Marcelo Bielsa and The Long Road to Yorkshire

Marcelo Bielsa, one of the modern game’s great innovators and visionaries has been appointed the new manager of Championship side Leeds United. Now there’s a coup. The Argentinean has developed a reputation as one of the game’s brightest stars over the past two decades. Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are amongst the many who tip their cap to El Loco, such is his reputation in world football.

The appointment, though, is not without considerable risk, and when one scratches beneath the surface, there does seem to be a few wrinkles that would need to be ironed out. While success is never a guarantee, and despite a few question marks, Leeds fans would be well within their rights to start getting excited by this stellar appointment.

The long road to Yorkshire

Many talented South American writers have covered Bielsa’s career extensively. Tim Vickery has always spoken highly of him, and his reputation on that football-mad continent is beyond reproach. His most famous work there came when he sought redemption in Chile, following Argentina’s disappointing group stage exit at the 2002 World Cup under his stewardship.

At Chile, he built up a special team, growing them into one of the most intriguing and exciting international sides of that time. Adopting his un enganche y tres punta – one playmaker and three forwards system – which he seldom deviates from, he galvanised the entire football infrastructure of the nation.

His sides were all about talented youngsters, like Gary Medal and Arturo Vidal, and he adopted a high-intensity style around his famous 3-3-1-3 formation. Chile had always played with a languid, almost static style, so this really was new ground for the national team. Bielsa guided them to 2nd place in the 2010 World Cup Qualifying table – where they had previously finished 7th and 10thin slog for qualification from the CONMEBOL zone.

Spells in Europe followed his 2010 World Cup exit to Brazil, and he went on to win more mainstream attention for his good work at Atletico Bilbao. The famous old La Liga outfit were in flux and rudderless prior to the Argentinean’s appointment. He famously led the mid-table side to a Europa League final, dumping out Manchester United along the way, as well as a Copa del Rey final appearance.

Pep Guardiola stated whilst at Barcelona, that his side’s 2011-12 draw away at La Catedral had been the hardest game of his season – saying Bielsa’s men played like lions as they subjected the Catalans to the high press. He departed the Basque club in 2013, and has since gone on to have underwhelming spells in France with Marseille and Lille, whilst resigning after less than seventy-two hours at Lazio in 2016.

A big challenge at Leeds

Bielsa’s appointment at Leeds United is a head-turning piece of recruitment from the Yorkshire outfit. However, the Argentine will know he has a huge task ahead of him, as he begins his preparations for his first spell in England.

He is the Championship club’s twenty-first manager since they lost the Premier League status in 2004. The club is pockmarked by ownership and financial trouble, and the stale air of Massimo Cellino’s ownership has only recently been cleansed.

Things have started to look a little less bleak for Leeds over the past twelve months. Current owner Andrea Radrizzani bought back Elland Road’s freehold, bringing the stadium back to the club’s fold for the first time since those humiliating days of 2004.

Their recent investment by the 49ers Group coupled with their appointment of Bielsa goes to show that this is still an attractive football project. They are now in partnership Spanish side Cultural Leonesa, which should also provide a boost for their academy. Perhaps these are some of the things which turned Bielsa’s head.

The Argentine coach is known for wanting a project and he certainly has that now at Leeds United. Their slump to mid-table fodder is not unlike the plight of Atletico. He will though have to slog it out in one of the most demanding leagues in Europe.

A good fit?

His high press and intense style of play have served him well in his career. However, he will have to bolster his squad and work on fitness if he expects to navigate a forty-six game season in England’s second tier. Bielsa is also known to have demanded a lot of control from his previous presidents and owners. Whether or not this will create friction with Radrizzani, remains to be seen.

There should be some thought also given to his meandering career since leaving La Liga. He wasn’t a failure at Marseille, but his results weren’t good enough. At Lille he tried to change too much too soon, as he put all of his faith in inexperienced players to the detriment of results. At sixty-two and with three successive black marks against his name, it will be interesting to see of Bielsa can rediscover his verve at Leeds and improve on last season’s underwhelming campaign.

The fans should take to his free-flowing style. Bielsa’s game is all about press and width. He enjoys doubling up on and overloading opposition full backs. His sides work hard both on and off the ball, so considerable effort from the players will be needed. His former players have been known to take to his approach and style. The likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Vidal, Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente have spoken highly of the Argentine.

He is an eccentric deep thinker who is meticulous with the small details of the game – a feat which should put him in good stead with  Elland Road’s equally dedicated and passionate fan base.

Leeds have certainly made one of the most interesting and high profile appointments in their recent history. It’s not a quite a huge gamble, as say the appointment of Thomas Christiansen was, but it is a decision which could end in either great success or a spectacular failure. His methods will need to translate and be slightly adapted to the rigours of the English game.

If he can master the balance required between high pressing, free-flowing football and the more combative approach needed, then he has the capacity and experience to secure Leeds United’s most sought-after objective; a return to the glory days of the Premier League.

This article was originally published as Marcelo Bielsa to Leeds by Anthony Kelly. 

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