Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa addresses comparisons with Tottenham Hotspur's Antonio Conte
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The point Smith was making in a discussion about Conte was that Spurs appointed him because, almost immediately, he will help them win and he brings with him the potential for results and joy in a short amount of time. He quickly turned Bari around, did the same at Siena and made an instant impact at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan.
The Italian is a winner of games – his win rate at his last three clubs was in the mid 60s – and trophies – he has four Seria A titles to go with the Premier League he won at Stamford Bridge.
It is his trophy haul, according to Marcelo Bielsa, that is all there is to be considered when making comparisons between the two men.
“To compare him with me, all you need to do is just look at the achievements of the two of us and then you can see the differences,” said the Whites head coach ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Conte’s Spurs.
“He is a genuine representative of his country in terms of managers, he has triumphed in every team that he has managed, he is a reference in world football, not only in the league that he participates in, and he is a coach who gets very high performances from his players.”
Bielsa may not have triumphed at every team he has managed – his 31-year coaching career has yielded a trio of Argentine titles, an Olympic gold medal and the Championship trophy he lifted at Elland Road – but he too has left an indelible mark on the footballing world, through his coaching style, tactics, the improvement of players and a way of playing that lights a fire in supporters.
Comparing the two through their trophies alone would ignore the reasons for which Bielsa is a figure of fascination for fans, journalists and his fellow professionals the world over – he is the man Pep Guardiola calls a ‘gift’ to English football. The so-called ‘madness’ of his methods might draw eyeballs to his work but it’s the football his teams play that keep the viewer’s attention.
And it’s inarguable that he too has been a ‘win now’ coach at Leeds. Promotion and the Championship title eluded him in his first season but it was clear to Whites supporters from his very first league game in charge that a new day had dawned. The football they played on that day breathed hope into the club and belief that withstood play-off heartbreak, a 2019/20 midseason wobble and a pandemic that stopped the world and the game.
Comparing managers’ achievements ignores context, too. Bielsa has not enjoyed the resources of clubs like Chelsea, where money is no object. His CV does not boast giants of European football, but projects that took his fancy, sleeping giants and clubs where his passion would be matched by supporters.
And while Conte has developed the reputation of a man who demands from his club in the transfer market, Bielsa would rather play Jack Harrison up front or Stuart Dallas in any one of several positions than solve a problem with money. If he ever has felt aggrieved by the actions of director of football Victor Orta, he has never made that public, choosing only to praise the club’s ownership and decision makers.
A manager’s impact also cannot be viewed through such a narrow filter as trophies if his work leaves other kinds of legacies.
Both Conte and Bielsa have made it clear that young players, the teenagers who show promise in academies, can only play if and when they’re good enough, but the Whites boss can rattle off the names, strengths and weaknesses of countless players under the age of 16. Like anyone in football, he wants to win now, but he’s also fully invested in Leeds’ future and that investment will impact Leeds United for years after his eventual departure.
Liam Cooper is one of many to lament the lateness with which Bielsa entered his career, which implies that 15-year-old Archie Gray, 17-year-old Max Dean or even 19-year-old Joe Gelhardt should thank their lucky stars to enjoy his attention and input in their formative footballing years. If you were to ask Bielsa, he would of course say they would be better off under Conte’s tutelage.
“The word innovator is to produce aesthetic things from your team, in the way of playing, in the style of play,” he said.
“In that sense, it is very difficult to create things that haven’t been seen before but what does unify all the coaches, is the virtues that they extract from the players that they coach. That demands how you prepare them and to convince them and I think that in those two aspects, to prepare them and to convince them, that [Conte] is a master.”
But Bielsa is not the right person to ask. On this subject, comparing managers, his players and Leeds fans are the greater authority.
It does not take a great footballing mind to work out that Bielsa has them utterly convinced that he too is a master. They wouldn’t swap him.