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Leeds United and the cult of Marcelo Bielsa: Is the Premier League ready?

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After 16 years, 15 different managers, 95 different grounds and the lowest division in the club’s history, Leeds United are back in the English top-flight, and the figure who made their years of yearning a reality is the mad old man of Rosario, Argentine – Marcelo Bielsa.

Towards the end of the 2017-18 season, Leeds United were canvassing the field to find a replacement for Paul Heckingbottom.

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The former Barnsley manager was brought in February of that year but he did little to convince owner Andrea Radrizzani and director of football Victor Orta that he is the man to rebuild the club.

Radrizzani was losing millions on trying to move Leeds United forward and he wanted to bring in someone transformative at the top of the ticket.

Orta was also under pressure as the Spaniard was not one of the most popular figures amongst the Leeds fans due to some of the questionable deals he made in the transfer market.

On this backdrop, the two top men at Leeds were discussing how best to replace their floundering manager.

As Radrizzani and Orta sat at the back of a car and considered the appointment of a new head coach, the Spaniard came up with the idea of Marcelo Bielsa.

On face value, it seemed like a ridiculous suggestion. Despite not winning many trophies, the Argentine is a revered figure amongst coaches all across the world.

He managed Argentine, Chile, Marseille and at the top of the game. Why would he consider joining Leeds United, who were consistently finishing in the bottom half of the Championship?

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But Orta and Radrizzani decided to take a punt and the wheels towards Leeds United getting promoted back to the Premier League were set in motions when the Argentine replied to Orta’s text.

Someday, someone would write a book about the negotiations leading to Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment at Leeds United. It is widely said that clubs do not choose Bielsa, he decides to choose the clubs.

Orta along with Leeds United managing director flew out to Argentine to hold talks with the man old man of Rosario. To their utter disbelief, Bielsa had already prepared detailed reports on all the teams in the Championship and watched every minute of Leeds United’s 2017-18 season.

He had a detailed analysis ready on the team, the squad at his disposal and what he wanted Leeds United to do in order for him to join the club. It took weeks of conversations, hours of face-to-face talks in a downtown hotel in Buenos Aires for the deal to happen.

The message from Marcelo Bielsa to Leeds United was clear – adhere to my demands and I will join. It had taken so long for the deal to get over the line that Leeds United went close to missing the deadline for applying for a work permit for the Argentine.

Marcelo Bielsa – The Argentine who Leeds fell in love with

Marcelo Bielsa’s volatile temperament and Leeds United’s penchant for sacking managers made for a heady cocktail. The word was, it could go two ways – Bielsa implodes and leaves soon or he inspires and gets them back to the Premier League.

His coaching career is testament to the face that there is no middle path for him. Either a club turn into a full Bielsa cult or he fails spectacularly in trying to turn them.

The key was Leeds United bought into Marcelo Bielsa’s vision. The training ground was retooled according to his wishes, infrastructure was revamped to suit the new coach’s needs and crucially, the players bought into his cult as well.

Bielsa’s training regime is often termed ‘murderball’. By all accounts, pre-season at Leeds United in the summer of 2018 was possibly the hardest any of the players ever experienced.

If the players do not buy into that, everything else falls apart. Marcelo Bielsa is uncompromising with standards of fitness and that’s why Leeds United look the fittest team in the Championship even at this stage of the season.

If a player doesn’t hit the manager’s daily bodyweight standards he is out of the team, if he fails to hit the fat ratio he is out of the team and if he doesn’t buy into all those uncompromising standards, he is out.

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A player has to go full Bielsa or he is cut off from the squad. His reputation helped him in gaining the trust of the Leeds United players and they went all-in on him.

His eye for the detail is also uncompromising. Before the start of Leeds United’s first pre-season friendly, Marcelo Bielsa asked for full videos and analysis of Forest Green Rovers’ last three games.

Forest Green manager Mark Cooper was taken aback by the request. Who analysis video of a side in the lower rungs of English football? But that’s Bielsa for everyone.

The Argentine spent 19 hours during the COVID lockdown, watching Leeds’ 20-year-old midfielder Alfie McCalmont to assess his potential in the first team.

He also had his analysts prepared, an eight-page report on the third-choice goalkeeper of a team who was yet to play a minute of football in the season. Bielsa lives up to his ‘El Loco’ moniker.

Leeds United’s tryst with destiny

For large parts of last season, Leeds United were the best in the Championship but just a point from their last four league games saw them miss out on automatic promotion.

The implosion against Derby County in the play-off semi-finals was even more surprising. Leeds United beat Derby three times last season before they fell apart in the second leg of the semi-final tie.

The air of resignation around Elland Road that day was visible on the faces of the players and the fans.

The dread was Marcelo Bielsa will walk away and for a couple of weeks after the end of the season, the Argentine gave away little about his plans. But then he sat down with the power brokers of Leeds United.

He demanded that defender Pontus Jansson be sold as he wanted dressing room unity and the Swiss was a disruptive figure at Elland Road. He also didn’t agree to sell Jack Clarke to Tottenham but he finally gave in when he was assured that the youngster would be signed back on loan.

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The message was again very clear – I want these things done. Do it or I am walking away. Andrea Radrizzani and Victor Orta didn’t want to let go off Marcelo Bielsa and eventually, he agreed to extend his contract for one more season and so it began – their path to getting back to the top flight of English football.

The club and the city have joined the cult of Bielsa. His name will be taken in the same breath with legendary Leeds United managers such as Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson.

But Marcelo Bielsa remains a simple man away from football. He lives in a one-bedroom flat in the city is often spotted shopping in his Leeds training kit and walks to the club’s training facility of Thorpe Arch every day.

There is none of the airs of a man who has a stadium named after him in Argentine and now has a street named after him in Leeds.

Let that sink in – an Argentine has a street named after him in the third biggest city of England. Forget the Falkland Wars, the Hand of God – the Bielsa cult is stronger than nationalistic sentiments in this part of West Yorkshire.

Marcelo Bielsa in the Premier League

Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford has already said that it wouldn’t be any surprise if Marcelo Bielsa has already watched and created reports on the Premier League teams.

One thing is for sure, the 64-year-old won’t compromise with his methods, whether he is managing in the Premier League or five-a-side games in his home town of Rosario.

Do not expect him to overhaul his squad for the top flight of English football. Bielsa will remain loyal and put his trust in the players who won him promotion to the Premier League.

While Leeds United will have money to spend, the building blocks of their team are unlikely to change massively next season as well.

The Leeds United boss wants certain kinds of players who would buy into his methods and his regime. The key players of his squad that won him promotion are essentially the same who finished in the bottom half of the Championship in 2017-18.

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Leeds United are unlikely to change their style in the Premier League. They will continue to play on the front foot, press hard and strive to play at 100 miles an hour football.

That is the Marcelo Bielsa way and that is the only way in his universe. There are fears that Bielsa’s resistance to overhauling the squad and changing his style for the Premier League could prove fatal.

But Chris Wilder and Sheffield United have shown this season a team can survive in the Premier League by not compromising on their core ethos. Leeds United should take heart from that.

And Fulham last season and Aston Villa this term, have shown that spending millions in the market to strengthen the squad doesn’t guarantee safety in the top flight of English football.

Marcelo Bielsa will stick to his methods, his style and his regime, and do not be surprised if Leeds United take the Premier League by storm.

Also Read: Farewell, Andre Schurrle: A tribute to Germany’s World Cup hero

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