“I am obsessive about attack. When I watch videos, it’s for attacking, not for defending. My football, by definition, is very simple: we run all the time. I know that it’s easier to defend than create. To run, for example, is a decision of the will. To create you need an indispensable amount of talent”.
– Marcelo Bielsa
To many fans the hype around Marcelo Bielsa is undeserved. Questions usually centre around why a mid-table manager is so highly rated. This stance comes from a misunderstanding of Bielsa’s actual job at Leeds United. In today’s game where everything seems to be results-based, the Bielsa experience is different. Marcelo Bielsa is a coach who can not be judged by his league position at the end of a season or the number of trophies he has won in his career because he is not a results-based coach, Bielsa is a culture coach. It’s after readjusting your view of what exactly he’s trying to achieve can one properly judge the job Bielsa’s doing at Leeds;
“Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile played the most attractive football in this World Cup.”
– Johan Cruyff; After the 2010 World Cup
The majority of us support European Superpowers so it is easy to forget the status of being an elite European club is something that must be established and constantly fought for to be maintained. Playing trophy-winning levels of football is difficult and to mix in aesthetically pleasing football makes it even harder. Many clubs look at the monumental task of setting up a high octane offensive side and cave. Those teams would rather play ugly, defensive “but” effective football which is cheaper, far easier to maintain and results-based(which saves staff and background jobs).
Across Europe majority of clubs fail in building an offence-first team but it is non-elite European clubs who suffer the most here due to an inability to retain talent playing backwards football. Any technically gifted footballer they produce is poached away by more established clubs. This creates a cycle of the club’s legs consistently being chopped off as they try to get off the ground Any time they assemble a good group of players to build momentum up the football pyramid bigger clubs just purchase their players and kill their momentum. It’s in this space that Bielsa thrives. Bielsa for over 30 years has set his teams up to play effective, offensive and aesthetically pleasing football regardless of the talent level he has had at his disposal. The results are of course erratic but the consistency that you’ll see from a Bielsa side in playstyle and approach is what keeps landing him jobs;
“I learned a lot from him, and it is because of him that I am who I am. What I remember the most about Bielsa was the mentality that he tries his players to have.”
– Alexis Sánchez
The above quote is why Leeds are the perfect club for the Bielsa experience; a former elite club looking to return to their former standards and in steps Bielsa to bridge this gap. The Bielsa experience is godsent to a club owner. Bielsa is a well-known control freak who will take over an entire club and pushes it in his desired direction. He gets teams to play with a difficult balance of flair and hard work. A Bielsa team will calmly be on the ball, lose it because of a misplaced flick pass, press maniacally to win it back and then go back to being calm on the ball.
Bielsa also has a clear system with demands and roles which weed out players who can’t perform to the required level or don’t fit in. For those who clear the bar and remain in the system, Bielsa polishes in ways modern coaches just do not do anymore. Bielsa transforming Kalvin Phillips from an above-average box to box midfielder in the Championship to a full-blown starting sitting 6 for England at a major European final isn’t talked about enough.
The Bielsa Experience
To be a Bielsa fan is to accept the rollercoaster of emotions “the experience” will put you through e.g. Leeds won more games away than they did at home games last season!(as a newly promoted side!!) The lows of the experience are what usually get him fired. Not everybody can handle the personality of Bielsa and it’s said his controlling nature scares away the truly top teams from offering him a job. These truths have led him to continuously coach at mid-major to below mid-major level clubs in Europe. At these lower than elite clubs, Bielsa has perfected his coaching system.
Bielsa’s system is one that asks a lot from his players; defensive know-how, above-average technical ability and an endless motor. It has always burnt out his players by year 3. As he pushes on in year 4 at Leeds(longest spell at one club in a 32-year career) I don’t know what to expect anymore. This is new territory for the experience.
Bielsa is like a magician pulling a trick in front of you. The trick is Leeds are an elite level European club. This obviously isn’t true but looking at their playstyle it mirrors elite European teams.;
Leeds try to control games through dominating possession, press maniacally when out of possession, Leeds are constantly trying to create chances to score goals and are always looking to straight up outplay teams(even in losses). Leeds have a playstyle like a top European side but don’t have the top-level talent in the squad to match the playstyle. Leeds players hit flicks, attempt outrageous skills and play with a freedom only reserved for squads that cost hundreds of millions of pounds. All this is only possible because Bielsa is a brave enough coach to set his team out to play this way and gives his players freedom to be creative and daring;
“Maybe I could just give you a short summary of what an ideal footballer would represent. Mental strength. Sufficient ability on the ball. Being bright and intelligent enough to interpret different styles of play. Strong physicality and brave. A competitive spirit.
The culture Bielsa is building at Leeds is one of exciting football on offense(full of overloads), an overwhelming pressing system on defense, a system that encourages iso’s which force one on one opportunities all over the pitch on both jersey sides making the game a skills contest for Leeds to win;
The majority of fans will make fun of Bielsa’s players getting dribbled but that’s actually coaching. Bielsa won’t sit and play scared, Leeds battle in midfield more than any other team, as such they lose a lot and win a lot. Sadly you won’t see highlights of won shoulder duels or successful presses but always when one of the Leeds defenders is embarrassed because they defend on a tightrope. Bielsa allows these Iso opportunities to allow players to develop as individual defenders
Bielsa is also repositioning the academy as a vital part of the club and is creating a quality bargain bin signing culture when it comes to transfers.
Will Bielsa be at Leeds long enough to fully establish his vision? I don’t know but I know he’s one of the few managers active right now with a vision for what a club should be and one of even fewer who can actually push any club regardless of their state in that direction. These days in the Premier League a lot of clubs feel like they have no identity and hire managers just to keep them from being relegated. These clubs have no long term vision but only short term desperation to avoid the drop, it all ends the same way; eventually, the constant firings of managers destabilize the club and it gets relegated anyway e.g. Sunderland. Bielsa is a walking club identity and because of this Leeds have managed to escape the trap that has a chokehold across multiple clubs in England outside the top 6.
What Bielsa has done and is doing has changed lives over at Leeds. The culture Bielsa has given the club has revitalized the fan base, raised the standard of the club and will last long after he leaves Elland Road.
Bielsa has a 46% career win rate but he plays football the right way. There is almost no respect for the love of the sport when everything is results-based and money comes first (look at boxing), one of my favourite things in football is to watch coaches like Steve Bruce, Diego Simeone and Tony Pulis play the most negative football possible and still not get the result. A manager like Bielsa isn’t afraid to meet a superior side and try to outplay them. Sometimes he has lost embarrassingly other times he has achieved results that get him nominated for awards. What’s most important is that he gives his players the opportunity to showcase their talent, a lot of ballers are stuck with defensive coaches and never experience such freedom.
“To be loved is this biggest title, bigger than the Champions League or Premier League or whatever. To be loved is the most important thing and I think Marcelo has that more than any other manager in the world.”
– Pep Guardiola
Bielsa is hoping imitation becomes reality. That eventually functioning and playing like a top-level European side will eventually add up to them being an elite club in Europe again. That is the only bar to judge Bielsa on. One can’t judge Bielsa on weekly results when he is undertaking such a long-form rebuild.
Credit to; FootieCentral for all the quotes