Leeds United: The Bielsa Effect
By Bob Melling
For those of my generation, crisis was a word that became synonymous with footballing titans Leeds United. The club dropped out of the top flight in the 2003-04 season, following a chaotic campaign blighted by financial turmoil and a fair bit of axe swinging. They seemed to be changing managers more times than I change my socks… That probably says more about me, but you get the picture.
It was a dismal time for the club and their misery was compounded further when financial trouble condemned Leeds to the lowest point in their history; relegation to the third tier. However, things slowly gathered pace and the 2009-10 season reaped great reward with steadfast Simon Grayson at the helm. Not only did they cause upset with an FA Cup victory over high-flying Manchester United, but they confirmed their place back in the Championship.
Momentum was flowing the following season, but despite sitting in the playoff places for the duration, Leeds just missed out on the opportunity to secure back-to-back promotions, finishing 7th. The subsequent years saw more turbulence as Leeds desperately tried to find a winning formula, hiring and firing a bus-load of managers in the process.
You name them and they’ve probably endured a stint at the fickle club. Neil Warnock? Yep. Steve Evans? Yep. Uwe Rosler? Just for a dozen. Gary Monk? He got a bit more time. Darko Milanič? Beats Rosler with half a dozen, and no, I’m not talking about eggs! Brian McDermott? Well, he was sacked and then unsacked and then resigned after narrowly avoiding relegation. Imagine a perpetual game of musical chairs without the music and that’s the situation Leeds have been in for the past decade.
However, after exhausting an extensive list of managers that’s probably even longer than my Christmas list as a 10-year-old, have Leeds finally settled on a man bigger than the club itself in its current situation? A man with the guile to take Leeds United to the pinnacle of English football? Can he recreate the immortalised successes of the Don Revie era?
I am of course talking about blooded Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa! Although much remains untested in these premature stages, the Bielsa effect has undoubtedly proven revolutionary at a club that had its heart ripped out and its soul neglected. Not only is he injecting energy and perfectionism into players who in the previous paradigm were devoid of direction, but he is transforming the collective psyche of a city.
Leeds have never invested more in a manager and while the skeptics will allude to his volatility, if treated with care, Bielsa has the potential to attain legendary status in West Yorkshire. Bielsa’s influence stretches globally. Poch called him a second-father, whilst Pep hailed Bielsa as the best coach in the world. Bielsa’s brand of high-tempo attacking football is intense and requires obsessive levels of preparation from both his backroom and playing staff.
Yes, this intensity has led to failure in the past and he’s even walked out of a couple of clubs after not getting his own way, but El Loco, as he is affectionately known, has mellowed and matured with age. Should he be given the correct tools, he will be a fruitful appointment and Leeds United will be the beneficiaries of this.
A crucial principle of Bielsa is to always have one more central defender than the opposition have strikers. This facilitates a high press, as that spare defender allows his counterparts to foray up-field. El Loco’s formula of possessive football played at a ferocious pace demands unbridled technical ability and defenders with diligent ball-playing skills.
He often deploys fullbacks and midfielders as central defenders due to their ability to carry the ball. Bielsa expects his defenders and goalkeeper to retain possession and pass the ball between them, before recycling possession to the wing-backs. This formation creates a sort of bowl shape in defence, producing a space in the middle not for corn flakes, but for a midfield enforcer who will patrol the park. This player is the fulcrum around which the game must oscillate.
In terms of attacking, Bielsa pushes his wide-players to the margins of the field, creating overloads in between the wingers and the lone striker which the wing-backs can surge into and exploit. A playmaker with limited defensive responsibilities enjoys creative freedom in the middle, setting up attacking sequences and moving the ball in intricate triangles within the final third.
Bielsa frequently rotates the attacking players mid-game to change the focal point of attack, expecting them to be able to improvise within an overarching, erudite system. Moreover, he does not subdivide his team into defensive and attacking blocks, rather every player has the responsibility to run and hassle the opposition. The demands are probably something the Leeds players have never experienced in their sheltered footballing careers, but thus far, they appear to be adapting well to an idiosyncratic system.
Bielsa’s fanatical doctrine has swept over West Yorkshire and captured the imagination of both the players and vociferous supporters. It has been a serene marriage for a volatile club and it seems as though the woes of the past, for now at least, have been forgotten. He has grabbed the club by the scruff of the neck and instilled the team with aggressive confidence. His militaristic methods have been an immediate hit at Leeds and his distinct charisma is something Leeds have not had in a manager for a long time.
On paper, Leeds have a strong squad stuffed with quality which previous managers have struggled to invigorate. El Loco arrived and gave them a meticulous leader with an innovative vision. He perches on a trademark blue bucket at Elland Road, occasionally stalking the touchline to bark orders at his troops. It’s relentless but it’s working.
On Boxing Day, Leeds cemented their position at the summit with another remarkable comeback victory. Trailing 2-1 in the 90th minute, Bielsa’s men were nailed on for only their fourth defeat all season.
But they staged an incredible comeback, hitting back twice in stoppage time to salvage all three points – winning the game 3-2. This was a performance that characterised Leeds United under Bielsa. With half of the season behind them, Bielsa’s troops are ‘Marching on Together’ in formidable fashion.
Yet, we must not let the rose-tinted spectacles become a permanent fixture. MB started with a bang at Marseilles and they too boasted top spot by the time December rocked around.
Marseilles were a club who, like Leeds, had endured a volatile decline over an extended period of time. He was their 36th manager in a mere 28 years, but offered something that a club of unrelenting passion really craved; a leader. His trademark 3-3-1-3 formation, tireless workrate and intelligent positioning saw great success in a number of rampant victories.
But the honeymoon period came to a halt and was usurped by chaos and division. Bielsa became erratic and players lethargic and overworked. A spluttering of defeats ensured that Marseilles were no longer riding the crest of a wave and at the end of the season, Bielsa unexpectedly walked out, leaving the club in crisis.
Could the same happen to Leeds? Well, it’s a plausible narrative. They have a habit of falling away as the season progresses and undoubtedly, Bielsa’s intensity will take its toll. However, I feel as though Bielsa will have evolved his philosophy since the Marseilles days and silverware could be on the horizon come the end of the season.
He needs to strike a balance between hard graft and extreme graft and when things do get tough, Leeds must stick by their man who is a symbol of footballing intellect. He may not be trophy-ladden, but he will produce scintillating football luring fans back to Elland Road. This season could be a special one for the Leeds faithful.