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16 January 2019

Marcelo Bielsa: football’s philosopher king

How the Argentinian has transformed Leeds United’s fortunes. 

By jonathan Wilson

Leeds United’s Argentinian manager Marcelo Bielsa looked down, inscrutable as ever, shuffled a little and mumbled, unspooling a characteristic circumlocution. Alongside him his interpreter, Salim Lamrani, a French academic, delivered his translation with a familiar bemused smile. It could have been any pre- or post-match interview: Bielsa is Bielsa, whatever he is talking about. Here, though, he was talking about allegations of spying.

Yes, he had sent a club employee with binoculars to peer over a fence at Derby County’s training ground. He took full responsibility. He had been doing it throughout his career. He didn’t think it was illegal or immoral, but Derby manager Frank Lampard’s upset was enough for him to feel he had breached the spirit of fair play.

It was classic Bielsa: considering all sides of the argument, being discursive, disarming and almost entirely unquotable. The Football League is investigating and various pundits are appalled, but it’s hard not to see this as an overreaction.

Lampard in his outrage seemed to have forgotten that his great mentor at Chelsea, José Mourinho, did exactly the same thing. There is no regulation against such acts – and how could there be when the Leeds “spy” was on public land and moved on when asked?

Research is a natural part of the Bielsa method. He is not like others. At Leeds – the current Championship leaders – he watches matches perched on an upturned bucket in his technical area because that, he believes, gives him a better angle than standing or sitting on the bench. He studies opponents obsessively. Once asked how he planned to spend the Christmas holidays, Bielsa said he intended to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching videos.

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For almost three decades Bielsa has been a pioneer of the modern form of “pressing”. His teams hunt the ball ferociously – aiming to win it back as high up the pitch as possible – while trusting their aggression to guard against a direct ball played in behind their own defensive line.

It’s not just about energy: the pressing is focused. That’s why Bielsa has to study opponents, learn the patterns of their play, work out how to disrupt them and discover where the vulnerabilities may lie.

Marcelo Bielsa was born in Rosario, Argentina, in July 1955, the son of Rafael, a lawyer, and Lidia, a teacher. He was intense, driven and intellectual but he also wanted to be a footballer. Bielsa joined Newell’s Old Boys, one of two local clubs – although, typically, not the one his father supported. That marked him out as different: his family tended to be lawyers or politicians. His brother Rafael was Argentina’s minister of foreign relations under Néstor Kirchner, while his sister María Eugenia, an architect, has served as vice-governor of the province of Santa Fe.

Bielsa did not only play football; he felt he had to learn it, so he persuaded his mother to subscribe to the sports magazine El Grafico – and then index it for him. He may have rebelled against his upbringing, but it shaped him.

Hard work, though, couldn’t compensate for his lack of pace, and Bielsa left Newell’s at the age of 21, having played just four matches.

He drifted around the lower leagues, studied agronomy and physical education, then returned to Newell’s to work in youth development. Deciding that clubs were missing players from the interior, he divided a map of Argentina into 70 sections and arranged trials in each, driving more than 5,000 miles in his Fiat 147 to watch them because he hates flying.

Bielsa became manager of Newell’s Old Boys in 1990. He won two league titles with them and another with Vélez Sarsfield in 1998. He led Argentina to Olympic gold in 2004, but those are the only four competitions he has ever won. He effectively reinvented Chilean football when appointed national coach, laying the foundations for the country’s recent successes, and was popular in Bilbao and Marseilles, but he won nothing. And yet his ideas have had a profound impact on the modern game.

Before Pep Guardiola became manager of Barcelona in 2008, he visited Bielsa and spent seven hours discussing his philosophy. The Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino admires the manager who signed him as a 14 year old while he was asleep (having looked at his legs first).

Yet there is a flaw. Bielsa will not compromise. There’s a familiar pattern of Bielsa teams starting a season furiously, then running out of steam. His many acolytes temper their approach; Bielsa will not.

That’s why somebody so revered finds himself in the English second flight with Leeds. He is loved there, his eccentricities celebrated.

Leeds have played some thrilling football this season and, after beating Derby 2-0, are four points clear at the top of the Championship. Past record suggests they may tire in the second half of the season, but Bielsa will not change.

His idealism undermines him, but it is also what makes him great.

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This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain