Some football coaches try to take emotion out of the game, to make their players more robotic and consistent. Marcelo Bielsa wants the opposite from his Leeds United team.
The Whites’ much-travelled head coach is always looking for ways to improve his players and, ahead of the Championship visit of Middlesbrough, he drew inspiration from lower-league football.
I am always paying attention to what is happening in all of the other divisions like League One and League Two because I can see football in those divisions is more natural.Marcelo Bielsa
Into his second season in charge at Elland Road, the 2019-20 version of Bielsa’s team is far better drilled than the last, as just 10 goals conceded in 18 games demonstrates.
Whilst a relatively paltry goals return of 24 at the other end does not do proper justice to the chances his side are creating, Bielsa nevertheless says he wants to see more of the purity and passion he so admires in the lower leagues.
The stereotypical view of English football used to be that it was too much about that, played with the heart but too often not with the head.
If games in the pre-Premier League era were sometimes a bit too helter-skelter, those in the 21st Century can often feel excessively sterile – all about keep-ball and not enough about actually having shots on goal.
The constant changing of the rules of the game to make tackling an increasingly perilous skill has only accelerated the feeling that the game is not what it once was – and not always for the better.
The greater wealth poured into the game by broadcasters has increased the impression that the world’s increasingly transient top footballers are earning a living, rather than representing a club and a sport they feel privileged to be involved with.
As an Argentinian who has also worked in Spain, France, Italy and Chile, one might expect Bielsa to be a supporter of this more sophisticated approach, epitomised, perhaps, by his managerial disciple Pep Guardiola, the grand master of possession football at Manchester City, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich before that.
In fact, Bielsa hinted that some of the country’s strengths have been lost along the way. He feels it is important that all clubs work hard to try to get a bit of it back.
“English football is more than just the Premier League and the Championship,” stressed the 64-year-old, who had not managed in this country before moving to West Yorkshire last summer.
“I am always paying attention to what is happening in all of the other divisions like League One and League Two because I can see football in those divisions is more natural.
“Those divisions and their football are not contaminated and when you see this kind of football it produces a lot of emotions.
“I think that the next step for football to grow is to try to make the players feel those emotions and not just think about the money.
“In our society right now there is an understanding that money doesn’t (automatically) improve the performance.
“What improves the performance is when you are able to feel those emotions and transmit those things to the rest of the people and this ability to feel these emotions and multiply the skill that everybody has.
“Managers are responsible for making footballers feel those emotions more than coach what they need to do.
“In League One and League Two, you can find those kind of things but sometimes when we have these kind of things close to us we don’t give importance to this but it is important.
“Maybe it’s an old-fashioned way of thinking.”
Boro go into the game on the back of their first win since mid-September, having lost a 2-0 lead at home to Hull City on Saturday when Marvin Johnson was sent off. Wednesday’s 1-0 win at home to Barnsley lifted them out of the Championship relegation zone.
While Bielsa is one of world football’s most respected coaches, former Leeds centre-back Jonathan Woodgate is in his first season in management and is still finding his feet.
Bielsa believes Woodgate will be able to get the best out a talented squad if Boro give the 39-year-old and his equally inexperienced assistant Robbie Keane time to imprint their style on the Riverside. Fortunately, in Steve Gibson, Woodgate has a chairman who is renowned for his patience in arguably English football’s most cut-throat division.
He will need it.
In the summer, Woodgate replaced Tony Pulis, whose more direct style was very different to the way Boro are trying to play this season. Without much money to spend in the transfer market, Woodgate has had to carry out something of a cultural overhaul on a shoestring, but Bielsa thinks he is fortunate to have plenty of talent at his disposal.
“It’s clearly a team that is developing,” the Argentinian commented. “He (Woodgate) is in the process of trying to solidify his ideas.
“Middlesbrough have good players. If the manager continues doing his job he will be able to build a team and earn some respect.
“I see a team that has highs and lows and some very good players. It’s a team with good players which is searching to find its style so it’s about time.”
Leeds’ former Middlesbrough midfielder Adam Forshaw is expected to be out for another three weeks as he continues his recovery from a hip injury which has kept him out of the side since September.
Tyler Roberts and probably striker Eddie Nketiah are not yet ready to return from injury either.
Welsh midfielder Roberts pulled his hamstring during Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Reading, which put Leeds top of the Championship table until West Bromwich Albion responded with a victory at home to Bristol City 24 hours later.
The 20-year-old had been hinting at a return to his best form after missing the start of the season because of fluid on the knee.
As yet, there is no timescale for his return to fitness, but the Boro encounter will certainly come to soon. Roberts put a brave face on his latest setback when he took to social media this week.
“Small hurdle. Big jump,” he wrote on Instagram, before thanking Leeds fans for all their messages of support.