Geniuses tend not to listen to ordinary men: A reappraisal of Marcelo Bielsa as Leeds United edge towards the Premier League

Stephen Tudor by Stephen Tudor / 11 March 2020, 16:24

Cast your mind back to June 15th 2018 when it was officially confirmed that Marcelo Bielsa would be taking charge at Championship side Leeds United.

It was an appointment that both shocked and excited. In the thousand think-pieces that followed it was breathlessly explained to those not overly familiar with the Argentinian coach why this was unquestionably one of the most fascinating and unexpected developments of the summer.

Bielsa was a unique and innovative master-tactician whose principles had greatly influenced Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino: formidable talents in their own right who were said in some quarters to be ‘disciples’ of the 64-year-old. 

The best manager in the world meanwhile, Pep Guardiola had once called him the ‘best manager in the world’. 

Bielsa was brilliant and passionate; obsessive and eccentric: bearing all the hallmarks of a bona fide genius. He was an entire generation ahead of his time and his nickname was ‘El Loco’.

So of course all eyes turned on Elland Road and widespread anticipation heightened further when elucidation expanded to how we could expect things to play out in West Yorkshire.

We could expect Bielsa-ball in all its glory, a doctrine founded on a ferocious high press and quick circulation. Leeds would be compelling to watch; full-throttle and ambitious with core principles of concentration, rotation, and improvisation at the fore. It would be thrilling; invigorating. 

In short, regardless of whether you were a die-hard fan or long-term hater of the club, we were all in for one hell of a ride.

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Yet accompanying this narrative came two crucial caveats that each suggested we should enjoy this ride while we could. 

For it was apparently common practice for sides sculptured by Bielsa to run out of steam halfway through a season, as the intensity demanded of the players in order to fulfil this thrilling style of football began to have a detrimental effect with burn-out inevitably occurring. 

More meaningfully, his was a C.V. littered with short-term tenures. 

In a career that stretched to nearly three decades and took in nine clubs from six different countries, Bielsa had never stayed for longer than two years. When the going got tough it seemed, Bielsa got going, often suddenly and sometimes acrimoniously. 

On discovering this, the feeling was that while Leeds had done exceptionally well to attract this exceptional coach to their club with the aim of lighting a promotion fire beneath it, all they had done in actuality was arrange an entertaining firework display.

Let’s park Bielsa’s propensity to walk for a moment and instead concentrate on the rest. 

Because it has to be said that the knowledgeable pundits and hipsters alike who all prophesized the year to come got it ultimately bang on. 

In their opening 25 games of last season Leeds blitzed the Championship and were comfortably top by Christmas after losing on only four occasions. 

Out of possession they set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that rapidly changed to 3-3-1-3 once the ball was reclaimed, usually via a team that hunted in packs. 

It was football played on fast-forward and was executed by personnel who wholly bought into their coach’s vision. It was indeed thrilling.

Then the rot set in, as pertinently just two days before the end of the year Leeds lost. Then they lost again, and again. 

Acutely aware of the axiom that had gained momentum pre-season that Leeds would first flourish then crash and burn – an axiom that came courtesy of Bielsa’s reputation and raised eyebrows at whispers of triple training sessions – the club sought to suppress it. 

Local journalists were briefed that stats revealed the players were actually running faster and harder than ever. A point was made that Leeds’ habit of falling away in the latter half of campaigns pre-dated their coach’s arrival. 

All of this however fell on deaf ears. The Yorkshire giants limped their way to the end of the season then exited the play-offs, browbeaten and shattered. They’ve had a very Bielsa time of it.

This summer the former Argentina and Chile boss was not contractually obliged to remain in England yet he chose to. 

Having forged a close bond with the club and fan-base and being satisfied with the extent his project was facilitated by his employers Bielsa nailed his colours to the mast against all expectation and vowed to go again. 

This was significant as it was the first major detachment from the narrative that was laid down by the experts in 2018; a narrative that had, to this point, proven to be entirely accurate. It was one caveat down with one to go.

And now, the other has tumbled too. With nine games to play Leeds top the Championship and are in remarkably fine fettle having won their last five fixtures. 

They are looking fitter than ever, better than ever, and most intriguingly of all have hit upon a second wind after enduring a mini-crisis throughout January. It would take a disastrous downturn to not reach the Premier League from their current vantage point. 

How has this happened?

Well, it would appear – staggeringly and highly commendably – that there have been precisely no lessons learned from last term; no tweaking or changing of approach. 

Geniuses tend not to listen to ordinary men. Instead Bielsa has doubled-down on what he always knew to be true.

In 2018/19 Leeds used 21 players in ten games or more. This season they have utilized 17 and realistically only Adam Forshaw will make that list come May. The team is playing the same high-intensity football week in and week out. Only Bielsa is using fewer men to do so.

If this merely surprises that grows to outright astonishment when the arc and flow of this season is assessed. Leeds’ mini-crisis took hold after 25 games – the exact same juncture as twelve months prior. In those 25 games they accrued 51 points – exactly as they did last year. They had lost four times – you know the rest. 

Then the defeats began to hit, just as they did last season, and with this make-or-break year mirroring eerily the disappointing one that preceded it surely following a fourth loss in five doubts would have crept into Bielsa’s mind. Panic too. 

He stayed firm though. He continued to pick the same players. He turned the intensity up to the max. 

Bielsa stared down the possibility of history repeating itself because he knew fundamentally in his heart and brilliant mind that his players had an extra year’s running in their legs. He knew too that supposedly failed stints at Marseille and Lazio and Lille would have eventually come good had they kept faith in him as Leeds did.

Long-held tropes are being dismantled this season and this caricatured, enigmatic figure deserves to be viewed anew. 

He’s going to light a fire beneath the Premier League next season, just you watch. 

England - Championship: Outright Winner Odds

West Brom
Nottingham Forest
Bristol City
Preston
Blackburn
Millwall
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Stoke City
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Odds Correct as of 2020-04-24 17:47:33

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