Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special

·8-min read
Victor Orta - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES
Victor Orta - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES

Victor Orta is the first to admit it. “I’m a geek,” he says. “And I’m not ashamed of it. My lifelong friends have been telling me that for many years.”

Today, Orta is Leeds United’s director of football, one of the most influential men in the game. Yet his journey in football began in the same way that it does for millions of others: collecting World Cup sticker albums.

It started at Mexico ’86, when his brothers would test young Victor on the players in his album. Then, as a teenager, he created his own database – a far less common pastime then than it is now – and after working in the media, landed a job at Spanish side Valladolid aged just 25.

Now 43, Orta has a CV that has taken in Sevilla, Zenit St Petersburg, Elche, Middlesbrough and now Leeds, where he is credited with helping rebuild the club.

Orta rarely gives interviews, but he talks Telegraph Sport through the painful decision to sack Marcelo Bielsa, why Jesse Marsch is the right man for Leeds and his optimism for the future despite a chaotic transfer window in which the club lost its two best players.

Sacking Bielsa: 'It was mentally difficult to manage'

A director of football rarely has easy days but, for Orta, one must stand out above all others: February 27, 2022.

In Marcelo Bielsa, a fellow workaholic, Orta found a kindred spirit. Together, they masterminded promotion back to the Premier League.

Then Orta sacked him.

“There was no particular moment when confidence was lost,” the Spaniard says. “There was a feeling that a change was needed and we went for it. Marcelo is and always will be Leeds history, his legacy will be eternal.

“He is the greatest manager in the club's modern era. It was a very complicated and tough decision to make, mentally difficult to manage. But it worked.”

Marcelo Bielsa - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES
Marcelo Bielsa - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES

Dismissing Bielsa was unpopular. The Argentine had become part of the fabric of the city, where he had been honoured with a street named after him. Following his sacking, which came in the wake of heavy defeats to Liverpool and Tottenham, fans directed their anger towards the directors' box, something Orta understands.

“It's logical for people to chant and protest when they are unhappy. Everything affects them. It hurts, but it's normal. I understand that the chants will be different now. You have to accept it as part of the rollercoaster that is football,” he adds.

Orta remains convinced that it was the right decision: “Clubs have to deal in a real way with all the influence of the environment, but also the fans have to know that all decisions are made for the good of the club.”

Why Marsch is the right man: 'He has a tactical depth'

Jesse Marsch's arrival followed many nights of reflection in Leeds' Thorp Arch offices.

The club had been preparing for Bielsa’s succession for some time, something all parties assumed would come later rather than sooner, but the team’s drift towards danger expedited matters.

“We had already started to analyse different profiles,” Orta reveals. “All we did was to bring the process forward. Jesse Marsch was one of the favourites, he was without a team at the time, and we decided on him.”

The young coach from Wisconsin had forged his career in the United States, Germany and Austria. His avant-garde approach caught the attention of a Leeds team that was looking not for a radical change or a ground-breaking style, but to stay faithful to the Bielsa method.

Jesse Marsch - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES
Jesse Marsch - Victor Orta exclusive: Why Marcelo Bielsa had to go – and what makes Jesse Marsch special - GETTY IMAGES

“We took into account his model of play, which was similar to Bielsa’s in terms of pressing, intensity and physicality,” Orta adds.

“We wanted to keep the things that had worked and make a more moderate transition. Marsch is a coach with a style that is trending in Europe right now, offensive, with a lot of energy. I love that. We also used big data as a filter, and what he was like as a person. Everything was analysed in detail.”

The new era did not start well, with defeats against Leicester and Aston Villa, but gradually the dressing room adapted to his methods and he has averaged 1.37 points per game since his arrival – enough to survive relegation on the final day of last season.

And there is more to come, says Orta. “I think there is a lot of room for growth,” he insists. “There’s still a lot to do. He has a tactical depth that needs time to develop. In the MLS or at Salzburg it was perhaps easier to achieve, hopefully at Leeds the results will go with him so he can continue to apply it.”

The summer transfer window: 'Players can outgrow a club'

Orta is the tip of the iceberg to a 16-team person team, one which he says is extremely loyal and who love and understands football as he does.

That dedication was tested to the limit, however, in a summer transfer window in which Leeds lost their two best players, signed nine others and suffered a frustrating transfer deadline day in which a move for striker Bamba Dieng collapsed when he was about to fly to England for a medical.

“The first thing I would say is that 90 per cent of the signings came in before pre-season in Australia, and that’s valuable,” he reflects.

“The players have adapted quickly. We sold two players – Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha – and brought in others and some young players with a lot of future. We’ve traded two for nine. Frankly, we’ve gained depth on the bench, we have more alternatives.”

Leeds struggled to find a striker who could compete with Rodrigo Moreno and Patrick Bamford, two talented but injury-prone players. Charles De Ketelaere was one of the first on the list, but he preferred to leave for AC Milan.

“We also tried with Cody Gakpo. I respect his decision not to come to Leeds. And I also put myself in the shoes of PSV and I understand they couldn’t find a replacement at the last minute. We couldn't reach an agreement for Bamba Dieng either. In the end we decided on Wilfried Gnonto, who I think is going to surprise,” Orta says.

The young Italian turns 19 at the beginning of November, and Leeds have every confidence in the versatile attacking player. “He can play inside, outside, he has already made his debut for the Italian national team and has a mentality that is overwhelming. We have to be very calm, but I think the team will not be short of goals.”

Getting rid of Phillips and Raphinha was not easy either, but Orta admits Leeds were powerless to stop them leaving.

“Players have a rate of growth that you either match as a club or you have to sell them because otherwise you are at a disadvantage,” he admits. “Hopefully Leeds will grow to match the growth of the players. In that decision, what you have to do is to optimise the sale, and I think in both cases it has been done in a positive way in terms of quality and price.”

The future: 'Top 10 would be a great success'

Two years after arriving in the Premier League, Orta’s goal is for the club to avoid the fate of yo-yo sides like Fulham or Norwich. So far they have started the season well: two wins, two draws and two defeats. Orta, though, is taking things one step at a time.

“It is as problematic to be too conservative as it is to be too ambitious. I think Leeds have to consolidate the project, to be between 14th and 10th, to take steps to reach the top 10 on a regular basis in two years’ time.”

And is it realistic to think about Europe? “It is complicated,” Orta says. “With the current business model in the Premier League, the top six is almost unattainable. Leicester and West Ham have broken through in recent years, but it's not easy. To be in the top 10 would already be a great success.

“I’d be delighted if something else comes along, like being able to play in the Conference League or, of course, the Europa League. I have that as a goal. Ever since I arrived, it’s something I’ve been obsessing about. But it wouldn’t be to do anything new, but to put the club in its place.

“We have stable shareholders and a way of working that does not put the club at risk. It is one of our keys. Nothing is going to change in the short term. I’m sure [chairman] Andrea Radrizzani is very happy here. He set himself five years to get promotion, and he got it in three.

“Now we have stayed in the Premier League these two years, and now we are trying to stabilise. We have used all the money from the sales to strengthen, and that speaks well of the owners.”