Leeds United coach lifts lid on personal achievements, 23s defeats and what Marcelo Bielsa is teaching him

Getting Mark Jackson to take credit for anything at Leeds United is, as it is with Marcelo Bielsa, like nailing jelly to a wall.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 11th November 2021, 6:10 pm

Tucked in tightly as an integral part of the Argentine’s Thorp Arch set-up, the Under 23s coach knows he has a job many in his profession would kill for.

Cushy number it is not, however. After a Premier League 2 second tier season that brought promotion, the 23s are finding life in the top division a real challenge.

What’s more, injuries at first-team level have made it difficult for Jackson to know who he will have available, with some of his regulars spending more and more time with the seniors. But success in his role is found in how those regulars fare among Bielsa’s first-team stars, more than it is in Premier League 2 results.

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“Ultimately, for me, it’s how many players you can prepare for the manager to utilise and impact his team in a positive way” he told the YEP.

“We have to understand what our priorities are, to support the first team. That’s first priority.

“Winning is important. The manager says winning is a part of them growing as individuals, so it has a part to play. But the manager also talked about the game against Leicester being a beautiful game and I think he holds how a team performs in enormous value.”

No-one in football would ever admit to getting accustomed to losing, but Jackson is having to view negative results through the filter of his number one priority.

BIG JOB - Leeds United Under 23s boss Mark Jackson is learning from Marcelo Bielsa.

“I don’t like losing, show me a person who does,” he said.

“But what I’m getting better at is understanding it’s a process. After Manchester United on Saturday I went into the changing rooms and asked the players ‘did you leave everything out on the pitch?’ They said yes and I agreed. I can accept that, as long as the players are applying themselves in the way we’ve asked them to. Are they looking like a Leeds player? Are they looking like a Leeds team? If that happens, there’s an acceptance. But we have to learn from defeats.”

For a man who likes structure and defined it in his previous role as head of football at Leeds City College, he is also having to learn adaptability. The 23s staff cannot simply plan to start Joe Gelhardt or Charlie Cresswell for a game in two weeks, because they and others might suddenly become unavailable through first team duties. A senior player might also need minutes and join the 23s.

Being flexible is one of many lessons he’s learning from Bielsa.

“I’ve learned so much,” he told the YEP.

“To have a wider awareness of players in the system, rather than just being tunnel visioned towards your group, is really important.

“I’ve learned how to adapt quickly and I’ve learned a lot from the playing style. How the manager looks at the game is completely different to what I’ve experienced before as a player and doing my badges. There are things that make you go ‘why have I not seen that before, something as simple as that and how you can adapt it?’ It is phenomenal really, it has really opened my eyes and benefited me as an individual.”

Thirteen months into the role, Jackson says he and his staff are merely ‘scratching the surface’ of Bielsaball, with help from above.

“The amount of work that goes into preparing for games is phenomenal,” he said.

“So for me to say that, in a short space of time I’ve absorbed it all...I’ve only scratched the surface.

“But we’re always analysing to get better. I had a couple of questions only the other day and spoke to Diego and Pablo [Reyes and Quiroga, Bielsa’s assistants] and they give us their insight. For me to be able to call on their expertise is a privilege.”

Analysis is life at Thorp Arch and it doesn’t stop when Jackson leaves the training ground.

“On matchdays I sit in the stand [at Elland Road] with Adam Underwood [academy chief] and a few players,” he said.

“The other day I was nudging Dani van den Heuvel, the week before it was Kris Moore and I’m saying ‘can you see that? That’s what we were talking about the other day.’ They must be like ‘give it a rest Jacko, let me watch the game.’

“I have that mindset all the time, even when I’m watching other games, thinking how we would adapt, what we would do. Ultimately I enjoy that and working within the manager’s structure has probably opened my eyes more to it, enlightened me.”

Bielsa won’t admit it but he has transformed Leeds United, enhancing good things already there and introducing changes for the better.

It is the head coach Jackson refers to most when asked about positive aspects of the Thorp Arch system. He lauds Bielsa’s staff, Victor Orta’s recruitment department, the sports scientists and Underwood, too.

He tells a story about Pablo Hernandez sitting in the front row listening intently to his pre-game Under 23s team talk, something that could be considered a pat on the back for the substance in the coach’s words, yet uses it to praise the veteran’s professionalism and a Bielsa-driven attitude.

“Every player to drop down - Raphinha when he first came, Tyler Roberts, Pascal Struijk - would embrace everything you said,” he told the YEP. “Ultimately that comes from Marcelo.”

What, then, has Jackson done? It takes a very direct question and a moment or two of thought to drag it from him.

“There are certain players I feel I’ve impacted off the pitch and my time spent with them has helped them on the pitch,” he said.

“That’s probably what they needed at a particular time, and they’ve helped develop my skills as a manager. I don’t see promotion as an achievement for me personally, it’s a collective achievement but the fact that I’ve got a group of staff working in the way we do, working in a way that’s productive, feels like a massive achievement.”

So about those results.

Since a 4-0 battering of Liverpool the 23s have suffered five defeats. But the players, like their coach, are learning.

“Winning should become a habit, but we’re experiencing different things this year to last,” he said.

“After the Manchester United game, I was up until 2am having a cup of tea and did the analysis because there was some good stuff, the result didn’t tell the full story.

“I got the players straight in on Sunday because I didn’t want them going into their recovery session downbeat. The performance warranted much more. I wanted to give them that focus – stick to our gameplan, our principles and it will turn for you. We have to remember why we’re here.”