Michael Walker: Why Marcelo Bielsa is manager of the season so far
South American’s relentless intensity and his team’s flair makes everybody smile
Back when Amazon was the name of a big river running across South America, a businessman called Jeff Bezos was setting up a shopping/warehousing/delivery company and pondering what to call it. It seems he wanted a one-word name that would summarise the scale and ethos of the new venture. He settled on: Relentless.
Apparently colleagues of Bezos were less than convinced. Together they came up with an alternative, something also conveying size and constant movement, but symbolic rather than direct. Hence Amazon, as we know it today.
But the concept - relentlessness - remained within Bezos, to the extent that if you click on relentless.com you will be re-directed to another site: Amazon.
Which brings us to Marcelo Bielsa.
Relentless is one of the words we use immediately to describe the South American manager of Leeds United. At 65 he is 30 years a head coach and there is no sign of him slowing. If anything, Bielsa is quickening - certainly he is quickening our anticipation. Along with Manchester City, there has been no team better to watch these past six months than Leeds, beginning with a storming 4-3 at Anfield, home of the new champions.
Leeds lost that game but it was a statement defeat. A smiling Jurgen Klopp declared: “Leeds are special.” He referenced all “95 minutes, by the way.”
Leeds had been relentless, just as they had been in the final third of last season in the Championship. Leeds won 12 of their last 14 games to win the division 10 points ahead of West Brom. Now they had let the Premier League know they had not come back to the top flight after 16 years away to make up the numbers. Leeds were not here to defend deep, try to finish 17th or above. Bielsa is not interested in reducing expectations. He is the opposite; he is about inspiring expectation.
And Leeds are 10th in the Premier League. They are 13 points above relegation and 10 off a Champions League place. Win today at home to Aston Villa and Leeds could be eighth. It would be another mini-achievement in the season.
But it is the style which matters most. It is tactical and skilful, collective and individual, physically demanding and artistically expressive. There have been 86 goals in their 25 matches so far and 43 at one end and 43 at the other confirms what our eyes are telling us: this is relentless.
Not in a Bezos manner, though. The intention is not the enrichment of one party at the expense of others - from Qatar to Fifa to Paris to Saudi Arabia to Manchester and Madrid, football has plenty of advocates for our game to become a monopoly. Notions such as Project Big Picture are based on elite entitlement and sport as a product. It is entertainment to be boxed up, packaged and delivered to your sitting room, via Amazon Prime if the deal is right. If ‘smaller’ parties are sealed out, so be it.
This is not Bielsa. He is stimulated by football as entertainment, not by football as a product for the entertainment sector. As he said recently: “If you finish eighth by not playing well, for me it’s worse than finishing 12th by playing well.” It's not exactly Bezos, or Davos.
Similarly, when he was asked in his Thursday zoom press conference about Jack Grealish’s possible unavailability for Villa this evening, Bielsa replied: “I always prefer that opponents have their best players available because even if that fortifies a team, and makes them more scary to face, it’s also a stimulus for us to face such players, to try to neutralise them.”
Which brings us to David Moyes.
Given the impressive upturn at West Ham overseen by months since September, and seven wins in their last nine in the league, there has been a rush to appoint Moyes manager of the season. The Scot certainly deserves recognition.
But not only does this acclaim feel premature, it ignores Bielsa. What Moyes has done has made West Ham smile; what Bielsa is doing makes everyone smile. Or it would if football was not so petty.
At a time when it is easy to switch off from the sheer volume of football being spread across our screens like a never-ending wallpaper, the sight of Leeds playing makes you put down the phone and concentrate on the ball. There’s Stuart Dallas, once of Crusaders, playing like Lothar Matthaus. There’s Patrick Bamford finishing like Allan Clarke. There’s a whole load of anti-Leeds types thinking: “I’ll watch this Leeds match.”
Generational perceptions have been disturbed. Scroll back to the 1972 FA Cup final, the Centenary final, and Leeds players kicked balls into the crowd as they emerged from the Wembley tunnel, a way to make friends and influence people. Now they do it by keeping the ball and re-cycling it relentlessly. This is Marcelo Bielsa, the global generational influence who turned up in Yorkshire and, if we must hand out prizes two-thirds of the way through, the manager of the season.
Demise of Birmingham could get worse
Birmingham City host QPR in the Championship today. Birmingham do so from the position of fourth-bottom having won two of their last 15 league games. They have scored just 23 goals in their 32 matches and are in serious danger of relegation to the third division for the first time since 1992.
Birmingham is England’s second city, supposedly, and a population of 1.1 million should be able to sustain two prosperous football clubs. It has, and recently, because the reason for the focus on Birmingham is that it is 10 years to the day since Blues won the League Cup in a season when Aston Villa finished in the Premier League’s top 10.
Van Persie equalised but on-loan Obafemi Martins got a scrambled 89th minute winner. Carr, captain, lifted the cup. Having never won the League or FA Cup, this was arguably the best day in Birmingham City’s history.
But players reminiscing this week have said it came at a cost, mainly injuries. They won only two of the remaining 12 league games and went down on the final afternoon at Spurs, painfully for Carr. Manager Alex McLeish departed for Villa.
There have been nine managers since, controversial ownerships and a silent St. Andrew’s will shuffle at mention of Birmingham City’s anniversary.