Marcelo Bielsa was asked this week if he ever wished he’d coached at the biggest clubs with the biggest budgets, or if he “prefers the development aspect with individuals”, a polite way of asking if he’d rather just buy Sergio Aguero and be done with it, rather than spend a lifetime teaching Bamfords how to hit barndoors.
Bielsa gently pointed out that he coached Argentina for many years; he had Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo then, although their own banjo operation problems meant an early World Cup exit. “I coached Marseille, that is a top team. America of Mexico, an important team.” Newell’s Old Boys will always be the biggest team in his heart, but he didn’t mention them: the point was made.
There’s an extent to which Bielsa makes teams big: Newell’s ground didn’t have a name until they named it after him; Chile were not a powerhouse of South American football, but as their coach, Bielsa was a colossus of the continent. He might not have ever bought Alexis Sanchez or Gary Medal: but he pretty much invented them.
Slaven Bilic, a long-serving international coach of Croatia, and Mikel Arteta, a pup of Pep Guardiola, occupy or have occupied spaces the question implied Bielsa might wish for himself. But they have both seemed as giddy as children to share a touchline with him in the last couple of weeks. You might think the world of top level management has excluded Bielsa, out of meaningful work for so long before finding home in the second tier with Leeds, but then you see top coaches turning a post-match handshake into a stammering outburst of praise, like a Beatle melting in the presence of Elvis Presley.
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Bielsa brought an aura to the touchline at The Emirates on Monday. Now Kenilworth Road looked an insult; sorry, Luton Town. This is the stage where Marcelo Bielsa should play; and his team, as good if not better in the first half than ever in the Championship, proved it.
We can’t afford to get carried away, but the point at West Bromwich Albion that kept us top, and the performance at Arsenal, have made promotion a serious prospect at the start of 2020. The six million people who watched the FA Cup match are now ready, waiting and expecting Marcelo Bielsa to take Leeds into the Premier League, where we both belong.
But because I always have to worry, without concerns about promotion anymore, my new fret is that Marcelo Bielsa won’t take us into the Premier League, but leave us at the door like a proud parent on the first day of school, turn his back, and walk away. Chilean football fans call themselves the ‘widows of Bielsa’; we would be like orphans, waiting forlornly to be collected at home time.
I’ve always assumed Bielsa would want the challenge of the Premier League should Leeds get there, to test himself against Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Sean Dyche. But lately I’m not so sure. Bielsa easily describes Pep Guardiola as the best coach in the world, and no simple victory over Manchester City is likely to change that view; even if we could somehow prise James Milner away from their team to ours, nobody is beating Liverpool at the moment. For a newly promoted team, the challenge of the Premier League is surviving a tarmac handshake from Sean Dyche and not getting relegated. While Bielsa has not won the trophies he might in his career, relegation battles have never been his thing.
When I think it through, it’s hard to identify the challenge that would appeal to Bielsa, especially if he considers promotion to be a mission accomplished. He was hired to change the culture at Elland Road and get the club back into the Premier League, and that’s what he came to do. That done, asking him to carry on would be like asking him to start again. If he’d never been to Leeds, would he take a job at a club near the bottom of the Premier League if he was offered one?
Bielsa suits top level football and that’s what the Premier League believes itself to be. But his quiet aside, that America of Mexico are an important team, was a reminder of the world beyond these shores. Bielsa is anticipated by the Premier League because of the thoughtfulness and decency he would bring to a competition that usually lacks it. But would Bielsa want to join an association so trenchantly amoral its only hope for self-improvement is to merely have him be part of it? After discussing the responsibility of news media and his bewilderment about websites reporting on Eden Hazard’s new house or Cristiano Ronaldo’s new car, and his confusion about interest in where he does his shopping, will he submit to the analysis of a press that will regard him as a curio at best, a laughable whackjob at worst? The ‘El Loco’ nickname has never appealed to him. Let’s see what the English tabloids can come up with.
When he has spoken warmly about English football, it’s been of the honesty found in Leagues One and Two and below. Questions about the Premier League are dismissed as hypothetical; I wonder if Bielsa takes more interest, on an average weekend, in Carlisle versus Plymouth. The Premier League needs to change to rediscover its soul, and we see Bielsa as the one who can save it; Bielsa might be more comfortable working in surroundings ready to appreciate his values. Perhaps to keep him we should hope for relegation.
Bielsa is not in this country as a reformer. He will talk of general principles: mainly that money is destroying top level football by forcing results to be more important than aesthetics, and infecting supporters like a virus so that they take no pleasure from watching the game they love anymore. But the specifics of the domestic game are, from Bielsa’s point of view of himself as a guest, not his business. On Monday he demurred to VAR — “The better thing is to believe nothing happened because VAR said that” — and when asked about incidents of racism at Premier League grounds, he made clear he was against all forms of discrimination, but would not speak about action to be taken, as that is the responsibility of the English football authorities, and despite having more sense than any of them, he doesn’t believe he’s here to tell them what to do.
Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings more than anything here. Monday night against Arsenal was like every interaction I have with the modern Premier League; settling down to watch the greatest football that has ever been played, I’m soon faced with Granit Xhaka, indistinguishable from Michael Brown; interminable minutes of frame-by-frame analysis to decide if Barry Douglas should be outrageously punished for touching somebody’s eyebrow; players that are paid hospital budgets who can’t control a ball. As one police officer said of Leeds fans in Bournemouth in 1990: “If that’s football, you can keep it.”
I’m comfortable with Leeds United’s place in the world now. A brilliant football team full of sweetly odd players I can relate to, able to attack the Premier League, as they did on Monday, as outsiders, a position Leeds have usually been forced into, that usually has suited us best. I want Leeds to be the best team in the Premier League, but if possible, I want us to destroy it in the process while staying ourselves. Some people dream of a Qatari budget paying for a galactico revolution in West Yorkshire; I dream of Gaetano Berardi slide tackling Harry Kane for 1/20th of the cost.
I wonder what Marcelo Bielsa dreams of. He did say last season that, “I’m too much in love with my players, so that’s why my opinion is not an objective one. Before sleeping, when I imagine we are playing against Liverpool I always think we can beat them.” But, and this is why I feel okay projecting, he’s thinking like me there. Bamford can beat Alisson. Cooper can control Salah. Jamie Shackleton can shackle Shaqiri. The reality will not be like that. Is reality what we want, or would be happier dreaming our dreams?
I want Leeds United to be at the top, but I’m not convinced the top is a great place to be. It’ll be better with Marcelo Bielsa there, but is he convinced, and can he be? ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)