Marcelo Bielsa is a glorious eccentric who is here to stay

Date published: Friday 22nd February 2019 1:01

This week, Johnny’s positive look at our managers and how they perform on telly and radio drops down to the best league in English football: the Championship. A league that is so much fun that many fans don’t even want to get promoted out of it into the grasping, cold, unloving skeletal grip of the soulless Premier League.

He gets with the gaucho and a man some consider to be a genius. That’ll be Marcelo Bielsa, then.


Who Are Ya?
Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera is a 63-year-old Argentinean from Rosario, the biggest city in central Argentina. He had a short, undistinguished playing career in his homeland and retired aged 25 to be a coach at Newell’s Old Boys. It was ten years before he took his first managerial job there. It lasted two years, during which time he won the league and everyone’s hearts and minds. So much so that they named their stadium after him in 2009.

From there he spent a year or two at Atlas and América in Mexico, where he is widely credited with overhauling the whole way players are identified and recruited. Then it was on to Vélez Sarsfield (which does sound like an Argentinian Lisa Stansfield tribute act). He won the Primera División there. They are currently managed by those handsome cheekbones called Gabriel Heinze, as it happens. Bielsa was briefly at Espanyol before getting the call up to be national manager back home.

His 61% win ratio with Argentina was the best of his career to date. Even so, he didn’t get them out of the 2002 World Cup group, but did win an Olympic gold medal. From there it was to be the Chilean national manager, where he was very popular and got them to a World Cup. Next jobs were Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio (for two days! Was subsequently sued for a cool €50million) and Lille.

He is currently, of course, Leeds United manager, in one of the most unlikely and shocking appointments of recent years. He has got them playing some majestic, rapier-like football with a flair not seen in West Yorkshire since the air was filled with coal smoke.

Wouldn’t be unfair to say he is a tad eccentric. Prone to sitting legs apart on a bucket or box on the touchline, like an South American Oor Wullie. Also regularly squats on his hunkers in tribute to Andre Villas-Boas, which suggests he must have very good knees for a chap of his years. Always wears his Leeds United full tracksuit. Indeed, it’s hard to find any photo of him not in sportswear, giving him a PE-teacher-at-an-inner-city-comprehensive look.

Black-framed glasses and a severe scowl can give him a stern and headmasterly air. Easy to imagine him taking his belt off to some poor shivering wretch. But, like every disciplinarian worth their salt, also has a soft, warm side, as the many reports of his good relationships with fans attest to.

Has almost instantly turned Leeds into real promotion candidate, which those of us of a certain vintage are thrilled about, remembering the days when Leeds United were a mighty power, managed by another oddball, albeit one from Middlesbrough, who seemed to think rubbing men’s thighs with hot soap was part of the path towards peak fitness.

Massively influential as a tactician. Pep Guardiola has said he’s the best in the world. Has influenced both Mauricio Pochettino (who says he’s like a second father to him) and Diego Simeone who played under him. Thankfully no-one has called his methods Bielsa-Ball. Widely credited with developing a 3-3-3-1 formation.

Before he could get a work permit to take the Leeds job, he had to prove himself to be what is defined by government as “an exceptional talent”, as though managing one of the world’s great football nations wasn’t already proof enough of this to a useless, airheaded government that almost exclusively employs exceptionally unexceptional talent.

Anyway, how did he do this? Well, as you might imagine, he put together a dossier detailing every formation that every team used in every single game in the league during the season just gone, adding in notes of how many times these formations were deployed! Yeah, how do you like them apples?!

An absolute one-off, he apparently has a bed in his office. He walks his own path through life and you either walk with him or you don’t, but he won’t be for changing.


Cunning Linguist?
Appears not to speak a word of English. Press conferences and detailed explanations of spying on every other club are conducted in his native tongue with a translator on hand. His speaking voice is very low key and though it’s hard to pick up nuance in a language one doesn’t speak, he seems to explain things in a very calm way, with a hint of “isn’t this obvious?” about it, or perhaps like a teacher who has explained this complex equation many times to his class.

When he had lots of requests for photographs at an U23s game and posed for every one, he said: “I do it because in football the most important element are the people who love the shirt, the club. They’re not asking for an autograph or photo of me. They’re asking for a picture with the head coach of Leeds.”

Now that is fantastic to hear and shows that he fundamentally understands the nature of the football fan in a way that too few really, genuinely do. This is how you endear yourself to fans over and above mere results on the pitch.


Media Hit or Miss?
He’s been a huge hit with the media, as any eccentric usually is in a bland world where oddities are exploited and mocked for clicks by our feral tabloids – a situation which has led to ever more bland people in public life.

Thanks. For. That.

The magnificent way he’s gone about his business, looking out at assembled press as though they are children who need lecturing in the art of football, has been a delight for all of us.

The ‘spying’ business was great fun for us but even better for the media and his epic dissection of Derby County and sheer level of detail that was second nature to him to know as a manager was absolutely breathtaking and showed that we were in the presence of a very special coach.

Even the fact he doesn’t speak English doesn’t seem to have been any hindrance to him in the media and not in the dressing room either, which must be somewhat aggravating to those who don’t like managers, or indeed anyone else, who can’t speak English….which brings us to…


Proper Football Man Rating: N/A (Rating machine not compatible with Argentinians. Needs a software upgrade and a different plug.)
As much as every PFM likes to sit on a bucket, preferably to use it as a toilet in the middle of the night even if it does make the bed springs rusty, they get annoyed by the fact that because an Argie does it, it’s somehow lovably eccentric, but if a Proper Football Man does it in the land of his birth, it’s proof he’s an uncouth monster.

Also any Leeds manager really should be wearing a brown suede car coat and rubbing hot soap into your thighs. They’re also not impressed with the 3-3-3-1 formation. The boys will tell you that football isn’t about systems, it’s “about players” as they look around for congratulatory nods of approval, seemingly unaware that players need organisation and method and that “just run around a bit” does not suffice.

The boys do like a disciplinarian though, but only if they’re English. A foreign disciplinarian doesn’t understand the players, Jeff. At which point they will launch into a long diatribe about how some players need “a cuddle” and others “a kick up the backside” and once again, will look around with eyes wide at the profundity of his own insight into the human psyche, as though this binary approach is the fullest extent of all understanding. However, if you’re English you can spit in the face of your own son with impunity as a man’s man – even though, confusingly, the boys will tell you that spitting is literally the worst thing any footballer can do.

Mind you, any PFM will thrust his right hand deep into his pocket and jiggle his change whilst twitching his lips and making low groaning noises in approval of any manager who, as a motivational tactic, makes players pick up litter around the training ground for three hours, because that’s how long an average fan works to afford a ticket. The boys wish they’d thought of that instead of the spitting in the face thing. Damn these Argies and their wily foreign ways. Who won the bloody war, anyway?

They looked on with mouths agape at the press conference about the spying on Derby County. When they send someone round to a training ground it’s their mate Barry with a bag load of knock-off trainers, or a box of kippers. The idea that a manager might have comprehensively researched all opponents is dangerously close to voodoo to the PFM, who prefers to operate on gut instinct and hive mind cliches picked up in the 1980s. Worse still, all this research sounds worryingly close to being that most emasculated of things: a laptop guru. After all, he never played the game at a decent level and nothing makes the boys sneer more than someone who hasn’t won nothing in the English game, largely because they make the mistake of thinking all foreigners know as little about English football as they themselves know about football anywhere else.

The PFM isn’t against cheating, so long as he doesn’t have to do any work. In fact, he reserves all of his cheating to be able to gain a lot by doing very little. That’s how we do it over here, pal. Cheating to get more info is madness. You can’t win games of football on a spreadsheet, Jeff, and a computer is just a television with a typewriter attached anyway. They’re overrated. Once you’ve played the game all you need is to do that gesture on the touchline which means ‘more energy’ and to shout ‘we keep working, yeah?’ while twirling your right hand around in an anti-clockwise fashion.

His success, despite not speaking English, makes every PFM furious as they’ve spent much of their career shouting “me no speako da lingo, pepe, capeesh?!” to Spanish waiters and have still never been understood. And since they’ve made a punditry career getting cross about how overseas managers are no more innovative than they are, and that “f**kin’ get rid” is actually a sophisticated approach to defending, as is “knock it in the channels”, “get up his backside” and shouting “second ball”.

They reckon he plays 3-3-3-1 Jeff, but that doesn’t even add up to 11. See, that’s what happens when you go foreign. Numbers add up to different amounts abroad, Gary.


What The People Say
Understandably Leeds fans have fallen in love with the man. But many others love him too perhaps because it is rare to have someone who is unusual to the point of being eccentric, as well as actually knowing what he’s doing. The ‘spygate’ thing just endeared him to us more. His casual demonstration of incredible detail and research all laid out into spreadsheets gave every stats buff some degree of tumescence, especially as he’d colour-coordinated it all too. Oh lord.

‘He has made me support Leeds. I feel….dirty.’

‘More than a manager. He is a philosophy.’

‘Bielsa is to football coaching what the Velvet Underground were to music.’

‘Football genius, though really self-effacing. See him in Wetherby walking around with his wife. Lives in a tiny flat in town. Cool as f**k.’

‘A complete gentleman.’

‘His Chile side were utterly majestic. His trophy haul is minimal given his tactical importance to the history of the game, which is a shame.’

‘I think he’s doing well, it’s a tough division. I just suspect that a lot of the information might be wasted on some but I guess he can bellow instructions at the time.’

‘Simple, breath of fresh air not only for the club but the league in general as much as people hate to admit it. People eager to watch him succeed or fail. God.’

‘He took Michels-Cruyff football into the modern era, won the league at Newell’s to break the River-Boca duopoly, transformed a whole country (Chile) into a footballing power, has turned a 13th-placed club into promotion contenders. And he’s genuinely humble. Is that enough?’

‘We named our stadium after him. ‘Nuff said.’

‘Judge for yourself. Best coach in the world, one who makes his players better and has them believe they can beat and play like the best. A beautiful man devoted to his craft who is in a futile search for footballing perfection.’

‘Revolutionized youth development in Mexico. Organized a player recruitment network that still exists in 92 cities. 8 of the 11 starters in Mexico’s 2006 World Cup team vs Argentina were discovered or trained by him. Rafa Marquez, Pavel Pardo, Oswaldo Sanchez, Jared Borghetti, etc.’

‘I’ve read that his methods can become tiring, which doesn’t surprise me. Can you imagine that level of scrutiny every single week. For one game of football? It must be exhausting.’

‘I didn’t believe in God until Bielsa came to Leeds. The man has worked miracles – not water into wine, but Cooper into Baresi.’

‘That press conference with the tactics is the new benchmark for judging all managerial media moments.’

‘Absolutely love him. That PowerPoint presentation about Derby was complete genius. We need more people like him. I’m not a Leeds fan but it’s great to see how much he cares about the area – similar in approach to Rafa Benitez in “getting” the club as a pillar of the community.’

‘Trips to Whitby for fish and chips. Don’t blame him.’


How Long Has He Got?
Leeds United has almost comically been a byword for the sack, with 14 men at the helm in the previous six years and 25 in the last 24 since Howard Wilkinson left. It’d be easy to think Mr B isn’t going to last much longer than a year or two. Given he has lost his last three jobs through various disputes with club officials and players, it’s not impossible to imagine a similar scenario at one of the most volatile clubs in the league.

But maybe times have changed. Promotion does look very likely and it is hard to imagine he wouldn’t do a great job in the top flight. Leeds bosses must know they have, somehow, snagged themselves a world-class manager and will surely do everything they can to keep him.

So it seems likely that we’ll be seeing him in England for some time to come. If so, that’ll be an absolute treat for all of us and I suggest the club brand up its own range of touchline buckets to sit on.

John Nicholson


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