Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder is part of an oversubscribed fan club, but the appreciation is mutual.
Bielsa is impressed by the Blades and their manager, who he faced twice in 2018-19 and will do so again at Bramall Lane at noon tomorrow.
“I remember the game we played away from home, a game in which (Jack) Clarke took advantage of a mistake by Sheffield United which allowed us to score,” he says of a 1-0 win secured by Pablo Hernandez’s goal. “I also remember the manager of Sheffield United had a clear concept and they were able to carry it out.
“The way he sets up his team awakens a lot of interest in me to learn from him.
“It’s very clear the importance of what Sheffield United have done in the last two seasons, first getting promoted then the season they had in the Premier League. It’s a team with a particular style of play which is ingrained and well oiled.
“The players clearly feel comfortable in the system. This is one of the virtues of a good manager/coach, someone who is able to ingrain his ideas on his players and make it look comfortable.
“They’re a practical team, very difficult to face and it’s a big challenge for us.”
Both clubs stubbornly stick to what are flexible ways of playing.
“The way Sheffield United set themselves up is not very common but a lot of teams have looked at their style and tried to implement it,” says Bielsa.
“They’re very loyal to their style of play and very convinced of the way they have to play.
“The English game has a semblance of style of play linked to their fans that forces team not to sit back and go for it more. Football is going in a way which is not what the fans would like. I am humbly of the opinion that the English game is at a bit of a crossroads as to whether you win without caring about how you win or with the impetus the fans put on to win it. I’m not criticising a style where you wait for the opponent, there are many ways to play.”
With 14 goals in their first two games, Bielsa’s Leeds are certainly doing their bit to be positive, even if their coach is anxious not to be seen as opposing cagier approaches. He is, though, someone colleagues take inspiration from.
“He’s certainly a character, an improver of players,” says Wilder. “I’d never put my record up against him, he’s an outstanding figure in European and world football, he’s managed two national sides and some huge football clubs in Europe.
“I believe we were the better side when we lost at Bramall Lane and I imagine he and their supporters would have said the same thing at Elland Road.”
Bielsa shies away from praise, modestly disputing Diego Llorente’s claim this week that he signed to play for Bielsa. The Spanish centre-back is not expected to make a full debut tomorrow, whilst compatriot Rodrigo is in competition with Tyler Roberts as to who replaces Hernandez, injured until October’s international break.
“I sincerely think this is not true,” says Bielsa of the comments from Llorente and others.
“Players choose their teams rather than the managers they want to play for. When I was at Lazio and maybe other clubs we tried to sign Rodrigo and he had better options. I think when a player comes to Leeds he comes to Leeds for Leeds.”
As well as the challenge of facing Bielsa, Sheffield-born Wilder also sees the historical context of a derby which has not graced the top division since 1994.
“There’s history between the clubs,” he says.
“You can’t get away from the fact Leeds United are a huge club in English football and what they’ve achieved in the past.
“It’s great for them to be back in the Premier League and they’ll no doubt believe they should be.
“They’re on the front foot, they’ve got momentum and it’s going to be an interesting game.
“They used to nick all our best players back in the day from Mick Jones to TC (Tony Currie). We’ve not really been able to pinch any of their best players at big times. Maybe they might not want to pinch any of our best players after the start we’ve made.
“They’re usually pretty tight games and hugely competitive. I’m not expecting anything else.”
Never mind Sheffield United versus Leeds United, the Premier League has been deprived of Yorkshire derbies full stop in recent years and whilst the Blades had the upper hand in the last two seasons, Wilder sees the Whites as a rising force.
“A lot of clubs have got a huge headstart on both of us,” he argues. “Leeds have not been a yo-yo club, they went into League One (and back up) so they’re fresh and similar to us in terms of that.
“But they have a bigger fanbase which gives them advantages over us. Maybe their progression will be quicker but there are a lot of things that can happen. We’re just doing as much as we possibly can to establish ourselves as a Premier League club.”
Yorkshire derbies have become a Premier League novelty, not a staple, despite an England squad with plenty from the Broad Acres.
“This county has always produced players,” says Wilder. “It’s still the major sport in our county and we have done and always will produce players who can perform at the highest level.”
Having managers of the quality of Bielsa and Wilder gives hope the White Rose can bloom again.
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