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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 February 2019

Original, singular, demanding: Understanding the 'amazing mind' of Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa

The Argentine has been thrust into the spotlight following his remarkable revelations, and subsequent presentation, regarding information collected on opposition teams

Marcelo Bielsa took over as Leeds United manager at the start of this season. Reuters
Marcelo Bielsa took over as Leeds United manager at the start of this season. Reuters

Not for nothing is Marcelo Bielsa known as El Loco (“Crazy One”).

The British audience which has become so familiar with him after his admission of spying on opponents in his role as Leeds United manager can now understand how he earned his name.

The brilliant Argentine, 63, coached in seven counties before arriving in Leeds, living life on the edge – often with great success.

“Bielsa is the most original, different, singular, person that I’ve ever met,” recalled one of his former players, Ander Herrera. “He’s got an amazing mind, an incredible intellectual capacity outside football.

"Nothing is ever left to chance; everything is studied to the finest details. Everything he does or says, he does it for a reason. He knows what every player can and can’t do. He makes sure that everyone is on their toes, from the man who cuts the grass to players.

"I’ve seen him speaking to the groundsman for 45 minutes. I’m sure he would have studied ground-keeping before that chat. He demands of others what he demands of himself. I’ve never seen coaching staff work as hard as under him. He’d go crazy if a cone was half a metre the wrong way.”

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Bielsa’s exacting demands were legendary.

“When he got the Chile job in 2007, he gave the Chilean Football Association a list of 30 or 40 things which had to be right,” says Diego Forlan, the former Uruguay and Manchester United striker.

“He said: ‘if you want me to come then this has to be right’. There weren’t conditions attached to his contract, but about the conditions so that he could make the perfect football team. He improved Chile in four years there and helped them towards the team that they've become now, the South American champions. He is completely obsessed by football.”

Bielsa inspires awe among fellow managers. Pep Guardiola drove 300 kilometres to meet him in his home city of Rosario. The meeting lasted 11 hours as they discussed tactics, techniques, and positions which, at one point, featured Guardiola’s friend marking a chair in Bielsa’s home.

As Pep took notes, Bielsa told him that "teams can play badly or well, but talent depends on the inspiration, and effort depends on each one of the players: the attitude for them is non-negotiable".

Before Guardiola left, Bielsa said to him: “Why do you, as someone who knows all about the negative things that go on in the world of football, including the high level of dishonesty of some people, still want to return and get involved in coaching? Do you like blood that much?

“I need that blood,” was Guardiola’s reply.

Guardiola would use many of Bielsa’s ideas when he became a manager of Barcelona B in 2007, including never giving a one-on-one interview to a journalist as it was wrong to give priority to a big television company over a small newspaper. He said it invoked favouritism.

Bielsa had been a moderate footballer but retired at 25 and concentrated on coaching. After working with youth players he took Newell’s Old Boys, the team he had supported as a child, from Rosario, to the league title. He took Newell’s to the final of the Copa Libertadores two years after taking charge. It was his first job. Newell’s stadium is now named after him.

After a spell coaching in Mexico he returned to Argentina in 1997, managed Espanyol in 1998 before taking control of the Argentina team, where he was in charge for six years.

In 2007 he took over Chile and masterminded their first ever win over neighbours Argentina. He also led them to the 2010 World Cup finals after they had missed out on two previous tournaments. He was loved in Chile for the attacking football his teams played, but resigned because of the politics above him.

Next stop was Athletic Bilbao, where he signed the young Herrera, but let him stay at Zaragoza until the end of the season to battle relegation. Herrera joined Athletic in 2012 and what a first season he had. The Basques reached the final of the Europa League, beating Manchester United home and away en route by playing some of the best football seen at Old Trafford. Herrera was one of the star Athletic players.

“We were winning 2-0 and Bielsa would not let us stop. We thought he wanted to close down the game. No, Bielsa wanted a third and a fourth. He could live with conceding a goal from a counter attack because that meant we’d have been attacking. He’s a football romantic, Bielsa. He thinks that football should be a spectacle.” Athletic won 3-2 playing great football.

Marseille and Bielsa could have been the perfect, chaotic, match when he joined in 2014. But the manager claimed the French giants changed agreed conditions in his contract, adding that trust had gone. He resigned. Marseille countered, releasing a statement accusing him of holding the club hostage and putting his “personal interests well above those of the institution”.

Bielsa worked at Lazio and Lille, and there was never a dull moment. This is a man who, confronted by angry fans at his Argentina home, grabbed a hand grenade and threated to pull out the pin.

“He was murder to live with in the days before a game,” smiled Herrera, who says Bielsa was on his back every day in training until he played the way he wanted him too. “He was nervous, a perfectionist. He is meticulous, pays attention to every detail. Football needs him.”

As does the best Leeds United team in years, loco or not.

Updated: January 17, 2019 08:03 PM

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