Several monikers, most of them disrespectful, have been bestowed upon Leeds United. Brian Clough, regarded as one of England’s finest-ever coaches, scorned at the ‘Dirty Leeds’. British tabloid Mirror announced the return of the ‘Leeds scum’ the last time the team was promoted to the top division, in 1990. A little more than a decade later, after The Whites plummeted into an abyss, ‘Doing a Leeds’ became a pet phrase to describe the fall of a football club.
For once, however, Leeds United are being liked universally; even rare that the affinity is for the way they play. ‘Bielsa ball’, they call it. One can argue it’s more of an ode to the manager, Marcelo Bielsa, than the team. And it is hard to counter that claim, for it is hard to imagine Leeds reaching this far without the ingenious Argentine coach.
Five owners, 15 managers and 16 years later, Leeds United are back into the English Premier League largely on the back of just one person: Bielsa. As a Guardian columnist has put it: “Bielsa is serious, shy and sensible, a perfect tonic after years of real madness.”
What were these ‘years of real madness’? Well, there is an entire Wikipedia page, titled ‘Doing a Leeds’, dedicated to it.
‘Doing a Leeds’
To understand why Leeds returning to Premier League is seen as such a big deal, not just for those in Yorkshire, but also the rest of the EPL-consuming world, it is important to understand the background of the club. There is a tale of a storied club, who let their ambitions turn into recklessness.
Leeds are one of Premier League’s original boys. A champion side from the 70s and 80s that momentarily lost its way but bounced back in the 90s, when the Premier League, as we know it today, was launched. When they started showing matches in India, in the mid-90s, Leeds were among the dominant sides – Liverpool were a pale shadow of what they are today, Arsenal were still to blossom under Arsene Wenger, Spurs were a side no one really noticed, and the Roman era hadn’t started at Chelsea yet.
But in a decade largely owned by Manchester United, Leeds stood their ground – routinely finishing in the top five in the late 90s, qualifying for Europe and producing a slew of talented, likeable players from their youth system that rivalled Manchester United’s Class of ’92. They peaked in 2000-01 by reaching the semifinals of the Champions League.
Then, the wheels came off. To remain competitive at the top, Leeds’ spending exceeded all other clubs and their debts started mounting. The club had to sell most of their star players and, according to a BBC report, they even sold their training ground and stadium.
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So deep were their financial troubles that the club, which had won the league in 1991-92, hit the rock-bottom in 2007 and was relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time.
El Loco’s rise
In the autumn of 2004, as Leeds sold their stadium to stay afloat, a middle-aged Argentine coach was on the cusp of his biggest triumph. That year, Bielsa led Argentina to the Olympic gold, a result that added weight to his burgeoning reputation.
They called him El Loco, Spanish for crazy – but it was more in a tone of reverence than being derogatory. Bielsa, belonging to a family of lawyers and politicians in Messi’s hometown Rosario, chose to make a career as a footballer but failed spectacularly as a player. At 25, he turned to coaching, and took over the Buenos Aires University team. And since then, stories have been spun that have only added to his legend, making Bielsa what he is today.
FourFourTwo magazine reported that as the coach of Buenos Aires, Bielsa scouted 3,000 players before selecting his squad of 20. Two years later, as the coach of the youth team of Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys, his first task was to recruit players from the interior regions. So he divided the country’s map into 70 sections and conducted trials in each. Bielsa, who has a fear of flying, drove roughly 5,000 miles over three months in his Fiat to attend each selection trial.
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During one such trial in 1985, the story goes, according to Sport magazine, Bielsa knocked on the doors of a family at 2am and asked the parents if he could see their 13-year-old son’s legs. “He looks like a footballer,” the magazine quoted Bielsa telling the parents and agreed to sign him. That teenager was Mauricio Pochettino, the former Tottenham Hotspur manager.
Bielsa is regarded as one of the first managers to engage in opposition analysis and using computers for a post-mortem of a match. Football writer Jonathan Wilson noted, ‘since the back four spread from Brazil in the late 1950s and early 60s, no South American has had such influence on how world played as Bielsa has had in the first decade of the 21st century.’
He, however, has a history of attracting controversies, too. In July 2016, he walked out on the Lazio job just two days after accepting it. The year before, he had left Marseille a few minutes after the final whistle of their first Ligue 1 match and at Lille, he was suspended after just 13 matches.
Then, Leeds happened.
Reams have been written about Bielsa’s unorthodox ways at Leeds since his arrival in 2018 – from sitting on a bucket on the sideline, to getting his players to clean the stadium and even spying on his opponents. But none of it has had an impact as profound as his playing style, now called Bielsa ball.
A classic example of Bielsa ball is Leeds’s stunning 30-pass goal against Stoke earlier this month. The basic philosophy of Bielsa ball is simple: direct, attacking football that is played at a high pace while retaining possession. The players are trained to use the width of the pitch and rotate constantly to gain numerical advantage on the area of the pitch where the ball is in motion. The build-up begins at the back and often ends in rapid incisive counter-attacks. While defending, the team uses a 4-1-4-1 formation but in the offence, they revert to the 3-3-1-3 combination, peculiar to Bielsa.
Simple it may sound but just how tough it is to implement this style was summed up by Leeds’s Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich, who told Yorkshire Evening Post: “It’s like being in the military. We won’t play games. It’s tactics, tactics, tactics. And fitness.”
The same philosophy also made Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao one of the most exciting teams in La Liga, when they routinely troubled Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Bielsa ball has also influenced Pep Guardiola, mentored by Bielsa, who made this style deadlier by combining it with Johann Cruyff’s idea of total football.
Leeds’ promotion means Bielsa and Guardiola, the guru and the disciple, will face each other again next year. And like the unfailingly entertaining Bilbao-Barca clashes, Leeds-City will automatically become one of the fixtures to look out for in the coming season.
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