At full-time against Bristol City, Marcelo Bielsa hugged Ezgjan Alioski, and Gaetano Berardi, too. Apart from feeling jealous — of whom and for what is up to you — we might wonder, why hugs? Why now?
The memorable Marcelo-cuddles last season were at Brentford, in very different circumstances, when the players looked so distraught at the end of the game, and at the end of their automatic promotion chances, Bielsa couldn’t stick to his rule of aloofness. Apart from that, and some early season high-fives Kemar Roofe offered when substituted, there was only the run and hug for Pat Bamford when he came back from injury with a volley in training. Bielsa seemed embarrassed that became public, saying the moment had been so beautiful, “I afforded myself this excess.”
Full-time against Bristol was different again. Just less than a week had passed since a shellshocked Luke Ayling had made what sense he could of a 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, facing up to months of hard work counting for nothing now the 3rd place team was level on points. In a world where emojis often replace emotions, Ayling’s feelings were easy to read: last week sad, this week happy. In football, winning games will do that. It might even earn you a hug from Marcelo Bielsa.
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There was a lot of talk about sports psychology before and after the Nottingham Forest match, much of it valid; football is a high pressure sport, especially when something like promotion from the Championship is at stake, and therapists can provide useful strategies to help. But as it so often does, football last week made something as complicated as the science of the impact of emotional and mental states upon limits to physical expression and achievement seem very, very easy. Just win a game, and let adrenaline take care of the rest.
That might be a sticking plaster over deeper problems. Bielsa is famously on record as regarding the euphoria of victory as only a temporary reprieve from a constant abyss. But as one sports psychologist, Simon Kawycz, pointed out to Leeds Live last week, bringing someone in, as the phrase goes, is no guarantee of success, and in a results orientated business like football — with the season’s ultimate result just weeks away — more harm could be done than good. A sports psychologist would be expected to have a significant immediate impact upon a group of twenty that would almost certainly be beyond them. Then what would be said when results didn’t improve?
I’m reminded of the curious case of Gianni Vio, the set-piece specialist who looked like a genius when Thomas Christiansen’s Leeds suddenly looked threatening from corners, but became a running joke when those threats fizzled away amid the general incompetence. He is now viewed as a bizarre footnote from what we might call Victor Orta’s experimental period, but then again, look at Leeds now, where a total lack of success with set-pieces this season, for and against, has people asking what is being done in training to improve the situation. If Gianni Vio was hired tomorrow, it might be greeted as good news — but it would only stay good news for as long as the Peacocks were scoring from corners.
Corners are one of many things Bielsa is accused of being stubborn about, but they’re an area, game after game, where there have been changes you wouldn’t associate with mulishness. He has been clear in press conferences about his preference: Bielsa believes a fast delivery into a crowded, dynamic penalty area is the hardest for teams to defend. It’s also been clear that Leeds United’s players don’t follow that rule the way they follow his others, although it seems to depend on whether Pablo Hernandez is in the team or not. Even if he doesn’t take them himself, if Pablo is on the pitch, Leeds take corners short and as quickly as they can, trying to catch opponents from fresh angles before they’re ready, continuing the panic that set in during the preceding attack. The takers have changed, too: Bielsa likes the way Kalvin Phillips takes a corner, but lately Jackie Harrison has been involved, as well.
It feels like a situation being managed by the players, Hernandez in particular, and as such it’s a telling piece of delegation from Bielsa. It’s not the only concession. This season’s focus on game management, although it hasn’t always worked, seems to have responded to a need among the players for a break from the constant hunt for more goals, more vamos; for some pragmatism to be permitted when they see a game as won. Bielsa said just the other week that he will never allow a style of football that depends on counter-attacking and timewasting; but he has been persuaded to allow Helder Costa to keep the ball in the corner, as he did against Bristol, to make the game safe. I wonder if, in those moments, Bielsa discreetly lowers his gaze.
Perhaps these limited devolved powers are why Bielsa at Leeds: Season Two still looks promising, and is not the burnt out wreck falling apart his naysayers love predicting. It’s an important sign of trust and respect, within a footballing philosophy that is not kind to players. At his press conference before the Reading game he elevated supporters, as he often does, because all they get out of football are emotions — positive and negative — in return for handing over a lot of cash they work hard to earn. Whatever emotions footballers might face are, in Bielsa’s view, compensated by the fans’ money. There’s an inequality there, and Bielsa keeps it foremost in his players’ minds, as with the famous litterpicking training session, to keep them grateful and humble; he wants to foster responsibility and realism by connecting their experiences with those of their supporters. But it can also sound cruel. What could you be crying for anyway, footballer, with thousands of pounds of the fans’ money in your bank account?
What that attitude does, though, is remind the players that they are professional footballers, and as such they have the tools for their best therapy already: winning games. “How do I manage the situation emotionally?” said Bielsa, asked how he and the team deal with the pressure of supporters’ expectations. “Our job has a rule common for every situation: we have to win the next match.” We saw the effect that had on Luke Ayling last week; we felt the effect it had on us. We also know that it’s easier said than done, but that’s where Marcelo Bielsa comes in, because the players’ tools for their most consistent therapeutic strategy — winning games — have never been sharper or stronger than since Bielsa came to work.
Bielsa might keep an emotional distance but he understands that what makes football players and fans happy is enjoying winning football matches. He can’t respond to the individual emotional needs of twenty players and tens of thousands of fans, but he can strive to make one thing happen that will make all those people happy. In his work as a football coach he’s an enabler, and that’s therapy. No sports psychologist or therapist can make an athlete run faster or jump higher than they are capable; the point is to remove the barriers that stop an athlete from running or jumping as well as they could. He didn’t invent Kalvin Phillips, but who else was going to help him achieve his inherent potential? Bielsa’s former players often say the same thing: the point is not the trophies he has or has not won, the point is the permanent difference he made in their careers, their lives.
Bielsa is fortunate, at Leeds, to have a group of players who are experienced enough to appreciate the effect he is having on them, who have been at Leeds long enough to understand what is required of them, are mature enough to take the responsibility that Bielsa and Leeds — a uniquely demanding combination — require.
Mateusz Klich is old enough to have used his first season’s experiences as fuel for a challenge rather than a tantrum. Luke Ayling showed last Saturday that he is still motivated by the way Lee Johnson, a manager convinced he can take Bristol City into the Premier League, decided Ayling couldn’t be part of that. Liam Cooper has never been every fan’s choice as captain, but he’s been doing the job long enough to know everything about it now. He knows what’s expected, and he knows when he and others have fallen short.
“You’ve got to be a certain player to play for this club,” Cooper said after the Bristol game, about blocking out what he calls “just noise” about burnout and falling apart. “It’s a club with big expectations, and you see by the performances out there today by the lads, to a man we were unbelievable. We never stopped running, we never stopped trying to score that next goal and that’s the way it’s got to be. We’re confident with our philosophy and that’s the way it’s always got to be.” He might not always be that certain player for Leeds, but he knows what it looks like, and he knows what it takes to try to be, and keep trying.
In this Championship season only a few weeks of effort remain. The simplest solution to whatever woes Leeds United have experienced in recent weeks, and will experience again, remains open and available to them and their coach. Winning football matches, and if there’s time, a few quick hugs along the way. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)