The madness in the Leeds vs Aston Villa game at the weekend may have inadvertently been a perfect encapsulation of one of the event’s main protagonists. Ignoring the colours of the shirts, the melee involved: a player being stretched beyond his physical threshold; an erratic and yet somehow calculated goalscoring move; expulsions of anger and frustration, and a pathological need to adhere to some unspoken moral code. All of that, in a moment that seemingly happened instantaneously and yet in slow motion. All of that is the mad and beautiful genius of Marcelo Bielsa.
Trying to plot a consistent narrative course through Bielsa’s storied career proves difficult. Much like the man himself, his career path swings between the sublime and the outrageous, quivering with erratic intensity. As a child, he grew up in a middle-class professional background but seemed only interested in football. Interest is a disservice to Bielsa: he was an obsessive. He devoured episodes of the football periodical El Gráfico insatiably and, after an unremarkable local playing career involving four games at his local side Newell’s Old Boys, he eventually took charge of the university team in Buenos Aires.
His obsession around trying to understand the game is legendary; he took 51 videotapes to his interview for the Vélez Sársfield coaching job in 1997, with highlights and tactical analysis showing how he would improve the team. Whilst in charge of Newell’s, he reportedly divided the largely unexplored interior of footballing Argentina into 70 sections, and organised and visited a trial to find new talent in every single one.
After drifting around Mexico, and a very brief stay at Espanyol, he took over managing the Argentine national team. Here were some of the first signs of his enchanting character, a heady mix of erratic passion and thoughtful calm. In the 1999 Copa America, Argentina lost 3-0 to Colombia; Bielsa’s nerves were probably shredded by his striker Martin Palermo, who missed three penalties, and Bielsa’s wild protestations got him sent to the stands. Yet, when asked about the referee in the press conference a few hours later, was typically stoic in his recollection of the moment: “In respect of my expulsion, the referee was absolutely correct because I protested in an ill-mannered form.”
His tactical philosophy, as noted by Jonathan Wilson, can be broken down into four terms: ‘concentración permanente, movilidad, rotación y repenitización’. The first three make logical sense (‘maintained concentration, mobility and rotation’) but repenitización is more difficult to grasp tangibly. It might best be described as playing a piece of music without previously practising it; it seems to tie Bielsa’s methods to only ever doing something for the first time. The variation of analysis is overwhelming, and the detail unbelievably extensive. There was the well-publicised press conference earlier this year where, after accusations of him ordering staff to spy on Championship opponents, he proceeded to give an extensive breakdown of upcoming opponent Derby County’s tactics used throughout the season. He believes himself to have committed no lawful wrongdoing, and acknowledges he had no wish to ‘cheat’, per se.
This obsessive desire to assimilate as much information as possible, alongside his brutally intense playing style, has had its issues. Many note that Bielsa’s sides come roaring out of the blocks early on, play some outstanding football, and then fall away in the latter stages of the season due to physical, and probably mental, exhaustion. His Athletic Bilbao side produced some scintillating football early in his reign (particularly in a 3-2 win against Manchester United in the Europa League in 2011), and reached both the Copa Del Rey and Europa League finals that season. But, with the selling of Javi Martínez to Bayern Munich a contributing factor, the club faltered in his second season and looked exhausted when Bielsa left in June 2013. Then at Marseille, he led the league at Christmas before falling away to fourth place by the end of the season.
Unfortunately for any Leeds fans, or neutrals, who want to see Bielsa manage in the Premier League, his Leeds side looks to have met the same fate. The contrast between their two games against Norwich at each end of the season, and the intensity of their play, is a great encapsulation of this. In the August fixture, Leeds play the ball with a ferocious intensity, a hallmark of Bielsa’s style. The passing is crisp, direct and accompanied by endless running; the sluggish, lacklustre loss in February’s return fixture anything but. It seems that this Leeds side is destined to splutter to the season’s end, where they will need to win two notoriously difficult playoff matches to return to the Premier League.
It’s still tight at the top 🥊
David De Gea’s woes continue 😩
Brighton still aren’t safe 🤔
— The Football Ramble (@FootballRamble) April 29, 2019
This playoff status was confirmed by the mad events of the weekend – that eventual draw with Villa secured Sheffield United’s automatic promotion in second place, and condemned Bielsa to another year wondering what might have been. Bielsa demanding his players allow Villa to equalise seems an outrageous call to make, especially in such a crucial, table-defining fixture. It has received its fair share of criticism – on Monday’s episode of the Football Ramble, Luke Moore declared that “I might not even stop short of saying what Bielsa has done there is a dereliction of duty”.
And yet here lies the touching, beautiful, crux of the matter. Everything about Bielsa’s managerial career, from his forensic obsession with football to the intensity of his touchline manner and his teams’ emotive playing style, seems to stem from a pure love of the game. From his days convincing his mother to index every piece of information in every edition of El Gráfico, to driving more than 5000 miles across all of Argentina whilst on his scouting mission, there has remained one common thread. This pure love of football was behind his insistence on allowing Villa to equalise – amidst some of the vitriol, tribalism and sour aspects of modern football, this will forever remain a beautiful thing.
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