The wrong ending - Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United were not meant to end like this

All good things come to an end but Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United wasn't just good, he was spectacular, and it wasn't meant to end like this.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 27th February 2022, 12:12 pm

For a long time, longer than he's ever worked anywhere else in his unique and storied career, it felt very much like Bielsa was born to be Leeds United head coach.

He understood the club, the idea of marching on together against all comers and being the club so many hated with a bewidering passion. The history, culture and passion around Elland Road held significant attraction for him. It was a project he could get his teeth into and a club he could gel with.

And while he demanded of the club, those demands were almost all met because Leeds knew that if they got it right with Bielsa the results could be stellar.

He was paradoxical, though, telling Leeds exactly what they needed to do with their Thorp Arch training ground to get the desired results and insisting they do it, but exuding satisfaction with his lot in transfer windows even when reinforcements were offered.

Walking into training on day one with a plan already fully conceived and exhaustively analysed, he first set about transforming players. He turned Stuart Dallas from a bit-part winger into a Swiss Army Knife to be used in almost any position. He took Kalvin Phillips and made him a defensive destroyer. He got Mateusz Klich doing everything faster, so he became a player able to make Leeds click through the gears.

A leaner, fitter, braver squad accepted this strange, new, exhausting regime and they in turn transformed their collective relationship with the fans. Bielsa lit a fire under the players and it spread through the city, once again making Leeds United a force and an irresistible one at that. The football they played, the sight of white shirts streaming backwards and forwards for 90-plus minutes, with an intensity opponents couldn't match, banished apathy and made Elland Road roar again.

At first he didn't succeed, losing in the Championship play-offs to Derby County, so he brought his plan back to a board who hoped he would stay, with improvements and did it better the second time around, so much so that they blew the Championship away.

BORN LEEDS - Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United were meant to be. The Argentine reunited a city with its passion for its football club. Pic: Getty

Opposition managers lined up to pay homage to the physical output Bielsa managed to draw from his players, something none of his peers could match.

What made the devotion seen in their kilometres covered and their sprints produced per 90 minutes so remarkable was the apparent lack of closeness between him and the playing staff. He kept a distance and yet still they ran themselves into the ground for him.

That wasn't all onlookers and commentators found hard to understand. His insistence on speaking not through a professional interpreter but whichever staff member best spoke English and Spanish, infuriated critics yet only ever seemed to further endear him to Leeds fans, even when the translations were more riddle than soundbite.

When the going was so good, no one was really demanding answers of him, though, because they had the football and that said everything he needed to say.

What he did say was often fascinating and different. He didn't blame referees, preached the merits of a small squad and generosity, told his players not to argue with officials or opponents, took responsibility for failure and never threw the men in his charge under the bus. Those were his principles and they were inflexible. Fans loved him all the more for it. FIFA gave him the Fair Play award for it.

Criticism was levelled at him, often with astonishing intensity, from those outside the club who could not fathom why doing Plan A better was his response to adversity, instead of changing the plan. But they couldn't feel what Leeds fans felt, which was really all that mattered, and his interpretation of football helped change the way so many looked at it.

The promotion that came at the end of the protracted, pandemic-disrupted 2019/20 season took a man the city already cherished and immortalised him. His face, etched into the hearts and memories of supporters forever and tattooed on numerous limbs, was daubed on walls across Leeds and beyond as a big club celebrated the end of a 16-year exile from the big time.

Somehow it got better, too, as he stayed put to have a crack at the elite and dished out more bloody noses than even the most diehard Bielsistas could have dreamed of.

The same football that left Hull City chasing shadows worked against the very best and had top six managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp purring over this Argentine and his team.

"It is a good present, a good gift to have him in the Premier League," said the Manchester City boss. Bielsa proved him right when he masterminded a 2-1 win, with 10 men, at the Etihad, his Swiss Army Knife cutting through the heart of Guardiola's defence to score an impossible winner. It didn't get any better than that.

The hope was that, with fans back in stadiums, Leeds would go again and reinforce their reputation as the great entertainers of the top flight. The problem was, things Leeds had been outrunning for so long began to catch up with them.

A small squad creaked under the pressure of a swathe of injuries and when key players had to sit out for long periods, cracks appeared.

The January window was a chance to right the wrong of failing to bolster the midfield area since Adam Forshaw's 2018 arrival, but it came and went and no midfielder appeared.

Blame for that and the generally accepted feeling that Leeds had not recruited well enough or heavily enough in consecutive windows is placed on different individuals depending on who you listen to, but ultimately it was a club failure and one to be shared between Bielsa, Victor Orta and the board.

The versatility Bielsa had bred within his squad and the tactics that once worked so beautifully stopped working, brutally, and the goals began flooding in at the wrong end.

The plan Bielsa had been crafting throughout his career, from which he could not and would not deviate, began to fail him. The high press and man-marking system that made Leeds such a pain to play against began to hurt them with alarming frequency. Individual errors, poor marking at set-pieces and the loss of form of too many attacking players presented a mountain of problems that became difficult for Bielsa to scale.

And after the defeats to Everton, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs, it became difficult to see how the plan would suddenly start working again and the league table took on an ominous look.

When it came, the end was relatively swift, but it will still ache for some time, even as the club puts its all into fighting the drop. The confusion that reigned in the space between Saturday's full-time whistle, which was closely followed by reports suggesting Bielsa was on the brink, and the official announcement of his departure turned to anger. An outpouring of grief and a collective anguished howl was always going to follow his exit, but the cruel, ill-fitting and sudden way in which his era ended will leave a scar for many. The reality is that a parting of ways was highly likely in the summer and the Leeds board decided, with the league table in mind, that they could not risk waiting that long. It will soon be apparent whether or not their decision was just.

It should have ended with Bielsa smiling the same smile that greeted fans when they made pilgrimages to a Wetherby coffee shop or the kids to whom he handed sweets, and waving the same polite wave he sent in the direction of anyone who sang his name as he walked by. It should have ended with him flying off into the sunset, back to his ranch, leaving behind a city once again madly in love with its club.

Football doesn't often deliver the right endings, though. What Leeds fans can cling to is all that came before the beginning of the end. Lazio got just two days of Bielsa, Leeds got 1,352, because Leeds got Bielsa. It wasn't meant to end like this, but Bielsa at Leeds was meant to be. Don Revie. Howard Wilkinson. Marcelo Bielsa. He was that good.