Marcelo Bielsa wasn’t expected to last at Leeds United – but he’s leading the club back to glory

The manager’s fierce intellect and obsessive toil has taken the team back into the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.

 

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At Thorp Arch, Leeds United’s modest training facility just outside Wetherby, they call it “Murderball”: a full-throttle, non-stop practice drill with no breaks, continuous running and fouls entirely legal. Remorselessly vicious and fiercely competitive, the games last as long as coach Marcelo Bielsa deems necessary: five, seven, sometimes even 20 minutes at a time. They are detested and dreaded, respected and relished in equal measure. Because – according to Leeds players – once you have played Murderball, a gruelling 46-game Championship season is a breeze.

This is the Bielsa way: football played at a furious pace, without compromises, with flair and ruthless running and just a touch of madness. When Leeds have the ball they overwhelm you with flying overlaps, endless tactical combinations, instinctive movement. When they don’t, they hunt you down with murderous relish, not just in ones and twos but fives and sixes. All this is underpinned by the fierce intellect and obsessive toil of Bielsa, who has led one of English football’s giants back into the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.

For United’s loud and loyal fanbase, this is the culmination of a long, lonely journey. In 2001, Leeds were Champions League semi-finalists and one of Europe’s most exciting young teams. By 2007, they were a third-tier club: twice relegated, calamitously mismanaged, financially overstretched and perilously close to the end of their existence. The road back has been long and fraught, beset on all sides by inept ownership, declining infrastructure and an increasingly comic carousel of managers. When Bielsa was surprisingly appointed in the summer of 2018, he was their 12th permanent appointment in a little over six years. Most assumed that number 13 would soon be walking through the door.

For all Bielsa’s pedigree as the visionary former coach of Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, Leeds knew that they were appointing a very volatile sort of genius: one prepared to defend his principles to the death – or, at the very least, a hasty resignation letter. The previous season he was sacked by Lille seven months into the job. The season before that, he walked out on Lazio after two days in a disagreement over transfers. And for all his lasting influence in the game – Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and Zinedine Zidane all cite the Argentine as a mentor – for Leeds, a club starved of success, Bielsa’s career offered little reassurance: he had not won a trophy at domestic level for 20 years.

Then there were the stories: many of which lay in the grey area between myth and truth, and yet served to cement Bielsa’s reputation as an irresistible apostate. There was the time, legend has it, he threatened his own club’s fans with a hand grenade. The time he asked a player if he would chop off a finger to ensure victory. The time he quit as Argentina coach in 2004 and, bereft and exhausted, sought solace by living in a convent for three months. The thousands of hours of research, the miles of videotape, that consume him from morning to night. Pain, blood and suffering have always been part of his basic liturgy. “I die after every defeat,” he once said.

For Leeds fans of a certain age, some of this may have felt vaguely familiar. More than half a century ago, Don Revie hauled Leeds out of the Second Division and forged them into one of English football’s greatest ever teams. He did so by being stubbornly and autocratically unafraid to remake Leeds in his own obsessive image. He changed the club’s culture, its values, even its colours. He drilled his teams to overwhelm opponents, tactically and physically. In terms of fitness and nutrition, Revie was decades ahead of his time. He even had his own version of Murderball: the brutal “Scotland vs England” intra-squad training games, in which Bobby Collins and Billy Bremner would go up against Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter, and which were often so lively that they would have to be stopped before someone got injured. 

Like Bielsa after him, Revie buried himself in the pursuit of knowledge, travelling all over Europe to scout players, compiling hefty opposition dossiers, even spying on rivals, as Bielsa has. There are big differences between them too: Revie was cynical, suspicious and avaricious in ways Bielsa is not. When Leeds were fined £200,000 last year for spying on a Derby County training session, Bielsa not only took full responsibility, but insisted on paying the fine out of his own pocket. Revie was at Elland Road for 13 years and built a dynasty; Bielsa has been there for two, and has never spent longer at any club.

Yet in another sense, his legacy is already secure. If Revie was a big part of the reason Leeds were hated, with their unashamedly physical style of play and persistent (if unproven) allegations of financial irregularity, then Bielsa is the reason they are loved again. For all his flaws and foibles it is Bielsa, more than any other manager, who seems to encapsulate what football is about. It’s about hope and swagger and ambition and obsession and guilt and dreams. It’s about knowledge for the sake of knowledge, work for the sake of work, the undying faith that at the very kernel of this flawed and ugly sport there is something beyond medals and trophies, something worth treasuring. 

Football is about heroes, and devotion, and stories to tell our children. Perhaps it’s simply happenstance that in the same year that three of the club’s legends passed on – Trevor Cherry in February, Norman Hunter in April, Jack Charlton on 10 July – Leeds have returned to the promised land. The story of Marcelo Bielsa is not the story of Leeds. But for now they are magically, improbably intertwined. 

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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