Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Returning Leeds United to the Premier League is Marcelo Bielsa's chance to silence his critics

The Argentinian and his Yorkshire side are in midst of fierce tussle to be promoted from the Championship

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa is under pressure to achieve promotion and return his side to the Premier League for the first time since 2004. Action Images
Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa is under pressure to achieve promotion and return his side to the Premier League for the first time since 2004. Action Images

“Do you think that we deserved to win?” Marcelo Bielsa had turned the tables, the interrogated asking the questions.

As the Argentinian repeated his query, it made for a distinctly awkward post-match interview, one which was quickly halted by the broadcasters.

It was 13 days ago. Leeds had just lost the biggest game of the Championship season thus far, 1-0 to Sheffield United, and their place in the automatic promotion places. Bielsa, whose high-paced side have produced some of the most thrilling aggressive football in England’s second tier for years, was being passive aggressive.

He was destined to be scrutinised anyway: at Leeds, the sleeping giant whose absence from the Premier League now lasts back 15 years, as the man Pep Guardiola has called the best manager in the world and Mauricio Pochettino’s mentor, but in charge of a second-tier club; because of Spygate and because of his past.

The other line of questioning Bielsa has objected to is the narrative that his teams, exhausted by their earlier efforts, fade in the final stages of seasons, though statistics suggest they do.

It is a reason why he has more plaudits than prizes. "I don't think I know how to win titles," Bielsa said in self-deprecating fashion in September. "Almost the opposite."

Now he has eight games – or 10 or 11 if Leeds finish in the play-offs – to disprove that irritating notion.

Leeds’ run lends itself to different conclusions. They have lost six of their last 14 games, but won three of four.

The extraordinarily dominant display in the 4-0 win over West Bromwich Albion ranked as one of the division’s best performances of the season. The opening stages against the Blades promised a repeat, but their Yorkshire rivals weathered an early storm and Leeds erred defensively.

So the former Alfreton manager Chris Wilder, rather than Argentina’s Olympic Gold-winning coach Bielsa, is on course for the Premier League.

Wilder, not Bielsa, was named the Championship’s manager of the year this week. Each has been transformative, but in different ways. The Bielsafication of Leeds reflects the 63-year-old’s tactics, a fluid, fast, 4-1-4-1 that sometimes features early substitutions and can lead to late goals, but also the focus on the manager.

A Leeds United poster with Marcelo Bielsa on it. Richard Jolly
A Leeds United poster with Marcelo Bielsa on it. Richard Jolly

Supporters’ selfies, many taken against the backdrop of Wetherby, a town with traditional Yorkshire grey stone buildings, show the stardust of the unglamorous figure with a host of A-list admirers.

His words, always delivered through interpreter Salim Lamrani, are often dry, technical and impersonal – he invariably refers to opponents by squad numbers, not name – but attract attention because of his stature and reputation.

The language barrier contributes to the enigmatic feel. One of the paradoxes of Bielsa’s management has been that a manager who admitted spying on opponents’ training sessions often divulges his own team a day before games.

Spygate felt overblown and reinforced Bielsa’s reputation for meticulous preparation. Whether such clandestine ploys actually benefited United is a moot point, though one opponent trialled a new system at Elland Road and Leeds seemed prepared for it.

And yet Bielsa has felt the difference maker. Leeds’ size can obscure the reality they are not the biggest spenders. Bielsa’s fondness for working with youth is just as well: last summer, seven players came in, but 22 left.

Part of his prowess was reflected in his early decision-making. Kalvin Phillips was moved back to either anchor the midfield or play in defence, Mateusz Klich recalled from loan in the Netherlands to operate further forward in midfield, Kemar Roofe moved from the wing to lead the line.

Each was reinvented among the division’s best players in his position. But Roofe may not be fit for Saturday’s grudge match with Millwall. Defender Pontus Jansson will not be, while goalkeeper Kiko Casilla is suspended.

It may rest on Bielsa if Leeds are to end their exile. A creator of teams and careers has to show he is a finisher.

Updated: March 29, 2019 11:55 AM

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