Marcelo Bielsa: The strange fascination 

ROSARIO in Argentina has given the world a number of noteworthy people; rebel leader Che Guevara, avant garde jazz musician Gato Barbieri, World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti, the one and only Lionel Messi and a certain Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera.

There are few coaches in the modern game that are talked about as much as Bielsa. He cuts an eccentric figure, sitting on his blue bucket, sips coffee, looks down as if he still cannot get used to his vari-focal specs, and his post-match interviews, aided by a translator, are demure and to the point. 

In an industry that is renowned for its hubris, Bielsa has a somewhat humble image that endears him to so many people. There’s an assumption that all that goes on inside his head is intellectual, very considered and full of colourful theory. He is seen as an oddly exotic creature, but at the same time, his ordinariness makes him lovable.

There’s no denying Bielsa is a much-loved figure in the game, why else would his record, which is far from the win-at-all-costs ethos of coaches like José Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, be tolerated by Leeds United, a club whose history includes a decade of ultra-professionalism, between 1964 and 1974 that divided the football world.

Bielsa is seen just as important as the Velvet Underground were to the development of rock music. Success is not necessarily measured by the number of trophies (or gold discs) won, but by the impact made. His methods have been replicated by proteges and observers and virtually every major coach in the game will reference him as a major inspiration.

In this age of data-driven analysis, a win rate of 48.8% would not be seen as a rip-roaring success, but stats do not always tell the whole story. There’s no doubt that some clubs would not be impressed by such a record and that would mean a taxi to the airport. But Bielsa’s advocates delight at what he can do for a club. At Leeds United, he took them back to the Premier League and in their first season, they finished ninth and won over audiences with their high energy style. 

Although Leeds United’s board will be aware that any move to unseat Bielsa, bucket or no bucket, would be a catastrophic PR event if handled badly, the team’s form in 2021-22 is a major cause for concern. Leeds have struggled, largely because Bielsa operates with a relatively small squad and also, the absence of England midfielder Kalvin Phillips has cost them dear. They have also been without leading marksman Patrick Bamford and consequently, have struggled to score goals.

Phillips has certainly left a hole when he has been sidelined. He’s missed seven games and they’ve won just one of those and lost five. When Phillips has been in the side, Leeds have lost three times in 12 Premier games. Some of the results have been dreadful, such as the 7-0 demolition at Manchester City and a 4-1 home defeat against Arsenal. Bielsa himself has said he is not immune to the sack, but there’s an assumption Leeds will not actually show him the door, but his personal ethics might force him to resign if he felt things were not going to get better. As journalist and Bielsa fan Jonathan Wilson, said, Bielsa has a certain degree of integrity and humility – characteristics that would surely let him know when the goodwill had run out.

Before Bielsa arrived at Leeds in 2018, a lot of football followers in Britain would have been forgiven for not knowing too much about the avuncular figure in a tracksuit with glasses dangling around his neck. At fan level, football is essentially all about winning trophies and players, coaches come and go these days with alarming regularity. Yet read any article about Bielsa’s past players and nobody has a negative word to say about him, in fact, the affection is overwhelming. Generally, they believe he makes players better and has innovative ideas that often border on the bizarre. Interestingly, he has never managed an elite club, perhaps because theory gains respect, but not always silverware.

In Britain, we have a weird fascination for Argentina that probably started in 1966 when Sir Alf called their team, “animals”. Then there was Estudiantes and Manchester United, Eva Peron and the musical that dominated the late 1970s, the Falklands War, Maradona and the “Hand of God” and of course, little Messi. 

Bielsa may also be seen as a “hipster affectation” by some sceptics, but he’s arguably the most interesting foreign import since Eric Cantona. Those same doubters might also look at a 7-0 defeat and Bielsa’s almost suicidal style as signs of a stubborn coach with limited vision, but it may also just be because the quality of coaches in the Premier League is so high now competition has become so brutal. Leeds may have overperformed in 2020-21 with a wage bill that was among the lowest in the Premier League, so was 2021-22 always going to be an anti-climax?

Bielsa is not a long haul employee, either, and his 162 games at Leeds represent the biggest stretch in a job with either a club or country. After the 2020-21 season, some Leeds supporters might have hoped for a stab at European football, but the current campaign is going to be all about survival, unless something dramatic changes in the next few weeks.

Although his achievements at Leeds are acknowledged and the fans appreciate the identity Bielsa has given the club, there are critics who would like to see him depart Elland Road. Ultimately, the results will determine how much of a future he has at Leeds, but calls for more conventional, “slug it out” bosses to be employed would not only turn out the bright lights that have shone at Elland Road, but would also make Leeds just another club outside the top six. At this moment, they have to decide which path to follow if the current situation badly deteriorates. One thing is certain, though, Bielsa has been very instrumental in the rebirth of Leeds United and he will be spoken of long after his time in Yorkshire.

Leeds United and second season syndrome – too early to judge

LEEDS United were soundly beaten by Liverpool at Elland Road in their fourth Premier League game of the season. After four games, they have yet to click into gear and Premier watchers are wondering if Marcelo Bielsa’s team are suffering from second season syndrome, much as Sheffield United did in 2020-21.

Leeds haven’t had the easiest of starts to the campaign, Manchester United away, Liverpool at home and tricky games with Everton and Burnley. Leeds, typically, have enjoyed an average of 57% of possession across their four games, versus 43% for the opposition. They’ve averaged 12 shots per game, but only 27% of these have been on target, hence they are averaging a goal a game. By contrast, their opponents have had an average of almost 19 per game, with 37% on target, which translates into goals conceded 2.75 per game.  

Last season they had to face Liverpool and Manchester City in their first four games, losing 4-3 and drawing 1-1 respectively. Leeds have scored half as many goals as they did in the first four in 2020-21 and have conceded three more goals.

Leeds finished 2020-21 well with one defeat in 10, fuelling optimism for the current season. Only six clubs had a worse goal against record than Leeds (54 conceded) but they scored more goals than fourth-placed Chelsea (62 versus 58). They spent around £ 50 million to strengthen their squad in the close season, but the club’s director of football has said the second season is harder for promoted clubs.

Certainly it is difficult to see Leeds closing the gap on the teams that ended 2020-21 above them. Already there are signs that they may have to settle for consolidation, year two. Bielsa’s style is praised by fans and pundits alike, and the Elland Road faithful passionately defend the man on the bucket from every criticism. The question is can Bielsa make Leeds successful or will they be satisfied with the sort of status that Ron Greenwood’s West Ham had in the 1960s and early 1970s – great to watch but infuriatingly inconsistent?

Second season syndrome is something that afflicts team that have over-performed in their first year after promotion. Sheffield United were blighted by it in 2020-21 and in the past, Reading (promoted 2005-06), Ipswich Town (1999-00) and Middlesbrough (1994-95) all made a splash and sunk in year two.

Way back in football history, some promoted teams have had a roller-coaster ride after winning their place in the top flight. For Example, in 1960-61, Ipswich won the second division and a year later, the league championship. A year later they finished 17th and in 1963-64, they went down again.

Success after promotion can be attributed to a number of factors. Money, of course, comes into it, but the element of the unexpected, lots of adrenalin and enthusiasm, innovative tactics and talented management are every bit as important. Take Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, who were managed by the legendary Brian Clough. Forest took the third promotion place in 1977 and then won the league with a team of unlikely heroes. That Ipswich team, managed by Alf Ramsey in his pre-England days, also applied different methods to take the first division by surprise.

Often, it works for just a limited period, hence a team that has something different can steal a march for a year, but then gets “found out” and struggles to maintain momentum. Crystal Palace, in 1979-80, started impressively and topped the table in the early weeks of the season. Likewise, Sheffield United in 1971 were leading the way for much of the autumn before burning-out and finishing 10th.

The average first-year position of the clubs promoted to the Premier over the past five years has been 15th. Leeds managed ninth in 2020-21, a position bettered only by Wolves in 2018-19. Prior to that, Birmingham reached ninth in 2009-10.

People point to Leeds United’s wayward defence and Bielsa’s somewhat cavalier approach to his back line as reasons why Leeds will not move beyond their current status. There will come a time when the club’s management will demand tangible success, in other words, a trophy. At present, Leeds are happy to be back and the Premier is equally pleased to have them back – they are a sizeable club, after all. But if the next step is moving from highly-praised also-rans to contenders, then they have to be set-up differently to avoid regular emphatic defeats.

It is early days, and the fixtures haven’t been the kindest to Leeds, but at some point, they will have to demonstrate they are building on what’s been achieved in the past few years.


Photo: ALAMY