At full-time the cameras got half the shot they wanted.
They wanted to broadcast an embrace, Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola, arm in arm. A moment for the fans of both clubs, for the followers they still have in Chile and Barcelona, for European football fans and Spanish speaking fans all over the world. For those who’d read about them that morning and tuned in to see the fuss. A private moment, to be shared with millions. The cameras got all that, too, but got something else first, and the moment was made to wait, perhaps until it never happened.
Because at full-time, when the camera operator swooped on Marcelo Bielsa and surrounded him, rotating to widen the shot for Guardiola, Bielsa didn’t move. He didn’t look up. He looked as if Pep Guardiola was the furthest person from his mind. The camera kept moving. Maybe it would go round again. How long would he stay there?
Bielsa crouched on the corner of his technical area as if bound by its lines, constrained by the silent tyranny of the thousands of seats in the darkness around him, soaked silver by rain and floodlights but empty of people.
Bielsa speaks about football as a means of creating joy, and about winning as temporary escape from a lonely abyss that is never more than five minutes away. But mid-pandemic ground closures mean that for now joy is imaginary and the abyss is inescapable. Any communication with fans has been removed from the stadium’s reality and is only in Bielsa’s head, where it can’t be more than hope, hope that the supporters at home are enjoying what they’re watching. As a person who, as he explained in his post-spygate lecture, doubts everything he does, when he can’t see and hear the fans he can’t be certain about their responses.
Football’s brutal shift from a mass participation pastime to a lamplit rival to Netflix puts a new emphasis on entertainment where it used to be dismissed. It never used to matter if a game was boring because the hook was anticipation: something might happen, at any moment. It wasn’t like a film or a boxset that you can research to decide if it’s worth watching. And if nothing did happen, there was no refund because it was sport. You bought your ticket to experience a certain amount of time during which something exciting might happen. You didn’t buy a guarantee that it would. But that doesn’t cut these days, when a sofa-bound population is putting a premium on home entertainment.
Anxiety used to mean the need for results. Now anxiety means the need for entertainment, too, which has always been Bielsa’s often lonely preoccupation. Alone on the touchline, how can Bielsa know beyond doubt when the football is entertaining enough?
So let’s each write him a letter to say thank you for this game.
For years Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have taken the stage with opponents who tried to stop them winning by not letting their teams entertain. Deep blocks absorb pressure and absorb all the fun, so all we can anticipate is how many times Liverpool will pass the ball unchallenged before they find a gap and score, or if the block fails, how many goals Manchester City will win by after taking an early lead. Manchester City winning the FA Cup final 6-0 felt like the end of football’s use as entertainment. The wonderful talents of Mo Salah, Lionel Messi and Kevin De Bruyne aren’t put to work in the service of delight, because every week they come up against lesser opponents determined to stop any spontaneous performance of skill. It’s like Beyoncé turning up to a charity karaoke night and being bottled off by Ian Brown.
That’s not Bielsa’s idea of football, and that’s why we get games like this season’s opener at Anfield, where Leeds were brilliant and Salah was brilliant too, and this game with Manchester City, when, player ratings be damned, every player was entertaining in everything they did.
It took Leeds United a while to play their part. That’s partly because these Peacocks have never played at this level, against opponents of their level, and have been disrupted since dominating the Championship: Illan Meslier and Robin Koch are new starters, Rodrigo and Ian Poveda are new substitutes, Jackie Harrison wasn’t allowed to play.
I wonder if it was also because it took time for them to generate belief in Bielsa’s instructions when City started so strong. Leeds couldn’t get the ball, and started panicking; small but accumulating mistakes led to Raheem Sterling’s goal, which was a big easy opportunity for him, to run inside and pick his shot into the corner.
If Bielsa’s idea was to attack them the way they attack you, the question was, how — on — earth? And the answer, bellowed from the technical area, was to keep working hard at the things you believe in. In every game there is a shift of emphasis, and even though it happened here after Leeds were a goal down, they were wick enough to recognise it, building their confidence upon it.
There were two big chances for Leeds before half-time. The first came from midfield, where Mateusz Klich never looked phased, and made space here to drive forward; Pat Bamford squared to Tyler Roberts, who slipped Stuart Dallas in for a one-on-one that Ederson blocked. The second was a mistake by Benjamin Mendy, that let Luke Ayling dribble into the box and shoot. Ederson made another good save, but the first point was that Ayling could not have done anything better and next time it might go in. The second point was that both chances were so like the usual Leeds United — full-backs underlapping wingers into the six-yard box — that the players could believe in their ideas working again. It didn’t matter if it was Manchester City, this was only a game. You could do what you wanted.
As substitute, Ian Poveda was the embodiment of that idea, having so much fun with Mendy that the left-back had to go off, a former Bielsa pupil exhausted on the fringes of the party.
Rodrigo roamed around the pitch making things happen and nearly finishing them off: his shot hit the bar, and his header was tipped onto it. And he scored, when Ederson lost the flight of a corner at Elland Road’s Floodlights End and the ball dropped unmissably in the six-yard box.
At the other end Leeds’ defenders found their game in flying together to block incoming shots, while Meslier embraced the mood by sliding at Sterling’s feet and twining his long arms through and around him and gripping the ball, peeking between his legs like a comic through a stage curtain.
Leeds’ famous one-to-one marking was not dependent on stopping the player being marked, because how could you stop Kevin De Bruyne playing football? At one point he ran the length of the pitch with the ball, only stopping in Leeds’ penalty area. Instead they worked to break the system surrounding each player by attacking them so much they hadn’t the time to think creatively, and by being first at the end of City’s production line to smash up anything they dared to roll off it.
The game was end-to-end and it was exciting because it was all about playing. Neither team was set up to stop the other from playing, but with the idea that all the playing would be their own. Defending is less important if you’re always attacking. It’s why both managers preach the press and the quick recovery: it’s always most likely that what you build will break, so the challenge is how quickly you can start building again. Both teams had time to try over and over, and that’s what made the game exhilarating and entertaining.
And beyond detailed description. The word ‘sensational’ is often used about football but it applies here because the game isn’t best reviewed as a sequence of incidents or developments but as a tapestry of sensations. Watching it was like seeing every football match you’ve ever watched thrown into a kaleidoscope.
I wonder if Bielsa stayed in place at the end because he was searching his mind for a way to define the previous two hours. He talks a lot about players who have the capability to unbalance; here was a whole game of it. But could the game be defined by him alone, thinking in place, or did it need the coach the camera was waiting to see him embracing?
The match as an event was built upon defining the coaches with and against each other. Much is made of Bielsa’s large staff but Guardiola has more. Bielsa’s best teams are praised but Guardiola’s have been better. A lot is said about Bielsa’s ideas but Guardiola’s are more popular. There’s new talk about Bielsa’s recent spending on transfers, but Guardiola has spent hundreds of millions more. When success is defined by trophies, Guardiola has more. Their relationship is supposed to be master to apprentice, but Bielsa doubts he can even be Guardiola’s equal, never mind his better.
Bielsa has never managed a club for so long. He’s never been in a league of this level, where so many coaches have claims as the world’s best, where tactical ideas are swapped like stickers, where playing budgets satisfy any need. And he’s never produced games of such total excitement as in this season so far, and he’s never done it with Stuart Dallas, Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling. Those jibes about not winning trophies will never quieten down. But who cares what Marcelo Bielsa has done, when this is what he’s doing?
But anxiety creeps into the destabilising gaps between perception and achievement, between how you are assessed and how you assess. As Bielsa crouched in the rain beneath the annihilating silence and the contrasting floods of light and dark, cut off from the spontaneous response of supporters who always supply immediate answers to doubts, was he wondering, who made this game? And did he feel, despite it all, like he might finally, aged 65, be coming close to the mountaintop?
Bielsa had given everything, but there was nobody there to tell him it was enough. There was only the camera, demanding a handshake, so he gave that as well. In the silence of Elland Road, Bielsa is giving everything he has. ◉