While some believe Leeds United approaching Marcelo Bielsa only in 2018 – despite the English club struggling outside the Premier League for fourteen long years – to be a good coincidence, there are others who see it as destiny’s way of putting the perfect crisis against a genius problem solver.
Just like Leeds fans had to see off numerous owners at the helm before Andrea Radrizzani arrived with the purest of intents and high ambition deserving of the historic club, the revolving door of managers at the Elland Road also came to a halt after Thomas Christiansen and eventually Paul Heckingbottom gave way for Marcelo Bielsa in June 2018.
After remaining stagnant in the second-tier Championship for seven long years, Radrizzani and Leeds’ director of football Victor Orta were adamant on making their next move a progressive one, and that required a certain level of insanity.
George Bernard Shaw had said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Hence, while Bielsa’s appointment raised many, many eyebrows, Leeds management didn’t have a shred of doubt about hiring a manager who was sitting jobless after suing the owners of Ligue 1 club Lille, had engaged in a brawl with builders in Bilbao, and had signed and resigned from Serie A club Lazio within 24 hours.
STEPPING INTO BIELSA’S BUBBLE
Bielsa’s madness had begun way before his team’s pre-season as the management was tasked with making serious upgrades to the West Yorkshire club that saw a new running track was built around the pitch apart from a games room and sleeping pods for players. The players, however, knew little about Bielsa’s methods barring the fact that they had to undergo a gruelling training regime now.
A romantic like Bielsa has always measured a challenge by the freedom and trust he would enjoy at the helm, rather than the competition in which the football club played. Hence, the second-tier status of Leeds was long overshadowed by the unrelenting fanbase of the Whites and Radrizzani’s unflinching admiration for him.
After a tiresome pre-season, the result was there for everyone to see. Leeds United’s very first match of the 2018-19 season saw the Whites displaying relentless pressing and free-flowing possession play – all traits of the famous ‘Bielsa ball’ – against Stoke City. The Whites won the match 3-1 and the fans had realized that there was something special happening at Elland Road.
INTEGRITY ABOVE EVERYTHING
For the most part of the first season Marcelo Bielsa remained a veneered figure at the club despite the campaign being a topsy-turvy one, until a moment of madness in the fag end.
Leeds were hosting play-off contenders Aston Villa in the penultimate fixture of the 2018-19 season with the scoreline 0-0 after 77 minutes. With Villa forward Jonathan Kodjia down injured, the visitors had stopped on their tracks but Leeds players didn’t. Instead of putting the ball out of play, Mathius Klich continued to run with it and score a goal.
It had caused an absolute bedlam at the sidelines with the match getting halted for several minutes when Bielsa asked his players to allow Aston Villa to walk the ball into the net for the equalizer. The match would eventually end in a 1-1 draw following which Leeds would be eliminated by Derby County in the playoffs. Though Bielsa’s gesture against Villa divided opinions and incensed many Leeds fans, it would win him and Leeds the FIFA Fair Play award that season.
IDEALIST IN THE REAL WORLD
If Leeds fans had thought they could not be any more disappointed after the 2017-18 season, the conclusion to the 2018-19 campaign had left them heartbroken. To further exacerbate that feeling, Bielsa’s obsession with the perfect offensive football had also come under scrutiny as it didn’t fetch the desired result.
However, Leeds had evolved from a mid-table club to title-contenders by 2019 and despite all the scepticism surrounding Bielsa’s tactics, the fans and the management could not think of anyone else to continue at the helm.
Bielsa’s first press conference as Leeds manager in 2018 was preceded by rumours of the coach making his players pick up litter around Thorp Arch for three hours so that they could appreciate the sacrifice fans make to follow the club. And the manager’s last words in that press-conference were, “I hope my work with Leeds will be full of emotions.”
Hence, even though Bielsa had to work the entire 2019 season amidst financial constraints – with star players like Pontus Jansson and Kemar Roofe getting sold in the summer transfer window – the manager had already indoctrinated his style of football and fighting spirit in the Leeds dressing room.
The manner in which Leeds overcame the energy-sapping Championship season in 2019 – despite the unforeseen COVID-19 break – with on-loan players and U-23 players filling in the first team as and when required, had made it evident that Bielsa had transformed the Whites into a top-tier team even before the 2019-20 season ended. Leeds’ eventual promotion to Premier League was, in fact, just a formality.
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