Bielsa and Arteta expose the laziest language tropes

Matt Stead

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa should have ‘mastered a bit of English’. But Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta speaks too many languages.


“Unai, good evening,” said the Sky Sports reporter. “It’s not been a good evening, though, for you and Arsenal again.”

It was transparent, cheap and tactless, as painfully awkward as a teacher trying to join in with one of their student’s in-jokes. The largest media company in Europe judged the mood of the room terribly, playing to the lowest common denominator and punching down for social media engagement. A fortnight earlier, talkSPORT published an article with quotes from host Natalie Sawyer, suggesting the Arsenal manager ‘should NOT be mocked after ‘ebening’ jibes’. Their utter incredulity at the idea it might be stupid and snide to ridicule someone struggling with a foreign language spoke volumes.

Emery started his friendly and reasoned reply with what many considered to be his catchphrase by that point, although it had more than a hint of Bart Simpson about it.

“I had a decent level, although I needed to improve,” he later told The Guardian. “When results are bad it’s not the same. You lack the linguistic depth to explain. And take ‘good ebening’: OK, it’s ‘good evening’, but when I said ‘good ebening’ and won it was fun; when we were losing it was a disgrace.”

It is hard not to sympathise. Claudio Ranieri, Juande Ramos, Fabio Capello, Walter Mazzarri, Mauricio Pochettino: each are among those who used and were criticised for relying on translators during their time managing in England. The Premier League has had more than its fair share of native coaches who fail to articulate a coherent point and have been almost impossible to comprehend, but such underhanded media ire is only reserved for those born and raised in another country.

Marcelo Bielsa has faced such criticism before but promotion to the Premier League circus has brought an even less forgiving spotlight. It took little more than 20 minutes of his first top-flight game, one of excitement, entertainment and moments of excellence, for those familiar digs to emerge.

He is surely already used to it. Only seven months have passed since the Argentine’s press conferences were said to require ‘the patience of a saint’, that he was ‘a pound-shop Unai Emery’ who had to be ‘endured’.

Consider how well Emery’s attempts to placate the media went and it is not difficult to see why Bielsa might be reticent to follow suit.

‘At 64-years-old maybe it’s too late in his life for this old dog to learn new languages’… and perhaps it’s too much to ask for some to grasp the complexities in learning a new language, learning a new language in between a draining, demanding and daily job, speaking a new language, and speaking a new language confidently in public with your every word scrutinised and stretched beyond its intending meaning.

Bielsa does, by all accounts, use the language. He has regularly corrected his interpreters over the past two years and Kalvin Phillips once referred to his “surprisingly good” English. Neil Warnock, Dave Hockaday, Steve Evans and Garry Monk could probably crack better jokes in interviews but none were able to guide Leeds out of the Championship, not least from a starting position of 13th.

Yet the media’s collective inability to acknowledge or embrace semantic nuance was underlined by Martin Keown, who aired his concerns over the multilingualism of Mikel Arteta during a comfortable Arsenal victory.

It required some impressive mental gymnastics to watch Arteta seamlessly switch between English (Rob Holding, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah), to Spanish (Hector Bellerin, Dani Ceballos), French (Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe) and Glaswegian (Kieran Tierney), and perceive it negatively.

“A bit of both,” was Arteta’s simple response when asked in July whether speaking to players in their native tongue during games was to confuse opponents or implement tactics quicker. He stressed the point that he only uses English in team meetings but even that has not been enough to appease concerns in certain quarters.

Win or lose, speak too many languages or too few; fans and players of Arsenal and Leeds will be more than happy with the choice of their respective leader. The only ones it has become difficult to understand are those who favour tropes over trophies and ignore progress to poke fun.

Matt Stead