The Square Ball Week: Marcelo Bielsa & The Thorp Arch Panopticon

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

Back before the concept of Marcelo Bielsa as Leeds United’s head coach crystalised into three goals past Stoke, four past Frank Lampard’s Derby, and so on, one of the dominant questions, after ‘What the hell is going on?’, was about communication.

Bielsa does not speak any, or much, English, or he might be fluent or becoming fluent and just likes the lustre of intellect and biceps that Salim Lamrani brings to his words. How, in any case, we wondered in pre-season, did he propose to speak with the players?

Not a problem, said Bielsa, and in the Swedish press this week Pontus Jansson revealed why: because he isn’t speaking with the players. But, as performances and results are showing, he is communicating.

As squads become ever more multinational, language is an increasingly important aspect of football, the game that boasts of being universal. Leeds United were trailblazers more than 25 years ago by providing Lee Chapman as Eric Cantona’s translator. Chapman’s French was learned during three disastrous months in Ligue 2 with Niort, when the phrases he used most were, ‘Where is my money?’ and ‘I want to go home’, so he wasn’t able to share most of the nuances of Cantona’s character with the Yorkshire public. But it was a start.

Times have changed, to the extent that a player like Yosuke Ideguchi can conduct his own monkish tour of enforced European silence, moving from Japan to speak with nobody in Spain, England and now Germany, where hopefully someone will find a phrasebook he can use. Leeds have a Spanish-speaking coaching staff, working with a squad sourced from Spain, Macedonia, Poland, Sweden and, least comprehensible of all, Liverpool. The culture clash is celebrated on the club’s new YouTube channel, All Leeds, in its regular ‘Yorkshire Slang’ feature, in which presenter Laura quizzes our players on local word meanings; taking particular delight, after stumping them with ‘ginnels’ and ‘chuddy’, in threatening to ‘bray’ them all. “Can you use that in a sentence?” asked Londoner Lewis Baker. “I’m gonna bray you!” warned Laura, shaking her fist.

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At Thorp Arch, not slang but silence reigns from the blue throne. “I do not think I’ve talked to him, to be honest,” says Jansson. “Bielsa wants a distance from his players.” Personally, says Pontus, looking forward to his own coaching career — he really is insisting on this whole ‘growing up’ phase — he prefers a close relationship, allowing the sharing of ideas. He also seems to have some fear of missing out going on, as if all the good get-to-know-you chats took place in pre-season; as if while he was recovering from the World Cup, Bielsa and Berardi were hitting the nightclubs together, Berardi in full kit, Bielsa carrying his own seat. Jansson says that when he came back, he felt like he was walking into a different club; now he’s not playing, and there’s no explanation from the coach, and he’s finding that challenging. “I would not have had it this way, but all coaches have their own style,” says Pontus. “And we go along with it.”

He needn’t take it personally. Mateusz Klich has also been interviewed, in Poland, and says much the same thing. Bielsa doesn’t talk much; he might pull a player aside for five minutes to make a point, but otherwise the players are working with his staff of coaches, not closely with the man himself. “The boss is the boss and he doesn’t speak to the players,” said Ezgjan Alioski last week. “It’s something different, but it’s very interesting also for us players, because it’s always the staff that come to say something and not the boss.”

The staff itself is fascinating, not just as individuals — Phil Hay wrote them all up in the YEP — but because Phil’s list doesn’t feel like it includes all of them; what of the few hidden away on the front rows of the East Stand? During a match the staff pop up and down from the dugout like interchangeable lieutenants, dressed in their uniforms of t-shirts and clipboards, ready to yell across Elland Road like army instructors: ‘I don’t know but I’ve been told / Kalvin, you’re having a nightmare, come off.’

They’re the people the players are working with every day for the fitness training, the tactical practice, the intense one-on-one sessions, while Bielsa keeps his distance to a degree the players are finding unusual. But that does not mean he’s not involved.

I’ve written already about Bielsa’s touchline repose and the way he turns watching into either a science, an art, or an obsession, depending how you feel about someone who can watch videos of two football matches at once. He doesn’t need to train the players, because he has trained the coaches to train the players, and that leaves him free to focus on observing, and analysing the results.

A distant head coach is nothing new. Although David O’Leary might deny it, his time managing Leeds can be divided into two distinct coaching periods, led by Eddie Gray (very good) and Brian Kidd (very bad). O’Leary was himself the training ground voice while George Graham relaxed among the Arsenal memorabilia in his London home; Howard Wilkinson didn’t keep Mick ‘El Perro Loco’ Hennigan by his side so that he could bark himself. Neil Warnock famously had trees cut down so he could watch training from his office — on the days he bothered turning up.

But Bielsa has gone several levels beyond that, architecturally and conceptually, by transforming Thorp Arch from training ground to panopticon. The panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s ideal for a new kind of prison in the late-eighteenth century, with a watchtower in the centre of circular rows of cells, so that the inmates could be observed at all times, without knowing if they were being observed, forcing them to behave just in case. Bentham described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”, an apt description of the way Bielsa has transformed the players who looked criminally feckless at the end of last season. Bielsa watched them all on video even before he arrived at United’s training ground, handily placed across the road from Her Majesty’s Prison Wealstun. Has any set of rogues ever been made so honest so quickly, simply by the grind of constant observation?

Like multinational squads, observation has been changing football since the days of Don Revie’s dossiers and Wilkinson’s pen-and-paper prototype Opta data; now there’s Prozone, and Catapult’s data-collecting sports bras to ensure no movement goes unmeasured in training or in games. Players have for years regarded such tracking as a sort of prison: ‘There’s no hiding place anymore.’ Elite clubs have teams of data scientists, crunching the numbers and feeding analysis to the head coach, for him to take to the players.

It’s there that Bielsa exerts himself, by his absence, through the factory-prison structure he introduces between himself and the squad. His philosophy of football is inherently simple — dominate possession, and press the rival team far from your own goal, to reduce their influence on the match as near to zero as possible — but rigorously enforced, so that there is no ‘plan B’, and no need to discuss tactical ideas. Instead there are a large set of training routines specifically designed to enforce aspects of the strategy, and intense observation indicates to Bielsa which routines his staff should use, with which players, to raise them through strategy to his philosophical demands. Because the philosophy is written in stone, like a set of commandments, Bielsa does not need to intervene personally, because the players and staff know that he is all-seeing, like the watching guard of a panopticon. Or, like a god.

And if god does intervene?

“When the boss comes it’s really nice,” says Alioski. “He says ‘bravo, it’s good or not good’. When he says something to you, you see he really understands something, and when he says to do something you know you must adapt. Maybe it’s good [praise], maybe it’s not, but you see in the first two or three seconds you must listen and it’s really important.

“When he comes to speak with you individually he shows you things and videos that you can do better, and what is not good. He directly says to you: ‘It’s not good, but I am sure in the next game you will not do this wrong the same way.'”

When the team drew 2-2 at Swansea, says Jansson, it “was not a bad result, we won a point. But then we had a one-and-a-half hour meeting with Marcelo and he killed us almost.”

One of the rewards of religion is communion with a deity; you feel the love or wrath of the god whose moral code you strive to live by, and that keeps you on the chosen path. On holy days you enter god’s house; Saturdays at 3pm, if Sky would let us. “When we are losing at half-time, there is no shouting in the locker room,” Klich says of the weekly service, when training is over and the flock has their god by their side. “For fifteen minutes, he explains what we should improve to play better. Practically, he shows us where to run.”

For five minutes here and there in training; for fifteen minutes in the intensity of a match; for a fiery ninety minute sermon when morals loosen and the congregation needs bringing back to the path; when god speaks, you listen. But this wandering metaphorical rustle through Bielsa’s methods had us all in a prison five minutes ago, and now we’re in church? Well, the panopticon didn’t only seek to enforce behaviour; but to reform morals, improve health, inspire industriousness. It could uplift the prison population, by forcing them to submit to constant observation under threat of punishment. It would be like being sentenced to church, basically; or the kind of cult you might construct around a football coach.

Or, as Pablo Hernandez put it this week: “Bielsa has brought the club together and we have all bought into his ideas, and would defend them to the death.”

Getting your message across to players, Bielsa said at his first press conference, is about, “Appealing to their emotions and inspiring them to play. 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.”

So you don’t have to say much, but when you do speak, it has to count; Marcelo Bielsa, as he has hinted with an element of pleasure, has a Yorkshire mind. And he has training methods that allow the daily work to continue without his involvement, so that while the players might find it unusual, his distance creates an aura, so that his few words become awe-inspiring. The better the team plays, the less Bielsa will have to say, meaning greater impact when he does need to speak.

Whether that amounts to something resembling church life or prison life, I’m not sure. Perhaps it starts as one and then becomes the other; but perhaps we’ll be talking about ‘burnout’ some other time. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)