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​'Fanatic' Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds: Entertaining but doomed to fail

Landing one of football's most enigmatic and iconic football managers is seen as a huge coup for Leeds United, and yet in reality it's a pretty natural fit. Club and coach share many of the same characteristics: Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds are erratic, short-tempered, and benefit from a reputation built on romanticism over tangible success.

Bielsa doesn't tend to last long in jobs, Leeds don't tend to keep hold of their managers. Bielsa is idealistic to a fault in his pursuit of attractive football, Leeds demand the aestheticism of their past without any of the resources to bring it back. They are a good match, then, in terms of their vision and conduct… which spells trouble for both.

The Argentine is famous for his innovative 3-3-1-3 formation and ultra-demanding attacking football, taking fluid possession football to extremes with quick vertical passing that relies on constant positional fluidity. Although relatively unsuccessful in statistical terms, Bielsa has had a huge influence over most of football's best modern coaches and has laid the foundations for numerous experimentations elsewhere.

It is said that for an ideology to impact culture its original exponents must believe dogmatically in its literal meanings for an underlying metaphor to take hold. A more pragmatic, watered-down version of a philosophy only comes from the accidental sacrifice of an extremist. For example, modern socialism wouldn't exist without its originator, Karl Marx, believing unshakeably in a simplistic, unworkable form of communism.

This is perhaps the best way to understand Bielsa, a man who is too idealistic to ever sacrifice part of his 'perfect' method to win things but who, by sticking so fanatically to his principles, has reshaped modern football. Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, to name but two examples, have taken Bielsa ideas and smoothed the edges. Both have referred to Bielsa as the "best coach in the world".

The most comprehensible example of his influence is Chile's 2014 World Cup campaign under Jorge Sampaoli. The insanely aggressive high pressing, sharp-angles passing, and crazed 3-3-1-3 formation were pure Bielsa, who coached Chile just before his disciple Sampaoli. These are the tactics, in essence, that Leeds fans can look forward to; Bielsa doesn't change for anyone.

The biggest problem is that Bielsa tends to start well before his players become emotionally exhausted and burn out. His methods are too demanding for an entire campaign, and given the 46-game Championship is so gruelling it is hard to see how Leeds can sustain a promotion push. Overtime on the training ground and in the classroom might work at first, but the Leeds players will soon get sick of it – particularly given the power they are afforded by owner Andrea Radrizzani.

Radrizzani has only been in charge at Leeds for 12 months but has already proved to be trigger-happy. Garry Monk resigned shortly after the Italian' arrival, citing a lack of faith put in him, and Thomas Christiansen was sacked by Radrizzani in February 2018 with Leeds suffering a blip in form. Bielsa will most likely start strongly, as Christiansen did, before going through a rough patch… and getting himself fired.

Bielsa has always struggled to achieve his goals, having failed to win a single title outside Argentina and frequently courting controversy. Leeds United, then, is probably the last place you would expect Bielsa to finally tame his instincts or rein in the loopiness. Instead, fans can look forward to a very entertaining few months of maverick football, bizarre interviews, and topsy-turvy form even by the club's own standards. Youth players will be given a chance by Bielsa, too, although ultimately it will be a short-lived affair.

But it's the journey that matters, not the end product. Certainly in Bielsa's mind the process is more important than the result, an aestheticism that makes him more of an artist than a football manager. Like their new coach, Leeds fans need to embrace the chaos and love the process, forgetting – for now – their ambition to return to the Premier League. Enjoy the ride. It'll be hard not to.

Alex Keble
About the author

Alex Keble

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