Leeds United: What will Marcelo Bielsa bring to the Championship?

Leeds United are making possibly the boldest appointment in Championship history. But what will life under Bielsa look like?


(Photo credit: Alejandro Vásquez Núñez)

Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most influential managers of the modern era, having coached Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone with Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli also admitting their love for the Argentine oddity.

It came as some surprise, then, when Bielsa, nicknamed El Loco for his eccentricities, became a front-runner for the Leeds United job. 

While the stories about Bielsa’s past employments might give some cause for concern,  it has, nevertheless, inspired an optimism in Leeds fans that their fortunes are finally about to change. 

Vision

Cutting short his playing career aged just 25, Bielsa immediately went into coaching. 

Seeing himself as a football academic, he studyied the game relentlessly, trying to come up with tactical innovations capable of overcoming any opponent.

It was with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina that El Loco first started to develop his following of students of the game. Playing what has become his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation, Newell’s won the Argentine title in 1991 and 1992, as well as reaching the Copa Libertadores final. 

Bielsa believed in the game being played the right way, with fast, exciting football that the supporters would marvel at. He also believed in discipline encouraging his team to move as an eleven man unit. Each player’s position, so the logic went, would depend on that of their teammates. 

It became an obsession of his to control the spaces on the pitch: to exploit them in attack and to limit them for their opposition. As a rule, Bielsa wanted his defensive line to be just 25 metres from his attacking line at all times, pushing them extraordinarily high up the field. 

The sort of pressing seen at Manchester City and Liverpool in particular, as well as Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp, is reminiscent of what Bielsa demanded with players instructed to play with remarkably high energy and to press doggedly and efficiently to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. 

Physical demands

It is rumoured that Bielsa’s first act as Leeds manager will be to cut short the players’ summer holidays by a week. This is to have enough time to get his philosophy across to them and to work them within an inch of their lives. 

Whilst having extra time to learn seems all well and good, it has to be considered how having their holiday cut by a week by a man they’ve not even met yet will go down with the Leeds United players. 

It is crucial that Bielsa will be backed to shape the squad in the way he wants. He must be given licence to get rid of any player that isn’t 100% committed to buying into his philosophy.

Playing under the Argentine requires supreme commitment but also supreme physical capabilities, and it has been seen to end in tatters before. 

His Marseille side got off to a blistering start in 2014-15 and looked a decent bet to win the Ligue 1 title over PSG. But a catastrophic run of just ten points from 11 games from February saw them miss out on a Champions League place altogether.

He transformed the Chile national side, bringing his 3-3-1-3 back and laying the foundations for Jorge Sampaoli’s remarkable success that culminated in La Roja winning the Copa America. 

Bielsa’s Athletic team were inconsistent, although they did reach the Europa League final in 2012. As for his most recent job at Lille, it did not work at all.

Is he a good fit for Leeds?

In the case of Bielsa, the truth is that there is a reason why his students have been more successful than their mentor.

A touch more pragmatism and El Loco surely could have won so much more in his career. His absolute commitment to how he believes the game should be played has lead to thrilling football but is just a likely to lead to pitfalls. Burnout, losing the faith of his players and spiralling results are common themes with Bielsa. 

But saying that, it will be fascinating to see him in England, especially in the Championship. The Leeds United fans deserve something to get excited about and an appointment like this shows imagination and bravery that the supporters will love. 

If the club don’t back him to buy and sell the players that he wants, it could be a disaster. If he can get a squad together that believes in what they are doing, perhaps they will dazzle the Championship with Bielsa’s trademark style of football. Whether second-tier standard players will have the capability to pull such a thing off is yet to be seen.

There is a very real chance that it could be a disaster with Bielsa sacked by Christmas. But rather than being sneered at, with El Loco, Leeds fans should be allowed to dream and allowed to believe.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group E in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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Etienne Fermie

Étienne Fermie is a writer for RealSport, specialising in football and tennis.

Having featured in the Guardian and on LoveSport Radio, Étienne also co-founded the 3pm Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @etiennefermie 

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