Marcelo Bielsa's Old Trafford disaster shows how quickly knives come out for Leeds United head coach

Marcelo Bielsa is not above criticism, he is not untouchable, even at Leeds United where he has risen to the status of legend.

Thursday, 19th August 2021, 4:45 am
BAD DAY - Marcelo Bielsa's season got off to a disastrous start at Manchester United, but the knives came out too quickly for the Leeds United head coach in some quarters. Pic: Getty

The defeat at Manchester United, by a 5-1 scoreline, was humiliating. The performance was poor, organisational issues posing problems players could not solve and it bore a horrible resemblance to the last time it happened at Old Trafford.

Last December I wrote that the idea of that 6-2 defeat taking place in front of travelling supporters was unthinkable. On Saturday the unthinkable became reality, leaving 3,000 Whites stunned and angry, even if they refused to remain silent.

The inquest that took place among supporters had begun before the final whistle even took place and although certain players took more of a kicking than others, Bielsa’s role came under scrutiny.

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There was anger at midfield issues arising, fueled by a perception that lessons from the last horror show in that stadium were not learned. The head coach persisting beyond half-time with Robin Koch in a role he is yet to prove he can master against an opponent in Bruno Fernandes he could not control, while Kalvin Phillips stayed on the bench, was chief among the complaints.

Concerns over the lack of cover for Phillips are a longstanding bone of contention between sections of the fanbase and the man they adore for leading the club back to the top flight.

Legend or not, Bielsa does not get a free ride at Leeds. No-one does.

But while differences of opinion remain, anger dies down and it will take more than a drubbing, or two, to put any kind of dent in the Argentine’s popularity.

What that kind of result does do, however, is offer an insight into just how quickly the knives come out when Bielsa is involved.

There are pundits who plainly could not wait to get stuck in and just like last season, the reaction in some quarters was a little over the top.

A single game, albeit one in which five goals were shipped, was sufficient to decry Bielsa’s ability to coach defending, when the evidence of an entire 2020/21 season strongly suggested he could get that side of it spot on, even against the very best teams.

The strength of the criticism, which on more than one occasion has come complete with warnings that Leeds will soon start considering Bielsa’s future if he does not buck up or vary his ideas, is remarkable.

One game. Against a team with Premier League title hopes, a team with an array of talent to die for, or at least to pay hundreds of millions for. One game that lacked the physicality and defensive nous Kalvin Phillips brought to the Elland Road meeting between the teams. Just one game.

If Everton, Burnley, Newcastle, Watford and Southampton do to Leeds what Manchester United did to Leeds, then it might be time to start dishing out some home truths but even in that highly implausible case, there would be a huge body of evidence to consider that could convince most reasonable Leeds United minds to continue trusting in Bielsa and his process.

What is clear is that, if this second season in the top flight proves as difficult as everyone at Leeds has been suggesting since the start of pre-season training, then Leeds fans will need to revisit that body of evidence on a regular basis if they are to withstand the noise from outside. If the knives can come out this quickly, a genuine bad patch will rival the Royal Armouries. If Bielsa’s tenure at Leeds ends on a negative note, it will be a bloodbath.

It is easy to form the suspicion that there’s something about Bielsa that rubs some up the wrong way.

The fascination with his idiosyncrasies – something Leeds themselves play on by selling buckets or revealing tales of his obsessive behaviour – is understandable in a sport craving something new and different to talk about. But it can lead to a depiction of him as an oddity and the desire for something new can give way to a desire to see anything different crushed or at least discredited and outed as a hoax.

The word genius, one he himself would spend an eternity disassociating himself from, puts a target on his back.

Yet is there any other way to describe a man who can take a mid-table Championship team and coach them to the top 10 of the Premier League, ingraining his methods in no time at all, convincing players to go beyond themselves in pursuit of intensity while playing football that entertains so?

Is there a better word for a man who creates a style of football that his peers deem unique?

It’s much easier to knock something down than it is to build it.

Bielsa is flawed, like any manager. He gets it wrong, like any manager. He can be criticised, like any manager. Does he enjoy the same treatment as any manager?

Ultimately his duty is not to the outside footballing world, but to the fans, owners, players and staff of Leeds United and it is their collective opinion that matters most.

If, at any stage, he needs telling, they’ll tell him.