Marcelo Bielsa’s homework on Leeds United was so particular that in his earliest meetings with the club’s senior staff he knew as much about their squad as they did themselves.
But aside from Bielsa trawling through 70-plus hours of footage from last season, what surprised the board most was his resourcefulness in acquiring a set of plans for their training ground at Thorp Arch.
Bielsa, many miles away in Argentina, dug up a blueprint of the facilities on offer to him and provided Leeds with hand-drawn sketches of changes which would feature as part of the agreement over his contract as head coach. He visualised sleeping quarters for his players and more comfortable indoor facilities, with relaxing communal areas set aside for first-team use. It was asking too much to fulfil his brief before the start of the English season but work is now underway and by November Leeds hope Bielsa will have the facility he wants.
There was a story a few weeks backs – not quite true as it turns out – of Bielsa setting up a bed in his office (redefining the meaning of a man taking his work home) but after three months of hotel living he is looking for accommodation on Thorp Arch’s doorstep. His attachment to the complex is what he seeks from his players and what the long hours imposed by him in pre-season were designed to do: create a camaraderie and an environment where, to revisit Pablo Zabaleta’s quote about Manchester City’s Eastlands empire: “I’d rather be here than my house.”
The sleep pods which Leeds are in the process of installing are temporary structures and if the club are breaking any new ground here, it is only by their own standards. Garry Monk used sleeping booths at Swansea City two summers ago. Manchester City’s in-house accommodation is the equivalent of a high-end hotel and good enough for their players to use overnight before home games. Bielsa chooses to hole up his players in an actual hotel pre-match but the beds at Thorp Arch meet the demands for rest and recovery under a head coach who still pushes his squad through regular double sessions.
The intricacy of Eastlands and all Manchester City have created there is an aspiration for Leeds and a motivation for seeking new pastures away from Wetherby. There is, on the face of it, a juxtaposition between the club advancing plans for a new Category One academy while at the same time renovating their existing, rented home but the sleeping quarters are interim designs rather than material changes to the building’s structure. Leeds still anticipate that by 2020, or within the 12 months that follow, they will have vacated Thorp Arch for a multi-million-pound facility less than a mile from Elland Road.
The club have been working on that project in the background since last October when Leeds City Council’s executive board approved formal talks over the proposed redevelopment of the old Matthew Murray High School site in Holbeck. United have commissioned artists’ impressions of a state-of-the-art base there and intend to create a site which qualifies for Category One status under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). Thorp Arch sits in Category 2 – a ranking with implications for youth development and the retention of academy players – and has long since gone past the point where consideration was given to bridging the gap.
United would like construction to begin next year but a new training base, inevitably, is at the mercy of certain factors. Leeds need to secure full funding for a build which is likely to cost in excess of £20m. There are some in Holbeck, including local councillors, who think the Matthew Murray site should be used for private housing and will argue their case. And there is the requirement for a compromise which allows the club to make an early exit from the lease tying them to Thorp Arch, agreed when the property was sold 14 years ago.
However the process plays out, there is no guarantee that Bielsa will be here to see Leeds up sticks and relocate. In club football, he has never completed three straight seasons in the same job. He has a two-year contract and immediate needs and to that end, he is instigating changes resembling the changes he asked for at Lille last year; facilities which mirror his own work ethic and his footballing mind. Open all hours.
It was asking too much to fulfil his brief before the start of the English season but work is now underway and by November Leeds hope Bielsa will have the facility he wants.