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Football Obsessive Marcelo Bielsa Restoring Hope and Expectation to Leeds

Football Obsessive Marcelo Bielsa Restoring Hope and Expectation to Leeds

Tuesday, 7 January, 2020 - 06:00
Marcelo Bielsa’s attention to detail and famed methods have ignited Leeds. Photograph: Mick Walker - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images
London - Jonathan Wilson

At teatime last Sunday came perhaps the broadcasting highlight of the festive period, a moment both dramatic and farcical that was soundtracked by a high‑pitched Ayrshire voice shouting the phrases “Big Wes!” and “His own net!” in various combinations, the delirious syntax conveying the sense of the moment far more eloquently than a finely turned sentence could ever have done. As Alan McInally screamed himself hoarse, Leeds fans went berserk, players celebrated and coaches cavorted, Marcelo Bielsa took a walk across his technical area in his big padded coat, seemingly no more moved by the injury-time own goal from Wes Harding that gave Leeds United a 5-4 win at Birmingham than by tins of tuna being down to 38p in the Wetherby Morrisons.


If that was Bielsa as the accidental hero in an action movie, walking casually away from the exploding building, New Year’s Day offered a very different kind of film. After his Leeds had drawn 1-1 at West Brom, there was a hug for Slaven Bilic which went on, and on. The camera cut away, showed some players walking off the pitch, lingered on the crowd, then went back. They were still in each other’s arms, gazing at one another in mutual admiration. They’ll always have the Hawthorns.


The league, Bilic said, is lucky to have Bielsa. Leeds must feel incredibly blessed. It is not just that they top the Championship, that they stand nine points clear of Brentford in third and that they go to the Emirates in the FA Cup on Monday with a genuine sense of expectation.


It is that they have in Bielsa a manager who, in a sporting world in which values have become hopelessly corrupted, seems to grasp both how essentially trivial football is and yet how it can ignite a region. It is a sign of his remarkable influence that in Mikel Arteta, Bielsa will be in the highly unusual position of facing a second-generation protégé, a manager whose profoundest influence was Pep Guardiola, who is open in acknowledging his debt to Bielsa.


Bielsa probably should have won more in his career. Three league championships won under Argentina’s two-titles-a-year system and the 2004 Olympic gold is a meagre haul for somebody Bilic discusses in such revered tones. That is a failing but Bielsa’s entire career feels a rebuke to the idea a life can be measured out in trophies or medals.


He is an obsessive. He comes from a wealthy family – his grandfather was a judge, his brother was Argentina’s foreign minister and his sister a provincial governor – and earns a reported £6m a year. Yet he seems to have little interest in the trappings of wealth. He lives in a one-bedroom flat above a shop in Wetherby, drinks coffee and holds team meetings in the Costa, shops in Morrisons and eats regularly at a local Italian restaurant called Sant Angelo. He walks the 45 minutes to training at Thorp Arch most days and rarely seems to wear anything other than his Leeds tracksuit.


But he is aware of his obsession, knows just how ridiculous it is. At the beginning of the 1992 Clausura, after a dismal 1991 Apertura in which his Newell’s Old Boys side won only three of their 19 games, he locked himself in a room at the Conquistador hotel before an away game in Santa Fé and undertook what was essentially a 48-hour audit of how he believed the game should be played.


During it he rang his wife, Laura. Their daughter had recently survived critical illness. In that context, he acknowledged, it made no sense to feel as bad as he did about losing football matches – and yet he did. That thoroughness of self-assessment is characteristic of Bielsa. He does not just feel; he analyses the feeling.


That perhaps explains his curious circumlocutory way of speaking, as though each sentence must interrogate itself before it reaches its conclusion.


That was what was most striking about the Spygate furore. It would have been very easy for him to laugh off the sanctimony of the reaction to him sending a coach to stand on public land with a pair of binoculars to investigate the vital secrets of Derby’s tactics, but he did not. Instead he conducted a self-excoriating two-hour press conference in which he not only apologised for failing to understand this might be an issue but demonstrated the level of detail of his research – and then acknowledged it probably didn’t make a difference. He bothered with the work only because, if he didn’t do it, he would feel guilty.


Others may speak blithely of philosophies, of having a faith that means they can do no other, yet Bielsa is wholly aware that there is an absurdity to what he does. He is honest, at times almost pathologically so. That is one of the things that makes him such an appealing and inspirational figure. There is no fluff, no cant, no spin.


Yet that raises another oddity, which is that, given his level of self-analysis, he must be acutely aware of the tendency of his teams to blow up in the final weeks of a season. That does not necessarily mean simply that they can no longer run as far: as Juan Manuel Llop, who played for him at Newell’s, has observed, Bielsa’s methods also leave his players mentally and emotionally exhausted.


And yet, nearly 30 years after the problem first arose, Bielsa has proved unwilling or unable to correct it. It is as though the intensity is so vital to him or his way of playing that it has proved impossible to temper. And when it produces football as viscerally stirring as the five minutes of relentless pressure that led to the equaliser against Preston, who is going to complain?


They may have won only one of their last five matches, but then the Christmas glut will always be testing for a Bielsa side. More significant is that gap to third, and the fact they have played West Brom twice.


Leeds surely are on the verge of a return to the Premier League. And even if there is a collapse, Bielsa has restored to the club a sense of life.


The Guardian Sport


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