On the Madness of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United

In this piece, Nico Morales looks at Marcelo Bielsa’s time at Leeds United and asks if it is we who are the mad ones…

With two seven-goal thrillers marking their return to the Premier League, much about this Leeds United side seems to emanate from their enigmatic leader. Across what will now be his third season at the helm, Marcelo Bielsa has led the historic English giants from the outer wilds of the British footballing pyramid back to the redeeming sunshine of the world’s most expensive and well-lit stage.

But as any Leeds fan will tell you, it’s been far from easy. When Bielsa signed, regardless of the expectation, few imagined the ride would be anything resembling typical. Bielsa’s legend — one that evokes messianic imagery concerning something as ambiguous as a footballing philosophy to the troves of personal anecdotes that fuel his mythos — is most readily associated with a general sense of insanity.

‘El loco,’ which roughly translates from Spanish to ‘the crazy one,’ is most people’s basic introduction to the Argentine. Part of it is down to how he’s gone about dealing with the media and club officials alike. A mere day or so after taking charge at Lazio, he had decided the club failed to support one of their contingent agreements, so he left.

Another tale — urban or otherwise — recounts the time he drove to a young Mauricio Pochettino’s house in the middle of the night to look at his legs, later signing the player-turned-managerial-success.

The concept of madness follows a man who has made his entire life about the ill-defined but instantly recognizable idea of football as more than just a sport. As a communal ideal. As a service to the people.

Of course, that madness has also extended onto the pitch. When Pep Guardiola — one of Bielsa’s most notable disciples — led his Barcelona side to an unprecedented trophy haul in the early 2010s, it was Bielsa’s meager Bilbao team that took them to the sword.

When Chilean football looked like it was set to fade into obscurity, it was Bielsa who revolutionized the national side from the youth to the senior team. In the face of the most talented amalgamation of Argentinian footballers in the game’s history, Bielsa created a structure that allowed a mix of talent and football-smart players to dominate the Copa America.

For any other manager, a notable Copa del Rey match from eight years ago and success with a seemingly inept national football organization would have been another line on the CV intent on vying for a top managerial position at a handful of marketable European outfits. But for Bielsa, it’s evidence of the methods behind the madness.

Part of the reason people ascribe such insanity towards his style of play is because it disrupts the materially-determined dichotomy of football. As a wise person once observed, football has become largely synthesized. Thanks to a significantly disproportionate distribution of resources, there are, generally speaking, two kinds of football teams: those with money and those without.

Those with the resources to change the fate of a global power accrue the talents of the world’s most gifted footballers and, with them, the tactical onus to possess the ball. Because they maintain players talented enough to do almost anything in possession, the easiest way for teams to stop them from wreaking havoc is to make the space in which they’re defending more compact. In due course, the ever steepening cliffs of the football landscape began to influence how teams could feasibly play and this sense of defensive organization became relatively ubiquitous.

For the rich teams, football became more than just having the best players. In fact, it was more dangerous to not know what to do with the ball than it was to have it. Trying to keep possession but doing so badly would simply allow teams to take advantage of all the space left behind and lead to the springing of counter-attacks.

So, the perpetual battle between managers who could construct an efficient manner of recycling possession and attacking spaces to open up tightly compacted areas versus those who could make the most out of people named Jack Cork began.

Within the two schools of discipline, the proactive tactic of going out and looking to take the ball became prominent. What they did after they got it varied, but, generally, football divided itself amongst the two classes with someone from the ever-diminishing middle class rearing their head every now and again.

While Bielsa didn’t necessarily start at the very bottom of the footballing world, he’s never taken charge of a superpower. He’s never had the opportunity to treat his job like most teenagers do when they get home from a long day at school, selecting whatever roster of players they like most for a literal ultimate team. He’s had to make do with the talents available to the resources of the club.

With that being said, he has rarely, if ever, played like smaller sides are generally forced to. In demanding that his players vie for possession, Bielsa’s football is totalizing. Regardless of their perceived quality, players under Bielsa are asked to want the ball, press heavily to get it and provide adequate spacing in order to effectively maintain it.

The ‘ideology’ Bielsa’s on-the-pitch-play subscribes to is one that maintains almost physical laws. To press the ball, the defender’s line needs to be congruently aggressive. If the ball is won, the players need to spread the shape so to make the area the opponent is defending that much larger. If it’s lost, aggressive, measured counter-pressing and compacting the space is required to maximize the possibility of getting it back.

It’s something that goes against football’s presented dichotomy not because it can’t be done by everyone but because it’s hard to do so without the requisite monetary backing.

Time is money. Managers like Mauricio Pochettino, for example, may have the coaching capacity to change the very nature of how a team plays. But it takes much longer without being able to select the players that a club or manager is certain (as confident as one can be in the transfer market) can perform a specific role. It took the Argentine five years to transform Tottenham Hotspur from a relatively wayward, 50/50 possession/pressing team, to one that could feasibly and effectively dominate the ball against most of their opponents.

Without the support of a shady oligarch or petrostate, though, Bielsa has brought highlight reel football, a style of play reserved for a diminishing few, to some of the most obscure and incongruous spots on the football map.

It’s with his sense of largely unrequited achievement that one should reimagine the idea of Bielsa’s madness. So often in our culture, we have to fully codify anything and everything. Nothing — be it person, object, institution, or otherwise — can reasonably contain multitudes. Pep Guardiola must be too smart for his own good. Jose Mourinho too arrogant to adapt to the times. Bielsa too crazy to fit neatly within our conception of what a manager is.

But whether it’s asking his players to score an own goal that ultimately cost them promotion or breaking the mould that besets the very context of his profession, perhaps the craziest thing Bielsa ever did was believe in something that the rest of us can’t always see. Be it the way in which his team plays or the role football serves in our lives as something more than just a platform for a Pepsi advert, maybe Marcelo Bielsa’s madness isn’t madness at all: it’s us who are crazy not to believe.

You can follow Nico Morales on Twitter @Nico_OMorales.

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