Marcelo Bielsa
(Mike Egerton/PA) (PA Wire)

Marcelo Bielsa: Why he is still the right man for Leeds

June 15, 2018, was a day cemented in the history of Leeds United. It was the day that they hired Marcelo Bielsa to be their next manager. Bielsa was given the impossible task of getting Leeds promoted back into the English Premier League for the first time in 16 years. After being knocked out shockingly in the Championship Play-off in his first season in charge, Bielsa achieved the goal that 14 other managers were unable to.

Now in Leeds’ second season back in the Premiership Bielsa is facing the most pressure he has while being in the most challenging stretch he has faced at the team. Leeds currently sit in 16th only eight points above the relegation zone and as they prepare to face 4th place West Ham on Sunday do so without 11 first team players due to injury and one due to suspension. 

Due to all the ongoing issues that Bielsa and Leeds are facing there have been a number of pundits and fans around England that believe Bielsa should be done managing Leeds for numerous reasons. Firstly, Bielsa has been known for pushing his players to the brink in training with his trademark murderball practice. Murderball is a four or five minute game that is full speed with play going continuously and few fouls being called to slow down the pace of play. This training aspect produced wonders for Leeds in the last two seasons making them the fittest team in the Premier League. However, some fans are now feeling that it is because of murderball that so many players are being injured.

Then there is the idea that Bielsa is too stubborn to change his style, which to an extent has some truth to it. Bielsa’s style of play since his first day at Leeds has been all about out running the opponents and turning the match into a basketball game by having the ball go back and forth up the field. Bielsa has been reluctant to change his tactics against big teams and has been slated for doing so recently when Leeds lost 7-0 at Manchester City then 4-1 home to Arsenal the next week. Following the loss to Arsenal former Aston Villa player Gabriel Agbonlahor told talkSPORT that if Leeds want to stay up Bielsa has to go and be replaced by someone willing to adjust from match to match.

I was in Leeds for the Arsenal match and for the majority of the second half while being completely outplayed and down 3-0 at halftime the name Marcelo Bielsa continued to be roared from the 36,000 fans. There are a few reasons that Bielsa is still thought to be the right person to continue to lead Leeds.

1. He has proven he can adapt when needed

The recent criticism of Bielsa’s stubbornness started after the Manchester City match. The 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City was rough, but up until then not a single team in City’s last eight matches leading up to Leeds and any team since has been able to stop the likely champions. So the lack of different tactics was not the issue there. Going back to last season’s trip for Leeds to the Etihad Stadium it was a complete shock to those that had not paid much attention to Bielsa and Leeds how different his style of play was compared to other matches. Leeds were up 1-0 and had their captain sent off with a red card before halftime. Bielsa suddenly changed his style and instead of playing high pressing soccer he had his team sit back and defend then try attacking on the counter. City eventually equalized, but Bielsa kept with his method and with one of the last kicks of the game Leeds broke loose on the counter and Stuart Dallas put the ball away to give Leeds one of the biggest upsets in recent years.

One can only adapt to play the big teams so much when the total wages for Leeds according to spotrac are £17.9 million, the second lowest wage bill in the entire league. So the idea that he cannot adapt to these other teams may be slightly true, but only due to not having nearly the same level of talent at his use as teams like Manchester City do when they have single players being paid the same amount as all of Leeds just sitting on the bench never seeing minutes.

2. The injuries will heal and when they do Leeds will survive

Some of the slack Bielsa gets is because of his ideology to have a small squad. That’s good and all until half of that squad cannot play. Sure some of the injuries coming may be a cause of Bielsa pushing players too hard in training, but the majority are just knocks that every team faces, it just so happens Leeds do not have the depth to replace these injuries and have faced the repercussions from that. Nonetheless when some of Bielsa’s best players return like Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford, and captain Liam Cooper Bielsaball will be back in full force and has the capability of retaining its place in the Premiership for next season.

It is hard to imagine that Bielsa is playing with virtually the same team he had managed in the EFL Championship with a few additions. Before Bielsa, England Player of the Year Phillips was nothing more than a young midfielder playing for a team constantly fighting for mid table mediocrity and utility man Dallas, who has played nearly every position this season, was a right back filling in for injured players. Now Philips has made waves around the world with his performance in the 2021 European Championships helping England reach their first major final since 1966, and Dallas has amassed 230 appearances for the club and was named Leeds United player of the season last year. So in his time in charge he has only helped players get much better and will continue to do so. He has gotten the most out of the team so far this season and once fully fit this Leeds side could be a contender for a top 10 finish in the future like last season.

Bielsa has already shown that he can rejuvenate players coming back from injuries this season. Adam Forshaw is an example of this as the Englishman had missed the better part of the last two years with constant hip injuries. Since being hired Bielsa has stated how important Forshaw will be once he returns. Bielsa’s belief has been better than anyone could have expected. Following his return to consistent play in November Forshaw has been one of the best players for Leeds this season. He has just been rewarded for his solid play in midfield with a new contract that goes through the 2023 season. 

3. Bielsa has long term work being done at the club

The impact Bielsa has had on Leeds is not only felt with the first team, but with his constant desire to invest in the youth teams and build a foundation for the future. Since being promoted to the Premier League money has been thrown into improving the Under-23 side and that work paid off as they too were promoted into the Premier League 2 first Division. Young players from all over Europe are wanting to come play and learn under Bielsa. The talent that has been brought in had the U-23 team sitting near the top of their table before falling rapidly as many players were called up to the first team to cover the injury crisis. 19-year-old Joe Gelhardt cost only $1 million and has been the peak of signings drawing comparison to England’s all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney. Gelhardt has taken Leeds by storm with seven goals for the U-23s and one goal for the first team. Gelhardt is one of eight U-23 players to be called up for international duty in October. Bielsa’s presence was key for most of those signings to happen because, as described by Junior Firpo on the first team, Bielsa has a plan to get the most out of each player and to have each player in the youth team eventually reach the point where he can throw them into the Premier League and them not miss a beat. This has been on display a lot this winter.

With the large investment in the youth team it shows that Bielsa has a plan to be in Leeds for a few more seasons and transform those talented youth team players into players that can help Leeds continue to stay up in the Premier League.

4. He knows what it means to be Leeds

Leeds is a cold gray city in northern England and is the largest city with only one single soccer team. That means that in this one team city everyone is Leeds, there is no divide between classes like in other major cities. Not everyone is a soccer fan, but those who are look to Leeds and Bielsa as an escape from their everyday lives and something worth looking forward to. There are loads of stories about Bielsa embracing this ideology and him becoming part of the community despite being from a place nearly 7,000 miles away in Argentina and still not being able to speak English despite being in England for four years. ‘El Loco’ as he was nicknamed while coaching in Argentina has been seen all over the community in Leeds from people meeting him in the streets to fans waving outside his small townhome after promotion was secured, but the one story that shows he is more than a manager and has the whole community in mind is something that happened at the training ground. 

During his first season with Leeds in 2018 following a training session Bielsa made an interesting order of his players. He asked all players for the next three hours to go around the whole training ground and pick up all trash they could find. His reasoning behind this shows how much he cares about the people who care about the team, the fans. Three hours is the average amount of time fans would have to work to get enough money to go and watch Leeds play at Elland Road.

The phrase and song associated with Leeds that rings around the city on match days is “Marching on Together” and that togetherness of the team and city is well represented by Bielsa. Win, lose, or draw this weekend Bielsa should be there to stay for the foreseeable future because it took 16 years for Leeds to find a decent manager, who knows how long it could be to find another once Bielsa leaves.

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