Marcelo Bielsa's emotional journey at Leeds United begins in style
LEEDS, England -- It was the 69th minute when the "Marcelo Bielsa" chants rung out from the South Stand of Elland Road during Leeds United's 3-1 win over Stoke City on Sunday. The Argentine coach was being serenaded by the home faithful even before three points in his debut had been secured.
When former Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Lazio, Marseille and Lille boss Bielsa took over at Leeds in June, it was seen as one of the more surreal summer moves in England and initially divided opinion.
"People who had heard of him couldn't believe it," Daniel Chapman, co-editor of The Square Ball fanzine told ESPN. "But I think a lot of people don't know who he is and don't really understand what the big attraction is because he's not got loads of trophies and there's that insularity in England: [People think] if you don't know the Championship then you'll never prosper."
But the long-suffering supporters of Leeds United -- this is the 14th season out of the Premier League and the eighth different manager in a season opener over the last eight seasons -- would have left Elland Road on Sunday believing big things are possible this season.
It wasn't only the victory over Stoke City -- the preseason favorite with the bookmakers to win the Championship -- it was also the way it was achieved.
"I like to be the protagonist rather than sitting back, [to play] in the opponent's half more than my own, that my team attacks rather than defends," said Bielsa in explaining his philosophy ahead of the game.
It was exactly what Leeds did for large parts of Sunday's game. And they did so with Bielsa starting 10 players that were part of a squad that finished 13th last season, winning only four of 23 league games in 2018.
Leeds attacked from the off, swarmed Stoke players when they received the ball, pressed them into submission and showed plenty of evidence that the long hours on the training pitch this preseason had been productive both tactically and in terms of fitness. (Bielsa had the players in from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. on many days doing double sessions.)
There were naturally moments of concern. Bielsa is attempting to implement a footballing idea that isn't common on these shores -- Pep Guardiola was doubted when he arrived at Manchester City -- and even less so outside the Premier League.
But the signs are tentatively good, especially with only one of five new signings starting on Sunday. Gary Rowett's Stoke that looked awkward, as if they weren't comfortable in their new surroundings having been relegated from the Premier League. They were even undone on Leeds' third goal by a corner-kick routine that was very similar to England's "train" at the World Cup.
Leeds, playing a 4-3-3 formation, put an average preseason behind them and turned it on in style with aggressively attacking, dynamic football. And there were notable differences in attitude. For example, players vary rarely remonstrated with the referee, something that has been drilled into them under Bielsa.
"I prefer to lose rather than cheat," Bielsa said in his first news conference.
"[Bielsa] just said whenever you have the urge to speak to a player or speak to a ref, don't do it," Kalvin Phillips said after the team's final friendly vs. Las Palmas. "Keep your ideas to yourself, keep everything as a team and don't really react to anything... just get on with the game because that's what we're here to do. That was one of the first things he said to us when he first came."
At every fork in Bielsa's path there have been juicy anecdotes, from the Argentine donating $2 million for the construction of a hotel at first club Newell's Old Boys, to shutting himself up in a convent for three months after leaving the Argentina national team, or asking for a meeting with the Santiago zoo director in Chile because he particularly liked the signs on display and wanted to know how to reproduce them with training drills for players.
Bielsa's spell at Leeds is proving no different. He sat on an upside down bucket inside his technical area and loose similarities with a certain Brian Clough, who famously managed Leeds for only 44 days after failing to change the club's culture, have naturally been floated.
Bielsa visited the Great Yorkshire Show to enable him to "take the pulse" of the region; he's has been spotted with a copy the classic 1969 film "Kes", shot in nearby Barnsley, about a working class teenager's travails in training a kestrel; has watched all 51 Leeds games from last season and reportedly had his players pick up rubbish from around the club's training ground for three hours, the same amount of time an average fan would have had to work to buy a ticket.
"I can neither confirm, nor deny it," said Bielsa after the Stoke game when asked by ESPN FC about the cleaning up story. "It corresponds to the private realm."
It only adds to the mystique, as do the slightly awkward interviews and press conferences in which Bielsa largely keeps his head bowed. To his credit, Bielsa has been trying to express himself in English, but it is probably going to be a while before he can truly get his messages across, especially given how articulate he is in Spanish.
The hiring of Bielsa represented a major investment for the club, with the Rosario native reportedly on over £2m per year in wages. With Championship rivals spending big on players, Leeds have gone another route and decided to bring in a top coach hoping he gets more out of the players than former manager Paul Heckingbottom, whose only previous experience was with Barnsley.
The hiring process was long. In May. Leeds sporting director Victor Orta called Bielsa to gauge his interest, according to chairman Andrea Radrizzani in an interview with Sky Sports. Orta left a voice message and when he called back the next day, Bielsa had already watched seven Leeds games. It was a good sign.
Radrizzani went to meet Bielsa in Argentina and, after a 10-hour meeting, the former Chile manager became the club's only choice.
"I believe I'm in a better place than I deserve and don't take that as demagogic," said Bielsa. "My objective is to demonstrate that I deserve this opportunity."
Bielsa has stressed the emotional pull and challenge of succeeding at a club that should be in the Premier League, given its size and history, but which has found a plethora of ways to avoid success over the years, mainly due to ownership struggles filtering down.
The fact he's chosen to manage the likes of Chile, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille highlights the appeal of the underdog to Bielsa and his appointment has certainly changed the narrative at Leeds, at least for the time being.
"Although it may seem as though we only work for money, in the end football is a search for strong emotions," said Bielsa ahead of the Stoke game. "It's much more profitable to remember emotions than count money."
"Maybe that reality is learned too late. It's a requirement to have money, but emotions triumph that. I hope this will be an emotional journey."
Clearly, this is only the very beginning. Whether Leeds will be able to keep up the intensity -- a common critique of Bielsa's teams is that they fall off in the second half of the season -- remains to be seen. But the early signs point to Bielsa's development at Leeds being one of the storylines of English football this season.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.