The New Don? How Bielsa Re-Energized Leeds
Five weeks ago during Leeds United’s first game of the season, a strange sight was spotted at Elland Road. A man of advancing years wearing a Leeds United tracksuit stood in front of the Leeds Technical area. He spotted the kit-man’s bucket, turned it upside down and sat on it and observed the game. The man was new Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, sitting pensively for the entire game before the kit-man retrieved his errant bucket. That bucket may just end in Leeds United’s museum if Bielsa’s side continue their incredible start to the season. The momentum Bielsa has generated at the club has led to comparisons with the greatest manager in club history, Don Revie.
The Bielsa Revolution
Ten of Bielsa’s preferred first eleven were with Leeds last season and they fell to a dismal 13th place finish. Bielsa has taken them to the top of the Championship after 6 games. They started by easing past promotion favourites Stoke 3-1 and then annihilating Frank Lampard’s Derby County 4-1 on the road. It sent a clear message to the rest of the league that Bielsa’s side are the team to beat this season. Most new managers, even the great ones walk into a club and declare it’ll take 6 months to enforce their footballing style and philosophy on the team. Bielsa managed it in just 4 weeks.
The team’s formation could be boiled down to a 4-1-4-1 but the fluidity with which they play it has bamboozled most of the division. Bielsa plays an intense pressing game with players hunting in packs and making themselves available for the pass once they win the ball. It’s a style very similar to those of Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool.. This is not surprising given Pep Guardiola rates Bielsa as the best coach in the world and Mauricio Pochettino learned his trade under Bielsa’s tutelage.
Bielsa hasn’t just changed the tactical shape and system at Leeds, he’s changed the playing positions and form of key players. Gaetano Berardi has been converted from an aggressive fullback to a calm centre back. Kalvin Phillips has moved from an attacking midfield to a defensive screening midfielder. Kemar Roofe has gone from an inconsistent second striker to a prolific number 9 and most surprisingly, Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich has become an excellent controlling midfielder with 3 goals from his first 5 games.
No club has witnessed as many false dawns in recent years as Leeds, but it appears Bielsa’s revolution is for real. Leeds remain a huge name in the pantheon of English football. Leeds will always be the house that Don Revie built back in the mid ’60s and early ’70s. He took a previously second-rate club living in the shadow of the all-conquering Leeds Rugby League team and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, turning them into a powerhouse of European football. Revie’s side won two League titles and four major cups over a six-year period.
Leeds saw further success with Howard Wilkinson winning the club’s third League title in 1992 and David O’Leary’s dynamic young side making it to a Champions League semi-final in 2001. In more recent times Leeds have become a lesson in mis-management, the excessive spending of former Chairman Peter Ridsdale saw the club swallowed in a financial tsunami that saw the clubs best players and even Elland Road itself sold off as the club tumbled out of the Premier League.
Since then a series of poor owners have come and gone lacking either the funds or the inclination to push the team back to the Premier League. Things changed last summer when Italian media mogul Andrea Radrizanni bought the club. Radrizanni’s first act was to buy back Elland Road, he then financed the signing of the club’s top players to long-term contracts. However, successive managers struggled to get the club moving and Leeds finished last season in a mid-table funk.
Brilliance and bust ups
Whilst the swift pace of change at Leeds has shocked many, the intense style of play is typical Bielsa. He first came to Europe’s attention as manager of first Argentina and then his dynamic Chile team, before taking Athletic Bilbao to two cup finals in 2012.
Maintaining that intensity is one of the few worries Leeds fans appear to have right now, the Championship is a slog. When club football returns on Saturday, it’s a case of 6 games down 40 to go. To keep the squad fresh those currently on the fringes like £10million signing Patrick Bamford, Swedish international Pontus Jansson and Chelsea loanees Izzy Brown & Lewis Baker will need to make big contributions. The club may also need to invest again in the January transfer window.
The other concern is Bielsa has a reputation for walking away from clubs, his relentless nature often causing trouble at board level. His last three jobs saw him stay little over a year with Marseille, 6 months at Lille and most infamously two days with Lazio.
The affection with which Leeds fans have embraced Bielsa and his style of football give him a lot of leverage. Bielsa rightly won the EFL Manager of the month award whilst Roofe won the League’s Player of the Month title. The man known as ‘El Loco’ appears to have Leeds steaming back to the Premier League.
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