Johnny Nic joins the Pep, Poch and most of West Yorkshire in bowing down at the altar of Marcelo Bielsa…
Who’s this then?
Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera is the 66-year-old manager of Leeds United. Born in Rosario in Argentina, he retired from his playing career at 25 and played just 113 games for Newell’s Old Boys, Instituto and Argentino de Rosario in order to concentrate on coaching. He coached Newell’s Old Boys for a full 10 years from 1980 – 1990 before moving up to take the first team.
In his first year he won the 1990 Torneo Apertura and the 1990–91 Torneo Integración, defeating Boca Juniors on penalties. In 1992, he lost the final of the Copa Libertadores, losing to São Paulo but won the 1992 Torneo Clausura.
In what would become a trademark eccentric move, he went to Atlas in Mexico for two years, then to America in Mexico City for another year. From there it was back to Velez Sarsfield in Argentina for a title-winning year before moving to Spain to boss Espanyol for a mere 12 games, half of which he lost before legging it at speed back home to manage the national side.
He spent six years as boss of la Albicelestes winning the Olympic gold in 2004 along with a 2004 Copa America runner-up medal. There followed three and a half years as manager of Chile, an up and down period but ultimately successful in qualifying for the World Cup and playing in a more dynamic attacking style.
The next gig was Athletic Bilbao who he guided to the Europa League final and the Copa Del Rey final, in 2011-12, but they lost both. He left after one more season, a disappointing one finishing 12th.
There followed a year at Marseille which saw him leaving just into his second term after falling out with the club, going to Lazio for two days before quitting and thus being slapped with a €50million breach of contract lawsuit – don’t know how that was resolved – I presume he didn’t have to pay it.
The next year he took on a two-year gig at Lille, managing them for 13 games before getting suspended and sacked. Getting rid of so many players seems to have upset a lot of people.
But in June 2018 he replaced Paul Heckingbottom at Leeds United and thus began one of the most extraordinary periods in the grand old West Yorkshire club’s history.
“It has always been my ambition to work in England and I have had several opportunities to do so during my career, however I have always felt it was important to wait for the right project to come along and so when a club with Leeds United’s history made me an offer, it was impossible to turn down,”
If it was an eccentric position to take on a club in the second tier hat had so desperately wanted to get back into the top flight for so long, it soon proved to be a stroke of genius on both Bielsa and Leeds’ part.
He set about transforming the club and remodelling it in his own slightly bonkers image. He hit the ground running, undefeated in the first six games and winning Manager of the Month. It was a thrilling season of ups and downs. In February there was the whole ‘spygate’ bollix for which the club was fined £200K which Marcelo paid out of his own pocket. Fair play to the fella for that. They finished third and lost the play-off semi to Derby County in a fractious second leg.
People said Leeds were, by now, knackered, after a season of Bielsa ball. Though it was probably more due to lacking a ruthless striker.
However, the Argentinian wasn’t for giving up and came back stronger the next season. This time they won the league in fine style. Bielsa had a street named after him and was named the LMA Championship Manager of the Year 2020
Their first season in 16 long years in the top flight was a huge success. They played thrilling football and finished ninth while acquire more points and scoring more goals than any other promoted side for 20 years.
This season has been much tougher.
Why the love?
Leeds fans, and probably all true football fans, love him and we are in good company with both Poch n’ Pep kneeling in supplication to him as the godfather of everything they have subsequently given birth to, which in Poch’s case is the ability not to actually win anything, despite every advantage to do so. Many who played under him have also gone into management such as Diego Simeone.
There is so much about modern football that is samey-samey. So much that is just a watery imitation of old ideas passed off as today’s newest invention to people who have little or no knowledge of history. Pseudo intellectualism is rife and statistical analysis is presented as though it is a new religion. But Bielsa is an original; the real deal. He did it all 25 or 20 years ago.
So much of what passes as modern thinking finds some of its root in his methods over the last three decades. This is an originator.
Before granular analysis via statistical dissection became fashionable, Bielsa was all over it, creating detailed analysis of every opponent that mirror Don Revie’s famous dossiers in the 60s and 70s, which is definitely something he will know. Revie, in his time, was a revolutionary, doing things like sending players to do ballet to improve their balance, wearing what used to be called a car coat at all times and rubbing hot soap into player’s thighs.
Life is full of drones and worker bees who are all fine and dandy for getting things done but without the maverick and the weirdo to inspire and think outside of the norms, life is very, very boring.
The idea that you might make a squad so fit during the week that 90 minutes on the weekend seems like a stroll in the park, is a simple idea but incredibly effective. The likes of Kalvin Phillips credit the three-hour murder ball sessions with giving them the energy to press for 95 minutes. He’s turned that particular player from a Championship midfielder into an essential England international.
To see Leeds in their pomp, when all players are available hurtling at their opposition, is nothing short of thrilling. No wonder people love him. The first time you see it happening, there is a sort of cognitive dissonance. What is going on? How is this happening? They won’t be able to keep this up. All thoughts that you default to. They hurtle into the opposition at an incredible pace, robbing the ball and going for the jugular. They play out at speed from the back even when at times it seems incredibly dangerous. This is highwire football, full of risk but also full of reward.
If they had a 30-goal striker, lord knows what they could achieve. While Patrick Bamford had a good season last term, a real goal machine to finish the many chances Leeds create would boost their points total markedly.
But it’s not just this full metal football that we love, it is the fact that the man himself insists on sitting on the touchline on an upturned bucket of sorts is, in a sport which produces so many cookie-cutter characters who are afraid to be different, simply extraordinary. When not dans le bucket, he’s squatting in the Andre Villas-Boas style, on the touchline. Remarkable, given for many men of his age, getting down into a squat is painful, getting up, almost an impossibility.
He lives in Wetherby to be close to the training ground, in humble accommodation and surroundings This is a hombre del pueblo.
He seems kind and generous. He paid for Newell’s training ground. He paid for a gym for Elland Road staff to use. Every month he funds a prize draw for staff to have a chance to win a car. An advocate of the power and interdependence of the collective is in his DNA. That no-one is anything without someone else is at his core.
It should also be said that periodically some of the tabloid press try to have a pop at him for not speaking English and for being overly detailed in his exposition of everything. He can speak English of course, but uses an interpreter so as to try and make sure his words are not stitched up to mean something they were not intended to mean by our famously creative press, which in turn is why they dislike him not speaking English, of course. It is always amusing when an overseas coach sees their game and simply won’t play it. It drives some of them nuts, not that Marcelo cares. You have the feeling that he considers such petty squabbles are beneath him. They are.
Four great moments
A hint of the intensity of his training sessions.
Watch him as his side demolish Newcastle…
Being nice to that lovely Patrick Bamford…
Being nice to the public…
What the people say
– So many managers come and go and like or love them, they leave little trace or impression. Bielsa is the opposite. He genuinely inspires and touches people. It really is a beautiful thing.
– Take away the football stuff, which is amazing. He makes better people of those around him, both players and more unbelievably, fans too.He’s not *just* a football manager
A man of principles, footballing and moral. Others have taken his football ones, run with them and improved upon them. If only more took up the moral ones.
— Darren Leathley (@DarrenLeathley) October 22, 2021
– He once gave @Dave__Mays the crisps from his boots meal deal as he doesn’t like salt and vinegar and thought that blue McCoys were cheese and onion like walkers. Lovely guy.
– Think of those really influential bands that inspired all the big names despite not having massively commercial success, combine their influences on their respective genres and you have Bielsa
– “Emperor’s new clothes” as far as the media is concerned.
– He never complains about referees
– He never blames players
– He believes in coaching players, not just buying new ones
From the moment he arrived you knew things would be different. A man confident in his ability, and in his knowledge of the players. To understand what’s so good you just have to watch his first game in charge against Stoke. The transformation was barely believable.
— Bartholomew (@bartacusthe1st) October 22, 2021
– He paid £2m to pay for Newell’s new training ground
– His contract demands at #lufc have purely been about training facilities
– Says players & coaches should earn less.
No one really knew what Kalvin Phillips was for at the end of the 17/18 season, most Leeds fans would have gladly seen the back of him. A couple of years of Bielsa’s coaching turned him into England’s player of the year who’d fetch not far off £100m on the transfer market
— Jamie 💛💙 (@JamieS1507) October 22, 2021
– A most decent and honest man who has not only changed the way #lufc play football but has made the players better people too. The only manager ever (I suspect) to insist the players picked up litter around the training ground at their first training session with him in 2018.
His contracts are short. It makes sense for a man of his age. If he stops feeling it, he can bail at the end of a season. At the end of this campaign marks three years in charge at Elland Road, that, in Bielsa years, is a long time. It isn’t easy to predict what he will do, impossible, even. However, he seems to love being at Leeds and has fully embraced life in West Yorkshire and is fabulously popular with the locals, something he seems to really appreciate.
When I lived in Laguna Beach in Southern California in the early 90s, I knew a fella who owned a TV store right by Pacific Coast Highway which sold both new and second hand TVs. He was in his mid-60s and had a wee bed, a table and a clothes rail in the far corner of the store behind an improvised curtain. He never left that place. He’d shut the door at 6pm and sit on his bed watching TV and eating takeaway, fall to sleep, then wake up and walk into the shop for another day’s trading. I can see Bielsa being that man. The luxuries of life are largely irrelevant to a good life and as he squats on his haunches pitchside, I’m sure he knows that too.
Unconventionality is precious in life. Someone who doesn’t buy the cliche, doesn’t get the memo or the default should be celebrated if we are not all to sink into being 6/10 bland corporate drones. Ok he looks like someone’s dad in an ill-fitting tracksuit and slightly arthritic shuffle, but long may he continue to be El Loco.
Maybe he’s not mad at all, maybe he’s the only sane one here.