THE seeds of Marcelo Bielsa’s demise at Marseille in 2015 were sown in the boardroom rather than the dressing room. Trust was lost and relationships broke down at the highest level of the club but Bielsa’s squad, almost to a man, were sorry to see him go.
Steve Mandanda, his goalkeeper and captain, credited the Argentinian with making “almost everyone in this group of players progress” and there are echoes in that remark of the trait which Bielsa will be most reliant on as head coach of Leeds United: the power to upgrade and alter the limitations of footballers left behind by other managers. Leeds’ answer to last season’s theatrics has been to change the director while retaining much of the cast.
Before signing a two-year contract at Elland Road, Bielsa subjected himself to footage of every minute of last season – all on VHS – to see what he was getting himself into. When Leeds asked for his observations, he told them that he was happy to work with a large core of the existing squad.
Some players he rejected and United’s cull has run into double figures but Bielsa put no pressure on Andrea Radrizzani to rebuild the team from back to front.
It was, on the face of it, an unexpected vote of confidence from a fastidious coach. Leeds lost 20 games last season and conceded 64 goals. Discounting pre-season friendlies and their tour of Myanmar, they have not won away from home since Boxing Day. There were managers out there who would have torn up a unit so flaky without any sense of guilt but Bielsa saw scope for meaningful, marginal gains in many who he inherited. The needs and objectives in the transfer window, he said, “weren’t to be highly exaggerated”.
Leeds have not done much to alter that rhetoric. There is a definite juxtaposition between the recruitment of the highest-paid manager in almost a century of football at Elland Road, on more than £2m a year, and the considered treatment given to a squad defined as mid-table by the most recent Championship term.
He has said so little in public since his first press conference - nothing, in fact – that there is no way of guessing his mind without him articulating his thoughts.Phil Hay
The slow rate of business at Elland Road was not intentional and much of this summer told a tale of a club who lost time to negotiations which failed when talks came down to brass tacks but there was never a plan to match Nottingham Forest in filling a bus with new signings. There was no desire either for a repeat of last summer, when Leeds spread their cash thinly across too many deals and discovered that in the European market an owner often gets what he pays for.
Radrizzani, United’s majority shareholder, wants promotion this season. Neither he nor Leeds will say that publicly and their delayed activity in the transfer market felt like a contradiction. But there have been changes to the business model in the past few months: the sale of a 12 per cent stake in the club to the investment arm of the San Francisco 49ers in return for hard cash, the employment of a head coach earning far in excess of the salaries of his two predecessors and the willingness to engage players as expensive as Matej Vydra or Abel Hernandez. If Radrizzani’s five-year plan of ownership is even intact, year two cannot afford to be the washout year one became.
The initial problem with Leeds’ recruitment strategy was money. They stretched to pay Bielsa what he wanted, well aware that the 63-year-old could name his price, but Hernandez’s package as a free agent was deemed too expensive and Vydra priced United out by asking for more than £50,000 a week.
The Championship would once have laughed at a demand like that but in a division where Stoke City are signing Tom Ince, James McClean and Benik Afobe without troubling the bank manager, salaries and fees are on the rise. Derby County gazumped Leeds with a considerably higher wage offer to Florian Jozefzoon and while Leeds believed they were targeting the right calibre of player, they found in certain instances that they lacked the financial might to tip the balance in their favour.
In an expensive seller’s market there is only so much Radrizzani is willing to risk but latterly United’s persistence came good. Barry Douglas is a five-star solution to the gaping hole at left-back, the best Championship player in that position last season and a defender with pace and assists in his game. Patrick Bamford has scored goals in this league and might find that a fresh start taps into his old potential. Both are clever additions in the weakest areas and both at the required standard, creating a starting line-up with more class and balance.
Bielsa might have been frustrated by parts of this window or he might have sympathised with the strain Leeds were under. He has said so little in public since his first press conference – nothing, in fact – that there is no way of guessing his mind without him articulating his thoughts. In the meantime, his coaching and ethos have taken hold; the high press, the use of advanced full-backs, the redeployment of Kalvin Phillips as a virtual centre-back and Adam Forshaw as a No 10. Bielsa wanted a lean squad in terms of numbers but United’s players, after weeks of double sessions, look healthy and conditioned. Bielsa is so fixated on players being in perfect shape that Jamal Blackman missed the first three of the club’s friendlies to work on his core fitness.
There are, in spite of that, variables Bielsa cannot control. The intensity of the Championship requires a certain size and quality of squad and he will learn about the reality of English scheduling in a relentless first month of the season. It would threaten to make him feel his age were Bielsa not the sort of man who watches 70-plus hours of football before accepting a job. There are coaches in the league with more expensive resources and it will be clear before long if his faith in Leeds’ existing players is well placed. Bielsa was, and is, the patron saint of ambitious, vibrant football but few opponents in all his years will have steamed in like Millwall when Leeds brave the perennial mayhem of Bermondsey in September.
In his first press conference Bielsa was careful not to presume too much of his own talent. “I think if you are trying to predict the future, you are almost becoming a demagogue rather than a football coach,” he said. “It’s better to be reasonable and measured and not give sweeping predictions.” The fact remains that at no point in 99 years have Leeds stacked more money or hope on the expertise of their head coach. And in all Bielsa’s 63 years, few achievements would exceed the marvel of promotion this season.