Recently Marcelo Bielsa’s press conferences have amounted to not much more than a list of the injured, but today was different. Today we got news that the stone is rolling away to reveal:
“It’s probable Pascal [Struijk], Rodrigo and Bamford are options to return.”
Hurrah! Obviously Bielsa still managed to throw in an unexpected name, after the livestream had finished:
“Summerville clashes with one of his teammates and has his clavicle hurt”
But it wasn’t clear if that’s a new injury to Summerville or he was talking about when he was missing a few weeks ago. Let’s just decide it’s the second one. The subject was training intensity, and Bielsa snitched:
“For example Gelhardt’s injury, Greenwood falls on top of him and injures him, it doesn’t have anything to do with the type of activity.”
Sam you bastard! — while saying there are two kinds of injuries, those from accidents and those caused by too much work and not enough rest. Leeds have had a lot of the first, bad luck kind, and:
“…if we lost our intensity, we would lose a value of something that’s very important, and you keep intensity by training, not by not training.”
There was also a monologue on the subject of strikers getting away with committing fouls in the penalty area that seemed to come from misunderstanding a question about Michail Antonio (and I’m hoping David Moyes doesn’t get to hear about this because he’ll never shut up about it if he does), plus support for the idea of new contracts for Adam Forshaw (such a good idea they’ve gone and given him one) and Raphinha (“the best player in the team in all the senses”).
But the main topic, even driving the subject of incoming transfers aside, was Cody Drameh’s departure. Who would have thought that a reserve right-back leaving on loan would cause so much of what clickbait sites are already calling ‘controversy’? But Bielsa’s first answer on the subject opened the door, and every time it was about to swing closed, another journalist came on the line to kick it open again with a new question aimed at getting the most from this unexpectedly rich seam of quotes.
The best, actually, came from Bielsa’s answer to the YEP’s Graham Smyth who, his Drameh question out of the way, went for a different angle, a little bit reminiscent of a job application — by managing Leeds longer than any other club, have you learned anything in particular from the experience? please continue on a separate sheet of paper if needed — and got something that could have been directed at young Cody:
“The time I’ve spent here has been a time of growth. I’ve learned the culture of English football, and that alone justifies any experience. On another side I joined a club like this one, and there’s nobody who goes through here who doesn’t come out with a sign [on them]. It’s a city, a club, a fanbase, that leaves a mark on someone who’s been a part of it.”
So why would you want to leave all that even for a little while, eh Cody Drameh? And to go to the bottom of the Championship and play for Steve Morison, too. Bielsa made clear that going to Cardiff City on loan was something Drameh wanted, and when a player asks to leave, he will never stand in their way:
“I didn’t think he needed to play games elsewhere. He was a player that was very necessary with all the absences we had. But he preferred to go and play outside of Leeds, [despite] a situation [at Leeds] where the opportunities for the youngsters have increased clearly. In this case, Drameh would prefer to experiment outside of our team … When a player wants to leave, there’s no point trying to keep them.”
Bielsa did say there’s nothing unusual in this. “These are things you guys know to perfection … that’s how professional football is managed, and it’s not wrong.” Players change clubs all the time. But there’s still reason to analyse Drameh’s specific reasons for wanting to go, first by describing what he’s leaving behind, something Bielsa, “imagined as a great opportunity, [but Drameh] imagined in a different way.”
At Leeds, says Bielsa, young players have had more chances to play in the Premier League than at any other club this season; he hasn’t counted the teenage minutes, but he bets it would come to more than twice than at any other club. That’s been due to injuries, granted, but it’s also by design, that when injuries occur there are young players ready to show in training that they deserve the chance to fill in. Once a week the Under-23s play against the first team, and Bielsa checked with translator Andres Clavijo for the terminology, in a session “that is so marked that it was probably exaggeratedly described as the ball, a killer ball or something like that.” Murderball! Other clubs don’t give their young players that opportunity to impress. He pointed out that Pascal Struijk came into the first team exactly like this, by impressing when there was an injury crisis and proving he was good enough for the Premier League. And Leeds, he said, within a structure he credits Victor Orta for creating, work hard to make sure players are ready for their chance:
“The time we spend preparing the young players is very, very big. It’s not only the people who work directly with the Under-23s, they do an admirable job, they’re here all day. But all the technical staff in the first-team, they see every game, analyse everything that happens, and comment on it individually with the players … We care a lot about the space we give to the players we choose to be part of a project.”
Bielsa would not, he said, “criticise” or “condemn” Drameh for turning his back on all this. All of the above should be analysed for Bielsa’s failures, not Drameh’s, even if there feels like a lot of space between the lines when Bielsa says:
“Perhaps I overvalue being in a twenty man squad in the best league in the world.”
Bielsa is a sincere character, though, and his defence of Drameh’s right to leave, and his thoughts about a player’s intentions, go too deep for him to be throwing simple shade around. Bielsa doesn’t think it’s up to him to decide a player’s future, even if that is how the game has traditionally been structured: “Footballers are the ones who have the least opinions in the management of their careers.” Things are changing, so players have more say in their development, and: “when one disagrees too much with the new generations and the way they handle their decisions, that has more to do not with young people, but with a lack of adaptation — in this case mine.” Young footballers make more demands than they used to, and Bielsa has to learn to understand them and deal with that. Twice he made an interesting allusion to other players who have wanted to leave: “A lot of young players who accompany the first-team have raised the desire not to continue within this organisation of ours … I tell you, there is not one, that most want to go.” It wasn’t clear, though, if he was talking about players who have then gone — Leif Davis, Robbie Gotts, Jordan Stevens, others who Bielsa has criticised himself for failing — or about players who, after raising the desire to go, have been convinced to stay. What comes through, though, is that Bielsa sees keeping young players interested in seeing their development through at Leeds as a challenge, and as a personal failure when they don’t stay and/or succeed:
“I consider [Leeds] a great opportunity, because there are very few teams, or none, who have had as many youngsters in their squad in the Premier League, but if those who benefit from that possibility prefer to leave the club in search of another type of competition, [then] obviously what I imagine to be a great possibility, they see in a different way.”
“But obviously there’s some mistake in how we interpret our work, otherwise the players wouldn’t leave, or thank us when they leave for what we’ve done for them.”
“What we do is for every player to succeed, not for every player to prefer to leave. When a young player who is getting opportunities would rather leave, what other reading can I make, than that we’ve made a mistake, that we’ve gambled on a player, not Cody in particular, who would rather not finish a cycle that aims to make him an elite player.”
“[This season] there were moments and opportunities for everybody and, despite that, the project is not attractive enough for them to finish it … [when] the footballer in development says, well, this doesn’t work for me anymore, evidently there is a miscalculation on the part of those of us who planned this, because otherwise everyone would have wanted to participate.”
The other side of this, that of course Bielsa would never dream of discussing, is Cardiff, 20th in the Championship, with one win in their last six league games. We know their newish manager is one of our direst recent players, Steve Morison, but what of his coaching staff? Morison’s assistant is Tom Ramasut, who after 42 games for Bristol Rovers in the mid-1990s bounced around twelve different clubs, most of them in Wales, apart from Bath City and Aylesbury United. His main achievement was co-founding popular Cardiff music venue Gwdihw in 2008, next door to his parents’ Thai restaurant; his coaching record consists of working in Cardiff’s academy since 2011, and a stint managing Cambrian & Clydach. According to Steve Morison, speaking shortly after taking over, “The last two weeks have been new for him, in a first-team environment, but what’s nice about Tom is that he can show his vulnerability.” Plus he knows the club. “This place is his life. Cardiff is his life. It’s great to have someone who knows everything and everyone around the football club.” The first team coach also knows the club: former Cardiff captain Mark Hudson, whose Wikipedia page says, ‘He is currently studying..might already have obtained…could have it who knows..for his UEFA A licence’ and probably needs editing. He used to be manager of Huddersfield Under-23s, and had two brief spells in charge as their caretaker. On LinkedIn, Chris Powell has endorsed him as highly skilled at ‘football’.
It’s fun to snarkily dismiss Cardiff’s coaching staff, but there is a point to it, which I think is close to what Bielsa is getting at. First team football is first team football, and traditionally has its own value. Players, the adage goes, have to learn how to deliver their craft in a tough environment. But what does it say about Marcelo Bielsa, former manager of Argentina and Chile, Newell’s Old Boys and Velez and Marseille and Athletic Bilbao, the guru of choice for half the world’s elite coaches, that a kid just turned twenty would rather continue his development by learning football at the bottom of the Championship from a coaching team that has managed, between them, just a handful of games? Is it gutsy, for a young player to decide he’s had enough elite coaching and want to make his mark on the Football League? Or is that actually the old-fashioned idea, with Phil Foden’s path at Manchester City — not one second spent out of the club on loan — the modern model for elite development? Or is this just a rejection of Bielsa’s methods in particular, even though they’ve helped Drameh to three appearances in the biggest league in the world?
What coach wouldn’t doubt themselves when a young player, perhaps representative of a new generation, bids a cheery bye bye in these circumstances? Well, perhaps other coaches wouldn’t doubt themselves quite so much. This is one of the curious aspects of Bielsa’s character, and why I never like to hear him described as ‘stubborn’; he’s absolutely devoted to his methods, but that means his expectations of success are also absolute. He knows that being so invested in his ideas means they had better bloody work, and that underperformance leaves him exposed. He said of Drameh’s wish to leave, as he has said of other young players when they have moved on, “for me, I live that as a failure.”
But Bielsa closed the subject by putting another side of the situation.
“Young players want to come to Leeds because they see there are options … the father of this idea is Victor Orta, it’s a very, very good idea, that has had repercussions on the economy of the club in a very good way, from all points of view. The value of Pascal [Struijk], [Joe] Gelhardt, or any of the ones that arrived, has fully justified the fact that we [the club, have] worked so much. The work [the staff] do, to pick the players and convince them to come, and the work the Under-23s staff do to develop them, is enormous.”
Even if it’s not enough for Cody Drameh, Struijk or Gelhardt are not complaining. Well, unless Sam Greenwood is falling on their ankle, but that’s a different subject. ⬢(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)