‘Side before self’: How Leeds ended their Premier League exile
West Brom’s loss to Huddersfield means Marcelo Bielsa’s side seal promotion
Leeds United supporters gather outside their Elland Road on Friday to celebrate their promotion to the Premier League. Photo: Paul Elliss/AFP via Getty Images
For such a small group they made an awful lot of noise. The smartly suited executives spread out across Elland Road’s posh seats contested every adverse decision, applauded each promising home move and complained, vociferously, about any vaguely heavy opposition challenge.
It was an extremely wet July night, Leeds were thrashing Stoke 5-0 and Victor Orta, the club’s director of football, constantly urged the men and women around him to morph into Marcelo Bielsa’s ultras. The second half had barely begun before any pretence of social distancing was abandoned.
As the club’s anthem Marching On Together blared out and a band of security stewards revelled in questioning the referee’s eyesight, it seemed hard to credit there were only 350 people inside one of English football’s most atmospheric and intimidating citadels.
At other grounds, even those containing teams with plenty to play for, the restart soundtrack has remained antiseptically silent. In contrast, Orta’s animated choreography reflected not only Leeds’s desperation to end a 16-year Premier League exile but the meticulous attention to detail and esprit de corps which have proved such features of Bielsa’s management.
The Argentinian is a brilliant manager and tactician but it is arguably the human factor that enabled Leeds to see off the considerable challenge posed by an apparently reborn Brentford side on an extraordinary end-of-season winning run.
Leeds’s promotion from the Championship is attributable to many things but it helps, enormously, that they really have been marching on together.
This incredibly powerful unity of purpose was highlighted in March when, led by their captain, Liam Cooper, Bielsa’s players responded to a well-argued appeal from Angus Kinnear, the chief executive, by taking significant wage deferrals in order to safeguard the jobs of 272 backroom staff during the coronavirus pandemic.
With players accepting reductions in remuneration to about £6,000 per week – roughly half the squad’s average and considerably less than the £30,000 commanded by the top earners Patrick Bamford and Kiko Casilla – Leeds were also able to continue paying a wider army of casual workers throughout lockdown.
Cooper, whose off-field leadership skills have been as important as his on-pitch defensive assurance, asked Kinnear a series of searching questions, thoroughly interrogating him before the squad agreed, unanimously, it was the right thing to do.
“Side before self, every time,” reads the inscription beneath the statue of Billy Bremner outside Elland Road; Cooper and co demonstrated that such sentiments endure in this corner of West Yorkshire.
That mantra served Leeds well as Bielsa’s squad emerged from football’s enforced break apparently spooked by the memories of last season when they collected only one point from their final four games and missed out on promotion.
A disappointing 1-1 home draw with Luton in late June prefaced restorative “clear the air” talks at Thorp Arch, the club’s training ground. Suitably galvanised, the team rediscovered their winning habit, trademark high-energy pressing game and, perhaps above all, collective faith.
As Mateusz Klich, a Poland midfielder reborn under Bielsa’s choreography, has explained a system revolving around a high defensive line and constant, kaleidoscopic movement is based on trust. “It’s about knowing the team have your back,” Klich says. “There’s no point one player pressing, it has to be 10 working as one.”
Thorp Arch is opposite a prison, amid farmland east of the market town of Wetherby – where Bielsa rents a modest one-bedroom flat – and the squad joke that inmates of the institution over the road often have it easier.
“It’s very strict here, like the military,” Klich says. “It’s tactics, tactics, tactics and fitness. It’s not easy. You have to have a lot of power and fitness. But we didn’t know how good we could be.”
The team’s high concentration levels helped raise the bar. Not for nothing does Bielsa repeatedly demand his players “pay attention, please” from the upturned blue bucket that serves as his technical area perch.
With the Brighton loanee centre-half Ben White commanding the defence, Kalvin Phillips anchoring midfield, Bamford’s attacking movement bewildering opponents and Pablo Hernández the much-adored 35-year-old creative talisman, Leeds repeatedly, relentlessly, impose their game on rivals.
Unlike many managerial counterparts Bielsa is obsessive about ruling by meritocracy. There is no danger of a 64-year-old seemingly allergic to compromise succumbing to any form of “unconscious bias” regarding reputation, price, profile or personal preference when it comes to team selection.
Some managers might have felt under pressure to keep picking the star loanee January signing Jean-Kévin Augustin but once the Leeds manager deemed the French striker’s fitness inadequate, he immediately risked a diplomatic row with Leipzig by moving him to the margins.
Bielsa – expected to sign a contract extension when his £6m-a-year deal runs out next week – had more luck with Illan Meslier, a previously untested 20-year-old French goalkeeper who has shone during Casilla’s eight-match suspension for racially abusing an opponent.
Aware the former Real Madrid keeper was facing a potential ban, Bielsa could have signed a more experienced keeper in January but instead stuck to those meritocratic principles and selected the supposed novice largely on the strength of his training-ground excellence.
As the manager puts it in his pedantic yet peculiarly precise – and now cut glass – English: “Illan transmitted to the team safety. He resolved difficult balls.”
Bielsa’s belief in Meslier reflects the wider trust – in the system, the manager and, above all, each other – on which this long-awaited return to the promised land rests. For Leeds promotion really has been all about “side before self”. – Guardian