Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United: Live and die by it

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 21, 2018

Like almost everyone else, I know little about Marcelo Bielsa. Again, like almost everyone else, I use a cluster of well-known anecdotes and tired generalities to pretend otherwise. That’s partly because he’s never managed in England and few people in this country have ever had the opportunity to lay eyes on him. It’s also because his managerial spells tend to burn brightly but briefly, then leave behind little evidence of their being. Leeds United are his fifth club in seven years, while only one of his last three jobs lasted more than a year.

In 2014, he led a brief upsurge at Marseille, before flaming out a season later and handing in his notice. At Lazio, famously, he resigned after forty-eight hours and at Lille he was rumoured to be on the verge of doing the same, before struggling resentfully through to winter and into club-sanctioned suspension.

Bielsa occupies such a strange place. He has never won anything in Europe, nothing at all in twenty years, and yet his name echoes in the game’s tall halls. He’s cited as an influence by Pep Guardiola, is adored by Mauricio Pochettino, and his beliefs continue to instruct the sharpest modern minds. And here he is at Leeds. Three games into Championship life, he has nine points and the joint-best defensive record in the competition; a trip to Swansea in midweek brought the promise of moving to the top of the league.

Part of the appeal in coming tonight lay in knowing that this could end at any minute. The funfair is in town and it could pack up and head out before morning. Pioneer though he may be, Bielsa’s personal history suggests that the clock is already ticking. His inflexible belief system and refusal to compromise has created all sorts of difficulties in the past, with both directors and players, and the exacting physical standards he sets have a habit of melting tyres in mid-season.

Leeds are actually a more stable club now; they are Massimo Cellino’s voodoo doll no more. Andrea Radrizanni is only on his third manager in 15 months of ownership and the club is no longer a punchline, but they’re still an occasional cause of mirth and concern: a disastrous attempt at rebranding the club’s crest drew titters from up and down the country, while a pre-season tour to Myanmar provoked global condemnation. Leeds might be in recovery, it really wouldn’t be before time, but adding Bielsa’s combustable properties to their habitual instability might prove the very definition of playing with fire.

Of course this has to be seen. This is actual football drama. Not the manufactured sort currently oozing from every content pore online. This isn’t What Jose Said Next or What Paul’s Agent Has Tweeted, but an actual sporting story: it’s the semi-mythical crazy one and the basket case – Bielsa and Leeds, together at last.

Library: Michael Calvin’s State Of Play

It’s a strange place within which to see Bielsa for the first time. It’s not an open cauldron in South America, flare fog rising from the stands, but an overcast night in south Wales. Swansea City have begun the season well, two wins from three, but that improbable form masks a terrible off-season. Graham Potter has arrived and represents a coup of an appointment under the circumstances, but the club remains a mess and the locals continue to view the owners with deep suspicion. Relegation is supposed to burn those kind of issues away, to force the hand of asset-strippers and investment groups, but not here. At least not yet.

Their team starts fastest. Potter may have had precious little to spend since relegation, but he has built an interesting forward line out of Barrie McKay, Bersant Celina and Oli McBurnie. McBurnie, a socks-down, balls-out, hard-working pest of a forward opens the scoring, finishing fine work with a prodded finish. Gradually though, as the half develops, Leeds crackle into life. Bielsa wastes no time in hooking defensive-midfielder Kalvin Phillips, replacing him with perpetual Chelsea loanee Lewis Baker after just 27 minutes. A bold decision, but ultimately fair – and quickly vindicated: Leeds equalise within minutes, picking their way around the Swansea defence to leave Kemar Roofe with a tap-in from underneath the crossbar.

Leeds are very forward-thinking. Their high-press and back-to-front build-up is a staple of the modern game now, their manager’s influence has preceded him, but there’s great urgency to the way they advance – there’s no build-up for the sake of it, it’s all vertical, vertical, vertical. Over time, Pep Guardiola grew to resent the term tiki-taka for its connotations with stale football. The ball needed to used, it was a weapon, and the notion of controlling it for the sake of possession was anathema. Bielsa, presumably, had at least a part in germinating that idea and it’s no coincidence that his current team have it in their veins too. Nobody will confuse Leeds United for Guardiola’s Barcelona side, but the intention is the same even if the method differs.

Inconveniently, Swansea score a second. McBurnie spends the night being a nuisance, jostling and hassling his centre-backs, and he rises above the visiting defenders to head in to the far corner. We’re here to admire Leeds, to Instagram pictures of Bielsa and recite Jonathan Wilson verses, but Graham Potter’s team are awfully good. The dusting of left-over Premier League players helps, Kyle Naughton aside, but there’s bravery in their football too, intention which hasn’t been seen for years.

But then maybe that’s a detail which can be brushed over. Leeds are now under the direction of someone for whom winning is almost secondary – at or at least only equally as important as adhering to a certain style. Most football teams have a safe mode, a stand-by setting into which they drop three or four times a game. Leeds don’t. They keep playing and the ball never rests, irrespective of where it is on the pitch and what the percentages are.

It costs them, McBurnie’s second comes during a period of the game when they should still be consolidating their equaliser. But it rewards them, too. With Swansea pressing for a third, Barry Douglas intercepts deep in his own half and fires the ball down the line towards Patrick Bamford. He sheds Naughton, spinning and leaving him, and races half the field, squaring for Pablo Hernandez to score. It’s a back-to-front move which occurs is less than ten seconds and it’s absolutely deadly.

And still they go. 2-2 away from home on a Tuesday night is a good result, especially against a team with an outside chance of promotion. But the passes still ping and the numbers still follow. Keep playing, keep playing, keep playing. It’s an idea, not a tactic. Most managers reach a point in a game when they settle. Particularly on the road, they recognise when a game is becoming too open and, like night following day, on will trot the substitute to shut everything down.

That point never arrives. It nearly costs Leeds the game and they need Bailey Peacock-Farrell to save well with his legs to keep the score at 2-2, but they keep trying to win. By the final whistle, you can see exactly why Bielsa’s trophy cabinet is so bare. Perhaps more importantly though, you also appreciate that the reasons for it being so might just be worth it.

This really is football. The 100% record has gone, but the raison d’etre survived.

Leeds United Marcelo Bielsa Swansea City
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