The Square Ball Week: The Perfect Match

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

“We played the worst game so far at Stoke,” said perhaps the most popular manager Leeds United have ever had, reflecting on United’s fourth defeat in five matches.

“It’s very difficult for us to understand our last performance,” he added, a week after lecturing the press, the nation and — if you follow the headlines — the world on the 300 hours of work his staff of twenty put into understanding the performance of Derby County.

The defeat to Stoke, he said, “doesn’t give more importance to the obligation to win,” at Rotherham. “We have to win all games.”

That obligation is a clause that only applies to Marcelo Bielsa, because he makes winning such an intense obligation that no number of defeats, no implication for a championship’s outcome, no exterior conditions can increase it. The obligation to win isn’t measurable by degrees, it just exists. Bielsa is always obliged to win. It’s part of the mythology.

Bielsa has spoken at times this season about the folklore of football, and in the last couple of weeks we have experienced the folklore of Marcelo Bielsa. Leaving aside the perpetuating controversy, Spygate has introduced Bielsa to an English public at large, many of whom, like Peter Shilton, thought he was just some Italian maniac with a bucket. They now know he’s regarded as a genius, Machiavellian or otherwise. Bielsa’s higher profile has brought more scrutiny, letters of complaint apparently written by kids trying to copy lawyers off the TV (‘we collectively require the following information to be requested and obtained and provided to us collectively’, eleven clubs collectively demanded of Shaun Harvey, collectively); and it has gathered Leeds United’s supporters behind him with even more enthusiasm than when he first took Leeds top of the league. We didn’t think we could adore Bielsa any more than after the final whistle wins over Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers, but that was before we beat Derby County, and lost four other games. Popular? There’s folk getting tattoos.

When I say Bielsa might be the most popular manager Leeds have ever had, I realise that’s contestable, and it’s not meant to be provocative. Don Revie stands above all, loved by Leeds fans and disdained by outsiders, and no Leeds manager has been or should be worshipped for his achievements or simply for himself the way Revie was and is. But not everyone was convinced all the time. At the height of his team’s powers, competing on all fronts at home and in Europe, Revie’s Leeds were good enough to storm into a two- or three-goal half-time lead at Elland Road, then coast through the second half, conserving energy for the games to come. And sections of the crowd were demanding enough to boo the lack of entertainment and demand half their money back. Even after ten years of it, success always felt like such a new thing to Leeds fans that four defeats in five matches would have had some of them muttering that Revie had lost his touch, that he should have signed Alan Ball or Pele or whoever.

Howard Wilkinson felt the cynical brunt too; browsing pages of The Square Ball or letters in the Yorkshire Evening Post in the weeks before 1992’s league title win turns up plenty of critics who thought Wilko didn’t have a clue. They were in the ascendency by the end of 1996, and it took years to regret the vitriol of that year, when we didn’t realise how good we still had it. Wilkinson was an outsider, but even managers with sacred links to the club — Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Billy Bremner, even Gary McAllister or the most successful of them, Simon Grayson — couldn’t get the fans thoroughly on their side. They were loved for reasons and in ways that Marcelo Bielsa is not, but it’s hard to think of a time when their work ever had his approval ratings.

Bielsa’s ratings remain high in Argentina, in Chile, in Bilbao, in Marseille, and it’s extraordinary when compared to the trophies he’s won in those places; apart from Argentine championships with Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina, Bielsa’s cupboard is bare. And yet, at the 2002 World Cup, the ‘footballing idea that most appealed’ to Pep Guardiola was that of Bielsa’s Argentina, when they lost to England, drew with Sweden, and were eliminated at the group stage, plunging a shocked nation into mourning. Soon, the players, fans and authorities were calling Bielsa’s name — demanding that he stay in the job.

(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)

Bielsa freely admits that he hasn’t won the honours to match his reputation. Told by an ill-informed Sky interviewer that he knew what it takes to win titles, Bielsa reduced his translator Salim Lamrani to giggles by replying that he welcomed the compliment, but it would be too easy to discover the truth.

The truth is one thing, but folklore is another. Marcelo Bielsa’s myth travels before him, as we’ve seen in the English press these past two weeks; Spygate was the lever for grenadegate and the VHS chronicles to be widespread across the back pages. And as Bielsa tries to catch up with his mythology and justify it through work — and few coaches work harder to match their myth with results — his folklore surrounds him and grips him all the more. The more intense he becomes in pursuit of honours, the further the tales of his intensity spread.

I’ve kept up a theme this season of Bielsa taking on Leeds United’s history, and that still holds; he’s up against our club’s vulnerabilities, its failings, its relationship with authorities, the long record of exceptional performance being undermatched by trophies in the cabinet. I wonder whether someone has taken Marcelo aside to quietly suggest that, if all else fails, he should try pissing against the corner flags to lift Elland Road’s Victorian curse. All else has not failed, yet, but you can’t dismiss the Peacocks’ history lightly, especially not in the centenary year; those of you with seats near the corners should keep sniffing the air this season for a faint whiff of mate tea.

But Bielsa also has to take on his own history this season. The people of Marseille and Bilbao may love him, but fans of Lazio and Lille do not. Between August 2015 and arriving at Leeds, Bielsa was in employment for a total of less than six months, taking charge of just fourteen games, as three high profile European club jobs evaporated around him. After a tense season of glory at Marseille, disagreements with the owner became so great that Bielsa resigned after the first game of 2015/16; after promises were broken at Lazio Bielsa quit after two days; fraught relationships at Lille meant their ‘LOSC Unlimited’ project collapsed before the end of November.

The relationships and promises made and delivered at Leeds have proved much more robust than that; there’s no sign of disharmony behind the scenes that might cut Bielsa’s stay short. But Bielsa is here to prove himself. Football’s last sight of him before Leeds was in a restaurant in Lille, where he was photographed staring glumly at a laptop stream of what was recently his team losing 3-0 at Montpellier. He looked a long way from El Loco, and some wondered if he could make it back.

Bielsa had a giggle with Lamrani about not winning many titles, but the truth he declared still counts against him: Espanyol, Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio, Lille, five European jobs, no trophies. The project at Leeds interested him, but it’s a project in the second tier; a big project, true, with a Premier League stadium, fanbase and city, only lacking the team. But talking about Kiko Casilla this week, Bielsa reminded us that, “It’s not often a player of this level chooses to play in the Championship,” and he could have been talking about himself as a coach. Bielsa knows where he is, and he knows he has to rebuild his reputation.

It’s widely understood that Bielsa’s contract with Leeds is for one year, with another year dependent on promotion. We hope it won’t be necessary, but we also hope that Bielsa’s developing love for Leeds is as deep as ours for him, and that he can be persuaded to stay whatever happens. But I don’t know if Bielsa would have the appetite for a second attempt at promotion from the second tier, after failing once. Leeds are top of the league and it’s all or nothing, now. The obligation to win at Rotherham is not increased by a defeat at Stoke. The stakes are bigger than that already.

Bielsa has to take on and beat United’s folklore this season, and by uniting the fans behind him during such an awkward spell of results and attention, he’s shown he’s winning the battle. Now he only has to overcome our historical problems with referees, the Football League, the Football Association, Ken Bates’ sidekick, half the division’s automatic disdain, a nation waiting for us to destroy our own chances of success, and our long track record of destroying our own chances of success.

But his other challenge is to overcome his own history; his historical problems with referees, football authorities, other clubs, half a nation waiting for the maniac to destroy his own chances of success, and his long track record of destroying his own chances of success. Bielsa is here to wrest control of his destiny away from his myth, and he couldn’t have chosen a better club for the fight.

Leeds are top of the league after the worst game we’ve played so far, something Bielsa finds hard to understand. But he is hard to understand. Leeds United are hard to understand. Bielsa and Leeds are a perfect match. Like, for example, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Or, for another example, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. ◉

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. Decent writing needs support: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Lee Brown)