Marcelo Bielsa has faced the media for only the second time since taking the Leeds job. He spoke about life at the club so far, the way he wants Leeds to play and how success is more important than money to him. Phil Hay reports.
In all their many weeks of contract talks, Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United never once came to blows over money.
His salary – very high by Leeds’ standards if not by his own – was settled early on, an aspect of negotiations which required no haggling.
Emotion, Bielsa said yesterday, is worth more than hard cash, especially when you reach his age.
Now 63, Leeds are paying him well with a wage or more than £2m but in years to come he wants memories to go with it: the belonging he felt with Newell’s Old Boys, the public devotion he found at Athletic Bilbao and the maddening clamour of Marseille’s Stade Velodrome.
Tomorrow he will see how Elland Road compares to Marseille, when Leeds host Stoke City in his first competitive game as head coach.
Over time he hopes that this job – one of England’s most notoriously difficult – creates the emotional attachment he discovered elsewhere. Seven weeks in Yorkshire have given him the taste of a starved, expectant city.
This weekend it all starts; Bielsa and Leeds, a marriage which looked hopelessly ambitious before Leeds pulled it off.
The club are heavily invested in the Argentinian but the Argentinian is no less invested in them, embarking on what he said was “a search for strong emotions”.
“I always measure challenges with the emotion that was produced,” Bielsa said. “When I was head coach at Newell’s Old Boys, it was the happiest moment of my career. I worked also in Bilbao, which is unique, and in Marseille where it is impossible not to be moved by the atmosphere of the stadium.
At the end of the day what you remember with football is the emotions. You feel a lot better when you remember emotions than when you count money. Sometimes we learn this reality late.Marcelo Bielsa
“In a nutshell, even if people think we work for money, football is a search for strong emotions. At the end of the day what you remember with football is the emotions. You feel a lot better when you remember emotions than when you count money. Sometimes we learn this reality late.
“The condition to work for emotion is to have money. But after you have enough money, emotions are a lot more important. I will hope it will be a fact that my work in Leeds is full of emotions.”
His pre-season has been meticulous, as intense and full-on as Bielsa’s summers tend to be.
In amongst the many hours spent at Thorp Arch – regularly 12 a day for his players – he has tried to teach himself about life around him. He confessed to being “worried” about the expectancy he encountered, the natural anxiety of wondering whether he could live up to all that Leeds demand of him.
Bielsa hails from Rosario in Argentina and, in his homeland, lives away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The greener parts of Yorkshire have reminded him of his countryside dwelling.
Earlier this month he was taken to the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, a quintessential White Rose event. “I visited a fair and gathered many impressions of Yorkshire,” he said. “It was a big fair, with 60,000 people. This allowed me to get to know the region where I am now. In Argentina, I live in the countryside and there are many similarities with Yorkshire.
“The result of our work (in football) impacts on the senses of the people, and especially working-class people.
“Of course I feel a deep responsibility. I am a little bit worried about this. It is very important for me to be at the level of the expectancy.”
To reach it, Bielsa plans to throw the kitchen sink at what he finds in the Championship, fighting fire with fire and attacking at will.
Stoke are highly fancied in the Championship but Bielsa, in paying them due respect, admitted he had thought little about the ins and outs of Gary Rowett’s side. “The rival is interesting for me,” he said, “but I don’t consider details a priority.”
Instead, he will ask Leeds to play as his teams traditionally try to play. “I want to be a protagonist and I don’t want to speculate,” he said. “I want to play in the opponent’s (half) rather than ours. I like my team to attack and not defend. I take the risk to attack in small, reduced spaces and defend in big spaces. If we have to defend the goal, the idea is to go back on the attack as soon as possible.
“I prefer players who have creativity and I accept the risks you take when you build from the back but for each of my affirmations there is an opposite possibility and each is completely valid.
“I wouldn’t criticise a team who play long balls. I wouldn’t criticise anyone waiting instead of attacking. I wouldn’t criticise any team that plays hard rather than create. But what I like is what I’ve said. It doesn’t mean my philosophy is the best one.”
Stoke, before a ball has been kicked, have been singled out at the litmus test in the Championship, the team which any club winning the title might have to outrun. Tomorrow’s game is the pick of the opening weekend. A flurry of expensive signings were topped up this week by the arrival on loan of defender Ashley Williams from Everton, in time to play at Elland Road.
“It’s a strong rival,” Bielsa said, “but it would be risky to say they’re the most important rival. Sometimes what we imagine before the season starts doesn’t happen. It’s very hard to predict. I’m glad with all of the work we’ve done so far. But of course, we will have a better idea of the quality of our work once we get into the competition.”
Around him is a crackle of anticipation, derived from the realisation that Bielsa and Leeds could be the dream ticket or a short-lived, tempestuous affair. A protagonist, he calls himself, and England’s biggest one-club city needs one. It is not only Bielsa looking for emotion round here.