Marcelo Bielsa reveals steps to Leeds United recovery after 'very sad week' in lead up to Wolves visit
In one of his most difficult weeks as Leeds United boss, Marcelo Bielsa set up camp in the source of his sadness.
There was no moving on quickly from Southampton. No putting it to bed and going again.
As he explained why that can never be the case, Bielsa told of a discovery he made as manager of Mexican outfit Club América, where he succeeded former Real Madrid and Ajax boss Leo Beenhakker.
“I managed them after an extraordinary coach and to tell you the dimension of what he achieved, with frequency his team would win 8-0, 7-0, 9-0 so I came after him and always when I’m at a club where a previous manager was a great manager I always ask questions about how it was,” said the Argentine in his pre-Wolves press conference.
“What makes a manager big is how they manage the bad moments, not how they get to the good moments.
“The great moments, the players are usually exclusively responsible for them but the bad moments demands some management.
“I would ask, ‘What would Leo do after a bad defeat?’ and immediately after the game he would tell everybody, the players, the technical staff, everyone who surrounded the team: ‘This game was very bad, from tomorrow onwards we don’t talk about this game again’.”
Bielsa deals with defeat, particularly one as disappointing and error-strewn as the one at St Mary’s, in a different way. It’s not that he has a fundamental theoretical disagreement with Beenhakker’s philosophy, it’s that he has a fundamental difference in his emotional response to loss.
“[Beenhakker’s is] a process you can use to administer the adversity through forgetting, but my idea is the opposite,” he said.
“You have to look over the errors so you don’t commit them again.
“I don’t think I’m in the right nor that Beenhakker is, admitting that you should bear in mind more what he says than what I say. What is very clear is that I can’t do what Beenhakker proposed, because I feel it in a different way. It’s not that I think, it’s that I feel.
“My way of thinking and his way of thinking are both valid but what you think when you have to transmit it becomes a theme and no-one transmits or convinces if they make up what they feel.”
So this week Bielsa put all of his feeling into a post mortem of what led to defeat at Southampton, where Leeds were out-run for the first time since promotion, where they were dominated in the first half and wounded on the counter attack for a second-half winner. It was hard to conjure up memories of a worse or more uncharacteristic performance.
“Perhaps there’s been five or six but this was one of the most difficult weeks,” he said.
“In a game like the one at Southampton, the distance between what we were looking for and what we achieved was very far, and that was deserved. So obviously for me it was a very sad week.
“In a parallel way, when errors are made and I know the errors that we make, and I know those errors could be avoided if I managed it more efficiently, I have a lot of energy, a lot of strength and a lot of willingness to avoid what happened in the last game, happening again.”
Bielsa’s week was spent honing in on the reasons for Leeds’ defeat.
Given the scale of the problems they faced, being unable to play out from the back or produce anything remotely akin to the passing game and attacking football for which they have become known under Bielsa, it had the potential to be an unpleasant slog of a week.
“The first thing you need to do is to know why the thing you didn’t want to happen, happened,” he said.
“If you discover or focus on the errors it’s the first step to correcting them and, if you don’t individualise or recognise those errors, it’s very difficult [to make] any correction.
“After you’ve taken on board these errors, to see if you have the resources and the capacities to commit them again, to not commit them again.
“Put them to the test during the week, [with] the fortitude to avoid repeating.
“On this subject, the first step you need to take when you play badly is to avoid playing worse.
“When you play badly, there’s always consequences within the game that are produced because you’re playing badly so the first thing a team does when they’re in a negative moment is to avoid the mistakes that make you play worse.”
Whether or not the analysis of Leeds’ mistakes left Bielsa in peril of wallowing in sadness, what he has tried to express to his players is that they should feel responsibility to put things right without feeling responsible for what has gone wrong – making amends and fixing problems is a collective duty. The despair felt around the club after last weekend's horror show cannot turn to blame, or shame.
“The second thing that is very important is that every player feels that any error that he makes and that produces negative consequences for the play of the team knows that he’s not going to be singled out or made responsible for that error but that the group is going to find a solution for that error,” he said.
“You can see there is no formula but convincing [the players]. The function of a coach is what he proposes, is carried out.
“As a result, the authority, the management is essential. But after you can impose these orders, or you can convince, so I think that any order within a team will last if it’s done via convincing [the players].
“Commitment and not indifference, responsibility and not passing over your responsibilities, hope and faith before disappointment.”
When defeat hurts as much as it does - Bielsa did voice the perspective that others will, of course, be dealing with situations far more heart-rending and life-changing - it cannot be considered an option.
“That it’s absurd because, in football, you win, lose or draw but, if you transmit that defeat, it’s very painful, it increases the fortitude to avoid it so, for me, the defeat is very difficult to tolerate,” he said.
“I try that the players feel in a similar way and I have the hope that it gives us the fortitude, the energy to avoid it but I wanted to remember that, for me, this has a lot of value.”
He evidently has no intention of staying in the place where he has found himself this week and the players in whom he wants to instill hope are a source from whom he draws hope. Their ability to take on board everything he has transmitted since 2018 is evidenced by a body of work that cannot be disputed. He takes no credit for that and instead puts that ability down to what he sees is the very nature of British football.
"It doesn’t matter too much what I think but what you guys have been able to observe," he said.
"I don’t tell them to play well, badly or regular, but for 50 games now ]they have been] team that makes the most effort in the best league in the world. Their commitment, their physical effort, is linked to willingness so it’s one of the few things you can demand and apart from that, the origin is their minds. The limits of the efforts are not positioned to muscular energy but in the mental capacity to activate. It’s not indispensable, the accumulated energy but in the high competition everyone has accumulated enough energy. What really allows you to overcome the limits is the mental strength to put in play what you possess.
"I know a manager’s maximum expression, if they are not convinced of what they are doing and I always say it that it hasn’t got to do with any virtue that I have, but due to the essence of the British player. The British player from my point of experience has the capacity to activate his resources that is very very high. The Basque football, which is the football that I learned at Athletic Bilbao, in that sense is very similar and Basque football is very similar to English football."
As vital as it was to stop and reflect on what went wrong against Southampton - you can't find the right path if you don't examine why and where you left it - standing still is another option Bielsa and Leeds cannot tolerate. Saturday will bring another hugely important game at Elland Road against Wolves. They cannot afford to perform as they did in the last game when they kick off in this one, in front of over 30,000 home supporters. Few expect them to, so rare was the St Mary's showing.
The next game always affords an opportunity to show that lessons have been learned. It also presents an opportunity for Bielsa to pack up and move on, taking Leeds United with him. Out of the sadness, to a better place.