Bielsa emerges from ‘espionage’ furore as a figure of great humility and integrity
Leeds manager’s extraordinary work ethic ensures his meticulous approach
Marcelo Bielsa’s first job in coaching was at the city university in Buenos Aires.
He hadn’t made it as a player, too slow to make more than four appearances in central defence for Newell’s Old Boys.
He had floated about the lower leagues for a while, studying agronomy and physical education. A university side was an obvious stepping-stone to greater things, but Bielsa didn’t treat it as such. Rather he watched 3,000 players before selecting his squad of 20.
The 63-year-old has always been meticulous. When he was given a job in youth development at Newell’s, he wondered whether clubs were missing out on players from the interior, so got a map of Argentina, divided it into 70 sections and arranged a trial in each.
Because he didn’t like flying, he ended up driving more than 5,000 miles in his Fiat 147 to see the results, establishing a theme that would become familiar of human fallibility, often his own, banging up against his plans and principles.
Bielsa’s press conference on Thursday was extraordinary, not so much for the data revealed – much of which is available to anybody with a Wyscout account – but for the fact he bothered.
It had seemed that the defining image of his time at Leeds would be him perched on a bucket in the technical area; now though, it may be that it becomes his silhouette, hunched slightly beneath his hoodie, looming over a spreadsheet like Nosferatu conducting an audit.
The point is not the data or the detail or even the fact that Bielsa, rather than leaving such matters to teams of analysts, is so obviously personally engaged in such analysis. It’s that he decided the best way to deal with the ridiculous spectacle of the English media in one of its periodical fits of morality was a 70-minute PowerPoint presentation.
Let’s deal, though, briefly, with the “spying”.
A man with binoculars was caught, on public land, peering over a fence into Derby’s training session. It’s not exactly tradecraft of the highest order.
There was no trespassing, no breaking and entering, no crime or breach of any regulation other than the vague sense that this sort of thing isn’t on – even though the complaint was brought by a former midfielder who achieved his greatest success under a manager who not merely committed the exact same “offence” (as André Villas-Boas revealed) but also committed far great infractions against moral codes both written and unwritten.
Bielsa, not surprisingly, was taken aback to be accused of a breach of fair play. There are few people in football so ready to admit fault as him.
When as manager of Argentina he was sent from the touchline during a 3-0 defeat to Colombia (the game in 1999 in which Martín Palermo missed three penalties), he apologised to the referee. During his time in Bilbao, he denounced himself to police following an altercation with a builder.
He is not somebody who sees the world in black and white and dances on the head of a pin to make it so, and so the furore sent him into self-reflection. In 1992, after early success at Newell’s, he found his team desperately out of form and couldn’t work out why.
As his side prepared for a game against Unión in Santa Fé, he locked himself in his room at the Conquistador hotel and contemplated both his philosophy and himself. He rang his wife, Laura. He couldn’t explain, he said, why he felt like this: their daughter had recently survived serious illness and yet here he was, wanting the earth to swallow him over the results of football matches.
In the end he called his squad (which included a 19-year-old Mauricio Pochettino) together and asked if they believed in him, in what they were doing. He was prepared to adopt a more orthodox approach if that was what they wanted. No, they urged, carry on. Newell’s won the league that season and reached the final of the Libertadores.
The same processes were at work in that Thursday press conference. A consideration of the issue. An almost pathological honesty in admitting fault. An acknowledgement that there are acts that might be wrong even if there is no written rule against it.
An explanation of why he sent spies to watch opponents, of the level of research he went into. Perhaps most fascinating of all, an admission that there might not even be any point but that he was driven to explore every avenue by a work ethic that left him feeling guilty if he did not.
And by a frank acknowledgement that he may be in the wrong, by an astonishing transparency, Bielsa has enhanced his legend.
Leeds fans who hark back to the glory days of skulduggery and dossiers will feel they have their club back. Lampard’s tactics have been expertly dissected for anybody who wishes to examine them. And somehow, from an accusation of espionage, Bielsa emerges as somebody not only of intelligence and diligence but of great humility and integrity.