EXPECTATION comes with the territory at Leeds United.
Elland Road may have last hosted top-flight football a little over 14 years ago but supporters retain an unerring belief that their team belongs among the elite.
Such an outlook can be explained by much of that fan base having watched Leeds in their pomp at least once, be it those fortunate enough to follow the great Revie team through to those who celebrated Howard Wilkinson’s title success or even just lapped up the stirring European runs under David O’Leary.
So impressive is United’s pedigree, in fact, that just four clubs have spent more days at the summit of English football over the last 50 years.
Not even current champions Manchester City can compare with the 954 days that Leeds have enjoyed looking down on the rest since August, 1968. Hence the expectation that comes with the job of managing United.
One man unlikely to be fazed by those demands, however, is the new incumbent, Marcelo Bielsa. Not after carrying the dreams of entire countries on his shoulders when in charge of Argentina and Chile.
He has worked with a lot of top players and he has made them great players. I feel his philosophy and style of how he wants to play is right up my street.Lewis Baker
Such experiences taught Bielsa to be very much his own man, something the players at Elland Road quickly appreciated this summer.
“When you speak with Bielsa,” said midfielder Ezgjan Alioski, “after five seconds you feel like you know what this person wants. He tells you directly his thinking.
“The manager also knows us very well, he analysed us very many times from last season. He wants us to work on things to make us better.
“Me, individually, I want to be better than last season. I hope I can do that. The manager can help me.”
Bielsa, as Alioski and his team-mates discovered for themselves, is famous for his obsessive approach to coaching. He has ‘the most learned library on the planet’ and spent his first few days as Leeds manager watching DVDs of all 51 games from last season.
This insistence on not leaving any footballing stone unturned continued into pre-season with Bielsa arranging for all Forest Green Rovers friendlies to be filmed so he could assess the strengths and weaknesses of his side’s first opponents. Even Forest Green’s trip to Brimscombe, a club so small their home ground is effectively a parks pitch, was not spared.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Argentinian’s mode of working will not have been surprised. When interviewed for a coaching job in Buenos Aires during the Nineties, Bielsa took 51 tapes along to explain how he would make the Velez Sarsfield team better. Velez would later bring his third league title.
Then, there was the 2002 World Cup and Bielsa, then in charge of Argentina, heading to south Korea and Japan with 7,000 videos in his luggage.
His training methods with the national team were known to include dividing his squad up along positional lines and then working separately. Captain and defensive lynchpin Roberto Ayala, for instance, rarely saw any of the strikers on the training pitch.
Other rituals developed during a career that has taken Bielsa from Newell’s Old Boys, the team he supported as a boy, through to Spain, France and now England, such as him pacing out the pitch before kick-off and only then finalising tactics.
“I had a couple of offers from other places but the manager was a big thing,” admits Lewis Baker, Bielsa’s first signing on loan from Chelsea. “If you know your football, you know all about him.
“He has worked with a lot of top players and he has made them great players. I feel his philosophy and style of how he wants to play is right up my street.”
Bielsa’s list of honours is surprisingly small for someone with such a gilded reputation. Three Argentinian titles and one Olympic gold in 2004 is his lot.
A quick glance, however, at those who consider the Leeds chief to be a major inspiration reveals plenty. Pep Guardiola last year hailed Bielsa as “the best coach in the world”, while Mauricio Pochettino has long since regarded someone he first met when a teenager as a father-figure.
This respect also extends to managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, who was fulsome in his praise about the work ethic of Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao after Manchester United had been knocked out of the Europa League in 2012.
Leeds players quickly learned this summer about the demands of their new manager. Not only were the squad at the club’s Thorp Arch training ground for up to 12 hours from early in the morning but some nights had to be spent rooming at a nearby hotel so the players did not, as Bielsa saw it, waste time driving to and from their homes.
All this is part of Bielsa’s attempts to bring about a lasting revival at a club whose pedigree is underlined by just Manchester United (3,044), Liverpool (2,422), Chelsea (1,531) and Arsenal (1,484) having spent more time over the last 50 years at the summit of English football.
“It has been good for the young players to learn from the coach,” added Alioski, 26, to The Yorkshire Post. “He is really hard. The mentality of young players now is to watch too many videos of Messi and Ronaldo, and they want to play like this.
“But this coach has made them think. He has made them listen. It is very positive for all the players. He wants something to happen here and I hope this season we can do this.”