Nearly 20 years ago, when Marcelo Bielsa was coach of Argentina, he went along to a testimonial match for Diego Maradona at the stadium of Boca Juniors.
Boca’s big idol at the time was playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme – a player Bielsa was not picking for the national team. There was no place for an old-fashioned, foot-on-the-ball No.10 in Bielsa’s team. The coach wanted permanent dynamism, not subtle changes in rhythm. The Boca crowd, outraged at the way Riquelme’s was being treated, booed Bielsa with gusto – and Bielsa loved it. “It’s the essence of football,” he said afterwards.
The man now in charge of Leeds United may come across as a half-deranged scientist, lost in his videos of past matches and his endless observations. But he is no cold technocrat. He loves the emotion of football, and the way it makes people feel represented. It was obvious that he would be fascinated by the Championship – even if he never learned how to say Ipswich. He delighted in the strength of depth of the English footballing pyramid, in how much the teams mean to their local cities and towns. He loved the Championship and the Championship loved him, as he carried Leeds to promotion at the second attempt. But will his relationship with the Premier League be as rosy?
Much is made of Bielsa’s past in Argentina with the Newell’s Old Boys club, whose stadium bears his name, of his time with Argentina – pre-Lionel Messi – and Chile, with Athletic Bilbao and Olympique Marseilles. Less emphasis is usually given to the time he spent in Mexico in the 90s, coaching Atlas and America.
But Mexico is an important stage in Bielsa’s development. It was his first time out of Argentina’swin-at-all-costs mentality. Things were a bit more relaxed in Mexico. Since his return, like someone changed by their time away at college, he has been more his own man and gone about things his own way, win or lose.
And his way, of course, is to charge forwards. He has described himself as “obsessed with attack.” He wants to strangle the opposition in their half of the field, overloading them down the flanks and creating two-against-one situations close to goal. This permanent desire to impose a style of play on the other team makes Bielsa’s sides so stirring to watch – and part of the appeal is the risks they are running. Bielsa freely admits he is offering the counter-attack to the opposition, that they will have plenty of space to exploit behind his defensive line. But this is a risk he is prepared to take. It is his plan A, B and C.
There is a worrying precedent from his time with Chile. There is no doubt he did a magnificent job there, moulding the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel into an exhilarating unit. He equipped them with courage, confidence and an idea of play – and though Bielsa had gone by 2015/16, he had a huge influence on Chile’s Copa America triumphs in those years.
While he was in charge, though, there was a stumbling block called Brazil. At that time, with Kaka in his pomp, Brazil were a ruthless counter-attacking machine. In qualification for the 2010 World Cup Chile met them home and away – and lost heavily both times, cut apart on the counter-attack. They faced each other once more in the second round of the South Africa World Cup – and the same thing happened again. Bielsa seemed unwilling or unable to adapt his approach, and his unwavering conviction in his idea of play ended up looking naïve.
This looks pertinent now that Leeds have returned to the Premier League. The standard of opposition will now be much higher, the margin for error much smaller.
And this is not 2001, when he was riding high with Argentina in South America’s World Cup qualifiers, or a decade later when his Bilbao side made all of Europe sit up and take notice. At the top level, the relentless high press that he pioneered is no longer revolutionary. It has become mainstream for some of the very best teams – such as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who provide Leeds with such a fascinating return to the Premier League this weekend. The element of surprise has gone, the opposition have better players – and yet Leeds will almost certainly run the same risks.
It is an intriguing prospect, even if a worrying one. The 2020/21 season could well turn into a test of faith for the players and fans of Leeds. Marcelo Bielsa, football’s great pied piper, will lead them forward. They will have good days. But somewhere along the way they will surely run into a heavy defeat or two.
The test will be in their response. Bielsa’s style of football cannot be done half-heartedly. It is all or nothing. Will the players and the supporters retain the belief to give their all even if times get hard? Or will the season end with Bielsa putting up with the kind of booing that all those years ago he heard in the stadium of Boca Juniors?