Phil Hay - Inside Elland Road column: Marcelo Bielsa is giving Leeds United and the EFL relevance and ‘box office’

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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What is a documentary about a football club without the odd car crash anyway?

Amazon’s work on Manchester City was a lens into Pep Guardiola’s mind but it would have been processional viewing without Fabian Delph trying to smash a door off its hinges and City taking as bad a beating as their bus at Anfield.

Banality is easy to find in this game and never easy to sell.

Sunderland on Netflix was a car crash to beat all others, literally in the case of Darron Gibson, and Leeds can sleep safely in the knowledge that the documentary they commissioned about this season will not generate hollow laughter as Sunderland’s did this week when Martin Bain, their former chief executive, received a £1.9m pay-out for his part in their downfall.

Aston Villa on Sunday – the fighting, the arguing, the unopposed equaliser – is grist to the mill for programme makers who need colour in their film.

When the series comes, Bielsa will be seen at a distance in it. Leeds tried to convince him to engage with it closely and personally, as Guardiola did for Amazon, but it is hard to think of anything more alien to him than the idea of playing an active lead role in a drama which is predominantly about him.

The club could not persuade him to pose for a photograph with his manager-of-the-month award in September so hair, make-up and pieces to camera were out.

He will be a bemused observer, if he watches at all. Conversely, the overall tone might be better for it.

So much mystique about a head coach who struggles to pronounce Ipswich, turns up to the player-of-the-year award dinner in his tracksuit and keeps his distance from the press, only to discover that he is as slick, media-trained and hungry for publicity as the rest of them.

It is unintentional on Bielsa’s part but the fascination with him is partly down to his ability to keep everyone guessing, as they were again while players were wading into each other on Sunday.

Would he have granted Aston Villa a gift of an equaliser so willingly if more than a win of no consequence was on the line at Elland Road?

Bielsa did not articulate himself afterwards in a way which made anyone sure but you suspect that he would have done, out of courtesy and for fear of slipping back into the caricature which was drawn for him during Spygate: the foreign coach with aloof tendencies who needs teaching about the decency of the game in these parts.

Except, little by little, he has exposed the fact that the game in these parts rarely knows where it stands on anything. Leeds’ reaction to a goal at Millwall in September was, Neil Harris said, a disgrace to English football but Ben Marshall goading Elland Road’s South Stand a month ago was nothing to fret about.

Observing opposition training sessions is such a taboo that no-one employed by any English governing body had ever attempted to legislate against it, nor any club suggested that they should.

And then came Sunday, when Mateusz Klich scored and it was clear again that the rules regarding injured players on the pitch are in need of a rethink.

Leeds playing the ball into touch while Jonathan Kodjia was injured would have been, as they say, the ‘right thing to do’ (not least in reciprocating the courtesy done to Adam Forshaw a few minutes earlier) but neither they nor Stuart Attwell were obliged to bring the game to a halt.

Directives for referees only apply to head injuries and the irony of Attwell’s pantomime performance was that he got that one right. Ambiguity in other circumstances leaves players or coaches to make their own judgement: who is hurt, who is faking it, who is wasting time and who deserves what they get?

And quite honestly, who the hell knows?

Kodjia was undeniably injured and Bielsa saved himself from needless hassle by agreeing with Dean Smith that Villa should level things up but what, really, has this episode taught him about England?

And why the constant attitude that England is somehow testing Bielsa’s ability to stay on the right side of sporting ethics?

The story about Villa’s equaliser topped the sports bulletins on certain radio stations in Spain and was covered around the world, not least in Argentina; Spygate’s much smaller brother.

The EFL might not think of that as good publicity but it is, through no effort of its own, reaching out into parts of the globe where only a figure like Bielsa could reach.

No doubt there is some appreciation for that but there is nowhere near enough, and it is on account of the attention given to Bielsa that Chris Wilder took umbrage with the fact that Sheffield United’s season has bumped from the back page so often.

Norwich City were promoted on Saturday and the Blades the following afternoon but Bielsa was the story and the focus, in this country and beyond. It will be that way when he stars (if stars is the right word) in a documentary which can have only one plot.

Bielsa is giving Leeds United what they want and the EFL what it needs: relevance and box-office appeal, miles beyond their traditional heartlands.