The Square Ball Week: Fear & Excitement

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

Most of Leeds United’s recent managers have spoken about the size of the club, and of the job. “Wow,” said Brian McDermott, after Massimo Cellino finally asked someone to sack him. “What a club. The fans are everything.”

Thomas Christiansen was another in awe. The fans, he said, “Are the most precious treasure of this wonderful club … Your passion and requirement for success just symbolises your strength.”

Christiansen’s replacement didn’t quite hit that tone; first there was the whole Barnsley — mam’s field — hate Leeds thing; now there’s his description of Marcelo Bielsa. “Leeds have gone for a different manager and I just hope they back him,” said Paul Heckingbottom, disguising a coal mine of resentment in that word, ‘different’; “He should be saying the same things I was saying, and hopefully he gets the backing and support to make changes and give the fans there what they’re crying out for.”

Marcelo Bielsa, Heckingbottom thinks, ‘should be saying the same things I was saying’; for brass, I’m putting that up with David Hockaday’s first interview as Leeds manager: “My journey has not just involved Forest Green,” he insisted, when people insisted he should be surprised to be Leeds United manager, and he insisted he wasn’t. “I’ve been at other clubs,” he added, “and I’m sure you’ll do your homework.” Hockaday seemed to think his ascension to the Leeds job was foretold in ancient scripture; at the end of his first day of training, he told the Yorkshire Evening Post, “The king is dead, long live the king.”

And so to Bielsa. Bielsa is big. Big in reputation, big in status, big of voice. He’s big enough to be king of Leeds, but I suspect that would go against his politics. He could enforce his name upon us, making us Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United for when we play Frank Lampard’s Derby this season, but as he said on Friday, “If we compare Leeds United’s history with my own history, we will find out that the media attention regarding myself is not very important.” False modesty? Perhaps, although he said in his first press conference that there is nothing he hates more. “When I speak I try not to please people,” he reiterated on Friday. “When I speak I try not to lie, I try to tell the truth.”

Working at Leeds? “I think that I am in a place that is bigger than what I deserve,” he said. Perhaps Heckingbottom and Hockaday heard that and thought, too right you are. Most Leeds fans heard it, and thought, hell yeah.

It was a strange pre-season, with Bielsa taking the opportunity not to say anything to the press he didn’t have to, smiling enigmatically for selfies and hovering at North Yorkshire McDonald’s. And the Great Yorkshire Show, apparently; going to that “allowed me to get to know the region,” he said. While we tried to make sense of his startling tactic of not defending corners against non-league teams, Bielsa was familiarising himself with entirely the wrong parts of Yorkshire if he wants to get to know Beeston. The Evening Post’s Phil Hay spotted a dvd of Kes among his notebooks; I wonder if he asked anyone, as an American once asked me, if it was a modern documentary.

“I think Leeds has a popular expression,” he says, which I think is best interpreted as “vibe”, “which is similar to the feelings that stimulate me. I have a deep responsibility. I hope I can give fans the answers they are expecting from me. We have received lots of affection from the fans and our results impact a lot of working-class people. I am a little bit worried about this. It’s very important for me to be at the level of expectancy.”

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I left Neil Warnock out of the discussion before about recent managers. Let’s drag him in now, by his lughole. “One or two people have been going on about the style of football over the past few weeks,” he said during some particularly dire period of his management, indistinguishable from the rest; “but that’s rubbish.” Warnock is another manager with the knack of naming clubs after himself, but also players; who will forget Neil Warnock’s Steve Morison, or Neil Warnock’s Michael Brown?

A little humility goes a long way, and Bielsa’s comments this week have taken him way up high in the estimations of suspicious supporters. They might still ask what he’s ever won, and why he hasn’t learned English, but at least they can see he’s not being a prick. There’s more here than humility, though, and without making any bold pre-season claims, I might suggest the entire future of our club depends on it.

Well, on that, or God. “I’m sure it” — promotion — “will happen,” Andrea Radrizzani told the BBC’s Dan Roan on Saturday. “It is up to God, not about me. But I have faith and it will happen.”

That’s come very early, given that Massimo Cellino, who put the ‘tit’ in superstitious, didn’t get the rosary beads out until season three. “I do not want Premier League football; I wish for it,” he said then. “I am very superstitious,” he added, as if Neil Warnock’s Paddy Kenny hadn’t already found that out. “If you want something in football you never get it. If you wish for something then you get it.”

To be fair to Radrizzani, he has put his success or otherwise at Leeds United in the hands of fate from the start; he’s always said he’ll try his best for five years to get us up without bankrupting himself, and if he can’t do it, he’ll let someone else try. And he’s always been a little bit mystical; “I don’t want to create an illusion in the fans — we need to be realistic about where we can be this year,” he said on the eve of last season. “But football is on the pitch, so everything can be possible.” I found that quite a beautiful expression because it recognises that football is inherently unpredictable, but looking back at his message to Christiansen and the players — “To believe in the impossible” — we might find the point when Victor Orta misinterpreted his job description. ‘Believe in the impossible, Thomas! I’d like you to meet Caleb.’

We can’t rely on the pitch, or God, or Caleb Ekuban but maybe we can rely on Bielsa. If a diet of Kes and the horsey end of Harrogate might be leading him away from LS11’s car yard chic, it’s not for want of trying. It’s not humility behind Bielsa’s talk about how small he is and how big the club is — how big we are — but his tendency towards immersion, losing his small self in the big project. Dan Hytner’s article in The Guardian this weekend dropped jaws as fast as it dropped facts; almost as fast as Bielsa dropped knowledge on Burton and Bolton’s tactical plans in his summer interview with Orta and Angus Kinnear. He’s scouring Thorp Arch for dust and footprints like Kim and Aggie at a crime scene, he’s watching hours of football on video, and he’s got a bed in his office so he doesn’t have to make the short journey to his hotel for a blink of sleep. One look at the incline of Bielsa’s brows tells you this is a serious man, and it’s backed up by how seriously he takes every single action, including joking. We’ll probably talk about that some other time.

For now, we’ll talk about the bit that stood out from that article, and the key to this one: ‘The training is gruelling, mentally and physically,’ wrote Hytner, ‘With an emphasis on one-on-one coaching.’ My emphasis is on that emphasis, and it’s going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the season ahead.

Bielsa insists his tactics and ‘philosophy of football’ are quite simple, even if he can spin them out into long, detailed lectures; he can also deliver the key points in a few minutes, and at his press conference on Friday he was asked to, twice. People worry about the time players might take to learn ‘the Bielsa system’, but the principles are not that hard, and as he put it when asked about the language barrier, “The biggest factor which gets players playing is emotion.”

Learning the system is easy, but being good enough to play it is not, and that’s where the ’emphasis on one-on-one coaching’ will be fascinating. Andrea Radrizzani, putting God before Mammon, has simultaneously spent enormous amounts in this transfer window — Patrick Bamford is in the Robbie Fowler league, or to put it another way, the Peter Ridsdale league — while presenting Bielsa with a squad of inadequates. Then he’s taken away Ronaldo Vieira. ‘Believe in the impossible, Marcelo!’

Vieira is arguably Bielsa’s first casualty; he was ‘involved in the project’, said Bielsa, but he also put him in his ‘maybe’ group for the start of pre-season, playing him in defence with a lot of less-than-maybes in the friendly at York City. Bielsa told Radrizzani Vieira’s worth could double in the next year, but we all thought that about the year just gone, and his starting point this season was going to be the bench; I wonder how involved Vieira was going to be, given Bielsa was already finding midfielders for friendlies from the age groups below him. But Radrizzani’s message to Marcelo seems to be, use ’em or lose ’em, when bids of £7 million start warming up the fax machine.

The wisdom of that sale will be judged three ways. One, how well Leeds do without Vieira; two, how Vieira develops at Sampdoria; and three, how Leeds’ remaining players develop under Bielsa. Kalvin Phillips is key to this particular experiment. If Vieira felt a little bit ignored at times this summer, Phillips seems to have been at the centre of everything, not just representing the club in the media, but representing the midfield in the defence, as Bielsa sets about transforming him into… well, I don’t think anybody’s quite sure yet. What we do know is that Bielsa loves a midfielder in central defence, and that it’s one of the keys to his style of play; as long as it’s done well. And he’s chosen Kalvin Phillips to do it.

He’s also chosen Gaetano Berardi and Liam Cooper, and it might be significant, or not at all, that when asked about his defensive options, Bielsa named Berardi first, ahead of Pontus Jansson. Does El Loco think Berardi is the better defender? You can tell by my choice to call Bielsa ‘El Loco’ there that I think that would be crazy, but wouldn’t put it past him. But El Loco Tano was also namechecked at Bielsa’s first press conference, and I wonder if it’s less a sign that Berardi is the best, but that he’s one who will be working the hardest.

Bielsa immerses himself, and he sees. He’s a great watcher, of videos, of live games, of kitchen-sink dramas now; it’s what he does. I shouldn’t wonder if the club’s cool boxes have been reordered to fit his backside’s specific dimensions; he’s a stickler for detail, and the cool box seat is a vital part of his equipment. They’re where he sits and watches, and watches and sees.

The questions on the eve of the season include, what can Bielsa see in this squad of players, that we can’t, that might make it okay for Radrizzani to leave some cash in the bank, or set aside for the collection plate? What is close daily observation of Gjanni Alioski revealing to him, that is imperceptible to us? Why, after watching so many hours of Liam Cooper kicking a football, does he not shudder like we do when it happens? When he lies awake in bed, in his office, thinking about Kalvin Phillips, what do his thoughts reveal to him, that our eyes, after watching Phillips for two seasons, have not?

The only way we’ll find out is if Bielsa succeeds, and those players become what he believes they can. No answers are due, then, against Stoke City; but Bielsa told us on Friday what to expect from every game. “It’s always the same message,” to the players, he said. “We have to show our fans we are ambitious.” Marcelo Bielsa is an ambitious appointment, and that’s because he’s going to be attempting some very ambitious things.

“I feel fear and excitement at the same time,” says Andrea Radrizzani, the man who hired Bielsa, about the season ahead. “Last year I only had excitement, but now because of the unsuccessful season, I feel fear and excitement.”

Hollywood would promise those feelings from a blockbuster movie. So why not a football club? ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)

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