'It's finding the sweet spot' - former Leeds United physio gives inside track on Marcelo Bielsa's pre-season

Under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United there is no more intense period of the year than during pre-season.

Sunday, 18th July 2021, 6:00 am
Leeds United's Luke Ayling during pre-season testing. Pic: Getty

It is when the foundations are laid and the work is done for a demanding campaign of Bielsa-ball in the Premier League.

Leeds have made a name for themselves as the fittest and strongest team the top flight has to offer and it is a tip of the hat to the Argentine’s methods that the relentless style of play has been a huge part of the club’s recent rise.

Other managers have often pointed out the intensity with which the Whites play, though Elland-Road supporters are usually quick to ask – if Leeds can, why can’t they?

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Leeds United's Rodrigo during pre-season testing.

Meanwhile, the Whites’ head coach remained in West Yorkshire this summer while some of his squad headed away to rest up and recuperate. Others jetted off to the Euros and a few remained at home.

Leeds earned an impressive ninth-placed finish last term amid their first season back in the top flight after 16 years away.

The slate, though, has been wiped clean over the summer break and every team is level once again as preparations ramp up for the upcoming 2021/22 campaign.

Bielsa’s squad returned for initial testing at Leeds Beckett but are now into their second week of work as a clash with arch rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on opening day moves ever closer.

United’s Thorp Arch training ground has undergone more work with new pitches installed to match the already vast changes implemented by Bielsa over the last three years. Sleep pods were an early addition along with a running track and the building itself has been revamped and reworked to make a more suitable squad environment.

All of the above has been done with preparation and recovery in mind. Pre-season has always been important but, under Bielsa, at Leeds it is vital. There can be no doubts about that.

“I think it is massive,” Paul Perkins, former Leeds United physio, told The YEP of how crucial pre-season is for elite footballers.

“It is trying to get the fitness into the legs in that six-week period because, once the season starts, it’s very hard to try and build on fitness or strength. It’s more about recovery, maintenance and trying to maintain what you have got, within the season.

“If you ask any player who has had a disrupted pre-season they will always say that it impacted on the season ahead. To come back in a good state is important.

“From the last game of the season the physios will be assessing anyone with knocks and niggles and they will have been given programmes for the off-season.

“Some people will break down in pre-season training and others will come back with issues from international involvement. It’s inevitable and part and parcel of it all.

“But, if a player can get a good period under their belt, then you’re onto a good thing. It sets the tone mentally and physically.

“You’ve done the testing and the progressions with the strength and conditioning along with the running. With what Bielsa sets the players in terms of physical output, they’re in the best position to cope with the demands and pace of the Premier League.”

Rest and recovery can often be as crucial as the undertaking of the ‘hard yards’ at Leeds these days. Running is a requirement but so is sleep and the ability to look after your body so you are as prepared as can be.

Players are often spotted in ice baths, cryogenic chambers, swimming pools, compression wear and everything in between in a bid to stay fresh. Massages for soft-tissue issues can also be an important part of ensuring bodies don’t break down under the pressure of getting up to speed before the season even begins.

“For what Bielsa demands, if the players are not pushing themselves close to the fitness line then you’re not going to be as quick or as strong,” Perkins continued.

“It’s a real balance. If you undertrain or overtrain it’s an issue either way.

“It’s all about trying to find the sweet spot. At Leeds, even more so with how they play.”

A number of United’s senior signings who have joined up late in the summer or amid the winter window in recent seasons have struggled to hit the ground running. There are anomalies, like Raphinha but, even then, the Brazilian was introduced slowly.

Most require a period of adjustment to the intensity in which Leeds train and play. Players can arrive fit. Just not Bielsa fit. And that can sometimes be the downfall for those who are not used to the demands of a regime that requires peak physical performance.

“Age might be a factor with people who have old injuries,” Perkins added.

“Players might be having to manage certain conditions. I think some people’s tolerance to load is different to others. Unfortunately, you will get some casualties along the way, generally from a muscular point of view. And you can never account for collisions or tackles.

“I think it’s what the backroom team is about and what it is there for. You’ve got your sports scientists, physios and coaching staff.

“It’s important with the communication to make sure they’re on the same page with what is happening to keep a good eye on the players and the load. It’s about getting on top of the little things before they escalate into bigger issues.

“Communication is huge for everyone involved, be it staff or players. There will always be risk but it’s about minimising that as best as possible in pre-season.

“Being progressive with the training is important. If you come in on day one and hit them full force you’re just asking for trouble.”