Chaos meets chaos, as Marcelo Bielsa heads to Leeds United

Words by Kat Lucas Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 18, 2018

One of the major challenges facing any revolutionary is the question of what legacy they will leave. What will happen after they have gone? When Marcelo Bielsa takes a job, the football world sits up and takes notice, but cannot help but ponder how long the visionary’s latest project will last.

To use the term loosely, the Argentine is the 11th ‘permanent’ manager to join Leeds since the departure of Simon Grayson in 2012. Many of Paul Heckingbottom’s potential successors might have baulked at that statistic, yet it speaks of a pattern all too familiar to Bielsa.

From the glory days at Newell’s Old Boys to his disastrous spell at Lille, the 62-year-old’s career has been fascinating to watch. Across his numerous different roles, the consensus has been that to bring him in is to put faith in a flawed genius – one who is not known as ‘El Loco’, the ‘crazy one’, for nothing. It is about time he came to England, where as Mauricio Pochettino put it, many of his “disciples” are to be found.

Read: Marcelo Bielsa has found immediate trouble at Lille.

Bielsa was born in Rosario, the same birth place as Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, and Cesar Luis Menotti, Argentina’s World Cup winning coach of 1978. Some of his greatest league success came with local side Newell’s Old Boys in the early 1990s, with the club eventually renaming their ground the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa in 2009.

The next four years of his career would take him to Mexico. With Atlas, his role was impressively comprehensive as he took on a great deal of the club’s off-field strategy, spearheading recruitment and setting up a vast scouting network.

However, in the Americas he is still best known for his ventures in international football, which admittedly yielded mixed results. In 1998, he had left a short spell with Espanyol in order to take the reins with Argentina, replacing Daniel Passarella. The Albiceleste ultimately came up short at the 2002 World Cup, failing to escape Group F thanks in part to a questionable penalty won by Michael Owen, conceded by Mauricio Pochettino, and scored by David Beckham. Two years later, they would fare better, reaching the final of the Copa America and winning the Olympics.

Chile was a very different task. There were huge expectations surrounding Argentina, whereas when Bielsa took the Chileans to South Africa in 2010, it was their first World Cup in 12 years. The tools at his disposal were relatively limited, yet they had fought ruggedly through the notoriously difficult South American qualifying groups. Looking at his eventual departure knowing what we know now, it is a little unsurprising that he quit over a falling out with the Chilean Football Board in the midst of their presidential elections.

Read: Menotti vs Bilardo for Argentinian football’s soul.

This is what Bielsa does. He lasted just two days at Lazio before storming out alleging broken promises over transfers. The Serie A outfit subsequently tried to sue him to the tune of €50million for breach of contract. At Marseille, another argument with the chairman. Les Olympiens’ supporters begged him to stay having engineered a title tilt in 2015, ultimately dismantled in a 3-2 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. Their banners were not enough and he announced his departure in a press conference. A turbulent seven months and 13 games at Lille ended with suspension and dismissal. It was first alleged he had made an unauthorised trip to Chile, results were poor on the pitch, and there were also disputes over whether the first team needed the wholesale changes he desired.

Perhaps it would be a touch hypocritical for Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani to discount him on that basis. Maybe the Whites are embracing what they do best, hiring and firing without much regard, if any, for the long-term. And in spite of all this, the acquisition of Bielsa is an almighty coup.

The football will be passionate and aggressive and the training vigorous. If he stays long enough, his teams can start to fizzle out towards the end of the season, but in the meantime, the demands he places on players’ fitness and work ethic have the potential to transform a Leeds side that came 13th in the Championship last season. His immense tactical understanding inevitably improves players and he has studied the game exhaustively.

The current crop of Leeds players may not look all that comfortable on the ball, but his methods all start without it. He favours intense counterpressing and he might even argue that his system starts a further step behind that: in the mind.

For many, Louis van Gaal made the word “philosophy” dirty in England. Not all coaches actually possess one, but it is certainly not something to be mocked. Bielsa’s involves allowing young players to express themselves and play to their strengths, giving as many of them an opportunity as possible. Pochettino has admitted that it was his ‘football father’ who gave him this idea, which he has executed so well at Tottenham. A key difference between the two coaches, however, is that while the Spurs coach rarely focuses on the opposition in the week leading up to a game, Bielsa is more inclined to adapt his formation depending on how the other side line up. His favourite system is a 3-3-1-3, but a lone striker will be met with a 4-2-1-3.

Even his seemingly defensive moves are actually designed to add width, the wing-backs crucial to involving the number 10 and setting up the subsequent attacking play. His approach has filtered down to his admirers in various ways. For example, Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone both cite him as one of their leading examples; that influence has manifested itself in very different styles at their respective clubs.

Watch: Bielsa, Tactics Explained.

Another point that will immediately endear him to the Leeds faithful: many Manchester United fans may not have realised in 2012 that the Athletic Bilbao side beating their team in the Europa League were managed by the same man who had suffered at the hands of English football in 2002. Plenty of the same supporters applauded his team off the pitch after a tactical masterclass. The signing of Ander Herrera was crucial to the way Bielsa wanted to link the defence and attack that season. Bielsa reached two finals with the club, though they lost both. Unfortunately, as Don Revie once said, “you get nowt for being second”, but his spell at Bilbao served to further enhance his reputation in Europe.

Bielsa is a man who does not like limitations. He refuses to work under restrictions, though that does not mean spending money, per se. It is about buying precisely the right players who will be able to play *his* football, and that can be tricky in a sport which is not an exact science. He would love nothing more than to manage “robots”, as he has talked about previously, but in football things often go wrong – like being caught on camera sitting on a hot cup of coffee and going viral. Leeds, meet Bielsa, one of the few world-renowned coaches crazy enough to take you on.

When Marseille president Vincent Labrune appointed him, he compared it to “signing Lionel Messi for 12 months”. Leeds should approach their volatile new man in charge similarly. Embrace the madness while it lasts and it might even procure some brilliant results.

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