year. The fans were delighted when it seemed like Bielsa was staying as the new season started. But history repeated itself, and the board couldn’t keep their promises to Bielsa. One game into the new season, Bielsa resigned.
Oh, and there was that one time Bielsa was announced as the new Lazio manager. The social media team of I Biancocelesti barely had enough time to announce the new signing, because just three days later, a new announcement was made that Marcelo Bielsa left the club.
Bielsa, the inspirer
His biggest influence on football probably came through his disciples. Bielsa has many admirers all over the world, the most famous being Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. After retiring from football, Guardiola visited Bielsa in 2006 in his native Argentina. The two gentlemen talked from noon till midnight. Guardiola opened his eyes and mind, and Bielsa left a clear mark on Pep’s typical style. The Spaniard would go on to win everything there is to win in club football, and the two managers remain friends until today.
Former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is another believer. Their relationship starts with a peculiar story. When Bielsa was in charge of Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, he signed a young kid called Mauricio. Bielsa wouldn’t have been Bielsa if he didn’t want to know everything about the kid. He wanted to be sure if the kid was fit to become a professional football player, so he drove up to his house at 2 in the morning. Young Mauricio was, obviously, fast asleep. Pochettino Senior opened the door, and Bielsa demanded to see his son’s legs before little Mauricio could train with the academy. It only took a couple minutes, but it provided Pochettino with his first step in becoming a main figure in the footballing world he is now.
Marcelo Bielsa: madman or genius? The truth is likely somewhere in between. But whatever your opinion, you can’t deny his influence on modern football.