By Joe Harston
An unlikely love-story between an Argentinian footballing guru and a sleeping giant came to an abrupt end at the end of February. After yet another simple dismantling of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side by Tottenham, he left the club by mutual consent.
In recent weeks Leeds have hurtled towards the drop, conceding 20 goals across their five February fixtures. In most instances it’s easy to see how this could cast a dark shadow over a spectacular three year reign in Yorkshire. Yet Leeds supporters, and neutrals alike, have flooded social media with fond memories of his tenure.
Bielsa was appointed in June 2018, inheriting an average Leeds squad that managed just 13th place under Paul Heckingbottom in the previous season. The squad boasted talents such as centre-midfielder Mateusz Klich and versatile, creative midfielder Pablo Hernandez amongst what was a somewhat average second tier side.
Having not managed in England before, taking on this role certainly wouldn’t be an easy task and he brought some of his old tricks of the trade to help him out. In January 2019, a member of the Leeds staff was caught ‘spying’ on their next opponents, Derby County.
Bielsa was branded a cheat but he refuted the claims. He simply believed strongly in researching and analysing his opponent to an extreme degree and had done so throughout his managerial career. As Athletic Bilbao manager in 2012, Pep Guardiola joked that Bielsa ‘knew more about his Barcelona side than he did’ following their Copa del Rey final.
It was quite clear that Bielsa had just operated in a different culture throughout his career but his rather extreme preparations breached the EFL’s fair play laws. So when Leeds were fined £200,000, he paid the fine himself. Furthermore, he voluntarily led a brave press conference in which he admitted to ‘spying’ on all of his opponents that season and even disclosed some of the analysis his team had produced as a result.
Later that year, him and his Leeds side received the FIFA Fair Play award for gifting Aston Villa a goal after Klich scored while Villa forward, Jonathan Kodjia was down injured. Possibly an ironic award for someone who had breached his league’s fair play laws in the same season.
In terms of his footballing style, Bielsa’s intense pressing terrified the Championship and his unique training methods introduced England to ‘murderball’. This was his trademark training match drill in which players would simply not get a rest. Each player is constantly pressing at ‘full throttle’. Patrick Bamford explained how it was ten times harder than a Premier League game however those demanding sessions were the reason why the majority of the squad were at peak fitness levels.
This relentless training was instrumental in implementing the Argentine’s system within the squad. Bielsa’s attacking philosophy centres mainly on swift counter attacking moves which allow his side to move up the field in transition.
Most responsibility fell to defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips to make the side tick. He would drop deep to start counter attacks from the defensive third by driving the ball forwards. It helped the boyhood Leeds fan gain the nickname ‘The Yorkshire Pirlo’.
Acquiring newly promoted left-back Barry Douglas from Wolves was a huge step towards building their table-topping side. They were reliant on Douglas and fellow fullback Ezgjan Alioski to have an extreme attacking work rate as well as covering defensively. With those two providing added width to their attacking phases, creative midfielders such as Hernandez could move more centrally and support the single striker.
These tactics were largely the reason why the side were promoted 2019/20 season and comfortably remained in the Premier League the following year.
However, it wasn’t just Bielsa’s work on the field that made him such a hit with the locals. He lived a very modest lifestyle in Wetherby. Adored by other residents of the area, he was extremely down to earth. He would take players to the local coffee shop for meetings and there are even photos of him finding time to lead a training session for a children’s football team. He truly has become an honorary Yorkshireman.
Bielsa’s legacy on Leeds United will stand the test of time. YouTuber and Leeds fan, Ellis Platten described what Bielsa meant to him in a recent video: “Bielsa made me fall in love with football again.” And this beautifully succinct summary is certainly a mutual feeling across the passionate fan base.
Image: Ungry Young man via Flickr