In 2015, when Marcelo Bielsa was being considered for role of West Ham head coach, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay had written a piece, describing him as football’s Neal Cassidy instead of Jack Kerouac to make the point that Bielsa wasn’t the headline act but the pure idealist.
He had written of the guy who inspired the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli: “Above all it would simply be great fun and a deliciously counter-intuitive move for the league that doesn’t think, the league that likes instead to bump along in a state of profitable stasis. And which is perhaps missing a little intellectual content to go with the generalised excitement, a different kind of passion beyond the familiar operetta.”
Bielsa didn’t end up joining West Ham United instead he went to Marseille, Lazio, Lille before ending up at Leeds United in the Championship in 2018. The same team that terrified Sir Alex Ferguson who perturbed by the ferocity of the Leeds fans.
Leeds has had its fair share of glories. League titles, reaching the Champions League final. A few FA cups.
Some of the most talented players in the Premier League era pulled on the famous white shirt including Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith, Eric Cantona, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and several other stalwarts. But their flirtations with glory has also been a cautionary tale for Premier League teams who aim too high and get scorched like Icarus.
In fact, the phrase ‘doing a Leeds’ was still used to describe inexorable dive of a football club towards it nadir till a few years ago.
Leeds has always been the footnote in other club’s glories. Fans remember how Brian Clough failed at Leeds but went on to manage Nottingham Forest who he led to the top of the league and Europe.
Then there was Eric Cantona, the enigmatic Frenchman who helped Leeds United to the last pre-Premier League title before picking the other side on the Battle of Roses and helping kickstart the dynasty at Manchester United.
That’s why Bielsa to Leeds was always a strange tale with a hint of magic realism to it. The Argentinian coming in to tame the savages and create his own version of ideologically pure football.
Bielsa has been a hit since he came to Leeds United, transforming the club’s culture, soothing the pains of their hunger-famished supporters even as he remains an oddity. He has been reimagined as the redeemer, the perfect antidote for years of hurt.
Bielsa has always been an avante garde genius. He has bizarre tactics to motivate like the time he threatened to cut off his finger. He once painted feet on his legs to demonstrate to his players how to pass better. He claims there are 36 different ways to communicate with a pass.
Now after five different owners, 15 managers and a 16-year hiatus, Leeds are back in the Premier League.
He refuses to learn English, using a translator even in the Premier League. And then he takes offence at the translator for adding his own take.
At Leeds, Bielsa helped create a new ideology, while remaining honest to his style. Perhaps that's where Pep Guardiola got it, the dogmatic adherence to one’s football ideology irrespective of the result it pursues.
But Bielsa’s tactics are quite different from those of Guardiola.
If Pep Guardiola insists on possession, Bielsa believes in defending high-up the pitch, instantly getting the ball back and launching counter-attacks. Whilst attacking, he’s even more adventurous pushing his team into 3-3-1-3 where the fullbacks and wingbacks end up playing as midfielders.
The high-pressing style is shared by numerous schools of thought these days and Bielsa also borrows from the Cruyff school of Total Football where the defender is expected to attack and the attacker defend. He puts great emphasis on his Enganche the Number 10 in Argentinian football terminology. His defending style is simple, press high and force the opposition to make mistake.
He is however not a long-ball manager instead preferring a quick passing style though he seems to picked up the occasional hoof up front from the Championship . In fact, Leeds out-passed Liverpool 348 to 322 with a similar pass percentage (76%).
Leeds run out at Anfield has made it clear that the Whites won’t play with fear. They don’t care who’s the opposing side, whether they are the champions of Europe or England. They will attack and stick to their guns.
On Saturday, Leeds gave Liverpool a mighty scare but only prevented it from winning thanks to the unique vim of Mohamed Salah.
In 2015, Ronay had written, if Marcelo Bielsa didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. We no longer need to because he’s here and it will be titillating to watch him, and his exciting Leeds team go to toe to toe with rivals old and new.