The Square Ball Week: Bielsa Splits The Blue

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Watching Marcelo Bielsa at his first press conference in Leeds was like watching the emotional thaw of an adopted dog being taken into a new home. For the first half hour there was no eye contact, barely a glance up from the table, where Bielsa had a sheaf of notes for a crutch and a translator to hide behind.

But by the end he was smiling, tongue out, tail wagging, his paw upon the shoulder of his new translating friend. Whether the great gang of journalists had asked easier questions than he expected, or he’s always like this, or he was just glad it was over, is hard to say. But I wonder if the answer lies in Lille.

Lille and Leeds are twin cities, officially so for fifty years. Their universities were working together before the Second World War, negotiating difficult declines of their status as manufacturing giants of the industrial revolution. For Marcelo Bielsa, as he said on Monday, “Lille was the saddest moment of my career as a manager.”

Bielsa was taken to Lille amid much fanfare and an annual salary of £8m, not just to coach the first team but to oversee a ‘Lille Unlimited’ project that would revolutionise the club. But Lille, perhaps to strengthen their links with Leeds, were on their sixth coach in four years, and the scale and speed of Bielsa’s changes, and the distinct lack of results as Lille plunged to the bottom of Ligue 1, caused a rift with their sporting director, who had never wanted to hire Bielsa in the first place.

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“My self-esteem as a manager, more than any time during my career, really suffered,” said Bielsa on Monday, but not from the results: although he acknowledged that twelve points from thirteen games was enough to damage him. What hurt him was, “I only played 20 per cent of the games for the period which I was under contract.”

Bielsa’s volatile reputation, particularly in recent years, after leaving Marseille one match into his second season and walking out of Lazio two days after starting work, has largely been constructed on his terms; in both cases, his resignation was his own professional judgement of his ability to work under certain conditions. At Lille they sacked him, and his professional judgement was that he wasn’t done. His last moments at Lille were caught on camera; sitting alone in a restaurant, gazing glumly into a laptop at a live stream as his team were defeated without him.

Apart from lecture tours, that was the last anyone had seen of Marcelo Bielsa. The taciturn and downcast fellow making his first halting statements as Leeds United manager could have been lifted straight from that Lille restaurant to Elland Road.

In one way, from what Bielsa said on Monday, legacies don’t interest him. Insisting seriously that he was not speaking with false modesty, he disavowed any lineage to Pep Guardiola or Mauricio Pochettino, even though the second was a crucial part of the Newell’s Old Boys team that first inspired and knew Bielsa’s innovation. All he has seen in Guardiola’s teams are Guardiola’s own ideas, “created by himself”; Pochettino has built his own style that “really is quite unique.” That those coaches are lodestones for others is more credible than that Bielsa’s ideas created them, he said. “I know myself very well and I’ve studied their styles in depth. I’m not just saying it to be humble or modest, I’m convinced in what I say when I talk about them.”

But in Rosario, the stadium where Newell’s Old Boys play had no formal name for 98 years, until in 2009 it became Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, as if it was finally worth naming thanks to him. In Chile, Bielsa retains the credit for giving the national side an identity after aimless decades spent in the shadow of Argentina and Brazil; that same concept, ‘self-esteem’, was non-existent in Chilean soccer until Bielsa taught them to play without fear, even after he had gone. “The social legacy that lasts to this day is that people still remember Bielsa the person, beyond how the team played,” says Harold Mayne-Nicholls, then president of the Chilean football federation, in [this article by Rob Hunt in The Blizzard. “His legacy is to have transmitted values via sporting performance.”

He made an impression not only through his famous devotion to video analysis and exhaustive training, but by talking to local people, buying his bread in the bakeries, his fruit in the markets. Chile is not Argentina, and while the language is shared, the culture is different; Bielsa immersed himself. “I consider my three and a half years in Chile to have been a gift in life,” he said in his final press conference there. “I have learned to love life here. I’m proud to have lived in this land and I know for sure that, by leaving, I’m the one losing out.”

“Working in football gives you a chance to see just how a city and group of fans can identify with each other,” Bielsa said in Leeds on Monday. He talked about coaching Athletic Bilbao, describing the city as, “a place that has left a huge mark on my life … [where] the phrase you hear most when you’re walking around the streets of Bilbao is ‘I’m an Athletic socio’,” a card-carrying supporter. He was careful to say that in Lille, his sadness was, “Not because of the place — the city is lovely and really welcoming.” The fans in Lille were great, and “the staff and all the employees of that club, you can’t split them out of that institution. They fit part of the texture of the club.”

If there’s a sadness to repair, a legacy that needs restoring so that Lille is not its last note, its personal and cultural as much if not more than it is tactical. The football, despite what Bielsa might say about Pochettino or Guardiola, is assured; there will always be people around to tell you why inventing 3-3-1-3 with an enganche is more important than the trophies he didn’t win. But behind the translator and the fixed, downward stare was a lecturer with a need to look up, smile, communicate and teach, the way he did with the first generation of players he taught at Newell’s Old Boys, a feeling it’s said he wants to recapture at Leeds.

How? “If you’re not an expert in a language, it’s unmistakable that you have a difficulty,” said Bielsa on Monday. “But there are other ways of getting your point across if you believe in something sincerely. Showing how you feel. I was working in Bilbao, which shares a language but has a different culture to Spain; and France is, of course, a different language and culture as well. I think I managed to get my point across in both those countries, and found the essence of what it is that motivates players.

“Getting players to play, appealing to their emotions, inspiring them to play, is what being a manager is all about. I think the biggest factor that gets players playing is emotion, and if you speak sincerely, words and how you express yourself go hand-in-hand with activating those football emotions.”

Sincere appeals to emotion are not common in the English Division Two, where Warnockian concepts like ‘Gerrin inside their ‘eads’ still hold sway. Thomas Christiansen was trying it, but holding his own martyrdom over the consciences of his players like Joan D’Elland Road was not an effective tactic, no matter how many ways he knew to say ‘I Would Die 4 U’. I wonder if that’s the only Prince lyric he was trying on the squad.

Bielsa doesn’t have Christiansen’s advantage with the language, although he half-heartedly promised to refresh the lessons his mother made him take at school. But perhaps speaking the language is not the advantage we assume it to be. Galactic quantities of love can be communicated between two people with just a glance, and if you add neck-scritches and a belly rub, you can do the same with a dog. Football is exactly as simple and complex as love, and with the right gestures, a whiteboard, and a rudimentary glossary of football terms, it’s not beyond the wit of Bielsa to explain to Kalvin Phillips what is in his heart: that support in the midfield during defensive phases will be coming from the wingbacks.

Expressions of emotion can convey formidable amounts of meaning when they’re sincere, and Leeds United might be fortunate to have taken Marcelo Bielsa into work at his saddest. The warmth that gradually filled the media room at Elland Road on Monday radiated from a coach coming in from the cold, after he learned that the media massed before him hadn’t come to torture him further, but to listen. His initial refusal to be drawn on his conclusions from watching hours of video of Leeds United eventually gave way to some murmurs of appreciation for what he’d seen of Ayling, Berardi and Alioski, as if in such a receptive atmosphere he couldn’t help himself becoming again the fascinated coach, his mind brimming with hundreds of ideas that he needs to share, so that they’re real.

“This press conference is all too much about me,” Bielsa said near the end, catching himself before he said too much about the squad, “and this isn’t a good thing in terms of manager-player relations. Speaking as much as I have been just now is not good for the job I’ve got ahead of me.”

He got away with it though, and breaching his own protocol might have been good for Bielsa, and for us. Waiting to be impressed by the reluctant looking figure apparently tortured by the opening of the press conference, what warmed the fans to him were these breakthroughs, the expressions of sincere emotion that showed us by the end just who this was, gathering his papers together, ready to go back to work. Marcelo Bielsa has come to Leeds with a lot to prove, and a lot in his heart to help him. ◉

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