Marcelo Bielsa’s first trip to England encapsulated the way it has always been with him and football.
He arrived to watch the Euro 96 tournament and fastidiously studied train timetables to be sure that if there were two games played on the same day, he would get to both.
The 65-year-old, whose arrival in the Premier League with Leeds United this weekend provides the season’s most compelling new dimension, has spent his professional life applying himself to detail — teams, tactics, opponents — and how they might be applicable to winning matches.
Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival to the Premier League with Leeds will be a compelling story this season
One of his most cherished successes was the Olympic title he clinched for his native Argentina at the 2004 Athens Games, after a gold-medal match against Paraguay that took place in searing heat at 10am. On the day before the final, he went to the Olympic Stadium to observe the position of the sun at that time of the day and whether it would have implications for his players.
His unearthing of a young player called Mauricio Pochettino, in a town on the road that runs out to Argentina’s Atlantic coast, came during his quest to scout young players for his first club, Newell’s Old Boys, in 1987.
He had divided Argentina into blocks of 50 square miles, staged tournaments in every one and yet still asked a local coach in a one-horse town if there was talent his system might have missed.
Pochettino, to this day one of Bielsa’s most ardent devotees, was mentioned. So Bielsa set off on the road known as Route 33 in his battered white Fiat 147.
The Argentine (CR) attracts extraordinary levels of devotion from former players including Mauricio Pochettino (CL)
His obsession with football’s details can take him into the realms of the ridiculous. He turned up by invitation at the wedding of one of his strikers, Martin Posse, with a stack of the groom’s match videos for him to peruse.
In one discussion of his Christmas plans, while between jobs, he declared an intention to do two hours of physical exercise each day and spend 14 hours watching football videos. Videos have always been a huge part of his life.
So many of these details tumble out of Tim Rich’s excellent new biography of the man, The Quality of Madness, though the book also encourages a revision of the nickname El Loco (the madman), which he has carried through a 30-year career as a coach at South American clubs, the Argentina and Chile national sides, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, to name a few.
The 65-year-old has transformed the fortunes of Leeds and won the Championship last season
‘It translates as passionate and obsessive,’ says Raul Gamez, who knew him from the late 1990s at Argentine club Velez Sarsfield. That’s where Bielsa would put a mattress down at the back of a van and lie watching games on video, while one of his staff drove him back from away games.
But what makes this relentless, indefatigable, sometimes bizarre manager such a compelling figure is the extraordinary devotion he attracts from those who have played for him.
Players love him because he makes them — drives them — to play better, think smarter and see the game in a new dimension. There are few better examples than Kalvin Phillips, Bielsa’s captain at Leeds, whose potential had come to almost nothing.
Bielsa could not comprehend why Phillips was considered a forward when he looked like he would hold midfield well. He was promptly redeployed as a critical part of Leeds’ relentless pressing unit and on Tuesday made his England debut.
His development of Kalvin Phillips into a deep midfielder resulted in his first England call-up
‘He looked like a manager you don’t really want to upset when he told me what he wanted me to do,’ says Phillips, who returned to Leeds yesterday to present his first England shirt to Bielsa.
‘It was, ‘Lose weight, learn how to play centre back and in central defensive midfield’. It has changed everything. My improvements, my progression. They’re all down to him.’
Pochettino describes precisely the same effect, despite training sessions when Bielsa arrived at Espanyol which began at 7.45am followed by breakfast and 90 minutes of gym work. ‘He woke me from a period of lethargy. I was too much in my comfort zone — lost but I did not know it,’ he says.
Bielsa brings to the Premier League a form of total football in which no player is fixed to one position, midfielders are frequently deployed to defence and the football is fast, furious, instinctive and sometimes overwhelming.
Pochettino regularly praises his former Newell’s Old Boys and Argentina manager
The Argentine’s intellect has not always been the easiest fit with his chosen sport.
One of the many legends, which seem to reside in the space between fact and fiction, tells of him using a thesaurus to find words of few syllables because his erudition has left a dressing room blank. On one occasion, he just scribbled where he wanted the ball to be played on defender Fernando Gamboa’s boots.
‘All I could think of was how he was ruining my boots,’ Gamboa told Roman Iucht, an Argentine writer.
Even his self-assessments can be highly complex. As one observer put it: ‘He does not just feel. He analyses the feeling.’
A national newspaper’s perfectly reasonable characterisation of him as garrulous back in February provoked an indignant, prickly, 20-minute monologue at his next press conference — in Spanish as always — on why he had said so much the previous time.
He can be thin-skinned, so there could be fireworks this season. He has everything that is written about him and his team translated into Spanish and he reads every word.
Bielsa is known to be thick-skinned and has produced some fiery press conferences
The subject most likely to elicit a negative reaction is his teams’ capacity to self-combust in the final weeks of the season, which provides some explanation as to why he has not won a domestic trophy for 20 years. This is a blind spot.
‘I cannot lie to you. In the final months we couldn’t even move,’ Ander Herrera said in 2012 after Athletic Bilbao had blown chances to win the Europa League and Spanish Cup.
‘Our legs said, ‘Stop’. We always used to play with the same players and we were not at our best in the finals. To be honest, we were physically f****d. We couldn’t run any more.’
Some in Argentina question also whether Bielsa’s single-minded approach to a style of football makes his teams too readable.
Critics willing to put a name to their thoughts are thin on the ground. ‘He had no alternatives, no different ideas. Teams could read his team. Everyone knew what they had to do,’ one source recalls of Bielsa’s Argentina side at the 2002 World Cup. They were eliminated at the group stage after defeat by England, leaving a then 46-year-old Bielsa weeping in the dressing room.
Whether he is willing to adapt his system for the task in hand is one of the most fascinating aspects of what lies ahead.
Graeme Souness has already suggested that playing out from the back against Liverpool, in the usual Bielsa style, could be perilous at Anfield on Saturday.
Some question whether Bielsa’s expansive system will work against the league’s best teams
‘I would try to plant a seed. I’m not going to do that all of the time because they thrive on closing you down and do it so well,’ Souness said. ‘You need to mix it up.’
Eddie Gray has his doubts. ‘He researches the opposition exceptionally,’ Gray says. ‘He’ll have dossiers on them all. But he’ll play his own way.’
Whatever the uncertainties, Bielsa brings something quite sublime — a transparent, unspun approach to management which runs against the game’s slick and superficial modern gloss.
He’ll continue to leave the flat he has made home, above a sweet shop in Wetherby. He’ll continue to arrive at Leeds’ Thorp Arch training ground in the passenger seat of a second-hand VW Golf.
He’ll continue to smile at the Bielsa Rhapsody the fans sing — ‘Open your eyes, look up to the skies, we’re Leeds’ — while quite possibly having no clue what it’s all about. And he’ll continue to run what they have come to know at the training ground as ‘Murderball’: the remorseless, non-stop, full-throttle practice matches which run for as long as he deems necessary. Bielsa, says Leeds’ featherweight world champion Josh Warrington, is the epitome of what this club have always represented.
The fans of the Yorkshire club adore their boss for his remorseless, full-throttle approach
And because of the humility, authenticity and commitment he brings, his players will run through the walls he puts before them. ‘Conviction is a basic element of being a manager,’ he once said. ‘If I am not convinced, then I don’t convince anyone else.
‘And if I don’t talk with a sparkle in my voice, I don’t get people around me. And if I don’t get those people, I don’t get support for a project that demands blood.’
* The Quality of Madness: a Life of Marcelo Bielsa, by Tim Rich (Quercus, £20).
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