El Loco in the Graun,
if not already posted.
A sense of déjà vu collided with slight disbelief as Leeds United finalised preparations for the Championship campaign at their leafy, freshly spruced up training base near Wetherby on Friday.
For the fifth time in five years a season is starting with a new manager at Elland Road but, with due respect to Dave Hockaday, Uwe Rösler, Garry Monk and Thomas Christiansen, Marcelo Bielsa arrives trailing the sort of pedigree almost unprecedented in England’s second tier.
He was also surely the first Leeds coach to have informed the assembled media that one of his main aims was to show “I am not a demagogue”. There was also a rare honesty. “When I speak I try not to please people,” the 63-year-old said. “I try not to lie and I try to tell the truth but sometimes it’s hard not to be empathetic.”
As Bielsa spoke for 45 minutes it felt that the slightly astonishing recruitment of the 11th manager to take charge in West Yorkshire since 2013 – Leeds have a habit of switching coaches mid-season too – represents a coup, a challenge, a considerable risk and a wonderful opportunity all rolled into one.
Known as El Loco throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Bielsa – whose latest side entertain Gary Rowett’s high-spending Stoke on Sunday – is the eccentric, non-conformist touched by genius formerly in charge of Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio (for two days) and Lille (13 league games). The Argentinian mentored Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola – who calls Bielsa “the best coach in the world” – and is revered by, among many others, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino.
Bielsa, assisted by his translator and close lieutenant Salim Lamrani, offered an intriguing insight into the meticulous, non-compromising modus operandi behind his mission not only to reinvigorate but also to rebrand Leeds. As he sat at a table in his grey club training top, shooting interrogators quizzical glances over the top of his glasses, there were hints of a perhaps unexpected humility.
“I think I’m at a club that’s bigger than I deserve,” said a coach whose last title, Olympic gold with Argentina, was collected in 2004. “My goal is to show I deserve this opportunity but also that I’m not a demagogue.”
To his many disciples he is the coach/philosopher whose visionary theories and famed 3-3-3-1 formation moulded the modern game but Bielsa is also the uber maverick with a life now almost mythologised by a series of extraordinary anecdotes, some true, others apocryphal.
There is the tale of his confronting dissenting supporters with a hand grenade and the one about him knocking on the door of Pochettino’s parents at 1am in order to measure the legs of their sleeping teenage son. At Lille he ordered the building of 20 training ground bungalows so players could sleep beside the practice pitches.
It is an understatement to say that philosophy matters to Bielsa, something stressed as he detailed his idiosyncratic blend of manifesto and dogma. “We want to impose our style,” he said. “Our idea is to play in the opponent’s half and that means we will dominate the opponent. We try to link the three lines of our team without playing any long balls.
“I prefer players who have creativity. I accept the risk you take when you try to build from the back. I wouldn’t criticise a team who play long balls, who speculate, who wait before attacking, but mine is the philosophy I can transmit and it has to be deeply rooted in respect for the rules. I consider the rules as protection for creative football.”
That will be music to the ears of Patrick Bamford, Leeds’ £7m summer signing, who has joined alongside the former Wolves left-back Barry Douglas and a handful of loanees, including Chelsea’s midfielder Lewis Baker.
“My style’s not better or worse than any other, it’s the one I believe in,” continued Bielsa after shrugging off questions about the loss of his young midfielder Ronaldo Vieira to Sampdoria for £6m. “Footballers are a blend of three things; heart, mind and legs. You cannot convince them unless you truly believe what you say. I hope my work with Leeds will be full of emotions.”
As the clock ticked on, a lover of finely nuanced language who had begun by apologising for his “embarrassingly poor” English, introduced a note of humour. “After 30 minutes attention decreases,” Bielsa declared. “So please don’t be bored.” No one was.
You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later.