My dad and I wandered down to our local on the 15th May 2019. Leeds United were defending a 1-0 away victory to Derby County in the Championship play-off semi-final. Leeds and Derby had revelled in a fairly turbulent relationship following the infamous ‘Spygate’ scandal in which Leeds had sent scouts to watch Derby train in the hope to gain an advantage before the 2 met in the league. This relationship was tested further when only one of the 2 would gain a shot at promotion following the play-offs.
The pub was crammed and smelled of cheap lager. The empties stacked on the tables coupled with the ‘jovial’ atmosphere (to put it politely) was evidence enough that the punters had been there some time. While not being a Leeds fan myself, I do live in the surrounding area and many of my friends have been going to Elland Road for years. The sense that this was their time could be palpably felt and even in the small West Yorkshire pub I found myself in, the atmosphere was reaching fever pitch. I ordered 2 pints and let myself succumb to the joviality I felt around me.
Derby County then scored 4 times in the next 90 minutes. Leeds managed 2 through utility-man Stuart Dallas but they couldn’t tame the rams and Leeds’ dream of Premiership football was butted into obscurity. The narrative was spun: Leeds had bottled it again and even Marcelo Bielsa couldn’t mastermind a path to the play-off final, a narrative that had become all too familiar with the Elland Road faithful. It is important to remember Leeds only took 1 point from their remaining 12 before the play-offs which drowned any hopes of automatic promotion. Like Icarus, they flew too high and ultimately fell under the weight of their aspiration. This wasn’t their time.
Fast forward a year and Bielsa didn’t abandon ship but instead set a course for pastures new as Leeds are once again sailing towards promotion. A crucial match against promotion contenders Fulham ensued and Leeds’ iron will did not bend as they cruised to a 3-0 victory. Clearly learning from the mistakes of seasons past, Leeds United look the real deal and the man at the forefront is responsible for an enormous part of that. What is it about this bucket mounted maverick that makes him so unique?
It starts with the fact that he hasn’t really won very much and yet is regarded as one of the greatest footballing minds in history. Bielsa’s trophy cabinet boasts:
- An Olympic gold medal with Argentina
- A few titles with Newell’s Old Boys and Vélez Sarsfield in Argentina
- A Europa League and Copa del Rey runner’s up medal with Athletic Bilbao.
Hardly the stuff of legend.
Bielsa is a footballing purist. In his eyes there is only one way in which the beautiful game should be played, and it is just that. Beautifully.
In his youth he devoured copies of ‘El Grafico’ – An Argentinian sports magazine and was engrossed in the tactical and analytical side of the game that would dominate his life. He could not emulate his enthusiasm off the pitch, on it and left to coach the Buenos Aires university team aged just 25.
(Bielsa did play first team football for Newell’s Old Boys but ultimately his talents lay off the pitch.)
At the university football team Bielsa began his obsessive research and approach to training which has not diminished throughout the next 40 years. He is rumoured to have scouted over 3000 players before picking his squad of just 20 whilst at Buenos Aires University. (source: TifoFootball)
Bielsa is an analytical behemoth. He needs to prepare for every possible eventuality prior to a match happening. It is this borderline-maniacal preparation that landed him in hot water during the aforementioned ‘Spygate’ scandal. It would be impossible to write about Bielsa without revisiting this fiasco which propelled him into hero-worship with some and vilification with others.
Then Derby manager Frank Lampard was deeply condemning of Bielsa’s tactics saying: “I don’t care if it’s cultural” and that “at least on a sportsman’s level, its bad, in my opinion” (source: DerbyTelegraph.co.uk)
Bielsa had sent a ‘spy’ to watch Derby County train in order to further his understanding of their tactical set-up so he could prepare for when his side did battle. One crucial note was the absence of Harry Wilson a fact which, Lampard felt, would have given Leeds a significant advantage during preparation.
Bielsa claimed this was symptomatic of his approach to management and called a press conference under intense media scrutiny. Some outlets speculated Bielsa would tender his resignation following the incident, but the Argentinian had other ideas.
He began by saying “I’m not trying to justify anything” and then promptly justified everything but with nuance and an infectious self-assurance that meant you couldn’t help but respect the man. (Unless you were in anyway affiliated with Derby County!)
Bielsa’s press conference gave journalists a window into the man’s very psyche – a Freudian nightmare of data and diligence. Instead of walking away from the job, Bielsa admitted ‘spying’ on all of his opponents and that this was just part of his match preparation. He revealed to the present journalists, including the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, great dossiers of information and data. Wilson describes the press conference as extraordinary, “not so much for the data revealed….but for the fact that he bothered.” (source: theguardian.com)
We are living in the age of footballing statistics. More data is being fed to us about players and coaches than ever before. Anyone with a ‘Wyscout’ account and enough cups of Espresso could have unearthed the data that Bielsa showed in his conference. But not everyone is also in charge of running a football club the size of Leeds United.
Most top clubs employ fresh-faced data trawlers to search through thousands and thousands of players and feed back to more senior members of the hierarchy who then brief the head coach. Bielsa does things a little differently. He works 16-hour days researching players, reading data and balancing all his other duties as manager.
I suppose it should not come as a surprise that Bielsa likes to remain in control of every aspect of coaching. This is the same man who, Wilson goes on to note, drove “more than 5000 miles in his Fiat 147 to see the results.” This was following Bielsa realising during his time at Newell’s Old Boys that they may be missing out on talent in the more rural regions of Argentina. In order to combat this issue, he arranged over 70 trials in different areas of the country and drove to each one in person to make a judgement. He wouldn’t let his fear of flying get in the way of a chance to improve his side. In almost every aspect of his professional life he lives up to his infamous nickname: ‘El Loco’ – The Crazy One.
Bielsa has one of the single largest influences on 21st century football of anyone. He has directly influenced the likes of: Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli, Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola with the latter describing him as “the best coach in the world.” Bielsa’s respect from his contemporaries is also mirrored in his squad’s adoration for him.
Leeds midfielder Mateusz Klich, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday, describes playing under Bielsa as “like being in the military” and that training sessions are just “tactics, tactics, tactics and fitness.” (source: Yorkshire Evening Post)
In the same Fulham match played a few days ago in which Leeds silenced their doubters during half time, Bielsa’s men could be seen performing shuttle runs and other fitness drills. It seems Klich’s comments may not be too hyperbolic!
On this note, it is fitting to discuss how Bielsa likes to set his teams up.
At Leeds United, Bielsa tends to favour a 4-1-4-1 which morphs into Bielsa’s famed 3-3-1-3 during attack. Kalvin Phillips is integral to both iterations of Bielsa system. Writing for ‘TifoFootball’ Alex Stewart explains how during possession:
- Phillips drops into a back 3 with the 2 centre-halves. (usually Ben White and Liam Cooper)
- Another midfielder then drops into the space where Phillips was previously occupying. (usually Mateusz Klich allowing the more technical Pablo Hernandez space further upfield)
- The 2 fullbacks (Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas) then push forward to provide width in the new midfield 3.
- The more creative of the original midfield 2 is given more space to look for penetrating balls either over the top or into the striker’s feet.
- The wide midfielders push forward to open up passing lanes into the final 3rd (often Jack Harrison and Hélder Costa)
- Patrick Bamford is preferred in this system as his hold up play allows him to take the ball into feet and play wide. His movement off the ball is superior to Leeds’ other striking options.
Bielsa teams press relentlessly when out of possession. The hope is that creating overloads in the midfield forces the opposition into mistakes and Leeds then break quickly looking to capitalise.
‘TifoFootball’ have an excellent video further explaining Bielsa tactics visually: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0USaDHrc7c
Bielsa has used the same 3-3-1-3 attacking system both at Olympique de Marseille and Athletic Bilbao to great effect. He has pioneered the system throughout his managerial career and its effectiveness is evident from the Madrid to Millwall.
‘El Loco’ remains one of the prime examples of the system over player argument. Bielsa’s teams are greater than the sum of their parts and nothing evidences this more than Marseille’s decline post Bielsa. He was only in charge for 1 season and 1 game as he resigned after a loss against Caen in the opening game of his second season citing a disagreement with the board.
In 2014/15, under Bielsa, Marseille finished 4th on 69 points. They scored 76 goals, the 2nd highest in the competition. After Bielsa’s departure in 2015/16, Marseille finished 12th on 48 points. They only managed a paltry 48 goals, the 9th highest. In Bielsa, Marseille had lost a gracious and dogged leader whose belief in attacking football was second to none. The results were testament to this.
Marcelo Bielsa came from a middle-class family of politicians and lawyers. Much to his father’s dismay the suits in his life were track not trial. In many ways the teams he has constructed throughout his near 40-year managerial career are microcosms of the societies his family strived to build. The same values at a Bielsa breakfast are now upheld some 11,000km away at a lunch in Leeds. Bielsa demands respect but in turn will let you into his Loco world – a footballing utopia. It is an honour to work with him and the culture his cultivates has a lasting impact on all who come into contact with it.
Mauricio Pochettino describes Bielsa far better than I ever can: “He is like my football father. We are a generation of coaches that were his disciples. How he feels football, the passion he has for football, I think we all took that from him.”
Bielsa is a man who still has many years left at the top but one who has already achieved so much. In West Yorkshire, the cult of crazy is still very much in force.