THERE is an age-old routine to managerial appointments in which the new incumbent always promises improvement and change.
Thomas Christiansen used footage of performances under Garry Monk to highlight ways in which Leeds United were going wrong. Marcelo Bielsa sifted through the whole of last season before explaining how he would shake up the club and create a team of “protagonists”.
Adam Forshaw, like every footballer, knows the drill in these scenarios – the inevitable changes in direction which come with any new broom – but the scale of the shift under Bielsa’s management has taken him by surprise.
Even from a distance during a month out injured, Forshaw could see a squad undergoing a complete overhaul: fitter, fine-tuned and coached in a way which allowed the concept of ‘Bielsa-ball’ to work.
It worked to striking degree in August, taking Leeds to the top of the Championship and earning Bielsa the manager-of-the-month award at the first time of asking. That award could be classed as a case of the Argentinian adapting quickly to an unfamiliar league but Bielsa spent most of August forcing the league to adapt to him.
So it is this weekend that for the second time in two years, Leeds head to Millwall in mid-September with an unbeaten record to defend.
Forshaw has recovered from a broken foot bone and could feature in United’s squad for the first time this season on Saturday. His close-range observations of Bielsa are similar to those of people on the outside: that the 63-year-old is “the boss”, with an absolute commitment to one way of playing. Like most of the players, Forshaw lost weight over the summer through a hard training schedule which prepared Bielsa’s side for the intensity he expected them to play with.
“He’s been fantastic,” Forshaw said. “He’s the boss and that’s how it is. He’s got such an aura in terms of the way you respect him for the calibre of coach he is and what he’s done but at the same time, he’s a nice guy as well.
“A lot of managers can come into a club and say ‘you’re not fit enough and I want to play this way’. He’s actually put the work in and got us to a stage where we’re fit enough to play the way he wants us to. Other managers in the past have maybe wanted to do it but haven’t put foundations down like he has. The conditioning of the players is there now to perform and improve. Because I think we still can improve.”
The recent Amazon documentary charting the inner workings of Manchester City last season has shown Pep Guardiola, a confirmed disciple of Bielsa’s, at very close-quarters with his players. At Leeds, Bielsa has been more distant; in complete control of the coaching set-up but at arms’ length from the squad for much of the time and happy to delegate to his large clutch of assistants, Pablo Quiroga, Diego Reyes, Diego Flores and Carlos Corberan. His technical area operates in much the same way, dominated by his staff until Bielsa feels the need to animate himself.
Genuinely it’s been so professional. I’ve enjoyed it so much, even watching while I’ve not been fit. The intensity we play at, the professionalism of it all, I really can’t fault it.Adam Forshaw
“If he wants to tell you something in a football sense, he’ll talk to you all day and explain things,” Forshaw said. “Apart from that, we spend a lot of time with the staff.
“Genuinely it’s been so professional. I’ve enjoyed it so much, even watching while I’ve not been fit. The intensity we play at, the professionalism of it all, I really can’t fault it. Ultimately, if you work with that intensity in training then it’s going to seep into the games.
“All the players bought into the whole idea from Marcelo and I can tell you this about everybody – they look like different players with the condition they’ve got themselves in.”
Bielsa, for his part, bought into Forshaw’s attributes and was ready to use the midfielder in the advanced role occupied to impressive effect by Mateusz Klich last month. Forshaw, however, suffered an injury in training and was ruled out before Leeds’ last pre-season friendly against Las Palmas on July 29. After a month out, he aimed to resume full training this week and give himself a chance of making the squad at Millwall.
It has been this way for Forshaw since his £3m move from Middlesbrough in January.
He had a minor calf strain when he signed and was diagnosed with a grade-two tear in the muscle in the latter stages of last season. In all he has started nine matches.
“I went away and worked so hard in the off season,” he said. “It was a bit stop-start last season after I signed in January. I only played 12 games so I worked really hard, lost some weight – which is massive for the manager – and felt really sharp.
“I felt ahead of where I wanted to be and I had a lot of fitness in the tank. This injury isn’t down to me not looking after myself. It was a freak, unfortunately.”
In the interim he has watched and learned, trying to be a “sponge” around Bielsa. Forshaw could have another 10 years ahead of him as a player but there is something about Bielsa which encourages him to take lessons from a breed of coach he might not play under again.
“For me, who knows? Potentially in the future I might want to be a coach or a manager or work in football,” he said. “We’d be stupid as players not to want to be a sponge to this guy. We know where he’s managed, at international level and in Spain and France. It’s key for us to want to learn.”