Football’s Mr Authentic Marcelo Bielsa continues to gain admirers

Pep Guardiola calls the Leeds boss ‘the person I admire the most in football’

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa  and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on the sideline during the Premier League match at Elland Road. Photograph:  Paul Ellis/PA Wire

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on the sideline during the Premier League match at Elland Road. Photograph: Paul Ellis/PA Wire

 

The spot where they filmed the scene in “The Damned United” is a wasteland now, and it has been for some time: a patch of land in the lee of Elland Road, long earmarked for some development or other. Before it was sealed off behind security fencing, a couple of excavators standing as idle sentries, it was a parking lot, and before that, it was Leeds United’s training centre.

And it was there that, at the start of his vengeful, paranoid, ill-fated spell as manager of Leeds United, Brian Clough – or, rather, Michael Sheen, as Clough – gathered together the squad of garlanded internationals that had long been his enemies but were now, effectively, his employees, and delivered his speech.

“As far as I am concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest flipping dustbin you can find,” Clough said, as imagined by David Peace, the author of the book on which the film is based. “Because you’ve never won any of them fairly.”

That speech – in which, in Peace’s telling, Clough assailed his new team’s famously liberal attitude to violence in pursuit of victory, a brutality that had earned it the nickname Dirty Leeds – is, in the film, interpreted as the start of the decline. Forty-four days later, Clough had left the club.

In 1974, it was a scandal and a sensation and a source of bitter recrimination. With the passage of time, some of the enmity has been blunted, part of the story softened, and it has slowly been folded into the myth and the lore not only of Clough but of Leeds, too.

But while that may well have been the moment that condemned Clough to fail at Leeds – and condemned Leeds to losing the man who still, 16 years after his death, embodies English soccer’s cult of the manager – somewhere beneath the vitriol and the provocation, Clough’s message contained a kernel of a broader truth.

Sport, as he said, is not just about what you win. It is about how you play, too. This is not a belief that is, traditionally, given much oxygen in the modern sports-industrial complex. Results are king. Stasis is failure, and failure is intolerable. Everything else, as José Mourinho never fails to tell us, is sophistry.

How then to explain the esteem – bordering on idolisation – held by so many of his peers for Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who quite freely acknowledges that listing his honours would not take long, who until a few weeks ago had not won a single club trophy since 1998?

It was, after all, Bielsa whom Pep Guardiola made a pilgrimage to meet before embarking on his own coaching career. It was Bielsa with whom he stayed up for 12 hours, talking soccer, over the embers of an asado deep in the Argentine countryside. It was Bielsa whom, Guardiola told a friend, “knew the most about football”.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola talks to Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa after Saturday’s Premier League game at Elland Road. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/EPA
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola talks to Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa after Saturday’s Premier League game at Elland Road. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/EPA

Guardiola is an aesthete, of course, but he is no less ruthless or ambitious or hungry for success than Mourinho. He just happens to believe that attractive, front-foot soccer is the best way to win. He has, over the years, accumulated considerable supporting evidence: two Champions Leagues, a glut of league titles and domestic cups, an almost endless screed of records.

And yet it is Bielsa whom he finds “inspirational” who ranks as “the person I admire the most in football”. “He is unique,” Guardiola said, a couple of days before taking his Manchester City team to Elland Road on Saturday. “He is the most authentic manager in terms of how he conducts his teams.”

It is worth lingering on that word: authentic. Bielsa’s reputation as a dogmatist has created a misleading impression of him. He is often presented as a purist, a theorist, a coach who cherishes his ideas more than mere material possessions, a leader for whom success is a secondary consideration behind beauty.

As detailed in the Bielsa biography “The Quality of Madness” though, Bielsa’s desire to win is such that he once told the young defender Fernando Gamboa that he “had not understood a damn thing of what this is about” because he hesitated when asked if he would cut off a finger to assure victory in a derby.

Bielsa does not want to win any less than Mourinho. It is just that he believes, like Guardiola, that adventure provides a more reliable route to that success than caution. And it is just that he knows, like Clough, that how you play matters as much as what you win.

There was a telling moment, not long after the final whistle at Elland Road on Saturday night. Leeds and Manchester City had battled to a 1-1 draw. It had been precisely the sort of game that had been anticipated: breathless and absorbing and electric, full of all those flourishes, ideas and experiments that English soccer once would have seen as heresy, a sort of alien entryism, but which are now – thanks in no small part to Guardiola and Bielsa – considered cutting-edge.

City played high, with a four-man front line. Leeds learned to circumvent the City press. Rodrigo Moreno came on and dropped too deep, confounding City’s marking. City flicked to three at the back; Leeds transformed again, closing the creaking fissures. At one point, both teams had full backs playing in midfield.

Guardiola brought on Fernandinho, a defensive player, and made City more attacking. Bielsa, internally, applauded the move. “It was a very smart change,” Bielsa said. “It had a significant impact.” At times, as two great minds whirled and danced and flickered and fought, it felt a little like watching Jack Donaghy in “30 Rock” negotiate with himself.

At the end of it all, Bielsa paused in thought for a moment before greeting Guardiola. They exchanged a few words, a smile, a pat on the arm. Behind the City coach, a line was forming.

First, Lorenzo Buenaventura, City’s conditioning coach, was waiting; he had worked with Bielsa at the 2002 World Cup. They embraced. Aymeric Laporte, City’s French defender, had been loitering a few steps away but now he, too, beamed with delight as he greeted Bielsa, the coach who had given him his debut at Athletic Bilbao.

Then, from the bench, Benjamin Mendy tapped Bielsa on the shoulder; they had worked together at Marseille. Mendy’s prolific social media use offers an insight into just how much affection remains.

Not one of them had won anything by Bielsa’s side. Argentina crashed out at the group stage in 2002. Athletic reached two cup finals, and lost them both. Marseille seemed to be storming to a French title, only to finish fourth. And yet that did not seem to have tainted anyone’s memories of Bielsa. He had given them something just as valuable as medals: memories.

Perhaps that is what Guardiola meant by authentic. Not once, even as he has failed to meet his own demands, to slake his own thirst, has Bielsa deviated from his path. His ideas remain unspoiled, unadulterated, whole. Because sport is not just about what you win. It is also about how you play. – New York Times

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