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When Marcelo Bielsa emerged as a serious candidate for the vacant Leeds United job in the summer of 2018, the club’s management team was excited. Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola, two of the best managers in the world, were among those who counted the Argentinian among their biggest influences. Angus Kinnear, the managing director, and Victor Orta, the director of football, knew that landing Bielsa would be a major coup. They had only one concern: how well did he know the Championship?
Bielsa quickly assuaged their fears. In a meeting with Kinnear and Orta, he pulled out his huge stack of notes and told them which formation every team in the second tier had used the previous season. And not just their primary formation, either: Bielsa knew the shape all 24 teams had employed across each of their 46 matches.
There are plenty more stories that illustrate his obsessive attention to detail. In an astonishing saga in 2018/19, he admitted to sending a colleague to spy on Derby County’s training sessions ahead of a match at Elland Road. After opposing manager Frank Lampard cried foul, Bielsa called a press conference in which he was expected to announce that there had been a huge misunderstanding.
Instead, in a truly extraordinary episode, Bielsa shared his findings with the media and admitted he had spied on every opponent Leeds had faced that season, albeit adding that he gained very little from such covert operations and only undertook them because he would feel guilty if he did not do absolutely everything in his power to prepare his team for any given game.
Bielsa is also a romantic. Despite his all-consuming approach to football management, which saw him request footage of three Forest Green Rovers games ahead of a pre-season friendly that most of his peers would have used solely to boost the squad’s fitness, he is far from a joyless robot.
Bielsa is fuelled by integrity and honor. He is a hero in Chile, whose national team were revived under his tutelage, but he stayed true to his word that he would walk away from the job if Jorge Segovia was elected as the Chilean Football Board’s president. When his Leeds team took advantage of an injury to an Aston Villa player by shaping to kick the ball out of play but instead scoring a goal, Bielsa demanded his side let their opponents equalize.
Shortly after his arrival in Yorkshire in 2018, Bielsa said:
We want to impose our style. Our idea is to play in the opponent’s half and that means we will dominate the opponent. We try to link the three lines of our team without playing any long balls. I prefer players who have creativity. I accept the risk you take when you try to build from the back. I wouldn’t criticize a team who play long balls, who speculate, who wait before attacking, but mine is the philosophy I can transmit and it has to be deeply rooted in respect for the rules. I consider the rules as protection for creative football.
That is exactly what he has done at Elland Road. There have, however, been bumps in the road. In Bielsa’s debut campaign, Leeds were top of the Championship table in mid-February. With four games to go, they were in the top two and on course for automatic promotion. Then, the Whites collected just one point from the last 12 available to slip into the playoffs, where they were beaten by Lampard’s Derby over two legs.
Some wondered whether Bielsa would stick around for another attempt at promotion. He did – and this time Leeds were successful. They avoided the play-offs this time around, amassing 93 points to win the Championship title in style. For ending Leeds’ 16-year absence from the Premier League Bielsa became an automatic icon in the eyes of the club’s fans, who have now turned their attention to the upcoming campaign in the top flight – their first since 2003/04.
Most promoted clubs have survival as their sole ambition going into the new season. That is certainly the objective that Fulham and West Bromwich Albion will have set ahead of the big kick-off this weekend. But some Leeds fans have loftier goals. Given the size of the club and their past achievements in the division – the Whites finished in the top five in three consecutive seasons around the turn of the century – that is understandable. However, expectations must be tempered. Sheffield United may have ended the last term in the top half following promotion the previous year, but Leeds’ primary target should be securing their Premier League status for another campaign (they are +160 to finish in the top 10 and +350 to go down at DraftKings Sportsbook).
Having said that, nothing should come as a surprise as far as Leeds are concerned this season. Bielsa will hope that his high-energy and heavy-pressing style will catch some of his side’s opponents cold, starting with reigning champions, Liverpool, on Saturday. Many of his former teams have made strong starts to seasons on account of their players being fitter than their competitors. Bielsa’s Marseille team topped Ligue 1 midway through the 2014/15 campaign, only to fall away and finish fourth as the players struggled to maintain such a high-intensity approach through the winter months.
Leeds are unlikely to be sitting at the summit of the Premier League standings after 19 games, but their season may follow a similar pattern to that Marseille team’s: a fast start followed by a post-Christmas drop-off. The club’s fans will not be entertaining the possibility, but there is even a chance that Bielsa could walk away unexpectedly. This, after all, is a man who quit as Lazio manager after just two days and was suspended by Lille following a poor start to the 2017/18 campaign.
One thing is for sure: with a pathological perfectionist like Bielsa at the helm, following Leeds United in the Premier League will not be dull.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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