The Square Ball Week: Shooting The Moon

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

Leeds United have announced Marcelo Bielsa, but are we any wiser? Perhaps, if we’ve used the announcement as an occasion to wonder. This part is good; we can imagine all the incredible things Marcelo Bielsa might do for Leeds United, without results, those pesky things, getting in the way.

Or even the man himself. Bielsa arrives on Saturday and meets the press on Monday at 2pm; I wonder if he’s aware that the final matches in World Cup Group A kick-off at 3pm or, given his track record for long press conferences, that Group B starts at 7pm. Even Dave Hockaday’s unveiling took almost an hour, although he had some voluble help for most of that time, and no, I don’t mean from Junior Lewis.

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Given that after being patient for fifteen years Leeds fans don’t have much patience left, it’s possible that a lot of Leeds fans might come home from work on Monday evening to find that Bielsa has been lecturing on LUTV since 2pm and decide they’re sick of him already. We’d prefer our man served as a myth, please, and hold the flesh, blood and discourse. If that does happen, it will be interesting to watch out for any signs that Bielsa will care a damn what the fans think. What we see might give some clues about why he’s really coming to Elland Road, and how things might turn out.

The enduring recent image of Bielsa is not of a starry-eyed Pep Guardiola spluttering fanboy praises at a press conference, or an enthralled Mauricio Pocchetino explaining how much he owes to the manager who used to manage him. Instead it’s of Bielsa himself, by himself, alone at a formica table in the back of a side street restaurant with a bag-for-life between his legs, intently watching Lille losing to Montpellier on his laptop. Lille had just sacked him after five turbulent months, but he couldn’t let it go; who knows what he was thinking as he watched Lille’s game that night, because who can see into the mind of an obsessive?

Lille were paying Bielsa £8m a season and he is still claiming £10m compensation, amounts that you might think would leave him with better things to do than watch the players of the club that was sacking him. But even if he had to walk away from the work, he couldn’t remove his famous gaze — he can watch video of two games at once, they say — from the experiment. Leeds United will be paying around a quarter of that, but are expecting nonetheless to get exactly the same full and frightening attention, while hoping for better results.

They might get them. Events at Lille joined his sudden departure after a fairly successful spell at Marseille and his instant walkout from Lazio to make Bielsa seem as secure as an unmoored sailboat, blowing from course to course and from rocks to rocks and wherever the wind and waves might take him, throwing players and clubs and money into the water as he went. That’s been the recent life of this legendary coach drifting from one Europa League competitor to another, each with owners convinced the Champions League is one top coach and an £8m wage from being theirs. That life is not all its cracked up to be; just ask Burnley, who will soon start their great Europa League adventure by playing Aberdeen.

According to Phil Hay’s excellent article on the hiring of Bielsa, the coach has been convinced to take a £6m pay cut and drop into the Second Division, or rather he has convinced himself, because of the romantic possibilities on offer in West Yorkshire that the group stages of the Europa League and a municipal stadium in France don’t have for Bielsa anymore.

He began his managerial career at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, where he had some of his darkest days — a 6-0 defeat to Santa Fe left him wanting to die; and some of his happiest, as out of that despair he developed the tactical philosophies that brought glory to Newell’s, who named their stadium after him, and took him around the world as one of its most famous and feted coaches.

I’ve looked back to Newell’s during Bielsa’s rise, which coincided with Leeds United last winning the league title, and although you can see early signs of the hard pressing work in midfield, the fast-moving ball retention creating spaces in attack, and the extreme width that makes those spaces appear, what stands out most is a lack of conspicuous playing talent. Mauricio Pocchetino is in defence and he’s very good, and on the right wing Julio Zamora is creative and dangerous, but the overall impression is of a team closer to Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds than to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City: hard working individuals who, by dedicating themselves to each other and to a tactical plan, achieved much more than they ever could apart.

Leeds fans still miss that team, and not just because they won things; the way they won things inspired affection as well as admiration. Marcelo Bielsa, it seems, might be missing Newell’s Old Boys. Whatever went wrong at Lille, one of the contributing factors was too many players that Bielsa didn’t want to use, who didn’t want to hear what he had to say; perhaps they thought they were too good for his El Loco methods, or maybe they were earning too much to care; whereas Bielsa was earning too much, but was still caring exactly as much as usual. If Bielsa saw Kalvin Phillips on Thursday nervously telling Sky Sports News of his eagerness to learn from one of the world’s best coaches, he might have been pleased that here at least is a young player willing to get on board with new ideas, and one clearly not being paid enough to afford a decent haircut.

Kalvin’s giddiness looked real, and so it should. Whether it’s right or wrong, whether it will be good or bad, Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United is a dream. It’s painful to our self-esteem to admit, but United shouldn’t be able to attract a coach like this in 2018; the leap from Paul Heckingbottom to Marcelo Bielsa would frighten Evil Knievel, and crosses a gap filled with higher status clubs in higher status leagues offering more money but craning their necks to see Leeds and Bielsa, high in the sky above them, somewhere up near the moon.

Bringing him to Elland Road was apparently Victor Orta’s idea, which is not surprising, if Andrea Radrizzani has finally told him to think bigger; to think as big as his Football Manager save games, and use Leeds United to bring those fantasies to life. If you never ask for the moon you’ll never get any cheese, if you don’t shoot you can’t score, if you don’t aim for your dream date, you’ll end up at the prom alone. For Orta, hiring Bielsa is like winning a lifetimes supply of manchego, scoring in the World Cup final and marrying the world eSports Football Manager champion all at the same time.

It suggests that, after last season’s cautious exercise in tidying up after Leeds United’s previous owners and seeing what works and what doesn’t in the Championship, Radrizzani has realised, as we all did long ago, that the hype around Europe’s most exciting and competitive league doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when shithouses like Steve Morison are running rings around your team. The major flaw in his initial patient willingness that promotion could take up to five years to achieve was that it was five years longer than the fans wanted to wait, and it seems to have taken one year for him to catch up with that idea.

The flaw now is that Bielsa is all or nothing. He has a two year contract and if, when he leaves, Leeds United are not in the Premier League, or at worst haven’t come close, whatever time he spent here will be judged a disaster. As ever, though, a flaw can be an advantage.

If we can deduce one thing about how to get promoted from the Championship by looking at the teams that have, it’s that there are lots of ways to get promoted, and nobody can decide which is best. Last season Wolves won the league with Champions League players acquired suspiciously cheap, Cardiff followed them up with Fourth Division players playing football from the 1980s, and Fulham won the play-offs by building and keeping one of the best teams in the division for several seasons. Last season Newcastle went up with the team that had come down, Brighton by planning meticulously from the boardroom down, Huddersfield by getting the players and the town to buy into a charismatic coach.

But what all those differences have in common is that they could be easily identified. We knew from the start what Wolves were doing; you could see a mile off what Cardiff were up to. Each promoted club decided on its approach and then, crucially, went all in, with no doubt and no half-measures. The lesson is not to choose the right plan, but that whatever plan you choose, you have to give it everything.

Leeds didn’t get as far as a plan last season, mixing up an untested European coach with cheap untried players, then switching halfway through to youth players and a narrow-eyed Barnsleyman. If you were to try to explain what the plan was it would take hours, when you could explain Wolves in seconds.

Not everything has changed, but the scope has; Leeds have gone from last summer’s experiment with Thomas Christiansen, hoping to benefit from a pupil of Johan Cruyff, to an experiment with Marcelo Bielsa, hoping to benefit by buying a whole damn school. What they have to do, though, is make Leeds United Bielsa’s club as far as he wants it to be, in every way he wants it to be, not because they’re bowing to his reputation or his ego, but because there is no point in hiring Marcelo Bielsa and doing things any other way, and because full-anything gives us a greater chance of success than a mixture of measures of anything else.

It could be painful. Romance often is. Kalvin Phillips might be excited about Bielsa’s reputation with young players, but he could also be on the list of young players Bielsa can’t possibly use. Our hopes at the end of last season rested on signing Kyle Bartley to be a king among the U23 graduates, that we might enjoy seeing how far Paudie O’Connor, Tom Pearce, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Ryan Edmondson can take us, with a proper coach and a few good new players. That sort of optimistic, incremental improvement is not what’s going to be happening. Much of the future we started anticipating for our club will now either be integral to Bielsa, shipped out sharpish, or best off hiding in the U23s for a couple of years.

I don’t know what will be happening in place of that future, and I don’t know if it will work, but I do know it will be interesting finding out, and I also remember saying the same thing about Hockaday. I never associated Dave Hockaday with romance or moonlight, though. If Leeds United are taking another big risk this summer, at least this time we’re aiming to shoot the moon, instead of pointing at our own feet. Now we pull the trigger, and mind our toes for the ricochet. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)(feature image by Jim Ogden)