You knew how it was going to play out when Marcelo Bielsa picked up his manager-of-the-month award: at most a thin smile for the cameras and then on with the day job again. In the end it doesn’t appear that he even allowed that. It’s not the done thing to be egotistical about these prizes, as Darren Moore showed last season when he had his photo taken with about 30 of West Brom’s staff, and Bielsa will see the trophy for what it is.
If I was him I’d be quietly pleased, though. Not because he’s got something for his mantelpiece but because it tells him he’s made a strong first impression on English football. Bielsa’s an intelligent, concentrated type but he doesn’t strike me as being arrogant enough to think he could walk into the Championship and stroll it. He needed this start and so did Leeds United, to back up all the hype around his appointment.
This was a big and expensive choice of head coach, a huge coup on paper which was going to be judged on the pitch. The last thing anyone at Elland Road needed was a poor run which created awkward questions for Bielsa early on. Short-termism is a terrible thing and we all try to fight against it but football doesn’t hang around for anyone and the worst-case scenario with Bielsa was that this brilliant reputation he has was made to look like a myth.
But perhaps more than that, I’m sure the players needed to feel a sense of reward from the outset. Bielsa, by all accounts, worked them exceptionally hard in pre-season, both physically and in terms of the tactical education they received. He asked a lot of them and although his reputation demands respect, it’s much easier to respect a coach when you see the benefit of their work in practice. Again, if August had gone badly, there’s a chance that those negative thoughts creep in: is this really going to work and are we killing ourselves for no good reason? As it is, no-one can doubt him.
The benefit of Bielsa’s aura is that it gets players on board, especially in a league like the Championship. There’s no point beating around the bush: he’s far bigger than any of the players he’s coaching and he’s arguably the most high-profile coach Leeds have ever had. George Graham, Terry Venables; you’re going back to those sort of appointments for a comparison and they created none of the global fascination which surrounds Bielsa.
If you’ve got anything about you, you look at playing under Bielsa as a once-in-a-career experience. He might never work in England again, let alone with any of the players in this Leeds squad, and you get the sense of everyone buying into the project. Hell, he was able to drag Kalvin Phillips off the pitch after 28 minutes at Swansea without Phillips or anyone else making a peep. If the club were looking for authority then they’ve absolutely found it. At a basic level you defer to Bielsa’s methods because it would take a stupid amount of self-confidence to think you knew better than him.
What good coaches do is elevate performance. Once the transfer window closes football comes down to maximising the resources you’ve got and we’ve seen Bielsa do that in some style over the past month. Talent is a massive factor in how far a player will go, there’s no denying that, but second on the list is application: your ability to implement and repeat everything you’ve been told. Can you remain invested in a manager’s plan for more than a short, meaningless period of time?
As I grew up, I learned a lot about why the best players reach the standard they do. It’s because they choose to. Making the most of your ability isn’t about making sacrifices. It’s about making a choice. If you want to hit your peak and stay there for the longest time possible, you’ll look after yourself and focus constantly on doing things right. By all means toss it off if you’d rather. You can earn a good wage from football by going through the motions. But you won’t win much and you won’t have any great sense of achievement when it’s all over.
Bielsa obviously thinks that way: the daily obsession with getting good, staying good and striving for the top. That’s something you see in Pep Guardiola too, as anyone who’s watched the recent documentary about Manchester City will know, and Leeds’ start to the season has been exceptionally impressive. A hell of a lot of boxes have been ticked and they’re truly up and running.
What that does is create a group of players who are 100 per cent sold on this appointment. They’ll be grateful now for the hard work over the summer because they can see the difference it’s making. Bielsa might rule with an iron fist but an iron fist is fine when your coach is putting his money where his mouth is. Leeds stacked their money on him this summer. It’s starting to look like a really smart move.