The questions Rio Ferdinand should have asked when Leeds United's Marcelo Bielsa came up in Newcastle United debate
When Rio Ferdinand’s co-presenter posited Marcelo Bielsa as a possible candidate for a Newcastle United job that still doesn’t yet exist, the former Leeds United defender responded with the wrong question.
Straying anywhere near Bielsa’s ability to convince ‘established’ players to buy into his methods and regime was always going to provoke a similar reaction to the one Ferdinand received from the travelling Leeds fans at Old Trafford earlier this season, even if he tacked on compliments in a search for balance.
Ferdinand’s suggestion was that winning over ‘desperate for a career’ lower-league players who will ‘do anything for you’ is one thing, but getting established players to change their mindsets and daily physical output was quite another.
There’s certainly something to be said about the mindset the group of players Bielsa inherited at Leeds exhibited when they wholeheartedly welcomed his approach and threw themselves into new, uncomfortable ways, but the history of the EFL is littered with players who did not possess the mentality to reach the top. That has often been the very thing preventing a player from becoming established. And, given all we hear about the strict, extreme fitness regimes and the sacrifices made by modern-day machines like Erling Haaland, is it really such a stretch to believe they would submit themselves to Murderball once or twice a week?
That’s before we get to the point that Bielsa has managed a who’s who of Argentine greats, including Gabriel Batistuta, and was one of the key reasons behind Spanish international striker Rodrigo’s decision to swap Mestalla Stadium for Elland Road.
Of course, there are certain egos in football for whom Bielsa’s ways might prove problematic but why would that be a stumbling block when discussing his suitability for a job at Newcastle United, where there are few, if any, players of a profile big enough to warrant prima donna behaviour?
If the new owners of Newcastle United throw a bone to the broadcast journalists setting up permanent residence outside the training ground and sack Steve Bruce before the weekend, it is a manager or head coach they will seek first, not an array of big-name players.
And if, in some hypothetical world, Bielsa was that man, the recruitment strategy would presumably be built around players suitable for his methods.
But none of this is remotely close to the line of questioning with which Ferdinand should have met his co-presenter’s idea.
The main question is this - would the man who recently said everyone in football should be paid less and the man who feted the Chilean people for understanding that to ‘have a good democracy you have to do more than vote’ desire to be employed by the the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, Newcastle’s new owners? His comments on the European Super League were decidedly socialist and he regularly champions the importance of the people, the fans, in a sport that appears to increasingly view them as dispensable. He sent his players out litter picking to better understand the work and effort the average inhabitants of Leeds must put in in order to afford match tickets. A club with human rights concerns at the heart of its takeover discussion does not, on the face of it, appear to be a likely destination for such a manager.
Money talks, you might say, but it doesn’t appear to have the ear of Bielsa - this is a man who has contented himself with a flat in Wetherby and gave millions so that Newell’s Old Boys could have a hotel. He earns plenty from working in football, of course, yet appears as far removed from the trappings of wealth as anyone involved at the highest level of the game.
If 2018 reports are to be believed, he turned down a colossal 2015 offer to manage the Saudi Arabian national team and a quick glance at his CV suggests his projects of choice are not ones where the wheels are greased by hundreds and hundreds of millions.
While Andrea Radrizzani and the 49ers have stumped up significant amounts of cash to recruit the players Bielsa needed for seasons one and two in the Premier League, it is telling that he has made a point of expressing more gratitude for the investment in training facilities and the academy.
The main reason that this debate can only exist in the hypothetical, other than the fact that Bruce is still in his post, is that Bielsa is plainly, entirely happy and at home with Leeds United where he enjoys a measure of influence and control that would not be afforded at a number of other big clubs.
Leeds happily bend the knee to the head coach on footballing matters, according to CEO Angus Kinnear who told The Square Ball: “In the end, whether you agree or disagree with him, you just have to accept that he has so much more information than you have and understands the game so much better that he is much better placed to take the right decisions than any of us are.”
One betting company has Bielsa at 25/1 for the Newcastle job, which means if you bet £10 you will lose £10.
What Ferdinand should have been asking is this - why would Bielsa want to manage Newcastle? They are a big club with a huge, passionate fanbase, a rich, storied history and the potential to build a very bright future. But so are Leeds.