Directing football

Victor Orta, and the search for an idea

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
An image showing Victor Orta looking worried in a scarf, in triplicate

Victor Orta’s time at Leeds could have been synonymous with Marcelo Bielsa’s, but instead it will be defined by his work before and after. And what happened before Bielsa could all have been forgotten if not for what came after.

Orta’s achievement was to recognise where the club had gone wrong in Andrea Radrizzani’s first year. Radrizzani arrived with two ideas, one about getting Leeds promoted in five years before he’d lost too much money, and selling if he couldn’t; another about raising funds by developing and selling young players. After less than a year of asking Thomas Christiansen and then Paul Heckingbottom to work on Jay-Roy Grot, Pawel Cibicki, Aapo Halme, Yosuke Ideguchi and the rest, Orta had learned something about the club and its fans and realised that this would not do. Radrizzani expected patience — this was his first year. Orta realised that patience, in a passionate Latin-style fanbase he recognised, had been and gone in the fourteen long years since relegation from the Premier League.

We all know the story from there. What’s bewildering is how quickly its lessons seemed to be forgotten. The way Radrizzani and Angus Kinnear tell it, Marcelo Bielsa made Leeds realise they had a choice to make in summer of 2021, after finishing 9th in the Premier League. Bielsa burnout was a cliche but, for any manager, four seasons is a long time with the same group of players (Alex Ferguson’s longevity at Old Trafford was helped by his willingness to change assistant, to freshen up the coaching). Leeds could change the coach. Or Leeds could change the players. A new coach would be cheaper and the sums Bielsa mentioned in press conferences, to buy better players than he had, were eye-watering. It took a while for events to catch up with Leeds — rather than change the coach or the players, they changed neither until after the January transfer window was closed in 2022 — but it feels like the decision had been made. Leeds, believing themselves secure in the Premier League thanks to that 9th place, were going back to the buy-low sell-high policy Radrizzani had started with.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept itself. Brighton and Brentford have been very successful this way, by being very data led, and although they hide it behind Jurgen Klopp’s gnashers, Liverpool’s success came this way too: selling Philippe Coutinho funded their Champions League win. It’s a good idea to grow a club by making smart data-driven purchases to unlock value in players who can be sold for a profit, so the club can make more smart data-driven purchases from a higher shelf and make more profit, and so on. The key must be, then, in the execution. Brighton and Brentford are both owned by professional gamblers, and it’s their mathematical chops that keep them ahead. Brighton’s algorithms are a closely guarded competitive advantage that don’t leave the club. Liverpool’s analytics department has been led by a literal nuclear physicist. The secret, at those clubs, has been in the numbers.

When Orta has spoken about analytics it’s about ‘converting data into knowledge’, and this is where his methods differ from Liverpool and the two Bs. The data is used to find players from which to choose — Orta maintains lists of alternative footballers in each position, tracking shadow elevens, actively monitoring by some counts 2,000 possible Leeds players. The final choice, it seems, comes down to that transformation of data into knowledge — essentially, Orta’s intuition. Orta is not a mathematician. He’s a football guy, a fan, a scout, by now an experienced director of football. He backs himself to know football, to know players, to pick the diamond from the spreadsheet. Thanks, maths, Victor will take it from here. It’s actually much closer to playing Football Manager than we might imagine when we joke about it. The database gives you a list of players who meet your criteria, then you pick one, and hope you don’t end up needing an old save game to save you.

It’s how Orta found Jesse Marsch. From forty managerial profiles, Marsch stood out. “We had already started to analyse different profiles,” Orta told the Telegraph, and Jesse confirmed they’d started speaking two years before he arrived at Leeds: “When Victor and I started speaking a couple of years ago, he kind of drew some comparisons between the ideals of Bielsa, the way he likes to play, some of their performances that they put together, and then showed me how it is similar to the teams that I coached. I have never seen a sports director do an analysis like that. So right away I was impressed.”

To the Telegraph, Orta continued: “We took into account his model of play, which was similar to Bielsa’s in terms of pressing, intensity and physicality. We wanted to keep the things that had worked and make a more moderate transition. Marsch is a coach with a style that is trending in Europe right now, offensive, with a lot of energy. I love that. We also used big data as a filter, and what he was like as a person. Everything was analysed in detail.”

Orta thought the style was trending, but Leeds were already two-thousand-and-late. Marsch’s work at Leipzig should have made everybody think twice. A season in the German Bundesliga should have been the ideal preparation for the Premier League, and the culmination of Marsch’s years of working up the Red Bull organisational chart. But the top of Red Bull now looked very different to the climb. Under Julian Nagelsmann the Leipzig players had learned football with more possession, and been more successful, and enjoyed it more than the classic RB antagonism against the ball. The style Marsch knew, that he’d learned from all the RB playbooks, was now unpopular with the players and he couldn’t adapt. Red Bull, which before anything else is a marketing company, will not back a brand that’s out of fashion, and was working with the change. Everyone was moving on from everything Marsch knew. But he was moving to Leeds. Orta was sure he’d found the coach to move Leeds on, to improve from Bielsa.

Was this ego? Maybe. But of a kind that is more about trying to make a mark than only wanting credit. When Andrea Radrizzani arrived, I wondered about his motivation as the former partner in MP & Silva to Riccardo Silva, who after he and Radrizzani sold up bought Miami FC, named a stadium after himself, and started having a very nice time. I thought Leeds might be Radrizzani’s way of vying for similar fun and status. Orta, meanwhile, has always been the pupil of Sevilla sporting director Monchi, willingly and gratefully, but at some point the apprentice wants to step out from the shadows and establish himself. At Leeds, Orta ended up in another shadow: Marcelo Bielsa’s.

He was always going to want to test his own ideas. We don’t know what he and Jesse Marsch talked about over Zoom during the long months of Covid, while Bielsa was completing Leeds’ promotion and taking us into the top half of the Premier League. But by the time Marsch was hired, he and Orta had convinced the Leeds board that whatever they had been planning was the future, that it was worth taking fast fees for the club’s two best players, so tens of millions of pounds could be invested in a new concept that would make Leeds the future of football.

The problem was not only that Marsch’s ideas were not the future, or even the present. Part of the problem now was that, after concluding from the data that Marsch was the answer, Orta had to keep following the data to identify players that would work with Marsch. Far from opening up worlds of possible players for Leeds, the analytics pushed the data into a sieve from which only the Marsch compatible could emerge. There will be better right-backs out there to buy than Rasmus Kristensen. But when you’ve adjusted your model to suit your guy, you’ve excluded many of them by design. That makes it even more important that your guy is the right guy, because if he’s wrong, the players who will play best for him will also be wrong. When a sporting director is picking one idea, they have to make sure it’s the right idea.

Meanwhile, Marsch talked confidently to Sky about winning trophies and managing Leeds in the Champions League, but Orta’s ambitions stayed oddly small. “Because of our name, our image, our brand, our history and our fans, we have to be between 9th and 13th every season,” he told Relevo in March. He seemed defeated by having to adapt Leeds United’s history to what he sees as possible in an era dominated by state-run clubs and television money. “I have the challenge of putting Leeds back in their place: they got to the Champions League semi-finals, European competitions, they won a Cup. [The equivalent achievement now] would be, for example, to get us into the Conference League one day. With all the Big Six in England who are impossible to unseat, with a competition like the Premier League, which for me is the NBA of football… you have to be realistic.”

This could be the key to Orta’s post-Bielsa failure, because realism doesn’t suit his personality. Striving to make his own mark in the game, he found himself trapped by the pessimism inherent in the Premier League. He fully accepted that the financial inequality of the Premier League would limit United’s potential. He understood the passion of Leeds supporters, who are still singing ‘We are the Champions of Europe’ nearly fifty years after the event, but was willing to disappoint them by accepting limited horizons. Trying to get people to believe in the inevitable disappointment created by the Premier League is almost impossible work at Leeds, a club that never actually won the European Cup but imagines that it did and expects reality to reflect that. Perhaps Orta figured that, professionally, a few seasons in mid-table and qualification for the Conference League would establish him for the next stage of his career.

But how can anyone who loves the game be truly convinced by an idea of football that they believe, at best, might get a club up to 7th, maybe 6th? When Orta was flinging ultimatums at Radrizzani about Marsch’s future and his, deep down how hard could he argue for someone who might get Leeds to mid-table in a good year? Marsch talked about how football clubs need to be aligned, all signed up to one idea, and he was right. But what was the big idea here?

This is where we can find some explanations for United losing their way, not just post-Bielsa, but post-promotion. Because in the Championship the aim was obvious: get promoted. And the ideas were clear. Radrizzani gave himself five years to do it, then he’d give up and sell. Orta learned from the first season and flipped the strategy from slow development to fast Bielsa. The club kept moving forward through the blow of losing in the play-offs, through Covid, because everyone knew what they had to do.

And since then? Since promotion, nobody has come up with a new aim that has stuck for long. Staying up for two years became staying up for three. Bielsa gave way to Marsch. Transfer policy was caught between buying for the future and buying for right now. One interview was about getting into Europe, one was about getting into mid-table. Marsch talked about the Champions League, but kept his eye on the USMNT job for World Cup 2026. Leeds went from the Qatar-Aspire model to the Wolves model to the Leicester model to the Brighton model. Radrizzani lurched from relegation being ‘impossible’ to offering Sam Allardyce £3m to make that come true. And in the background of all this was the great uncertainty of 49ers Enterprises, either taking over or not, either having a deal or not or a different one, maybe paying for things or maybe not, maybe deciding things or maybe not, maybe Paraag Marathe or maybe Peter Lowy, maybe keeping the current executives when they come and maybe not. Leeds United became a club caught waiting for someone to decide its direction, unable to get beyond the next crisis.

And out in front was Victor Orta, putting himself in the public eye where sporting directors have no business. I have to admit to more sympathy for Orta than a lot of Leeds fans seem to have, mainly because I can picture myself getting into the same mess. It’s like Andrea Radrizzani letting his son design the away kit — I know deep down that if I bought a football club, I’d be getting the felt-tip pens out straight away. We should all be glad that I have not done this. Orta and me are about the same age, and when I interviewed him about his younger years, I realised we had the same nerdy passion for football growing up, shared by kids who weren’t good enough to play. There was precious little football to watch in the 1990s either, so the first answer was stickers, books and magazines. During lockdown in 2020, I worked on boosting my collection of the International Football Book from the 1960s and ’70s and building a set of Howard Wilkinson’s programme notes at Notts County; Orta told me about spending his Copa del Rey bonus at Sevilla on thousands of copies of Brazilian football magazine Revista Placar. Neither of us has spent much time reading these spoils, we’ve just never lost the librarian urge to collect these representations of our passion. The second answer was computer games, and it’s not a coincidence that Orta’s chief European scout at Leeds, Gaby Ruiz, was responsible with his brothers for bringing the first version of Football Manager to Spain. The third step was the increasing availability of football to watch on TV. Orta would go round to a friend’s house, if they had satellite TV, to sit and watch the African Cup of Nations with a notebook. “Victor, you are a fucking freak,” he says his friends told him. “You are fucking stupid. You’re a stupid fucking freak.”

Part of the story of the 21st century so far, and the internet, is how it has given the stupid fucking freaks their chance to make things. And to break things. I, thankfully, got into booze and music. Orta turned his childhood sticker collection into two Copa Del Reys and European football with Sevilla, and Championship promotions with Middlesbrough and Leeds. He got a relegation with Middlesbrough, too. This season’s results are pending. But the desire the whole time is rooted in teenage frustration, wanting the joy that comes from kicking a ball even though you know you can’t kick a ball. That hope of reflected glory is what brings us all as fans to the terraces, relying on Pat Bamford as our avatar on the field. Whereas for most of the 20th century clubs were owned by wealthy local industrialists who ran them like glamorous factories, now there are routes for fans into boardrooms and executive suites: Peter Ridsdale, Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta. Some Football Manager fans became journalists, another form of football cosplay in which you can imagine you’d do the real-life job better, and that was Orta’s first step into the game. Some, like Orta, end up doing the job for really real. But the first instinct, when things go wrong, is still to throw down the controller and kick in the screen.

Orta is at heart a football romantic, and it feels tragic that he hasn’t fallen short in some glorious attempt at Icarus glory, pushing to win the European Cup that should be Leeds United’s by right, but by failing to even trouble mundane horizons. At least Peter Ridsdale got to the Champions League semi-final before his dreams blew up. Worse, for us and for Orta, is that the story at Leeds could end with us right back where we started. If a director of football can’t bring trophies, they should at least leave a club in a better place than they found it. But once Leeds reached the Premier League and called it home, then realised it wasn’t comfortable enough for that, nobody could decide where to go next. Four games from the Championship, with Sam Allardyce in the dugout, Leeds United hardly look like Orta was here at all. Marcelo Bielsa’s portrait, meanwhile, is still painted on walls across the city, rightly so. ⬢

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