Learning English was on Marcelo Bielsa’s bucket list when Leeds United, in his words, made him a guest in this country. It remains a priority, though the all-consuming grind of management leaves no real time for hobbies or study. His players had one day off last month and it did not take long for the Championship fixture list to take control of his diary.
Bielsa’s persona as a coach, in any event, is a reticent one. He wants to develop a fluent grasp of English and is working on it whenever he can but not because a bilingual talent would allow him to communicate more freely with his players. “It’s a priority for me,” Bielsa said, “and what I’m going to say doesn’t mean it’s not necessary to understand or speak English.
“But what I can tell you is that the less you speak, the better you are as a head coach. You communicate not through words but through the actions you make in the training sessions.
“When you see that a team is assimilating a habit, it’s not because you talk a lot. It’s because you did practical things that allowed the players to assimilate the idea.” There are videos of Bielsa coaching Marseille in which his voice is bellowing through the air but the squad at Thorp Arch all agree that he is often a man of few words.
It was reasonable to ask at the start of Bielsa’s tenure how a language barrier might impinge on the attempts of an Argentinian manager and South American assistants to enlighten a squad in which there were only two Spanish speakers. The Championship table after eight games, not to mention every statistic that matters, has blown a hole through that question. So far the language of football has been universal and clear, whether Bielsa can converse in English or not.
Leeds United cannot be classed as a strong team yet, insists Marcelo Bielsa
So how has he done it? How, in seven weeks of the season and three months as head coach, has Bielsa set the following trends: the highest possession rate in Leeds’ division, the second highest pass completion rate, more goals than anyone bar West Brom and the most from open play? Plus the highest number of assists in the league? Bielsa has painted himself on the walls of Elland Road overnight, in a country where so many managers hear themselves plead for time.
Bielsa said a decade of managing Argentina and Chile had developed methods of coaching players in the environment of international football where time is non-existent. “I have an advantage that not every head coach has,” he said. “During 10 years in my career I worked as a head coach of national teams. This allows me to develop mechanisms so you can transmit features to a team in a fast way.
“When you prepare for a game with a national team, you only have two days. And you have one game per month. Not every coach has to face this type of situation and you can’t learn how to solve problems you don’t face. I think I have the advantage of being in situations where I had to find fast solutions.”
Solutions were needed at Leeds when he first returned their call but Bielsa did not feel like he was parachuting into trouble. The club were at sea in the second half of last season, incapable of winning away from home and none too prolific at Elland Road either, but the 63-year-old, despite perceptions to the contrary, said he had taken the job “in ideal conditions”. Pre-season ran for seven weeks and in the month prior to his appointment, Bielsa picked over the squad in painstaking detail. Eight games in, and with an unbeaten run to show from his work, his opinion of the players he retained - in a summer transfer window when Leeds signed just six - has grown to the point where he would not lose any of them.
“The assimilation of a style is not only about the method,” Bielsa said. “More important is the influence of each player regarding his willingness to assimilate a new style. To convince the player to adopt a new style is more important than the style itself.
“Frankly, I admire the professionalism of the English player. I’m sure this is not new thing. You already know that English footballers, players from Great Britain, are very serious. It stimulates you to develop plans of work with this kind of player.
Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa issues injury update ahead of Birmingham City visit
“It’s important to say that I came here with ideal conditions. Because we had a long pre-season we could work and take decisions without being in a hurry. We also had one month before pre-season to analyse the team. This club had 15 players and a group of youngsters, five or six (who Bielsa wanted to keep). If I had to give an opinion on them I’d say I’d like to keep these players. I wouldn’t want to change the players I have.
“Very few teams can say what I’m saying. I’ve got 15 players that I wouldn’t change and we have five or six young players with possibilities. It indicates that this club has good football health. These are all advantages for me.”
There can be few things in English football closer to a no-excuse culture and yesterday, ahead of tomorrow’s game against Birmingham City, the man who holds the gratitude of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and other elite coaches in Europe gave some insight into the men who shaped his own career. At the top of the list was Jorge Griffa, another legendary Argentinian who acted as Bielsa’s assistant at Newell’s Old Boys and is as much of an icon there as Bielsa himself. Griffa, now 83, was blessed with a sixth sense for spotting emerging talent. He is credited with uncovering Lionel Messi, a native of Rosario like Bielsa and several other members of Argentina’s footballing royalty.
“I started as a head coach 35 years ago,” Bielsa said. “I received a lot of influence from Jorge Griffa. He’s a master for me and I was with him at Newell’s Old Boys. I collaborated with him but I also watched a lot of Louis van Gaal.” An eclectic schooling, leading to the most defined philosophy Leeds can remember seeing. In Spanish now, and in English some day perhaps, but nothing lost in translation.