The small crowd gathered outside Marcelo Bielsa’s modest terraced home counted down the minutes until the door opened and the man set to re-energise this season’s Premier League emerged into an overcast July evening. Their patience was being rewarded. Suddenly, a beaming Bielsa was no longer inside his one-bedroom flat above a sweet shop but down in its stone-walled back yard, exchanging elbow bumps and posing for selfies with his adoring neighbours in the Yorkshire market town of Wetherby.
It took some time for a member of the Leeds manager’s backroom staff to coax the 65-year-old into a hatchback and head to Elland Road for a long-awaited promotion party.
A little earlier West Brom’s defeat at Huddersfield had guaranteed Leeds were back in the top tier for the first time in 16 years and everyone wanted a little piece of the man who will make the Premier League a lot more interesting. Not to mention lifted the mood of the biggest city in Europe to have gone so long without a top-tier football club.
The unconventionality and determined unorthodoxy of Bielsa’s methods dictates the top flight should be braced for similarly idiosyncratic moments on its pitches this season. Multimillionaire – or even millionaire – managers do not, as a rule, live or behave like Bielsa but, as perhaps befits the owner of one of the game’s sharpest tactical brains, the Argentinian is much more eccentric Oxbridge don than Harry Redknapp clone.
If it takes a rare Premier League head coach to eschew a private life spent largely behind electric gates and blacked-out luxury car windows, few teams assembled on comparable budgets play as daringly as Leeds.
Howard Wilkinson, the last manager to bring the league title to Leeds, in 1992, was a tactical pragmatist but, like Bielsa, the former teacher possesses a fierce intellect, lacks artifice or pretension and has never been afraid to do things differently.
Two men with more in common than first meets the eye are big on detail, with their faith in training-ground discipline, diligence, rigour and repetition – particularly off-the-ball drills – married to the creation of a wider club culture.
Like Wilkinson, Bielsa – who prides himself on his daily training ground dust inspections and has, on occasion, even tasked players with picking up litter – does not really play the media game. While Wilkinson, typically, replied “children” to a question about what he used to teach, the current Leeds manager has elevated press conference pedantry to new heights. His response last season to an inquiry about the suspect fitness of his French loanee striker Jean-Kévin Augustin proved instructive. It involved a 20-minute, 1,500-word monologue on a hamstring strain.
On the plus side, the word excuses does not seem to figure in the extensive vocabulary of a man who believes one-to-one interviews are “undemocratic” and refrains from using the media to berate referees, rival managers, substandard facilities or his club’s transfer policy.
Once on the pitch, things speed up. The players implementing his ideas operate in a torrent of such intricate high-intensity positional interchanging, passing, moving, quick-fire counterattacking and, above all, pressing that fellow coaches are sometimes left awestruck. Having been mentored by the Argentinian, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino remain confirmed Bielsaites.
As with Guardiola’s Manchester City, there were distinct shades of Bielsa’s Leeds blueprint in the way Pochettino’s Tottenham played – albeit with a rather more expensive set of players. The challenge for Bielsa and his relatively cut-price squad now is to reproduce, at a significantly higher level, the style that blew away so many Championship teams. When his contract expired in July there were fears one of the game’s more enigmatic figures could quit but a new deal has been agreed and, at the time of writing, merely required the application of pen to paper.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, the precise framework inside creative individuals such as Pablo Hernández can bewitch neutrals and others including, perhaps most notably, Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich and the captain, Liam Cooper, have improved beyond recognition, perhaps reflects their manager’s erudite background.
He recognises the importance of the fans and how the game becomes nothing without themJudith Blake, leader of Leeds city council
Bielsa comes from a Rosario-based family of lawyers, outstanding architects, diplomats and principled politicians. His own formidable brain has been channelled almost exclusively into football tactics. Although his wife, Laura, an academic, shuttles between Wetherby and Argentina, she and their two adult daughters, Iñes and Mercedes, have had their family life dominated by football.
Even by the standards of a profession inhabited by its fair share of workaholics and obsessives, a pursuit of perfectionism sets Bielsa apart. “They call him ‘El Loco’ cos he’s crazy … but he knows exactly what we need,” chorus Leeds fans in an adaptation of Bad Moon Rising designed to emphasise the symbiotic bond between the former Newell’s Old Boys, Vélez Sarsfield, Espanyol, Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio and Lille coach and a club that has long revelled in its outsider status. “It’s us against the world,” says Cooper. “That’s always my message to the lads. We’re one big family and we have that siege mentality.”
The sense of Leeds against the world has been actively nurtured by the club’s Italian owner, Andrea Radrizzani, the Spanish director of football, Victor Orta, and the chief executive, Angus Kinnear. Leeds were the first Championship club where players and executives agreed to take significant wage deferrals once the covid pandemic struck, accepting cuts of, in many cases, at least 50%, by collecting a maximum of £6,000 a week. That gesture saved the jobs of 272 Leeds staff while also ensuring an army of casual workers continued to be paid during lockdown.
Unlike certain clubs, backroom bonds are tight at Leeds. Orta makes a point of ensuring the birthdays and anniversaries of even junior staff are recognised and an enduring sense of camaraderie constructed.
The board regards the development of off-field infrastructure as being as important as Bielsa’s tactical framework. Plans are under way to create an Elland Road community campus featuring a new £25m training ground – the current base at Thorp Arch, near Wetherby, lies a 22-mile drive to the north-east – sited alongside public pitches, a doctor’s surgery and other facilities intended to benefit the local population.
Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, is working closely with Kinnear and company to implement this scheme. “When Leeds do well it’s not an exaggeration to say you can feel the change of mood in the city on many different levels,” she says. “Marcelo has captured not just the fans’ imagination but that of the whole city.
“It isn’t just the fantastic style of football Leeds play or how Marcelo has managed to get 10% more from the players; it’s his approach as a whole. He recognises the importance of the fans and how the game becomes nothing without them. It’s his passion, his engagement, his meticulous attention to detail and, also, his modesty. We’re very lucky to have him.”