How Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa is working his inimitable magic in restoring Leeds United to the top of English football
The veteran Argentine is taking on one of his most ambitious projects in attempting to restore a fallen giant to the top table
Athletic Bilbao were leading 2-0 against Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at Old Trafford when Ander Herrera spoke to his coach, Marcelo Bielsa.
“Bielsa wouldn’t let us stop,” Herrera said. “We thought he wanted to close down the game. No, Bielsa wanted a third and a fourth. He could live with conceding a goal from a counter attack because that meant we’d have been attacking. He’s a football romantic. He thinks that football should be a spectacle.”
Athletic won 3-2 playing prodigious football. Bielsa, the 63-year-old Argentine from Rosario, the city of Lionel Messi and Che Guevara, is an inspiration to Pep Guardiola and has travelled far and wide in football coaching. A hero at Newell’s Old Boys in his home city, he took them to the title and Copa Libertadores title. Newell’s stadium was renamed after Bielsa in 2009, the place his sides played great, unorthodox football and 3-3-3-1 formations.
Bielsa is in England for the first time. He’s made quite an impression at Leeds United, one you first see on a billboard by a railway bridge as you approach Elland Road, where his grandfatherly face is used to sell season tickets.
“Former manager of The Argentina National Team, The Chile National Team, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille” accompanies his photo.
Leeds have lost only one of their 12 league games under the man known as El Loco and are well placed for a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004. It’ll be tough, for despite being the Championship’s best-supported team with average home crowds of 33,000, the model where bigger crowds meant bigger revenues has long gone.
It’s a concern to Leeds, whose Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani, 44, thinks the £93 million annual difference between television revenues for Premier League and Championship clubs is too big and that the relegated teams have a huge advantage thanks to their parachute payments.
There’s no doubt the Premier League would be a more interesting place with Leeds in it. A trip to Elland Road is a ’90s throwback with the 39,000-seater stadium missing the sheen that Premier League cash brings. But what do they care? Leeds never wanted to be loved by outsiders and their fans spent much of last weekend’s game against Brentford voicing their disdain for Sky television who’d shifted their kick-off time.
There are enough people in their huge one city club to provide the required level of support and more for the top league, even if Elland Road needs a little love.
Leeds are a big, proud club with a rich history. Three-time champions of England and European Cup semi-finalists as recently as 2001, Leeds fans feel their successes were hard won: “1969, 1974, 1992 – Earned not Bought” proclaims one prominent flag at the stadium.
There has been little to celebrate so far this century when the instability around the club got worse. Leeds have employed 15 different first team managers since 2012 – far more than any other British club.
So maybe there’s logic in a crazy club employing a coach known as “the crazy one” and though the odds on him seeing out his two-year contract are slim, Leeds have gambled before for great rewards. This is the club who gave Eric Cantona a chance when nobody would touch him. He repaid Leeds by helping them become champions.
Bielsa’s brought the required boost. His chairman wanted a “manager with strong leadership who would be a catalyst for the entire club” – and he got it.
“There’s more optimism than at any time in the (profligate) post-Peter Ridsdale era,” explains lifelong fan Barry.
Stalls sell merchandise bearing Bielsa’s face along with caps stating: “We are Leeds”, “All Leeds, Aren’t We?” and “Dirty Leeds”. The accents of the fans are local, football tourists are few, the crowds substantial.
“Bielsa, more than any manager since Wilko [Howard Wilkinson, title winning manager in 1992], has put his identity on this team and the club as a whole,” writes an editorial in Square Ball, the club fanzine. “We’re known for the toughness of the Revie side and the directness of Wilko, so this beautiful hipster football should be difficult for us to wear, yet somehow Bielsa’s urbane yet menacing demeanour tessellates perfectly with the Leeds we know and love.”
There’s a long, long way to go. Leeds could only draw 1-1 with an impressive Brentford side when this writer visited. Brentford’s fans chided their rivals with cries of, “You’re not famous any more.”
“We’re Super Leeds and we’re going up,” retaliated the vocal fans in the South Stand.
All along, a hooded Bielsa sat detached from his staff on a blue bucket, so thoroughly immersed in his players and how they responded to his instructions. And how they have responded and bought into Bielsa, playing quick, one-touch football.
“He was murder to live with in the days before the game,” Herrera said. “Every training session, he’d be on your back. He’d criticise me in every one until I improved. His words were aggressive, but not insulting.”
Bielsa is a man who, confronted by angry fans at his Argentina home, grabbed a hand grenade and threated to pull out the pin.
“Bielsa was nervous, a perfectionist,” Herrera added. “He is the most original, different, singular, person that I’ve ever met.
“He made us play football in a form none of us had played before. Football needs him.”
For the time being Leeds definitely need him and England’s Premier League needs Leeds back in it.