Style and substance has Bielsa and Leeds marching on together
Respected Argentine coach presiding over a transformation in club’s fortunes
Marcelo Bielsa: “In my humble opinion, most important is to try to make the supporters value play and not just the result.” Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
Thorp Arch, Leeds United’s training ground, Thursday lunchtime: upstairs in a room where a list of the club’s honours are painted on the wall, the current coach Marcelo Bielsa takes his seat alongside his assistant – and interpreter at press conferences – Diego Flores.
Bielsa is immediately complimented on being nominated for the Championship’s Manager of the Month award for November, something he passes gracefully onto his squad.
“To recognise the manager is one way to recognise everybody,” he says.
It might seem mundane that a figure considered by many to be the manager of the age should be jockeying with Scott Parker, Slaven Bilic and Tony Mowbray for Manager of the Month – in England’s second division. But this is here, this is now.
And as Bielsa speaks in Spanish for the next 44 minutes – or half of them – it becomes clear that the here and now matters to the 64-year-old. He does not quite deliver a one-game-at-a-time mantra, but at a club where memories of the glorious past mix with excitement going-on desperation for a better future, Bielsa is preaching the importance of the present, of patience.
Buddha Bielsa, not quite living in the moment, but using “in this context” repeatedly.
Balance is not easy to find. It was only a fortnight ago when the players from the 1960s and 70s – the Revie Boys – were invited to Leeds Civic Hall to receive another honour: Freedom of the City.
It was a way of marking the club’s centenary. There are days when nostalgia does not act like a brake on current affairs and this was one of them. How striking it was to read Eddie Gray singling out Bobby Collins as the key player in a Leeds era teeming with talent.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a more important player who has walked through the gates than Bobby,” Gray said.
Imagine being considered that good by Eddie Gray?
Collins, generally, receives a lot less recognition. It is another great, Billy Bremner, who has a statue outside Elland Road and a quotation on the outside of the main building at the training ground: “Side before self, every time.”
You cannot foresee Bielsa disagreeing with Bremner. It was never a wise fight to pick.
As the players of old were enjoying their freedom, Bielsa’s team of 2019 was searching for some of its own. They found it in opponents’ halves, scoring breathless breakaway goals that helped form a run of five straight wins in November.
Into December and there have been two more, the latest against Hull City on Tuesday night in front of over 35,000 at Elland Road.
These seven consecutive victories have taken Leeds to the top of the Championship. More significant, even than this, is the 11-point gap opened to Fulham in third place. Leeds have separated themselves from the pack, found space.
They have done it in part by not conceding a goal in the last four games. They have six clean sheets in the last eight. If Leeds are not on the march, they have a discernible stride pattern.
But there was no bullishness from Bielsa on Thursday. Cardiff City are up next, a team he described as “muy Britanico”, even if captain Brexit – Neil Warnock – is no longer in charge.
We can mock, but Cardiff were a Premier League club last season, which is why Bielsa did not come across them, and on their last visit to Elland Road, in February 2018, Cardiff won 4-1. The Leeds manager Thomas Christiansen lost his job the next day.
In came Paul Heckingbottom, for four months, the 20th permanent Leeds United manager of the 21st century. He replaced Christiansen, who replaced Garry Monk who replaced Steve Evans who replaced Uwe Rosler who replaced Neil Redfearn. All in under three years.
Bielsa has been manager for 18 months and a measure of his achievement at Elland Road is that these names from the recent past need to be re-remembered by non-Whites. Managerial stability has replaced fragility. He has brought such levels of professionalism and energy, these names have been eclipsed.
Leeds finished 13th in the season before Bielsa arrived, 30 points off promoted Cardiff. Last season they jumped ten places and 23 points and while there were disappointments and controversies – usually involving Derby County – the season was one of renewal.
Should Leeds gain promotion next May, last season will come to be seen as the Bielsa foundation year.
Here they are, compared to 12 months ago, ahead of schedule. They may have only four points more than at the same stage, but it is that gap to third which is the big difference.
There are others: Kemar Roofe scored five goals last December. Samuel Saiz was alongside him, Pontus Jansson was behind and Bailey Peacock-Farrell was behind him. All were sold, for a combined £16m, plus teenager Jack Clarke to Spurs for £9m.
There was no big incoming transfer. On Tuesday against Hull, Pascal Struijk, a Dutch 20-year-old, became the 12th player from the Academy to given a first-team debut by Bielsa.
With respect to Bielsa and Flores, his answers are not fluent when translated into English and when asked if and how Leeds are stronger than last December, the reply was: “You don’t have to name the improvement, you have to show it on the pitch. I always believe it is better trying to anticipate what is next rather than describe what is happening and happened in the last match. More than name what is going to happen, try to do what you wish to happen.”
Talk is cheap. The most important game is the next one. We will be ready.
Then a desire for consistency was mentioned, with Liverpool cited as an example.
At the end, though, there was a digression touching on Bielsa’s philosophy. When responding to what he has found most interesting about English football since his shock arrival, the Argentine said: “First of all, the love of the supporters for the play.
“When I used to watch English football from Argentina and elsewhere, I used to admire how the authorities stimulated the supporters’ love for football. You achieve this when you put the play above the result. I think we are losing this tendency.”
He was saying that how you play matters as much as what you win. It is this idealism and the intellectual application of it which has so inspired someone like Pep Guardiola. Bielsa wants Leeds fans to understand and once they do, he hopes, they will show patience.
“In my humble opinion, most important is to try to make the supporters value play and not just the result.”
To repeat, this is not an easy balance to find, particularly at a club 15 years outside the top tier, and always counting, where fans want to march on together and proclaim their Leedsness loudly.
But via bold football and visible progress, Bielsa has earned their trust. Leeds United, top of the Championship, stepping on together.