“Paris is worth a mass.” It was those apocryphal words, used on Monday by somebody close to Marcelo Bielsa, which erased all doubt about Bielsa’s intentions. For Paris, read Leeds United; different empires, different men but the same romantic appeal.
The quote harks back to the 1500s and the reign of Henry IV of France, who converted to Catholicism in the hope of ending a bloody, religious civil war. Conversion, he supposedly said, was a small price to pay if it allowed him to govern the country and run it as he pleased. Paris is worth a mass.
Bielsa, from the point of his first conversation with Leeds, knew what he wanted and expressed himself frankly. Conversations about contracts and work permits were torturously painstaking and often aloof but on training methods, recruitment and his own levels of authority, Bielsa made ears burn. He knew in advance about the set-up at Thorp Arch and had analysed the club’s squad minutely. He watched every one of this season’s games and other key matches involving rival clubs in the Championship. It will go like this, Bielsa said, as football dominated finance.
Leeds were coming for him, not the other way round, and his reputation, his value and his aura gave him all the cards to play. As discussions and paperwork went back and forward, Bielsa kept himself in South America and embarked on a series of lectures at football conferences in Mexico and Uruguay. There was no rush to leap into United’s arms but all the while he was privately open to compromise and minded to do what was necessary to make the job at Elland Road his. Paris is worth a mass.
It surprised Leeds to find him so receptive when contact was first made. The initial conversation took place before the club dismissed Paul Heckingbottom on June 1 and left Heckingbottom hanging by a thread. His position as head coach was already precarious but Bielsa’s willingness to talk and talk at length was another nail in the incumbent’s coffin; proof that another way could be found and that Heckingbottom’s quintessential Championship management could be replaced with a more flamboyant, sexy blueprint; a coach depicted as the godfather of modern, intellectual football.
Victor Orta, Leeds’ director of football, knew Bielsa of old and did the early spadework to establish a meeting with Andrea Radrizzani, the first leg of an exhausting relay in which paperwork and phone calls bounced back and forward. Angus Kinnear, the club’s managing director, travelled with Orta to Argentina late last month and, after four days of discussions, established that Bielsa’s demands were financially viable. He will earn between £2m and £3m, nothing like the £8m-a-year he was paid by Lille in his last job, but Leeds in all their 99 years have never committed to a higher wage for a head coach.
So what drew Bielsa to England and murderball in the Championship? A 62-year-old who speaks no English and has lived his long managerial life in more salubrious environments than the EFL? For the past few weeks those involved in the process of hiring him, on both sides, have spoken of one thing: romanticism. This, in a sense, is a veteran coach returning to his roots; retreating from Lille, Marseille, Athletic Bilbao and the bright lights of international football to rediscover his first love, Newell’s Old Boys.
Bielsa walks on water at Newell’s, the club in Rosario, Argentina where he was born and where he began coaching in earnest in the 1990s. His siblings are politicians and architects but football caught his imagination and he fashioned a short playing career at Newell’s. As manager, Bielsa took them in hand, delivered trophies and gave the club a lease of life. The job inspired his ferocious work ethic and tactical mind, bringing about the birth of 3-3-1-3 and engendering the innovative, daring ideas which coaches would flock to emulate. “It’s impossible for me to love another shirt more than that of Newell’s,” Bielsa once said. In 2009 the club reciprocated by naming their stadium after him.
Leeds, 7,000 miles away, pull at the same string: a proud but downtrodden club who have wasted years looking for enlightenment. They will not name Elland Road after Bielsa but there is infinite esteem to be found here for whoever drags Leeds off the Championship roundabout. The club appealed and England appealed and there was never any disagreement about money. Bielsa only wanted to satisfy his fanaticism for employing his principles of coaching and to make sure that Leeds would give him the freedom.
This appointment will still cost the club, as the appointment of Bielsa has cost other clubs in the past. It became apparent to Leeds that Bielsa was seriously interested when the demands about players and methods of working began coming their way. He wanted an earlier start date for pre-season, giving him time to drum his philosophy into their squad, and asked for modifications at Thorp Arch. Bielsa has done this before. At Lille he persuaded the club to build 20 apartments at their training ground to allow players to work there, recover there and sleep there. “Hardcore,” was how winger Anwar El Ghazi described Lille’s pre-season. Even before Bielsa’s appointment was finalised, United’s squad were told to prepare themselves for three weeks of double sessions. They can expect to spend the next month living in each other’s pockets and to find Bielsa fully versed in the mess which this season became.
Lille, though, is a cautionary tale for anyone assuming that Bielsa is a golden ticket to the Premier League. The most unique appointment Leeds have ever made is laced with risk, embracing a maverick and volatile man who has burned out spectacularly in the past. Bielsa, who quit Lazio in 2016 after two days in charge having accused the club of failing to keep up their end of the bargain on transfers, was the pick of new Lille owner Gerard Lopez last summer, at a cost of £8m a year. Lille threw more than £50m at their squad and invested in infrastructure at Bielsa’s request but were strangely lifeless under Bielsa. Results turned against him quickly and devotion to his philosophy allowed no room for pragmatism. As one journalist put it: “There was no prospect of their coach altering his principles just to have square pegs fit in square holes.”
Bielsa was suspended in November and later sacked after flying to Chile to visit an ill friend in hospital. Lille classed it an unauthorised trip away. The Argentinian took action against the club and claimed an eye-watering sum in compensation, well in excess of £10m after six months in charge. That legal case is ongoing and according to reports in France he lost the last round of it in March.
Volatility and an unpredictable streak come as part of the package. He has nurtured certain players, upset others and seen squads wilt over time from the high-octane demands of his football. He rarely sticks in one place for long. In 2015 he resigned from Marseille without any warning, one game into the new season. “I’ve finished my work here,” he told a room of incredulous journalists. “I will return to my country.” An interpreter was then told to read out sections of his resignation letter, received by Marseille’s hierarchy minutes earlier. ‘El Loco’, the crazy one, lived up to his nickname. Leeds cannot say there weren’t warned.
But there is brilliance in Bielsa’s methods, an imagination which showed itself in his two years with Athletic Bilbao and their run to the Europa League final. Manchester United were picked off in the process, made to look pedestrian as Bilbao raised their flag over Old Trafford in 2012. Though largely undecorated, he spawned what Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino called “a generation of coaches who were his disciples”, the most prominent being Pep Guardiola; coaches who believed in Bielsa’s free, attacking football, his devotion to style and, most importantly, his own mind. He might open doors to players at Tottenham and Manchester City, and potentially Arsenal where he has separate connections, as his devotees welcome him into the English game and make him at home. He will find some of his disciples here. Leeds are not investing in a coach. They are investing in a doctrine and a culture; the cult of Marcelo Bielsa.