Something very strange happened chez Football Nerd this past Saturday evening, just after watching a very rusty Orient playing a match immediately after the entire squad had to self-isolate for 10 days, the missus and I decided we would settle down to watch Leeds United v Manchester City, a game in which we had no real stake in or loyalty attached to, but as it turned out it was an absolute joy to watch. Amazingly it wasn’t Pep Guardiola’s obscenely expensive and star-studded squad that thrilled us, but their newly promoted opponents led by the quirky, eccentric and quite simply bonkers ‘El Loco’ himself: the one and only Marcelo Bielsa.
Depending on your vintage as a follower of football you will have a certain impression of Leeds United. Some of us might remember the ‘Dirty Leeds’ of the 60’s and 70’s, the Don Revie side that was capable of playing thrilling football but also more than versed in the original dark arts of the game allegedly learnt/ borrowed from Italian sides. So tough and combative was their approach at times that even key player Eddie Gray admitted: “it was brutal stuff and, definitely win-at-all-costs”, while George Best confessed that he “hated playing against them” and that they were the only opponents against which he felt the need to wear shin pads.
Others will remember Howard Wilkinson’s squad, Cantona et al, which escaped the Second Division in 1990 and went on to win the championship, the last First Division title before the advent of the Premier League, in their second season back in the top flight. Whilst those born more recently might remember David O’Leary and the runs to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and Champions League, before eventual financial mismanagement saw them fall from their lofty status all the way to the third tier.
An absence from the top tier of 16 long years was finally ended this summer when Leeds stormed to the Championship title and secured their return to the Premier League big time where many, not just their fervent followers, believe they truly belong. The man responsible is one of the truly fascinating characters of the football world.
None other than Pep Guardiola himself has gone on record on numerous occasions citing the inspiration that Bielsa has provided for his own illustrious coaching career, saying most recently in the build up to Saturday’s match that: “He is probably the person I admire the most in world football – as a manager and as a person. He is the most authentic manager in terms of how he conducts his teams. He is unique. Nobody can imitate him, it’s impossible.” The 11 hours plus the pair spent together at Bielsa’s home in Rosario discussing nothing but football tactics and their coaching philosophies which at one stage involved Guardiola’s friend, film director David Trueba, being positioned between two chairs to act out a tactical idea, has passed into football coaching legend.
Other leading names in football management including Mauricio Pochettino, who was recruited as a player for Newell’s Old Boys after a late night visit by Bielsa and brought through the youth ranks, and Diego Simeone who Bielsa managed with the Argentina national team, reference Bielsa as having a huge influence on their coaching beliefs and approach.
A self-confessed football obsessive, Bielsa’s ability to review and analyse football matches is beyond belief, it is said that he has developed the ability to watch two games on seperate screens simultaneously and it has been suggested that once when asked what he would be doing over the Christmas holidays, he is reported to have said that he would be doing two hours physical exercise a day and then the remaining fourteen hours reviewing matches on video. Leeds’ Director of Football, Victor Orta has recounted his amazement when he left a message on the maverick coach’s voicemail as the initial contact, Bielsa sat up through the night watching seven of Leeds’ matches before calling him back. By the time the Leeds delegation met with Bielsa in person he had infamously watched every single one of their matches from their previous campaign in full, just the 70 hours of footage.
Bielsa’s approach to football is based on the seemingly simple tenet of: “taking the game by the scruff of the neck” and “playing it on the carpet”. In reality it is a high-tempo, high-pressing, fluid style that is moulded to match and exploit the opposition tactics that he has identified through his intense all-encompassing scrutiny of the opposition. No one who saw it will ever forget the 70-minute press conference which was Bielsa’s response to ‘Spygate’, when one of his assistants was caught spying on a Derby County training session, in which he admitted he had watched every team in training, then provided an overview of his findings before concluding by saying that this was only a small part of his preparation.
The rumours emanating from the Championship over the previous two seasons were that Bielsa was turning Leeds United from perennial second tier also-runs to a thrillingly attractive football side, without the significant investment that other, more higher profile clubs have needed. I had what I now realise was the absolute pleasure of watching his team play my own, Arsenal, off the park in the first half of an FA Cup tie back in January. The fact that they didn’t knock us out was down to not putting the ball in the back of the net when they were oh so dominant.
This season they have already served up a topsy-turvy, thrilling match at Anfield which eventually ended 4-3 to the hosts but very nearly saw Leeds beat champions Liverpool at their own game. Already Leeds lead the Premier League in tackling and winning the ball back.
Saturday evening’s match showed again just what a team Leeds are becoming thanks to Bielsa’s coaching genius. After an opening quarter in which City threw everything at the hosts and really should have added to Raheem Sterling’s opening goal, Leeds seemed to grow into the task in front of them and started to have some success playing through the intense pressing they faced. This seemed to force City onto the back foot and Leeds really took the game to them in the lead up to the break.
Then in the second half Leeds controlled the majority of the game, the key features of their play were not just the way they pressured and harried City when Guardiola’s team were in possession, but the speed of their transitions when they won the ball back, the fluidity of their movement to create overloads across City’s rear guard and the intricate, often one-touch, interplay to pull the defenders out of position. It may have only been a draw but as an entertainment spectacle it was hugely compelling to watch.
Speaking after the Liverpool match Jamie Carragher went on record as saying: “For possibly the first time in their history, Leeds have become everyone’s second team.” Club loyalty prevents me from following suite, but if there is going to be more football like that, I for one am going to make sure I tune in to watch as many times as I am able.