Phil Hay's Column: The art of pure coaching and the mind of Marcelo Bielsa, where individuals come second
The endearing, paternal side to Marcelo Bielsa's personality will give Leeds United a sharp sense of guilt if they reach a day where Rosario's finest has outstayed his welcome. Sacking Bielsa must be less like shooting Bambi than throwing Mufasa down a gorge, in full sight of everyone.
Patrick Bamford piqued his sense of fun last week when he pinged a training-ground volley over the head of Will Huffer, in the casual, easy-as-that way which natural strikers do. Bielsa’s 40-yard run to celebrate with him – not quite Jose Mourinho down the touchline at Old Trafford but at a steady pace for a 63-year-old – was caught on camera and showed another side to the character of a coach who never gives the whole picture away.
His bear-hug stole the moment and Bamford’s finish was unerringly sweet but more telling from Leeds United’s perspective was the sight of Bamford twisting, turning and finishing cleanly in the way that a competitive game would force him to. Three months on from snapping a knee ligament, the forward is almost over the hill. Bielsa called his celebration a “spontaneous reaction when I saw a beautiful goal” but part of him should have been punching the air at the thought of Bamford on the way back.
You would assume Bielsa thinks that way but one of his idiosyncrasies is his approach to individual talent. Bielsa admires and appreciates it and puts it to work but the concept of key players seems alien to him. There was no grading of talent at Thorp Arch over the summer; only a clean and simple divide between those who were good enough and those who weren’t. He has Samuel Saiz on the bench because that’s where Saiz happens to be and it could be anyone else if Bielsa’s “obligation to the whole team” dictates it. His announcement last Thursday that he had no goalkeeper available was like a caretaker saying he was short of a light bulb and would pick one up on the next big shop.
In seasons gone by, when the Football League’s now-defunct emergency loan window combated these things, there were managers at Leeds who would have signed, or asked to sign, a keeper and a centre-back before Saturday’s game against Bristol City. The circumstances justified some urgency but Huffer got the nod from Biesla on Thursday, even though Leeds were ready to dig around for a keeper and special dispensation from the EFL appeared to be forthcoming.
It is possible that Bielsa was influenced by the fact that EFL clubs are barred from making emergency loans from the Premier League, an odd rule which drastically cuts the options in front of a Championship manager. But five months of watching Bielsa work suggests the continunity of a keeper, however raw, who has been under his wing and knows the routine suits him better than an interloper signed on a seven-day deal. Bielsa is plainly resistant to dropping players. His decision to hold back Jamal Blackman said as much and so did his line-up on the first day of the season: one new signing in left-back Barry Douglas but 10 players who had been working with him from the off.
In that environment, Bamford will remain in the background for a while longer yet. He and Izzy Brown are on the same page, almost over serious injuries – albeit one more serious than the other – and training in full view of Bielsa and his staff. Brown expected to play 90 minutes of an Under-23s’ win at Sheffield United on Monday but, having missed that trip, should appear in a Premier League Cup tie against Newcastle United tomorrow. It would not be a shock to see Bamford feature on Tyneside too. They are advancing, softly, softly, in time with the schedule set by Leeds when the club predicted that both would be fully fit before the end of the January transfer window.
These are big players up Bielsa’s sleeve, one who took Middlesbrough to the play-off final with 19 goals in 2015 and another who won the play-off final with Huddersfield Town two years later. United’s head coach is self-aware enough to see that Bielsa-ball in the past three months has been flatter than Bielsa-ball as it was branded in August but he has ticked off 18 matches without anything like a squad at full strength. By the time Huffer and Aapo Halme saw Leeds through Saturday’s win over Bristol City, the narrative was not so much about how weak the squad had become as how strong the existing squad could get.
Leeds will not escape the clamour for clever investment in January, and wasting a winter window is a folly this of all clubs should understand, but it is pointless telling Bielsa that or expecting him to follow convention. He has his squad and he has academy players behind it, ready for situations like Saturday. If a shortage of players ever gets desperate then that, to him, is the way the dice roll. It might sound stubborn but it feels more like a battle of idelogies: one which says transfers are needed to get a club promotion, another which says coaching and culture can have the same effect.
Everyone remembers 2011 and 2016, the winter windows in which Leeds did precious little and paid for their inertia with a place in the play-offs. The difference with Bielsa is that his squad has something else to offer: two players in Bamford and Brown who have hardly kicked a ball for him. There are coaches alongside him in the Championship, and some who held his job before him, who would like the promise of that.