Guest post from Oliver Tapper
If you hadn’t heard of Marcelo Bielsa when he became Leeds United manager in June 2018, then you almost certainly will know his name now. In just two seasons at the club, Bielsa has been involved in a spying scandal, won a FIFA Fair Play Award, and been promoted to the Premier League.
On 12th September Bielsa will manage in his first top-flight game against the Premier League champions Liverpool, in what is likely to be one of the most anticipated opening games in Premier League history. But what is it about Bielsa that has given him cult status in Leeds, and why should you be excited about him managing in the Premier League?
He is ‘The Crazy One’
In 1992, Marcelo Bielsa suffered a 6-0 defeat to San Lorenzo in the Copa Libertadores while managing the prestigious Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys. That night a gang of around twenty enraged Newell’s supporters travelled to Bielsa’s house and demanded he come outside to explain the team’s performance.
Bielsa did go outside; however, it was not to talk about the game. When Bielsa opened the door, he was holding a grenade and allegedly told the fans that if they didn’t leave he would pull the pin. This was the moment that led to Bielsa becoming known as ‘El Loco’ or ‘The Crazy One’.
English football has seen many characters in its time, from Mario Balotelli to Paolo Di Canio, the Premier League is rarely short of eccentric protagonists. But stories about ‘El Loco’ make Balotelli letting off a firework in his own house look about as dangerous as a cosy night in with James Milner.
In 1985, while working as a youth development coach for Newell’s, Bielsa went on a scouting trip to Sante Fe to assess and hopefully sign a promising young teenager. Except, this was not the usual meet the family and talk to the young player scouting trip. Bielsa arrived at 2am and asked the teenager’s parents if he could see their son’s legs to check whether they were ‘footballer’s legs’. After inspecting his legs while he slept, Bielsa signed the teenager on the spot in perhaps the most bizarre transfer agreement of all time. Oh, and by the way, as if this story couldn’t get any weirder, that teenager was Mauricio Pochettino.
More recently, when the Leeds board contacted Bielsa in 2018 he spent the rest of the night watching footage from Leeds’ previous season. By the time a face to face meeting had been set up, Bielsa had watched every single game of that season in full, that’s 70 hours worth of footage. To call Bielsa an obsessive is to massively underestimate the man’s attention to detail, even if it is a bit crazy.
It does not seem like Bielsa’s entertaining antics and methods are likely to change anytime soon. It’s for this reason that everyone should be excited about a season of Premier League football with Marcelo Bielsa. ‘El Loco’ is effectively a supercharged Jose Mourinho, so we should all be ready to expect the unexpected when the season starts in September.
Bielsa vs Lampard Part Two
As if the historic Chelsea vs Leeds rivalry didn’t need any extra spice, well try adding to the mix an unhappy personal history between the current managers of both clubs. Chelsea vs Leeds on the 5th December is definitely a fixture you should be circling in your calendar and clearing your plans for.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years and don’t know why Marcelo Bielsa vs Frank Lampard part two is such a big deal then let us explain what happened in part one.
In January 2019, Leeds United were caught ‘spying’ on Derby County ahead of a crucial Championship fixture. Marcelo Bielsa had sent an intern to the Derby training ground to observe then manager Frank Lampard’s plans and tactics. The spy was caught and reported to the police, resulting in a mass media hurricane referred to as ‘spygate’. Bielsa was widely criticised for his major part in the scandal and Leeds were eventually fined £200,000 by the league.
Officers have just attended the Training Ground for @dcfcofficial After a suspicious male was seen at the perimeter fence. Excellent searching conducted & male was located. All checks above board!
Keeping the team safe to bring home a win against #LUFC on 11th! #SpyingIsCheating pic.twitter.com/a12Zj8gISX
— Derby Response Unit – Derbyshire Constabulary (@DerbyResponse) January 10, 2019
Frank Lampard’s response to the scandal was to go after Bielsa, who he said had ‘violated fair play rules’. The comments were water off a duck’s back to Bielsa though, who even gave an unprecedented press conference explaining why he spied and his meticulous process for preparing for every match.
It’s fair to say that there is no love lost between these two managers which makes both fixtures between Leeds and Chelsea particularly mouth-watering prospects for the coming season.
He doesn’t fit the footballer mould
Whether you like him or loathe him, one criticism that cannot be levelled at Marcelo Bielsa is that he fits any stereotype. This will perhaps become most clear when Bielsa becomes a Premier League manager. The Premier League, much like any other major European Football league has become associated in recent decades with money, glamour and fame. Staggering weekly wages, flash cars, and luxury mansions are now part of being a top flight footballer or manager.
Who could forget when Manchester United funded Jose Mourinho living in the Lowry Hotel between May 2016 and December 2018 for 895 nights in a $1,040 per night room. Now contrast that with Marcelo Bielsa, when Bielsa moved to Leeds the club housed him in a high end spa close to Harrogate that was probably not dissimilar to Jose Mourinho’s living situation at the Lowry. However, Bielsa quickly got tired of living in a hotel and instead decided to move to a modest apartment in Wetherby because it was within walking distance of the training ground. Bielsa walked the 45 minutes to the training ground every day, spent time with locals in coffee shops, and did his weekly shopping at Morrisson’s. There is nothing ‘Premier League’ about Bielsa and his lifestyle and that surely is something that we should be excited by.
For all of El Loco’s eccentricity and sheer weirdness, he is a man of principles and values and that must be respected in him. Bielsa refused to let Leeds pay the £200,000 fine for spygate, instead funding it himself. In 2018, he donated 2 million pounds to Newell’s Old Boys calling it a repayment for all that the club had done for him. This is a man who once took time out of football to live in a monastery, and on other occasions to retreat to relative anonymity on his farm.
Bielsa’s different approach to life is one that we can all look forward to seeing in the Premier League next season and his philosophical outlook should provide plenty of food for thought for players, managers and fans alike.
His teams play amazing football
It’s not just Bielsa’s approach to life that is different: Bielsa-ball and his approach to football is unique and it’s an exciting prospect to see how it fares at the top level. ‘The Bielsa-way’ has a cult following among football fanatics and coaches within the game. Pep Guardiola is among one of many world-class managers who see Bielsa as a trailblazer for modern footballing tactics.
While you will see a few of Bielsa’s trademark tactics in every game he manages, he demonstrates a great deal of strategic flexibility, thinking deeply about each match like an intricate game of chess. Against teams with a lone striker Bielsa typically uses a 4-1-4-1 formation; however, when an opponent plays two up front Bielsa opts for a Football Manager-esque 3-3-1-3. This unusual formation serves as a means of overloading the wings and creating tactical interplays that allow his teams to get through even the most congested areas.
Perhaps the most famous aspect of Bielsa’s style that has become a staple of the major European teams in the last few years is the ‘high press’. Bielsa is widely accredited as the instigator of the high press and it makes his teams a joy to watch as they play each match at a frightening pace.
As a result, Leeds training sessions are intense and involve constant running. This relentless intensity has led to various commentators referring to Bielsa’s style as ‘Murderball’. In the last few seasons newly promoted Wolves and then Sheffield United have had major success with their relatively new tactical approaches. Bielsa’s Leeds will offer something new and they are at the top of our ‘ones to watch’ list this season.
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