Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Football journalists Phil Hay and Jon Mackenzie discuss Marcelo Bielsa’s impact at Leeds United

Posted on 4 June 2019 by Peter White

A week has passed since the city of Leeds blew a huge sigh of relief, as its football club announced head coach Marcelo Bielsa is to stay at Elland Road for at least another 12 months.

With minimal changes to a playing squad that finished a lowly 13th in the previous campaign, the Whites narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League following a 4-3 aggregate defeat to Derby in the play-off semi-finals last month.

In his first season in English football, the 63-year-old’s unique training methods and philosophies certainly caught the eye, and his fascinating on and off-the-field antics had the whole country on tenterhooks at times.

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Leeds narrowly missed out on promotion this season after defeat to Derby in the play-offs.

And, after days of speculation, owner Andrea Radrizzani confirmed the parties had reached an agreement to extend Bielsa’s contract for a second season, much to the delight of the Leeds faithful.

Two men who kept a close eye on Bielsa throughout the season were Phil Hay, chief Leeds United writer at the Yorkshire Evening Post, and freelance sports journalist Jon Mackenzie, author of upcoming book, Marcelo Bielsa: Living Between Lines.

Hay and Mackenzie agree the Argentinian’s arrival at Elland Road signalled a sea change in the Leeds hierarchy’s approach, following 15 years of inadequacy after dropping out of the top flight.

Hay said: “Because of what’s gone on at Leeds – particularly in the past four or five years – it’s very easy to look at Bielsa as a serious appointment, as opposed to what have over the years looked like joke appointments in the eyes of the supporters.

“You need a head coach at Leeds who has total authority and there is no player in the dressing room, or person in the boardroom at Leeds who is bigger than Bielsa.

“I was very surprised when they secured his services in terms of how much money he’d been on at previous clubs, but I knew he was renowned as an exceptional coach who had been mentioned by elite coaches like Pep Guardiola.”

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has been among those to praise Bielsa for his coaching influence.

“I think director of football Victor Orta thought about how they could do things differently to get an edge in that league,” said Mackenzie.

“They’ve spent a lot of money on Bielsa – the wage bill for his coaching staff is around £3 million per year – but they decided to spend that money to improve the whole team, rather than improving one area by spending it on one great player.

“I was surprised they pulled it off, but I think if you take him seriously and you buy into his idealistic view of life he sits up and listens.

“He thinks football should be played in a certain way, he thinks you should be serious as a manager and you should do everything you can to get your team to win, and he takes the task of management very seriously.”

Hay and Mackenzie explain Bielsa’s unique techniques on and off the field have contributed to how well the team has performed this season.

Hay said: “By the time Leeds had sent senior staff to speak directly to him in Argentina, he’d already got blueprints of the training ground and it was clear in his head what needed to change.

“It’s been a major redesign and the work – including the introduction of new sleeping quarters – has cost the club somewhere in the region of £600,000.

“In terms of coaching, I couldn’t rank anybody higher during my time covering Leeds.

“Bielsa’s never asked for much in terms of transfers and he has essentially revolutionised a squad that struggled so much under Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom.

“He’s elevated almost every single player he inherited – he’s made them better, he’s improved their fitness, he’s made them run further, he’s made them stronger, they’re in a different place mentally now and I think that all comes down to coaching ability.

“Luke Ayling told us he was surprised to be told he needed to shed half a stone during pre-season, but he did and found he felt like a completely different animal.

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Bielsa’s gruelling methods took right-back Luke Ayling by surprise, but he admitted he felt the benefit.

“Between Bielsa and his staff they have really got a grip of the squad and improved them in a way I didn’t think was possible.”

Mackenzie added: “I think Bielsa’s success has almost been a result of a goldilocks effect in that the team aren’t so good they won’t listen to him, but they’re not so poor that the ideals are beyond them.

“He’s found a sweetspot where he’s got a team that finished 13th and he’s been able to get the best out of them.

“Bielsa’s helped give his players a sense of purpose and meaning, for example making them do menial work for the amount of time it would take them to earn enough money for a ticket.

“Improving players is what he does – take Mateusz Klich. He didn’t really perform last season but he’s been fundamental to Bielsa’s system and he’s playing regularly for the Poland national team, now.

“The tactical awareness Bielsa has is incredible. You watch it and you immediately understand what they’re trying to do.

“There’s this famous lack of a plan B – it’s a case of if you don’t believe your plan A is good enough, why is it your plan A?”

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Mateusz Klich has been a revelation at Elland Road under Bielsa’s stewardship this season.

Bielsa’s attention to detail came under scrutiny in the new year, when Leeds were fined £200,000 for watching opponents train after a member of Bielsa’s staff was caught outside Derby’s training ground.

Hay and Mackenzie agree that ‘spygate’ was a clash of cultures, and that Bielsa’s response to the episode – which included a public briefing in which he discussed his staff’s analytical methods – demonstrated his unique approach to coaching.

“He found the criticism of him hard to take. He resented the fact that people thought he was cheating and that it was making a significant difference to the results,” said Hay.

“I think even he understands his attention to detail is probably a little bit unhealthy.

“He’s obsessional about football, he thinks about it constantly and as he said during spygate the reason for his scouting tactics is because he feels anxious about not covering every base.

“It’s not that he does things that others don’t in terms of analysis or pre-match preparation, it’s just that he takes it to a degree further than anybody I’ve ever dealt with before.”

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Bielsa was upset with the suggestion he was wilfully cheating by watching opposition teams train.

Mackenzie said: “Most managers would’ve just got on with it, but I think for him there was a moral quality to it.

“It wasn’t that he had a problem with people thinking he’d done something wrong, it was with this idea that people thought he’d wilfully done it and gone out of his way to cheat.

“It’s almost an anxiety-removing thing – he gathers every detail about the opposition and their players to make sure no stone is left unturned in order to get the win.

“He’s very self-aware of this persona he has of just being a bit of a lunatic, but for him it is just taking football seriously and it just makes sense to him.

“He certainly got quite annoyed that people thought he was trying to be deceitful and actively gain from the system.”

Having marginally missed out on promotion, there was an air of uncertainty as to whether Bielsa would commit to another year in the Championship.

Hay and Mackenzie agree the Argentinian has built a rapport with Leeds fans, but warn his record elsewhere has shown he could up and leave at any time.

Hay said: “Bielsa has an almost unanimous popularity with the fans, which is fairly unheard of with managers at Leeds.

“When he deals with the supporters, it’s like watching ice melt. He’s full of smiles, he takes all the time in the world for photos and autographs, he hands out sweets for the kids – nothing is too much effort.

“He respects them enormously – the money they put in, the time they commit – and he’s somebody who I think would go out of their way for the fans before anybody else at the club.

“They’ve spoken to him already about further upgrades to the training ground, but I can’t in all honesty see anything more than two seasons for him in the Championship.

“I would be amazed if he was still here at the end of the season if it didn’t work out.”

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Bielsa has built a great relationship with the Leeds fans during his time at Elland Road.

Mackenzie said: “You hear stories all the time of people coming over from Newell’s Old Boys – his first club in Argentina – so he clearly has an impact on fans.

“He doesn’t care so much about trophies, for him it’s more about the club being part of the community, and adding something to the lives of the people who are there.

“He lives in Wetherby, he walks to the training ground, he’s seen around the vicinity and he’s great with kids.

“I think he’s settled in Leeds and he likes the community, but I don’t think that means anything. He hasn’t really been anywhere longer than two seasons.

“If you look through his CV you’ve got 13 games or so at Lille, before that 48 hours at Lazio, and before that a season and a game at Marseille.

“I think there’s always the possibility that however much he likes Leeds, he could just up and leave if things aren’t quite right.”

With the new season just two months away, fans at Elland Road will undoubtedly be hoping that success on the pitch can cement Bielsa’s place in the dugout, as well as a spot in the Premier League.

Featured photograph/Peter White