Marcelo Bielsa: the inside story of a Leeds love affair that made dreams come true
At 10pm on the day Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa finally shook hands, I received a text message from South America.
“Marcelo is heading to sign his contract at six o’clock Argentina time,” it said. “I’m heading to find a revolver.”
If a revolver was going too far, then a stiff drink was needed by everybody — for the people negotiating with Bielsa and some of the people negotiating for him. After weeks of conversations and hours spent face-to-face in a downtown hotel in Buenos Aires, the deal was done. It had taken so long that Leeds were close to missing the deadline for a work permit application. They refused to relax until the contract came through. Would there be any surprises with it? Might Bielsa find a reason to change his mind at the death? Was this really happening?
They say that with Bielsa, football clubs don’t choose him. When it comes to the crunch of a firm decision, he chooses them. He rarely feels the need for a rest or a break (a three-year hiatus after his Argentina team won the Olympics in 2004 was an isolated occasion when he purposely stepped away from coaching) but he does not actively look for work. As a source close to him told The Athletic: “As far as I know he has never sought a particular position. Rather, he actively devotes time to rejecting jobs.” Like most things with Bielsa, offers of employment are binary. Simply right or wrong.
Leeds cleared the first hurdle with him when he replied to a message from their director of football Victor Orta and agreed to meet him and chief executive Angus Kinnear in Buenos Aires. They spoke all day and late into the evening and in those moments, they captured Bielsa’s imagination. Approaches to him are doomed to failure if a club cannot arouse his interest. And in Bielsa’s case, there is a sharp distinction between interest in a job and a desire to take it. Leeds were hit with ideas and demands, including upgrades to their Thorp Arch training ground, which Bielsa had somehow acquired land registry documents for.
“Do all that and I’m in.”
And on June 14, 2018, he put his signature where his mouth was.
After so much talking and so much scrutiny, interest in Leeds from Bielsa became desire. And in no time, desire for Leeds became love.
As the club walked through the doors of the Premier League this evening — back in the building after 16 years away — the inspired nature of the chance Orta took by picking up the phone to Bielsa two years ago sunk in: the most defining managerial appointment at Elland Road since Howard Wilkinson in 1988 and the most magical signing on or off the pitch since £200,000 went on Gordon Strachan the following year.
When Bielsa was first unveiled, one member of the hierarchy at Elland Road was sent a WhatsApp by a friend at another club joking he would “give it three weeks”, such was the “El Loco” caricature.
On the contrary, in Leeds, they will speak about him forever and a day. The deity from Argentina who made their hearts beat.
For around 48 hours after last season’s play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County, Leeds waited pensively for Bielsa’s next move. He had succeeded in so many ways in his first season — enhancing individual players, rebranding the team and making the city fall in love with him — but at the last, he had failed. Few words were said in the dressing room at the end of the tie. Bielsa gave his players an appreciative tap on the shoulder, picked up his bags and left. No one knew if he would be seen again.
The following day, at Thorp Arch, his coaching staff began clearing their offices and disposing of paperwork. It felt like the end. The squad gathered there for the last time before the summer holidays and arranged to go for a quiet drink. They told each other to remember the dejection they were feeling and tried to be philosophical. One of them quipped about the food he planned to eat while the cat was away: Bielsa’s strict daily weight targets were temporarily suspended during the close season. But the mood around Thorp Arch made them worry that Bielsa was about to walk.
The first couple of meetings between Bielsa and the club’s board after that Derby defeat were tense and a little fractious. The club planned to accept an offer of more than £9 million from Tottenham Hotspur for Jack Clarke, their academy-product winger, but Bielsa wasn’t convinced that selling him made sense.
Bielsa had tired of Pontus Jansson’s attitude and wanted to move on the strong-willed centre-back but there were relatively few bids for him and the best, from Brentford, was worth £5 million. Replacing Jansson with as little as £5 million would be difficult, irrespective of the plan to bring Ben White in on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion, and Leeds suspected that Brentford would compete with them for automatic promotion in 2019-20. Would they not be strengthening a direct rival? It was a return to the summer of 2018: meet on the same page and Bielsa would extend his contract for another 12 months. Otherwise, no deal.
As the emotion of the play-off defeat cooled and the meetings produced more constructive dialogue, a compromise was reached. Clarke and Jansson would both be sold and Leeds would attempt to take Clarke back from Spurs on loan (though such an agreement was struck, Clarke went on to play all of 19 minutes for his boyhood club this season). Before accepting a new contract, Bielsa travelled to London to give a presentation to Orta, Kinnear and Leeds’ majority shareholder, Andrea Radrizzani. It was packed with analysis and contained all the statistics from his first year, all the numbers which underlined the size of the opportunity missed. To improve on a third-placed finish and win automatic promotion, Bielsa saw three priorities: better finishing in front of goal, better loans and fewer injuries.
On top of that, he wanted to work on dressing-room unity. Jansson had to go and beyond that, Bielsa took the decision to dispense with his French translator, Salim Lamrani. Over time, there was a feeling that Lamrani had become too close to the players and the football. He styled himself as a discipline coach and Bielsa started to see his presence as unhealthy (to Bielsa’s annoyance, Lamrani published a book about their time working together after he left).
“And,” Bielsa told Kinnear, Orta and Radrizzani, “we need more luck. We cannot be this unlucky again.” Statistically, Leeds were the best team in the Championship. Somehow they had conspired to drop below the top two but this time, Bielsa insisted, it would be different. Orta, Kinnear and Radrizzani walked out of the meeting and said the same thing to each other: “He’s going to get us up.”
Leeds, for reasons of prudence, had managerial contingencies in place. If Bielsa left, they would need another coach, and they would need one fast. Ideas were in place for the worst-case scenario. They highlighted Slavisa Jokanovic and Aitor Karanka, both of whom had won promotion from the Championship in recent years, but the club had no appetite for abandoning the Bielsa experiment. Negotiations with him were just invariably complex.
At the start, they were successful in gaining him a work permit but the timeframe was tight and made difficult by the fact that Bielsa did not have specific UEFA qualifications. He had also been out of work for three years, aside from a short spell at Lille in France, and his application required supporting references. Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino provided one for his Newell’s Old Boys and Argentina coach and mentor.
Bielsa’s optimism engendered confidence in Leeds, who were about to re-commit to a multi-million-pound wage bill for the then 63-year-old and his backroom team. Bielsa was adamant: he could squeeze a bit more from almost every player in his squad. The only person he could ask no more of was Mateusz Klich, the Polish midfielder who has now started all 91 league games under him. And much as Bielsa conceded that he was at the mercy of his squad tolerating his punishing methods for a second year, he believed that they would. On May 28, Bielsa put pen to paper again and Orta went away to tackle the transfer market.
Round two was on.
One of Orta’s trademarks as Leeds’ director of football (away from the banks of laptops and analytical software packages) is a monthly payday ritual. When Elland Road was redecorated during the Massimo Cellino era, some of the corridors there were designed to look like football pitches and as such, they help Orta to play the “halfway-line game” with the administrative staff. Whoever rolled a ball closest to the whitewash from a set distance won a £100 voucher from Orta for one of two restaurants in the city, Iberica or Fazenda.
Over time, the staff got too good at hitting halfway so Orta changed tack by drawing up a pub quiz and splitting them into teams. The same prize was at stake but the winning team were told to go for dinner together, to relax and get to know each other away from the office. Orta, with his distinctive beard and thick-rimmed glasses, is many things: emotional, wound tight and never asleep at the wheel; prone to criticism but good at riding it and heavily devoted to his job. He is also a people person, and in that respect, he more than most others at Elland Road has held the Bielsa era together by managing the most demanding of coaches.
Appointing Bielsa was Orta’s idea, a suggestion made to Radrizzani as they sat together in the back of a car and discussed how best to replace Paul Heckingbottom at the end of the 2017-18 season.
They joke at Leeds that no one other than Orta would have been mad enough, or brave enough, to think about bringing Bielsa to Elland Road and the Championship. As one source told The Athletic: “You had two massive levels of insanity colliding. Who else would have gone for it?” Orta and Bielsa have been known to argue so furiously that some who hear them wonder if they will ever speak to one another again. But when the Latin dust settles, they forgive and forget and turn the page.
For all their interaction, Orta makes an effort to respect Bielsa’s personal space. He has no office at Thorp Arch and tends to visit the training ground as little as once a fortnight. “Never offer a coach advice unless he asks for it,” Orta says. He learned that lesson from his mentor, Monchi, at Spain’s Sevilla. And it applies more than ever with Bielsa.
Observing Bielsa at close hand inspires two reactions: astonishment at his methods and amusement at his personal touches. The methodology jumped out before his very first pre-season friendly, away at Forest Green Rovers, when it transpired that he had asked for full videos and analysis of three games Forest Green had played against non-league opposition in the south west. Forest Green’s manager, Mark Cooper, did a double-take when the request to film them dropped on his desk. Why would anyone want that footage?
Professionally, there are no compromises. If players don’t hit Bielsa’s daily weight targets, they don’t play. If players don’t hit his required running stats, they don’t play. If players can’t cope with murderball, they don’t play. If players can’t or won’t conform to everything he asks of them, they’re out.
There was no exception made for Jansson, who broke the camel’s back by complaining over his return date from international duty last summer. There are virtually no exceptions at all. Pablo Hernandez, at 35, is the only squad member whose body requires some leeway. After averaging around five absentees a game last season, Leeds were pleased to see some pragmatism from Bielsa in their recent 3-0 win over Fulham when Hernandez — returning from a hamstring strain — was used as a half-time substitute and then replaced before the final whistle, at a stage where the game was already won. But as a rule, people live and die by identical standards.
There are times when Bielsa’s lack of pragmatism drives Leeds to distraction.
In January, after a planned move for Southampton’s Che Adams fell through, they began offering Bielsa other strikers. Leeds had lost Arsenal loanee Eddie Nketiah to an early recall because of his lack of game time and they were under pressure to find a replacement. Bielsa said no to Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp and Glenn Murray of Brighton, two strikers who have proved themselves at Championship level. Leeds reckoned either signing was possible but were also flagging up RB Leipzig’s Jean-Kevin Augustin as an option and Bielsa told them to go after him instead.
That transfer was done just before the deadline but Augustin’s body, after a fleeting number of appearances on loan at Monaco in the first half of the season, couldn’t cope with the rigours of training at Leeds. He pulled a hamstring in February and struggled with it again after the end of the COVID-19 shutdown. His lack of impact has been such that, according to sources spoken to be The Athletic, Leeds want to wriggle out of an obligation to sign him permanently for £18 million after their promotion. As a club, they are starting to wonder if mid-season signings under Bielsa make any sense at all, given how hard it is to adapt to his regime without a pre-season. There are no sacred cows with Bielsa. Even centre-back White, one of Leeds’ shining lights this season, was told to change in the under-23 dressing room for his first day of training. The message is consistent: respect from Bielsa can only be earned.
He is fastidious about Thorp Arch too, the facilities and the aesthetics. He talks to the ground staff about seeding banks of earth and repositioning sheds to improve the look of the complex. He wants signs and patios washed and the facility looked after. The installation of a running track at his request was so useful during the coronavirus lockdown that even club CEO Kinnear took to using it. Leeds’ players have sleeping dorms, a functioning swimming pool (shut down by then-owner Cellino as a cost-cutting measure in 2014) and specific areas to relax in, separate from the academy youngsters. Bielsa took issue with the complex’s lack of car parking spaces and convinced Leeds to create more by complaining that morning chaos was causing a stressful start to the working day. To quote one employee at Leeds, everything is a priority: “Hernandez out for six months or the work in the car park delayed for a week — in his mind, they’re equally big problems.”
Before Bielsa’s appointment, Leeds had no intention of raising the classification of their academy from category two to category one. Financially it made no sense until they followed through with long-term plans to build a new £25 million training ground in the centre of Leeds. But the changes on Bielsa’s watch altered their thinking and last week, after so much investment, they were awarded category one status by the Premier League. The announcement would have come sooner but for delays brought on by COVID-19.
His own obsessional work ethic seeps into his staff and shows itself best in the staggering amount of analysis his coaches and analysts produce. People at Thorp Arch were amazed to find that one report on a bottom-end Championship club contained eight pages about their third-choice goalkeeper — a player who has not had a single minute of match action this season.
He is so addicted to analysis that he uses external employees, none of whom are funded by Leeds, to carry out research and projects for him on the side. One involved the study of a goalkeeper in Austria’s second division who had taken to playing as a centre-back whenever his team were in possession. When Leeds asked Bielsa what he had done with his time during the coronavirus lockdown, he told them he spent 19 hours watching Alfie McCalmont, a 20-year-old midfielder in their academy, to properly grade his potential.
His players only see that side of him. Very few of them have any contact with him by mobile and Bielsa refrains from speaking to them on a personal level. As he once said: “The more they get to know me, the less they’ll like me.”
Football in that context is business. But with the rank and file, his touch is much lighter. He runs Christmas raffles at Thorp Arch and sends the club out with his money to buy cars, laptops, widescreen TVs and mobile phones. When the COVID-19 shutdown ended, he insisted that Izzy, the club’s long-serving chef, was the first person they brought out of furlough. He has settled in a small flat in Wetherby, near Thorp Arch, and mixes happily with the locals. Leeds is a working-class city with a working-class ethos and an absolute devotion to football. Those who know him in Argentina say he found it easy to relate to that, even though he hardly visits the city himself. When West Ham United went after him without success in 2015, he was being asked to swim in a much bigger, less emotional pond in London. And more to the point, he had lingering doubts about his ability to work with West Ham’s owners.
Every little story captures Bielsa’s thinking. Take the tale of the player who went to practise free kicks after training and was promptly dragged back into the building.
“I just wanted to do a bit extra,” the player said.
“If you’re able to do a bit extra, then you haven’t been training to the maximum,” he was told.
That is Bielsa: charming in one instant, ferocious in the next and free to set the highest of bars with total autonomy and no dissent. “Football is about bringing joy to those who find joy hard to find,” he once said. And those are the people he really serves.
So what is it like to play against Bielsa’s Leeds? How do you set up to negate the movement, the rotations, the relentless appetite for possession and the moments of brilliance that make pre-planning pointless?
“The biggest thing about Leeds is their work off the ball,” says Paul Warne, Rotherham United’s manager. Rotherham played Leeds twice in the Championship in 2018-19 and lost both games. “People talk all the time about how good they are on the ball, and I’m not saying otherwise, but the reason they control possession so much is that they press you so hard out of possession.
“You get the ball back and they’re on you immediately, forcing a mistake. Before long, it starts to get into your head and it starts to tire you out. If the ball runs to your full-back, he either has to be sure to pick the perfect pass there and then or Leeds nick it back and they’re on top of you again. It becomes exhausting. You don’t get time to breathe.
“Every team has passing patterns and so on but their desire to win the ball is scary. What’s even worse is that you’re in the dugout and you’ve got Bielsa next to you, sat on his bucket, like the calmest person in the stadium. You’d never see anyone else do that and he reminds me a bit of a rugby union coach. By Saturday, his work’s done. Everything’s been prepared so meticulously through the week that he’s got the confidence to sit there and let his team play.
“It’s like going on The X Factor and being backstage next to Elvis Presley with his collar turned up. You’re wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and, psychologically, you fear the worst. That sounds awful, but it’s also the reality.
“He’s a lovely man, though, and was very polite to me when we met. I usually try to go for a bit of comedy before kick-off, a little joke to lighten the mood before it all gets serious, but because it was him I was thinking, ‘Is a joke really appropriate?’ I’m not ashamed to say I was a bit star-struck. He is something special and I like his principles. The best thing for Leeds is that whenever he goes, he’ll be leaving a proper legacy.”
One of Warne’s tactics was to try to find a gap in Leeds’ armour with crosses to the near post from the right wing. After watching a series of video clips, he noticed Bielsa’s centre-backs rarely covered that part of the box and it was, in theory, something to exploit. “But here’s the problem,” says Warne. “First of all, you have to get yourself into a good position down the right. Then you need your striker to make a good run off the ball. Then the delivery needs to be spot-on and the final touch needs to be perfect. So even though you have this idea, in practice Leeds make it so hard to pull it off. I felt like we competed well in both games. But I also understand exactly why we lost.”
Alex Pearce, Millwall’s captain and centre-back, experienced the same pressure during a 3-2 defeat at Elland Road in January. Millwall were 2-0 up at half-time after taking advantage of some uncharacteristically weak defending. Bielsa flicked a switch at the break and Leeds score three times before the 67th minute, killing Millwall with overwhelming attacks.
“The way they ran and the speed they played at was a massive problem for us,” Pearce says. “If I’m being honest, we were probably lucky to be 2-0 up and in the dressing room at half-time, we all knew how they’d react. The attacks keep coming when their tails are up and as it goes on, it forces you into mistakes. You lose sight of this player or you forget to mark that player. You get distracted for a second and the ball’s in the net. I can’t deny that when they’re on it, they’re very impressive.
“I wouldn’t quite put Leeds at the level of Wolves (who won the second tier’s title by nine points in 2018) but that game at Elland Road is one of the most powerful performances I’ve come up against in the Championship, and I’ve played a lot of games in this league. I know a few of the lads at Leeds, like Luke Ayling, and it’s interesting to speak to them. Bielsa’s obviously meticulous and it almost sounds like the weight and body fat targets he sets are unrealistic. It’s just about impossible to get there but because the players commit to it and try to get there, they’re all in unbelievable shape. They all go with what he’s asking them to do because they know it’s paying off.”
Bielsa has not been infallible or impervious to mistakes but the speed with which he adapted to the Championship was remarkable.
He has a win rate of more than 50 per cent and Leeds’ victory over Fulham on June 27 was the 50th of his career at Elland Road in his 93rd game. No Leeds manager in 100 years has hit that mark in a shorter period. The club paid for his brain and his coaching ability and they paid handsomely, agreeing to a salary of around £3 million. It dawned on them after so many years of failed managers, failed players, failed regimes and lost seasons that something out of the ordinary was needed. The man at the top had to be exceptional. He had to be enlightening and utterly in command. In short, he had to be a genius.
All of which conjured Orta’s ambitious reply to Radrizzani’s question about who should replace Heckingbottom: “What about Marcelo Bielsa?”
Professionally, Leeds’ head coach is the black sheep of his family.
The Bielsas were politicians and architects, a tradition that ran through the generations. His sister, Maria Eugenia, did the architectural designs for the training ground facility Bielsa funded at one of his old clubs, Newell’s Old Boys, in 2018 and was appointed as Argentina’s housing minister last December. His brother Rafael is a former Argentine government minister and the country’s ambassador to Chile.
Marcelo was different, a professional footballer for a while before the intricacies and possibilities of coaching began to consume his thoughts. His family are deeply proud of him, nonetheless, and Rafael finds a way to watch every Leeds game. They are close yet distant and last summer, after agreeing to stay on at Leeds, Bielsa spent less than a week back home relaxing in the countryside near Rosario. There are times when he seeks advice or guidance but only to confirm decisions which, deep down, he has already taken. When it comes to something like an approach from Leeds, he leans one way or the other in “absolute solitude”, as a confidant of his put it. Emotion plays a part but not as much as cold, hard evaluation.
Emotion, however, was a factor in Bielsa opting to give Leeds a second year of his life. He was aggrieved by their play-off defeat and, even though he would not say so openly, was convinced that his team were the best in the Championship last season. He felt that he had failed and wondered if Leeds would want to change direction because of his failure but, unlike at Newell’s in 1992, he was far from finished mentally. And deep down, he is as competitive and ambitious as the next man.
Leeds need to renew his contract again for a season in the Premier League but do not expect any trouble on that front. Despite expectations to the contrary, there were hints in the past few weeks that Bielsa was actually open to a third year in the Championship if it transpired a third year was necessary. The threat of a sizeable reduction in salary did not seem to matter.
There is no longer any need to think about the Championship and as he disappeared from view after Thursday’s win over Barnsley, shunning attention and resisting any overflow of emotion, it struck you that the exhilarating tale of Bielsa in England has only been half told.
The thrill of the past two years will give way rapidly to the thought of what comes next, in the company of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola and supporters who won’t ever know how to thank him properly.
Following a football club is about romance, fundamentally, and Bielsa has always been a love story. Now that story belongs to Leeds.