Leeds United's Marcelo Bielsa love affair was about so much more than results

Results brought it to a rushed and unsatisfactory conclusion, but Marcelo Bielsa’s time as Leeds United coach was about so much more than results. It was about more, even, than football.

The Argentinian unbelievably pitched up in West Yorkshire in the summer of 2018 with an almost mythical global reputation for the purity of the football his teams played. World-class managers such as Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone were fully paid-up members of his fan club but it was noticeable virtually no one tried to completely copy a style of play which had not brought a single major honour since Argentina won the 2004 Olympics.

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In a country which loves a plucky loser and sometimes seems to resent a winner, it was part of Bielsa’s charm.

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DEVOTION: One of a number of murals in Leeds paying tribute to Marcelo BielsaDEVOTION: One of a number of murals in Leeds paying tribute to Marcelo Bielsa
DEVOTION: One of a number of murals in Leeds paying tribute to Marcelo Bielsa

Don Revie built Don Revie Leeds United as we know it on very different principles. His teams had flair but were remembered more as a reflection of their tough, dour manager, doing what it took to win and to hell with what others thought.

Under Bielsa, Leeds were most neutrals’ second favourite team, admired for the bravery of their attacking football, with high pressing and man-to-man marking. The critics said it could not work. At times Bielsa proved them wrong, at times right, but it was always fun, and a source of supporter pride.

And some of the results were very good.

His first season ended in disappointment in the play-offs, fuelling talk of the “Bielsa burn-out” theory that his teams played too energetically to sustain success over a whole season. His second trashed the idea, Leeds coming out of a run of two wins in 12 even before the Covid-19 lockdown and securing the 2019-20 title with six straight wins.

BUCKET SEAT: Marcelo Bielsa's idiosyncrasies endeared him to supportersBUCKET SEAT: Marcelo Bielsa's idiosyncrasies endeared him to supporters
BUCKET SEAT: Marcelo Bielsa's idiosyncrasies endeared him to supporters

To take a newly-promoted team to ninth in the Premier League when the financial chasm between England’s top two divisions is so wide was remarkable, given the core of the squad - Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford, Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas - were Championship players he inherited. A 3-0 victory at an in-form Aston Villa was a statement, winning at Manchester City with Cooper sent off in the first half defied belief.

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More than that, though, Bielsa was always a man of great principles, albeit with contradictions such as spying on a Derby County training session in January 2019 and his misguided loyalty to Kiko Casilla after the goalkeeper was found guilty of using racist language.

In his final press conference as Leeds coach, one journalist practically pleaded with Bielsa to shift at least some of the blame for a 4-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur onto his players but he would go to lengths which tested plausibility to take all of it. His post-match analyses were incredibly fair in their assessments and he would often defend and/or empathise with referees and officialdom. Only in his final week did he use the injuries ravaging his squad as an excuse.

One of his favourite theories was that all those involved needed to take pay cuts to allow for fewer matches of higher quality.

There was a humility too about the man who moved into a “granny flat” in Wetherby so he could walk to the training ground, politely refusing regular offers of lifts from supporters passing in cars. He could regularly be seen in the local coffee shop in the Leeds tracksuit he wore to the club’s black tie centenary dinner.

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Even as he barked orders in his limited but better than he let on English during behind-closed-doors games, there were “pleases” and “thank yous”. He was very reluctant to engage with journalists at press conferences, even visually, but once explained to a female journalist he blanked he did not respond to individual greetings because then he would have to do so with everyone. He scrupulously avoided making the media “friends” that buy under-pressure managers time.

Not only the fans but the players he worked into the ground were in awe of him and Bielsa was always tried to pay his adopted home back. Last June, he surprised a local under-11s team by taking a 90-minute training session.

Ultimately, some of his principles came back to bite him, most notably his insistence on working with just 18 senior players, backed up by 15 youngsters. It made Leeds vulnerable to injuries and last season’s top-scorer Bamford has played just once since mid-September thanks to ankle and hamstring problems. Captain Cooper and Phillips have made 15 and 12 Premier League starts respectively, and Ayling also had a lengthy spell out.

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Having shown interest in Huddersfield Town’s Lewis O’Brien and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher in the summer, a box-to-box midfielder has long been on Leeds’s wanted list. They bid £20m for Brenden Aaronson in January but when Salzburg had no interest in selling ahead of a Champions League knockout tie with Bayern Munich Bielsa resolved to wait until he could get the player he wanted, rather than take a second choice.

In the past when sporting director Victor Orta signed players Bielsa was not sold on, such as Jean-Kevin Augustin and Eddie Nketiah, it turned out to be a waste of time.

Bielsa, though, absolutely refused to bend his principles and sad as it is, it somehow felt right that he was sacked for sticking to them.

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