Marcelo Bielsa’s first signs of Leeds fallibility are a test of fan dedication | Marcelo Bielsa


TThe problem with any discussion of Marcelo Bielsa is the tendency to immediately speak in foul language; everyone already knows what they think of him. It is the curse of our times that positions take hold so quickly, even when it comes to the seemingly trivial question of how football should be played.

No one can just question the way Ole Gunnar Solskjær structures a midfielder or his press organization or question whether the inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo could have made these issues worse, without being immediately labeled an anti-Ole or anti-Manchester United, reveling in every goal conceded.

It feels like football exported a particularly blind tribalism to a larger culture and has since accepted it with additional paranoia and conspiracy theory. (The most absurd recent example is the idea that to be disgusted by Saudi human rights violations is to participate in a decades-long hate campaign against the city of Newcastle. It is difficult, it is not Isn’t it possible to be anti-torture without being so anti-Geordie?)

But, Bielsa. He divided people everywhere he went, which is perhaps inevitable given his idiosyncratic and messianic nature. On the one hand, the Argentinian is extremely down-to-earth, drinking coffee in Costa, eating at a local Italian restaurant, dressing in a club tracksuit, seemingly indifferent to anything other than football. – and yet extremely sensitive to the role of sport in society and the importance that clubs play in the local community.

There is integrity and humility in him. But at the same time, he’s stubborn and demanding, idealistic and so sure of himself that he insists, for example, that the training ground be redesigned to his specifications.

Marcelo Bielsa is surrounded by the media at Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires after his Argentina side were eliminated from the 2002 World Cup in the group stage. Photography: Pablo Aneli / AP

It’s easy to see why Leeds fans love him. Not only did he bring them back to the Premier League after a 16-year absence, but he gave them style and identity. It wasn’t so much that he made football fun, although he certainly did, that he gave Leeds a team they can be proud of.

They are not the first fans to feel this for him. In 2015, four years after he left work in Chile, I had to have passport photos taken in Santiago. It turned out that Bielsa had already used the store I went to and so three walls in the studio were covered with tiny photos of him, thousands of Bielsa were looking at you as being trapped in the poster for Being John Malkovich. Why? “Because he’s Bielsa.”

But this level of dedication makes criticism difficult. The issue of fatigue dominated his first two seasons in the Championship. Leeds fans hated the idea that burnout caused them to miss automatic slots in his first season and even more the idea that stopping Covid made promotion easier in his second.

The way Leeds finished last season, with a loss in their last 11 games, would suggest they had scored a point. Still, the question was relevant: given Bielsa’s background, notably at Newell’s Old Boys and Marseille, why wasn’t burnout a factor? How did he adapt to avoid it? The sensitivities surrounding the question mean that it was never really answered.

On the other hand, there are those who see Bielsa as a hipster assignment, those who are frustrated by his reluctance or inability to conduct post-match interviews in the familiar English clichés, those who wonder how much a manager can. to be awesome when in 30 years he won three Argentina Championships, Olympic gold medal and promotion with Leeds. Such is the factionalism of the modern world, Leeds fans are probably not wrong in believing that there are some who would like it to fail.

Which brings us to this season. Leeds entered the Premier League’s fourth low of the weekend, having won two of their opening 10 games. They failed to beat Burnley and Newcastle. This season promises to be a fight against relegation. And this has led to claim that Bielsa was developed. The past two weeks have even brought in some crazy suggestions that the 66-year-old should be replaced – ridiculous, perhaps, but serious enough that club owner Andrea Radrizzani felt the need to push them back after the victory of last Sunday in Norwich.

An image of Marcelo Bielsa, sitting on his bucket, on a utility box in Leeds
An image of Marcelo Bielsa on a utility box in Leeds. “Not only did he bring them back to the Premier League, but he gave Leeds an identity.” Photograph: George Wood / Getty Images

Part of the problem is another recurring theme of age, the need for constant growth or expansion. Having finished ninth last season, with the highest points total for a promoted side in two decades, where realistically should Leeds go? Their payroll remains one of the five lowest in the division (although that may change, bringing its own pressures, if the transfer of shares from Radrizzani to 49ers Enterprises continues).

Leicester, which Leeds face on Sunday, has faced a similar problem: Just because they have finished fifth in the past two seasons doesn’t mean anything less than that is somehow a failure. An extraordinary feat one season should not make it the new one by.

Where Leicester and Leeds have suffered this season is injuries. Leeds are still without Patrick Bamford, Luke Ayling and Robin Koch, but have also sometimes been without Kalvin Phillips, Raphinha and Junior Firpo and that has had an effect.

The stereotypical criticism of a Bielsa side is that they are too offensive, but this season the problem has been at the other end: 10 goals in 10 games; To have conceded 17, including eight in two games, is nothing remarkable.

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As players return – and if Joe Gelhardt is as exciting as he appeared against Wolves – Leeds will likely come together. But it is not unreasonable at this point to raise doubts. After all, Bielsa is an exhausting character and it’s already the longest he’s spent at a club.

It’s not a good start to the season and it’s not faultless; the tendency to divide everyone into cheats or goats is corrosive for proper discussion.

But whatever happens for the rest of this season, Bielsa has been brilliant for Leeds and his time at the club a rare joy in a world that is feeling increasingly ill.


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