Bielsa and the opposite number he did much to influence, City’s Pep Guardiola, are two footballing purists, men who do not just like to see football played the right way but demand it and are good at setting teams up to fulfil their dreams.
If you want an insight into how Bielsa’s brain works, just ask him about City’s quest for a quadruple.
No side in history has been able to win all three major English domestic trophies and the European Cup in the same campaign, but with this extraordinary season nearing its conclusion, and despite their manager’s apparent unwillingness to even try to countenance such a mind-blowing achievement, Guardiola’s side remain very well placed to do it.
They are clear at the top of the Premier League, in the FA Cup semi-finals, the League Cup final and hold a slender 2-1 home-leg advantage over Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League quarter-final.
For Bielsa, though, football is not only about winning.
“The style of a team is only appreciated or valued if it allows you to win,” argues the Argentinian. “This idea of valuing something that triumphs has the risk of valuing those who win when they don’t deserve to. The results obtained are not always the deserved ones and the results that are deserved are not always obtained.
“If you want to value results it’s very simple, very easy, but sometimes the results defy analysis that generates the recognition of critics who think that what happens is what you deserve. It values those who win and not those who lose.”
Guardiola, who famously travelled 5,000 miles to speak to Bielsa before embarking on his own coaching career, put it more poetically when he took a team to Elland Road for the first time in October.
“It’s like perfume,” he said, “when you win, you smell so good. When you don’t, you smell so bad.”
What makes his City side, and his great Barcelona team for that matter, so special is they are not stylish nearly-men like the great Netherlands side of the 1970s or Brazil’s fabled 1982 non-World Cup winners, nor are they unlovely winners like Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, but a combination of the best qualities of both – easy on the eye yet demanding on the silver polish.
Early in the season, Bielsa made reference to their “magical” football.
“The games against teams who have the capacities to have answers or do things that are unexpected make their games full of surprises,” he says.
“When I classify Guardiola’s style of play as magical I wasn’t calling him a magician. What I was trying to say was that his team create so many surprises in attack.
“Of course this is supported by the quality of his players but there is a method which stimulates what they do and this is the difficult thing to detail.
“From the outside it looks as if the manager is doing something magical, what I wanted to say is that from the outside it’s impossible to detect how he manages, but I know there’s a process, a method that unites the individuals with what he does and this produces football full of surprises.
“There’s nothing nicer for a spectator than to see something they didn’t expect. When you know exactly what’s going to happen, it’s boring.”
For a lot of managers, trying to make the game boring is their response to facing teams as talented as City. The challenge they are usually presented with is breaking down massed defences as inferior teams man the barricades, desperately hoping for a bit of luck on the break to allow them to snatch a point.
“All the different plans are adequate if you are able to implement them and prevent the opponent from doing what they want,” says Bielsa, worshipped but seldom preachy. “If a team waits, sits back and doesn’t allow an opponent to hit them on the counter-attack and if a team is able to stop the other team from monopolising the ball that is also good. The most important thing is that you are able to implement and have success with whatever you choose.”
But it is not how he operates.
From the moment Leeds returned to the Premier League, they made that clear to those who had not been paying attention to them in the Championship. A 4-3 defeat at Anfield was a thrilling way to reappear on the big stage, and City’s trip to Elland Road was a real toe-to-toe slugfest too.
Leeds had more of the ball than a Guardiola team, and whilst they conceded 23 shots, they produced 12 of their own in a 1-1 draw where both sides hit the woodwork.
Bielsa was in fact unhappy with the amount of possession the visitors were allowed in the opening quarter of the game but is at pains to point out, “it wasn’t a question of excessive respect for the opponent, more a consciousness of what we had to deal with. If we are not able to take the ball off City, we know the consequences.”
Maybe it is naïve to play in as gung-ho a fashion as Leeds do without the galaxy of stars at City and Liverpool’s disposal, although they have grown more solid since as Premier League newcomer Illan Meslier has matured in goal and Spain centre-back Diego Llorente has physically adapted to the notoriously-demanding division, but it is undeniably good to watch. And Bielsa and Leeds will not be changing today.
“For three years now we have been trying to play in one way,” he points out. “When you are trying to play in a certain way there are always things to correct and if you change the way you play then you start another process. I always think you have to improve the way you want to play rather than go in different ways but there are managers who manage to get their teams to play in different manners at different times while I would like to play in the same way every time.”
Many of us watching on would like that too because Bielsa is absolutely right: there is more to the beautiful game than winning.
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