The Bielsa burnout: Leeds United struggle to overcome their manager's tiresome problem
The Elland Road club have two wins in 11 matches as they battle to hold on to a promotion spot
This is the time of year when, at clubs managed by Marcelo Bielsa, talk centres on tiredness.
Bielsa finds it tiresome, Bielsa’s staff find it exhausting, and players who have spent more than a few months working for this idiosyncratic head coach would be forgiven for finding the unrelenting focus on the issue as fatiguing as all the aches and pains they accumulate striving for perfect, high-intensity football.
But the evidence keeps presenting itself: Bielsa's teams start bright and then stutter, season after season. The 64-year-old Argentine, who has galvanised a fallen giant of English football like Leeds United over the last 18 months, is currently overseeing perhaps the most alarming run of form in his stint there.
Leeds have two wins in 11 matches, and yet, before Tuesday's trip to Brentford, they still occupy one of the top two places in the Championship having banked a huge advantage before Christmas. Cling on to second, and they will gain automatic promotion back to a Premier League Leeds dropped out of in 2004.
What makes Leeds nervous are the apparent symptoms of so-called ‘Bielsa burnout’, the English phrase for an ailment that seems to afflict this coach wherever he roams in club football.
In 2018-19, Bielsa’s first season in Yorkshire, Leeds also started very well, barely out of the top two spots until mid-February, from when they stumbled through the final third of the marathon 46-match campaign and wheezed into the play-offs.
There, Leeds’s unravelling over 180 minutes told, in miniature, the story of the campaign: bright beginning, masterly middle, agony at the end. Leeds took the lead against Derby County in the first leg of their play-off semi-final, and had doubled it early on in the away leg. A minute before half-time of that second leg they were 2-0 up on their rivals and then the collapse; Derby won 4-3 on aggregate.
Bielsa has been here before. The echoes from his last job in charge of a fallen giant, Olympique Marseille, are plain. In the 2014-15 season, Bielsa arrived in France to much acclaim, gained the affection of fans for his man-of-the-people candour, his dynamic football style and his obvious capacity for bettering individual players.
Against expectation, he also guided OM to the top of Ligue 1 at the halfway stage of the season, ahead of serial champions Paris Saint-Germain. And guess what happened after that? A slump, and an eventual fourth-placed finish in the table, tiredness blamed after the hardest season’s training many of the players had ever known. Bielsa left Marseille after one game of the following season.
The notion that Bielsa teams are congenitally undone by fatigue between halfway and two-thirds of the way through a season is shared at Athletic Bilbao, where he spent two seasons as head coach, and, as at Marseille and Leeds, won the heart of a city proud of identity.
Bielsa led Athletic to two major Cup finals in 2011-12. Unfortunately, both the Copa del Rey final, where Athletic played Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and the Europa League, where they met Atletico Madrid, took place in May. By then the burnout factor was high. Athletic lost both finals 3-0.
“To play Bielsa’s football you have to be at 100 per cent physically and mentally,” observed Rafa Alkorta, now director of football at Athletic, and a former player there. “After two years at such a demanding level it becomes hard to manage and to cope with.“ Athletic’s second season under Bielsa featured no Cup finals and a 12th-placed finish in the Spanish top flight.
At both Marseille and Athletic, Bielsa managed clubs whose ambitions and prestige were greater than the resources they could call on. At Leeds, English champions three times in their history, the budget is limited but not so limited they need to be the club who have used fewer players this season than 23 of their 24 Championship rivals.
Bielsa, committed to the players he believes best tuned to his systems, seems reluctant to rotate, even when fresh legs appear needed. Currently, his main striker, Patrick Bamford, and goalkeeper, Kiko Casilla, are under particular scrutiny for their sagging form.
By Sunday, Leeds will have played Brentford, fifth in the table, and Bristol City, seventh, one place shy of the play-off slots.
The bad news is that in their last two outings they have lost to the team who are fourth – Nottingham Forest – and 22nd, Wigan Athletic.
Worse news: Only five points separate Leeds and Bristol City. If Bielsa cannot arrest this slump, Leeds could very quickly be fighting to even make the play-offs, let alone dreaming of automatic promotion.
Updated: February 10, 2020 12:54 PM