Leeds United: Plan B is plan A ... just done better
Midway through Marcelo Bielsa's press conference yesterday came an open apology to Hernan Crespo which, Bielsa hoped, explained why it was that any coaching manual written by him would dispel the merits of a plan B.
Bielsa managed Crespo as Argentina coach, from an early stage of the striker’s career to the point where Lazio were breaking the world record to sign him and Chelsea were paying £17m to entice him to England. Crespo later named Bielsa among the three finest managers he played for, with Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho.
“If I could combine the best of each of those three managers, we would reach perfection,” Crespo said.
On the subject of Crespo, Bielsa is self-effacing. It is a source of embarrassment even while Crespo holds no grudges. Bielsa recalls lying to a young Crespo, exaggerating the forward’s maturity as a way of building up his confidence and readying him for international football. Some years later Bielsa gave himself away by telling Crespo had grown up as a footballer and lost his juvenile tendencies. He regretted the contradiction and the lie stayed with him.
“It’s the kind of mistake you don’t forgive yourself for,” Bielsa said. “I was trying to strengthen his self-esteem, giving him a skill that actually I didn’t think he had. After some time, when he got that maturity, I told him ‘now you’re a mature player, not the same as before’.
“What did he think? He thought ‘how come before you told me I was a better player? You lied to me. Before you told me I was a strong player but you didn’t believe it’. This is the kind of thing I cannot forgive and I’m right not to forgive myself.
“I tell you this not to tell you a story but my goal is to publicly apologise to Crespo because I know I didn’t tell him the truth. It was a lesson forever.
“If you lie to your son now, in order that he gets some artificial strength, you will resolve the problem for that day only. Instead of strengthening him you have weakened him. You can have some of the resources you will have when you’re a better player, but only for a small amount of time.”
The discussion about Crespo fed into a much wider point about the way in which Bielsa manages footballers and the wedded commitment he has to a single, dedicated style. Plan B is plan A done better and plan C does not exist at all. His attitude boils down to honesty, or rather belief; the reality, in Bielsa’s view, that a coach’s prospects are blown if his squad lack faith in what he is telling them or how he is asking them to play.
At Swansea City on Tuesday, with the game going awry, Bielsa made three substitutions inside 65 minutes having already replaced Liam Cooper in his starting line-up after Cooper pulled a hamstring in the warm-up. Leeds were behind twice and chasing a 2-1 deficit 10 minutes from time when Pablo Hernandez equalised at the end of a clever, scything attack.
Leeds United were 4-1-4-1 to begin with and 4-1-4-1 at the end. When the time came to throw on Patrick Bamford, Bielsa called an end to Kemar Roofe’s night rather than disrupt his formation and leave two forwards on the field in search of a result. The Argentinian wanted to see his tactics work and was willing to risk seeing them fail. At full-time he was able to tell his players that their persistance had paid off.
“To transmit a style, you need time to do it,” Bielsa said. “Sometimes it happens in a short time, sometimes you need more. When you win games it makes it easier because human beings believe more quickly in things that allow them to triumph.
“To know how to do different things would mean you have to share the time available (in training). Two players with different features can do the same function. This doesn’t change the style. Jack Harrison is a winger who tries to find the ball behind the opponent. Pablo Hernandez is a winger who plays by getting the ball before the line of the rival. Our style makes us play out wide but you can do this by playing in different ways.
“The idea to have alternative plans, which is considered a virtue, I don’t really share this point of view. Our goal is to do better, not to stop what we are doing or change the style.
“This is a question that separates the world of football. I don’t think I’m the master of the truth but I try to explain why I act like that. I know in the world of football, not all people share my point of view. I study and I try to learn from those who propose an alternative plan. But what I cannot do is change because my job is to try and convince the players, and transmit what produces triumph and good results.
“In order to convince people, I have to believe in what I’m saying because the footballer only believes something he truly believes in. When the footballer finds out that the head coach was trying to convince him but doesn’t share that point of view, he abandons you.”
His resistance to plan B would go against conventional wisdom were it not for the fact that Pep Guardiola preaches the same message, or that Bielsa was around long before most of those in his profession. There are other unusual aspects to his management too, like the insistence that his substitutes join him in the dressing room at half-time, rather than warm up on the pitch.
“What I think, what I really think, is that they should always be there to listen to what I have to say at half-time,” Bielsa said. “Otherwise they won’t hear how we think about the game.
“The alternative answer would be that football is easy and I have nothing to say about it. But we have to analyse the game, the first half, during 10 minutes. What would be the argument? What would be the reason for the substitutes not to share this moment? Common sense indicates that yes, they have to be there and listen to what we have to say.”
The contradiction of Bielsa is that his mystique depends on no secrets. He takes Leeds to Norwich City for their fifth Championship game of the season tomorrow with everything laid out, there for Daniel Farke to see. Philosophy in football is only as valuable as productivity but Bielsa cannot see one without the other.
“You link the result with the style,” he said, responding to a question about Leeds’ late draw at Swansea. “We need the style to get results.”