The End of the Affair: Bielsa Out at Leeds


The Marcelo Bielsa era is over at Leeds United after four years. The run saw the Yorkshire giants awake from years of slumber to return to the Premier League and play a brand of full-throttle football that inspired devotion to a manager not seen at Elland Road in half a century. However, this season has proved difficult following a run of four straight defeats culminated in a 4-0 drubbing from Tottenham. In a single month, they have compiled an unwanted new Premier League record of 20 goals conceded. The end came on Sunday morning with the club confirming Bielsa’s sacking with former Red Bull Salzburg boss Jesse Marsch expected to be announced as the man charged with keeping Leeds in the Premier League.

Love at First Sight

When Bielsa strolled into Leeds in the summer of 2018, there was outright shock that a club in the EFL Championship had secured the services of one of football’s most revered coaches. Leeds didn’t spend heavily on players, although Patrick Bamford was signed from Middlesbrough. Bielsa took over a team who finished 13th the prior season and had only managed one top half finish in the previous seven seasons. Elland Road held its collective breath for Bielsa’s first game on August 5th of 2018, as Leeds delivered an extraordinary performance of high-pressing football to down promotion favorites Stoke City, 3-1. For Leeds fans, it was love at first sight and Bielsa’s team threatened to sweep the division.

Injuries dogged Bielsa’s debut season and they eventually fell from the top two at Easter. Leeds were stunned by Derby County in the second leg of the playoff Semifinal; a team they’d beaten three times that season. The question that hovered over Leeds after the playoff defeat was whether Bielsa would return. Once it became apparent he was staying, playoff heartbreak was quickly forgotten and Leeds regrouped for a second promotion bid. This time, Bielsa’s team got it right, storming to the top of the table. Despite a midseason slump, Leeds won their last six games of the season to win the Championship and end their 16-year exile from the Premier League.

Leeds’ return to the top flight proved explosive as Bielsa’s team exceeded expectations and picked up the plaudits as their attacking football secured a ninth-place finish.

Difficult Season

Leeds appeared labored this preseason and an opening day 5-1 loss at Old Trafford hinted at the challenges to come. Leeds remained unbeaten at home last season against the top six, yet lost all nine games against the Premier League big guns, including a 7-0 drubbing at Manchester City; a team Leeds took four points from last term. Injuries have hobbled Leeds’ season, as midfielder Kalvin Phillips missed that opening day loss to Manchester United, while 17-goal striker Bamford hasn’t started a game since September 17th. Both players made their last appearance for Leeds on December 5th; a game that also saw them lose influential skipper Liam Cooper.

A 4-1 home loss to Arsenal before Christmas marked the first time in Bielsa’s tenure that Leeds had lost three consecutive games. However, the game also saw the team hit by injury and Covid to the point of having only eight recognized starting players fully fit and available. While the bulk of the squad has returned to action, the key trio of Cooper, Phillips and Bamford remained unavailable.

Leeds appeared to be recovering in January with back-to-back wins, but they’ve slumped to five defeats in their last six games, conceding 14 goals across their last three games. Their awful run of form in February has seen them drop to 16th place, just two points clear of the drop zone, having played more games than most teams in the bottom six.

The New Man

The new man in Leeds is expected to be Jesse Marsch. The American comes with a decade of experience, mostly in the Red Bull family of clubs, having proved successful in New York. As a double winner in Salzburg, he did find difficulties during his short stint this season with Leipzig. Marsch offers a similar playing style to Bielsa with the focus on transition play. He is well regarded and did develop star names at Salzburg, most notably Erling Haaland.

While Marsch was a unquestionably a success with Salzburg, the club was already the dominant force in Austria when he arrived. Conversely, his time at Leipzig was hamstrung by the summer sales of key defensive duo Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano.

Marsch will have a run of easier games than Bielsa faced in the last week with Leicester, Villa, Norwich, Wolves, Southampton and Watford scheduled as his first six opponents. He is also expected to have Phillips and Cooper back in the fold in the next few weeks.

The question is whether he will provide a more pragmatic approach to get Leeds out of their current predicament. For all Bielsa’s brilliance at Leeds, this season has seen some odd selection decisions, notably playing diminutive winger Dan James as Bamford’s replacement. Meanwhile Bielsa’s consistent faith in Tyler Roberts has been derided by some Leeds fans.

The Legacy

Leeds fans were quick to take to social media to state their overwhelming appreciation for the manager’s time at Elland Road. It would be fitting to see him given a civic honor by the city once this season is complete, with the club promising a permanent tribute. It is the incredible development of his players that best defined Bielsa’s contribution to Leeds United.

In 2018, Kalvin Phillips was a Championship-level midfielder. Three years later, he was starting the European Championship Final as one of the most sought-after players in Europe. Stuart Dallas was an average right winger who has been reinvented as an all-purpose utility player on the level of James Milner or Paul Madeley. The likes of Cooper, Bamford, Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison and Luke Ayling have also reached levels few believed possible. In all, Bielsa’s time at the club will be remembered as a special era, a legacy Marsch is now charged with preserving in the Premier League.

Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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