'To be loved is more important than winning.' Why respect at Leeds United matters more to Marcelo Bielsa than success

“It’s always football,” Pontus Jansson said, which might be as good a way as any of explaining Marcelo Bielsa’s life. Football is what fascinates Bielsa and football is what harnesses a compulsive personality. When he talks to his players at Leeds United, he talks about nothing else.

By Phil Hay
Friday, 8th March 2019, 6:27 am
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 6:33 am
Marcelo Bielsa greets crowds at Elland Road before Leeds United's win over Bolton Wanderers.
Marcelo Bielsa greets crowds at Elland Road before Leeds United's win over Bolton Wanderers.

Jansson, United’s Sweden international, is more used to a touchy-feely approach - to managers who connect on a personal or more varied level - and his recent description of the relationship between Bielsa and his squad made it sound like business. “It’s not that close,” Jansson said. “It’s always football with Marcelo. It’s all he lives for.”

Bielsa recognises that description, of a coach who keeps his dressing room at arm’s length emotionally. He spoke yesterday about the value of “human relationships” - of worry more about respect than medals or trophies, the tangible measures of sporting success - but he has pushed Leeds to the verge of promotion without letting his players see behind the mask; laying bare his footballing philosophy without revealing himself.

In that respect he had the advantage of having no prior history with anyone at Elland Road - Paul Warne used to threaten former teammates at Rotherham with a fine if they called him ‘Warney’ after his promotion to the dug-out - and Bielsa admitted his approach was a deliberate ploy to avoid any blurring of the way in which he and his players appreciate each other. Leeds’ results and league position reflect his authority, the extent to which people at the club have followed his lead without arguing, and his interaction has kept Thorp Arch free of cliques or favouritism.

“I love my players,” Bielsa said. “If I didn’t love the players it would be difficult for me to do my job well but the closer someone is to you, the better he gets to know you and sometimes it’s better if we don’t see each other too clearly.

“If the players were closer to me they would respect me less because they’d see how I really am. That doesn’t mean I’m putting on any of my behaviour but it’s better for them to see me from a certain distance.

“My goal is to maintain the relationship between 20 players who are looking for the same thing and in professional football, behaviour is very important. Sometimes when you criticise a player you get better results from him than when you praise him. The work of managing people is an art.”

The altruistic side of Bielsa’s character in an undeniably lucrative job - his deference to the supporters and his reluctance to take much personal credit for anything - begs the question of what motivates him and what it would mean to him if Leeds were promoted from the Championship this season, his first as head coach at Elland Road.

The club are close; as close as they have been in more than a decade after running riot against West Bromwich Albion last Friday in the manner of a team who have no intention of letting a top-two finish go. Bielsa’s last honour in domestic football came more than 20 years ago, at home in Argentina, but the fact that his CV is light on trophies has never bothered him as much as it does other people.

What, then, gives him job satisfaction? “Human relationships,” he said. “If human relationships are satisfactory, which means to love and be loved, to respect and being respected, then it is more important than winning and success.

“When you work with groups of players who are successful, afterwards you talk mainly about the human part of it. We don’t remember the games. We remember the behaviour, the anecdotes. We remember those we learned to admire and others we didn’t admire so much.

“Of course I would be proud (if Leeds were promoted). It’s not an easy goal to reach. But when you evaluate your goals, you evaluate them according to the impact they have on people. As football became an industry, it became worse. The only thing that hasn’t become worse are the people who love their club. We don’t praise the fans enough.

“We do this job for many reasons and the most important thing is the happiness we can bring to those who find it hard to find happiness outside football. You have spectators who go to a stadium to watch a game as they would a theatre show. It’s a good thing and we’re lucky we have people like that. But I’m more moved by the ones who suffer with the team.”

They have suffered with the team in Leeds for longer than they can remember, which might be somewhere near the root of Bielsa’s decision to take a missive from 7,000 miles away last summer. He is too wealthy to need the salary - earlier this year he donated a seven-figure sum to the construction of a new training facility for Newell’s Old Boys - and he had other suitors following him. As Jansson said, it comes down to football and the spirit of football, something which Bielsa will attempt to fuel again away at Bristol City tomorrow.

Leeds were unequivocal about their intentions when they hired Bielsa: the appointment was about winning promotion. Bielsa saw his job slightly differently. “I came to be part of a project that has goals and we know the goals of the team, the city, the fans and the players,” he said. “But I can’t say I’m only interest in winning. I’m interested in winning because winning is the main thing but I’m also interested in the way we build victories.” Leeds are building towards their biggest in 15 years.