How Marcelo Bielsa steered Leeds back to the Premier League

Leeds United chose to keep the faith in ‘The Madman’ Bielsa after signing him as head coach in 2018 and has reaped the benefits.

Marcelo Bielsa took over as head coach of Leeds United in 2018.   -  Action Images

There is a method to the ways of Marcelo Bielsa, the man nicknamed El Loco (‘The Madman’) by football fans and pundits. The Argentine’s football philosophy can be exacting and he can be unyielding. Leeds United chose to keep the faith in him after signing him as head coach in 2018 and has reaped the benefits.

Leeds will be back in top flight English football, the Premier League, next season after a 16-year absence. The turnaround has not been without turbulence, though.

The promotion earned in 2019-20 season has come on his terms. The promotion was tantalisingly close a season earlier, but Bielsa chose to play fair.

On 28 April, 2019, he decided to allow Aston Villa to score an unopposed equaliser against Leeds, which had scored a controversial goal minutes ago. His decision triggered a furore among the Leeds faithful. The match ended in a 1-1 draw and meant Leeds had to face Derby County in the play-off semifinal. Leeds won the first leg against Derby 1-0. However, the promotion hopes evaporated in a chaotic second leg at home, where Leeds imploded in a 4-2 defeat.

On allowing Villa that unopposed goal, Bielsa later explained, “I can’t say that my only interest is winning. What also interests me is the way in which we build a victory.”

The Spygate scandal

The failure to achieve promotion came after a controversy dubbed the Spygate scandal, which referred to a Leeds intern being caught peeking over at Derby’s training with a binocular in January 2019. Leeds was slapped with a GBP 200,000 fine for the scandal. Bielsa paid the fine from his own pocket.

At a press conference, Bielsa dissected every grain of data on opponents in a 70-minute PowerPoint presentation. His words on the spying controversy were, “Why do I do that (spying for information I already have)? I think because I am stupid.”

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Leeds fans warmed up to his gestures and words. For them, he is the track-suit clad Atlas who squats on the sidelines even as his decisions bring in changes around the club. He is the Easter Bunny who keeps chocolate eggs in his pockets for kids waiting at Elland Road, the club’s home ground, ready for a smiling selfie.

Respect, we are told, is a two-way street. These days, that street belongs to Bielsa and all those emotionally invested in the club.

‘Old-school socialist’

Yorkshire-based comedian Rob Mulholland summed up this relationship recently. “I think it’s a two-way love affair. Bielsa loves us as much as we love him. He is an old-school socialist. He talks about the people, he talks about the fans. He respects the history of Leeds and the club. He has spoken to us in a way that managers in the past haven’t,” Mulholland told U.K. website Joe.

Leeds United celebrates after winning the Championship title. - REUTERS

 

The club’s start to the second season under Bielsa was rocky. Three draws and two early losses in the first 10 games saw the Whites slip to fifth in the standings. Leeds, however, picked up seven wins on the trot and by halfway point, was back at the top. The coronavirus lockdown in March threatened to condemn the team to the second tier for yet another year. The fears were compounded when Leeds lost 2-0 to Cardiff City after the league resumption in late June. But this time, the dreams did not sour.

On 17 July, 2020, when West Bromwich Albion lost 2-1 to Huddersfield, it confirmed Leeds’ automatic promotion.

Team owner Andrea Radrrizani and the players, who were watching the match at Elland Road, ran onto the deserted pitch and celebrated with the rival fans’ chant: “Leeds are falling apart again!” The Whites then joined the jubilant crowd at the stadium gates for the team chant: “Marching on together!”

Influence

Meanwhile, Bielsa was tucked away at his home in Wetherby, a short walk away from the club’s training facility in Thorpe Arch. As the city celebrations stretched into the day, the man responsible for ending Leeds’ 16-year hurt was greeted by hundreds of fans outside his house. He elbow-bumped fans, waved, posed for a photograph with the children and when a fan tried to engage him in a conversation, he replied apologetically, “I don’t speak English.”

As football gods would have it, Leeds celebrated the Championship title three days later with a 3-1 win over Derby County.

Bielsa’s influence on modern-day football is undeniable. Newell’s Boys had its stadium named after him. The Spygate saga saw the English Football League come up with a rule which prevents teams from accessing opponent’s training grounds 72 hours before matches.

A general view of a street in Trinity Leeds shopping centre which has been renamed Marcelo Bielsa Way. - AP

 

He is a reference point for silverware gluttons such as Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone. His own trophy cabinet has two top division titles in Argentina, an Olympic gold medal and an English second division title. Incidentally, Guardiola believes Bielsa will be an incredible addition to the Premier League.

THE BIELSA WAY
  • Soon after his appointment, players were handed dossiers on how much body fat and weight they had to maintain. Captain Liam Cooper, who weighed 92kg had to get it down to 81kg.
  • In the pre-season, the team trained for three sessions a day.
  • The grinding sessions sometimes saw players vomiting on the pitch.
  • Every Wednesday, players from the club’s youth teams were given a chance to rub shoulders with the senior team in a 45-minute 11vs11 match which did not have free-kicks or penalties.
  • Bielsa often stayed for long hours at the ground, which led the club to renovate his office to fit in a bed, a lounge and a small kitchen.

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