In what is one of the most unlikely managerial appointments of the year, Leeds United have made a little-know but much-lauded Argentine their new boss. Whether it proves to be folly or an inspired choice, the arrival at Elland Road of the conundrum that is Marcelo Bielsa promises to be immensely fascinating.
What little we knew of Marcelo Bielsa before news broke that he had been persuaded to take the reins at Leeds United was confined to the comments of a few highly respected figures in the game. Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino described Bielsa as his “football father” and referred to himself as one of a “generation of coaches who were his disciples”, while Pep Guardiola, commenting on Bielsa’s appointment at Lille in May 2017, hailed him as “the best coach in the world,” adding that his admiration for him is huge because “he makes the players much, much better.”
For all the praise lavished upon him, Bielsa’s high standing remains something of a mystery. As a footballer, he made only 65 appearances, for Newell’s Old Boys, Instituto and Argentino de Rosario, before retiring, while as a manager he has won no major honours since guiding Velez Sarsfield to the Argentine Premier League title in 1998. And yet Diego Simeone was moved to call him “the man who taught me the most”.
Similarly, Bielsa’s recent employment history yields few clues as to his legendary status. His last job, at Lille, ended in bizarre fashion when, upon arriving at the club he initiated a clear-out of 11 experienced players only to announce that he wanted to leave before pre-season had even begun, and his contract was terminated only seven months into the job. In July 2016, Bielsa was appointed the new manager of Serie A club Lazio but quit after only two days, prompting Lazio to sue him for breach of contract.
Bielsa’s reputation stems mainly from stints as manager of Argentina between 1998 and 2004, during which time the Albicelestes finished runners-up in the 2004 Copa America and won gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and Chile, whom he led to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa following two consecutive absences, and for which he became something of a national hero. After resigning the Chile job in 2011, Bielsa would guide Athletic Bilbao to the 2012 Europa League final, losing 3-0 to Atletico Madrid, and to the Copa del Rey final that same year, losing to Barcelona.
In the build-up to the Copa del Rey final, Guardiola would say of Bielsa: “You can see Bielsa’s hand at Athletic. This will be a fascinating final […] They run up, they run down, they run up, they run down, they run up, they run down …” While Guardiola has never said it explicitly, it is a tacit admission that it was the incorporation of Bielsa’s innovative high press into his own system that would lead to tiki-taka, which in turn would help Barcelona dominate European club football for years.
Bielsa may have few trophies to his name but, as Pep Guardiola stresses, silverware is not the only measure of success. “It is important for me to say this about Marcelo because it doesn’t matter how many titles he had in his career. We are judged by that – how much success we have, how many titles we have won. But that is much less influential than how he has influenced football and his football players. That is why, for me, he is the best coach in the world.”
Leeds United are the twelfth club in Bielsa’s peripatetic managerial career and it must be hoped that his appointment at Elland Road lasts longer than those at his two previous clubs. Bielsa has a history of resigning from jobs, suggesting that he is a man of principle who will not brook interference in his methods. However, if given the latitude to implement his ideas, there are grounds for cautious optimism. Taking into account his successes with Argentina, Chile and Bilbao, and the words of those who have worked with him, it would appear that Bielsa’s strength lies in helping average players transcend their limitations through tactics, inspiration and sheer hard work.
That sounds like just the kind of skill-set required at a Championship club like Leeds. Whatever the outcome, it will be a fascinating journey.