One of Pep Guardiola’s closest confidants calls it the law of 32 minutes; the length of time Guardiola can be distracted for before his mind drifts back to football. Marcelo Bielsa’s attention span will not be much better. What else can find room in the brain of a coach who watched 70 hours of replays in a matter of days to prepare for managing Leeds United?
Bielsa is often described as obsessional and stories about him do not suggest the media have got him wrong. But even he - the man who, as history has it, took enough VHS footage to the 2002 World Cup to fill a large Blockbuster store - has come to realise that obsession can reach unhealthy levels; that small pleasures in life, like a book or a film, can keep a manager sane.
“Apart from football I don’t know how to do many things,” he said yesterday. “My life is summed up by football and family. But to understand it better it’s sometimes best to watch a good movie or read a good book.
“It’s better to do that than to insist on focusing on football because when you insist, you make much effort but you don’t take a step forward. When you observe and watch football in an exaggerated way, you don’t improve.
“Obsession is described as a virtue and we identify obsession with work. But when I look obsessively at my work, I know I’m close to failure.”
He might mean burnout or an overload of ideas but after two months of the season with Leeds, neither is causing a problem. Bielsa has made the club’s players work and think in ways that few of them have before - “if you look at the games our high-intensity running is through the roof,” Stuart Dallas said - and over the course of 11 Championship matches, obsessional detail paid out in spades.
There are some in the division, not least Hull City manager Nigel Adkins, who think Bielsa’s Leeds are the pick of the teams in it but other clubs are making headway too. Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough and an under-the-radar Sheffield United, once again going nicely under Chris Wilder, are in a three-way tie with Leeds at the top of the table with West Bromwich Albion lurking a point behind.
Bielsa’s view of what he has seen in the league so far is typically singular. Of the sides Leeds have played, there are few he liked more than Preston North End, the Championship’s bottom club who Leeds took apart last month. Sixth-placed Brentford, who come to Elland Road tomorrow, are similar in style to Preston, Bielsa said, but blessed with far better results.
“You have teams like Middlesbrough who are very strong in the aerial game and with the 50-50 balls,” Bielsa said. “You are sometimes afraid of them. Then you have teams like Derby County who have other features linked to a different offensive way of playing.
“There’s a style I like a lot, Preston’s style, and they are in the lower part of the table. But when results become the only argument, opinion doesn’t matter anymore. If you evaluate the results a team produces as an exclusive argument, we would not need press conferences any more because we would have no subjects to talk about.
“Preston and Brentford have a similar style with young players and attractive football but they have different results.” So how do Leeds compare in all this, in terms of strength and talent and their ability to last the pace? “To be sure of what you’re saying, we need to see a lot more,” Bielsa insisted.
What he sees in Brentford tomorrow might be as close to his own ideas as anything else he has come across. There are five places and five points between Leeds in first and Brentford in sixth but so many of the key attacking statistics in the Championship lock them together and promote the mutual quality of their football.
Brentford are England’s leading moneyball exponents, a club who allowed a tigerish midfielder in Ryan Woods to leave for Stoke City in the transfer window but have seen a little-known, £1.6m striker in Neal Maupay move to within one goal of 10 for the season by the first week of October. Their manager, Dean Smith, is being touted as a contender for the vacancy at Aston Villa.
“They’re a team who need the ball,” Bielsa said. “You have many teams who feel comfortable without the ball, and this is not a criticism, but Brentford want it and they know what to do when they have it. They want to play. They don’t want to lose time.
“The best thing Brentford do is play football but if I said they have a style similar to ours, after describing their style as I did, it would be pretentious of me. I describe their style but I don’t take the virtues I mention about Brentford’s football as being true about us.”
That modesty notwithstanding, tomorrow’s match has much appeal; likely to be open and free of negativity. Bielsa’s assertion that Brentford are a team who “don’t want to lose time” was not a dig at Birmingham City but this weekend’s fixture should be markedly different to Leeds’ last home fixture which ended in their only defeat of the season and much moaning about Birmingham’s attempts to time-waste.
Bielsa said he expected an “attractive game” but did not want to invoke the commentator’s curse.
“There’s something which is very constant in football,” he said. “When you say good things about a player, in the next action that player makes a mistake. I don’t know if this is frequent here but in Argentina it’s very common. It happens all the time.
“That’s why I wouldn’t like to make any comment. I imagine it will be an attractive game but I don’t want to risk it with my opinion.”