Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina was perhaps the most exciting team in the world heading towards the summer of 2002. Perhaps Bielsa was not the most exciting manager for everyone, but the Argentina side he managed were the favorites to win the World Cup 18 years ago. However, things didn’t go as planned as the South American side were knocked out in the group stage of the competition.
“Football has the option that the best team is not the winner, I believe that we were the best team in the group; we should have won loosely against Sweden (1-1), we should have gotten a better result against Nigeria (even though Argentina won 1-0 with Batistuta scoring a header) and we did not deserve to lose against England,” was part of Bielsa’s initial reaction after Argentina’s elimination.
“If we make a quiet and measured reflection there will be many positive things to consider.”
One minute after those words, Bielsa was rudely interrupted while giving an answer, to the question if he would continue managing Argentina.
“Tomorrow!” exclaimed a journalist in the mixed zone, interrupting him, rudely asking Bielsa to be sacked immediately.
The harsh criticism Bielsa got in 2002 turned into apologetic remarks back in the summer of 2010. The Argentinean press who slammed him, especially after the 2002 World Cup, waxed lyricals about his coaching style when he managed to advance Chile into the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup.
With the Championship season still somewhat in the air, it seems that June will mark a restart for football in England according to a document released by the UK Government, titled “Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy,” which includes “permitting cultural and sporting events to take place behind closed doors for broadcast .”
Despite the final outcome of the season, Leeds United’s campaign cannot go unnoticed. Leeds are at the top of the table in the Championship, with one more point than West Brom and seven points clear of third place. The man behind this two-year revolution is the Argentine tactical genius who was appointed in the summer of 2018 after Leeds finished 13th in the second tier of English professional football.
The Sports Gazette caught up with freelance football writer, editor and podcaster Jon Mackenzie on Marcelo Bielsa and how his ideas have been fit for Leeds’ success. Mackenzie hosts a Leeds United fan show at Love Sport Radio and recently started co-hosting The Football Today Podcast.
Mackenzie is writing a book on Bielsa’s impact at Leeds. Part of the purpose of the book is to address the media stereotype of Bielsa being “The Mad One” due to his nickname of “El Loco” because of his countless eccentricities. It was a nickname given to him by the Argentine media during his early career.
“I want to save him from just being seen as ‘The Mad One,'” said Mackenzie.
“What does it mean to call Marcelo Bielsa mad? People who are now called mad are seen as being important to the world in the sense that they can see something to the world that no one else could see and slowly as time develops we start moving these people slowly from society.”
“So you have these people who have this unique perspective on the world and in time they become more outcast and virtually they are put into silence and taken out of community and I want to talk about the way the football media talks about Marcelo Bielsa as him being The Mad One, ‘El Loco.’”
“What if we view him in a different way? He (Bielsa) has a unique perspective on the world and rather than that being something mad or insane, I think that he may see the world in a different way and that there is something I can learn about it from him.”
In the results-driven football world we live in where the scoreboard dictates the analysis and media criticism, Bielsa has Leeds United a few games away from returning to the Premier League. This is in part, due to how he rigidly stuck he is to his ideas regardless of the popular opinion.
One of the biggest criticisms that Bielsa has faced in his career was not playing Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo together as a pair of strikers in Argentina.
Even though Argentina was eliminated in the group stage, Mackenzie is convinced that if Bielsa gets another chance, he would still not play them together.
“Bielsa has always maintained that if you play two strikers, it doesn’t make you twice as likely to score, it means that there is going to be a knock on effect somewhere else on the pitch.”
“We (at Leeds) had a similar situation with Patrick Bamford and Eddie Nketiah in the early part of the season for Leeds; there were a lot of Leeds fans calling for Bamford and Nketiah to play at the same time and I think he only did it once,” Mackenzie added.
Nketiah is now at Arsenal while Bamford is Leeds’ top scorer in the Championship this season with 13 goals.
When asked on Bielsa’s dilemma of playing with two strikers, Mackenzie would describe the Leeds manager as a long-termist.
“I feel like the whole question about Crespo/Batistuta is him saying ‘No, you trust the idea, you trust the process’ I’ve developed this idea that it works over the long term so don’t give up on the idea midway through because of one or two events, we look into the cause and into the end of the season we look back and as ‘has it worked?,’'” Mackenzie added.
The managerial tendencies of Bielsa make him seem that he views his ideas as a natural outcome, which for example could have been seen in the ‘Spygate’ scandal back in 2019 when he admitted to having spied on Derby County to understand their game plan better.
Mackenzie recalls that in the aftermath of that controversy, Bielsa openly admitted spying on Derby just because he wanted to make sure he did everything he could in order to win the game.
“His obsession with football and his obsessive tendencies, he just sees them as normal, it’s just what he does, but for most people that tendency is viewed in an entirely different way from the way that he himself views it.”
“This notion of the obsessive Bielsa I find fascinating is because no one else is like that. He (Bielsa) might just experience the world in a different way and rather than that being seen as a bad thing, I think we need to see it as a good thing and tie it into why Marcelo Bielsa is so important as a coach.”
Many fans ask themselves why Bielsa has not managed Europe’s giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, etc. Bielsa does not concede one on one interviews and his press conference answers might never provide us with concise answers, however, he uses them as a tool for thinking out loud his reflections. What can be known for a fact that when he chooses a club he also chooses a community: Bielsa likes Leeds and Yorkshire.
While the Championship remains suspended until further notice due to COVID-19 and Leeds’ return to the Premier League delays by a few months, Bielsa surely keeps examining every detail regarding Leeds United at his small flat in Wetherby, only a few miles away from Thorpe Arch.