Phil Hay: Say it quietly, but there's potential for a lasting legacy beyond Bielsa at Leeds United
There is a reluctance, almost a shyness, about Marcelo Bielsa when press conferences take a predictable turn and draw him into discussing the men who single him out as their keenest influence. Where Pep Guardiola credits part of his coaching acumen to Bielsa, Bielsa hears only self-deprecation distorting Guardiola's own genius. 'In any of his teams I've never seen any sign of my traits,' Bielsa says, though the Championship must be questioning how true that really is.
Bielsa devotes himself to improving players, a raison d’etre stretching back 30 years. Any effect he has on the coaching fraternity is, apparently, unintentional if not quite open to debate. It is a quirk of the Argentinian’s career that he has mentored so many exceptional managers without actually mentoring them at all. Guardiola picks Bielsa’s brain but has never worked with him. Mauricio Pochettino was in Bielsa’s hands more than once as a player, long enough to digest his methods, but did not coach beneath him. Bielsa has overseen an accidental factory, a production line he created without thinking about it. And yet the appreciation of him is such that a letter written by Pochettino helped Bielsa qualify for a work permit from the Football Association in June.
A glance at Bielsa’s backroom staff at Leeds United, the tight clique of lieutenants who bring everything together, shows how little thought he gives to nurturing what, in English terms, could be called the Anfield Bootroom. His assistants are staunchly loyal and professionally dedicated, South Americans who drop everything when Bielsa tips up in a different patch of Europe, but they hold the smallest of profiles and move around silently as Bielsa relocates.
At no stage have his closest allies sought to branch out individually or use their close proximity to Bielsa to manage a club in their own right. When Bielsa quit Marseille, his staff departed en masse. When Lille lost patience with him, they all did likewise. One day it will end for Bielsa at Leeds and the same will happen. The staff around him came to be known in Argentina as the iron circle; difficult to bend when the going is good and inclined to stand fast when the wheels come off.
There is a reason why Bielsa commands that loyalty. So many of the individuals who work for him are in the game because of him; opportunists in a healthy sense. Pablo Quiroga taught physical education and coached in amateur football before Bielsa enlisted him with Chile’s national team. Diego Reyes, more improbably, found a way into the sanctum by tipping up unannounced at Chile’s training complex and asking for work. He and Bielsa met then for the first time. Diego Flores joined the party at Marseille despite a fairly blank track record. Bielsa’s French translator, Salim Lamrani, is a highly-educated, multilingual academic but he is here through a kind stroke of fate: a Marseille supporter who warmed to Bielsa and succeeded in making Bielsa warm to him. In that company, Benoit Delaval – Leeds’ French fitness coach – stands out on the strength of 12 years spent in Lille’s medical department.
Most if not all of that team are in situ for as long as Bielsa is in situ. They come as a package. Which leaves Carlos Corberan, the one existing coach who Bielsa chose to draft into his inner circle a month ago. Corberan, United’s Under-23s manager, had certain factors in his favour – fluent in Spanish but with a good grasp of English, a season already spent at Elland Road and evidence behind him of productive work with Leeds’ development squad – and, after sizing him up in the early days of pre-season, Bielsa asked him to join his bench.
In that capacity he was absent from Leeds’ academy friendlies but Corberan returned to the dug-out for the Under-23s first league game against Coventry City on Monday night. Danny Schofield has been handling the development squad in the interim and the club have not officially re-defined Corberan’s role, though they say he is “integral to the first-team set-up” and will retain some responsibility for the transfer of academy players to Bielsa’s squad and continuity in the club’s style of football. Leeds went 4-1-4-1 against Coventry and committed to a high press. Bielsa, watching from the side of the pitch, would have been looking for that.
All through the age groups an education is on offer. It was the question put most often to Bielsa’s players during the summer: how much do they hope to gain from the attention of a coach who Guardiola attributes some of his talent to? Even Pablo Hernandez, now 33 and with the most defined attributes a footballer could have, is talking about finding ways to evolve; of getting better in the twilight of his career.
Bielsa aspires to that development. Nothing has been more obvious in the first two weeks of the season than his ethos of self-improvement. But farther down the line there is an opportunity for his management to rub off on a coach like Corberan and put Leeds in a position where Bielsa’s touch will not be lost the moment this cycle of his life ends; to encourage some form of legacy, as much as Bielsa would screw his face up at that word. Inspiring coaches was not his calling but he has acquired a reputation which appears to divide managers into two groups: those who were inspired by Bielsa, and those who should have been.