AT his time of life and given his status as one of the managerial grandees of the global game, it should come as no surprise that Marcelo Bielsa is only interested in challenges that truly stir his soul these days.
With his reputation endorsed by luminaries such as Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, job offers thrust into Bielsa’s lap will never be short in number, even accounting for his seasoned age of 62.
The task of reviving the footballing monolith of Leeds United was one such mission that instantly aroused his interest and, after doing all of his customary due diligence, it has proved something he could not pass up.
Obsessive in his attention to detail to the nth degree, Bielsa may be a technocrat and thoroughly analytical coach, but he appears a bit of a romantic too.
His club will always be hometown side Newell’s Old Boys, whose debt to their former manager is such that their stadium in the Argentine city of Rosario is named after him.
But Bielsa’s time at Athletic Bilbao, where he built their most exciting side in decades, remains treasured too.
Revered in that particular corner of northern Spain, the man known affectionately as El Loco remains a cult figure among supporters of Athletic, with football famously brought to that industrial port city by British workers and Basque students returning from schools in the UK.
Acclaimed by fans in Athletic’s raucous San Memes home, Bielsa also briefly revitalised the French footballing institution of Marseille and earned the respect of L’OM’s notoriously demanding fanbase at the Stade Velodrome, a time he also recalls fondly.
Now he is assigned with slaking the footballing thirst of the Elland Road faithful, who have been parched for a number of years.
It is one that appeals to his human and professional instinct and just as his good friends in Guardiola and Pochettino have been ‘enamoured’ by English football, so too is Bielsa open to being won over.
I know everything I possibly could know, as a foreign person, in terms of how Leeds United absorbs so many people in this country. I know that Leeds take huge amounts of support away with them and I know the team means an awful lot for the city.MKarcelo Bielsa
Bielsa, speaking at his unveiling yesterday, said: “I know everything I possibly could know, as a foreign person, in terms of how Leeds United absorbs so many people in this country.
“I know that Leeds take huge amounts of support away with them and I know the team means an awful lot for the city.
“The team that leaves the biggest mark in your life is always your first club, my club is Newell’s Old Boys. But Bilbao is a place which has left a mark too and the phrase that you hear most on the streets of Bilbao is ‘I am an Athletic season ticket holder’.
“It’s like a statement of who you are and an identity document and there are lots of people of British descent living in the Bilbao area.
“In football one of the great things that you get is the chance to see just how a city and a group of fans can identity with each other and be part of the club. I have been told that happened here and I am excited that it does.
“I have heard that the Championship is supposed to be the sixth or seventh best league in the world. The stadiums here are all great. I have got a flavour for it and a real desire to get going.”
Thoroughly assiduous in his craft and once famously referred to by one leading sports journalist as the ‘most learned football library’ on the planet, Bielsa held court at his unveiling for one hour and twenty minutes.
He arrived right on cue at the scheduled time of 2pm and, after almost three decades in management, it should have come as no surprise that promises of promotion were carefully sidestepped and Bielsa also avoided name-checking specific players who were in his plans. Or otherwise.
Much sense was elucidated, albeit with his words conveyed via an interpreter. But Bielsa’s message resonated.
He might not be conversant in English, but he knows plenty about the players he has inherited after viewing all 51 of United’s games last term.
His meticulousness is such that it extended to viewing United’s two recent Myanmar friendlies. In exam season, here is a someone who has come prepared, with his revision on his new club studious and painstaking.
And messages invariably do not get lost in translation when they are issued by someone with the gravitas of Bielsa, the sort who commands instant attention.
Passengers and slackers simply will not be tolerated. Well past the hour mark of his press conference, he playfully enquired if he was wearing out his interpreter because he was ‘going on’ a bit. There were glimpses of charm, but mainly it was about clarity.
His players will not get any mock sympathy. Brought to Leeds to change the club’s mentality’, according to chairman Andrea Radrizzani, Bielsa’s charges can expect it to be his way or the highway. Adapt or else.