Swansea City v Leeds United: Whites boss Bielsa was once coveted by Swans
'˜Bielsa ball', as the genre adopted by Leeds United is coming to be known, has attracted attention on these shores before. In 2015, two British clubs shortlisted him for their managerial positions, intrigued by tales of the Argentinian's cerebral football and firebrand flair.
West Ham United gave consideration to Bielsa in April of that year, prior to employing Slaven Bilic, and in Wales tonight Bielsa will coach against another team who nearly dragged him into English football. No club before Leeds came closer to pinning Biesla down than Swansea City.
Stories of that approach, made in December 2015 after Swansea sacked Garry Monk, tally with the efforts made by Leeds to recruit Bielsa this summer, minus the successful conclusion. Swansea’s chairman, Huw Jenkins, travelled to South America to speak directly with Bielsa, as Andrea Radrizzani and the senior management team from Leeds would do two-and-a-half years later.
Bielsa was interested and, true to form, had begun analysing Swansea’s squad, but Jenkins flew home without an agreement.
The two parties were said to be a distance apart on salary and other reports suggested that Bielsa wanted more control of the club’s footballing operations than Swansea were willing to give him. The fact that Bielsa was being asked to firefight midway through a faltering Premier League season also created a problem.
What Swansea wanted, and what drew Jenkins out to Argentina, was the strain of football Leeds have produced in the first two weeks of this season; the ambitious, pass-laden performances which embarrassed Stoke City and Derby County and broke down Rotherham United on Saturday like a patient, middleweight boxer.
Bielsa’s thinking is so fixed that Leeds are bound to play the same way tonight, irrespective of the short turnaround from Rotherham or the fact that Swansea away should rank amongst the Championship’s more difficult fixtures. Bielsa said the idea of managing Swansea had appealed to him in 2015. The job went instead to Francesco Guidolin. “Yes, it was a possibility,” Bielsa said. “I was willing to work in Wales but in the end they chose somebody else.
“I was contacted in the middle of the season and that didn’t make it easier to reach an agreement. But I have good memories of conversations we had.”
Swansea have rarely been predictable in their choice of managers since dispensing with Monk midway through his second season in charge. While Leeds sought out Bielsa in May, Swansea – having given up on a fairly hopeless Carlos Carvalhal – courted Graham Potter, the Birmingham-born coach who played for Birmingham City and was making a name for himself as boss of Swedish club Ostersunds. Potter is 20 years younger than Bielsa and less well travelled but Bielsa said he saw innovation in Potter, calling him “a modern coach but more than modern. He has new ideas. He takes ideas from the past and makes them new.”
Swansea got their man but experienced a complicated transfer window, summed up by the day of the permanent deadline when Sam Clucas left for Stoke and a bid for Brentford’s Ryan Woods collapsed. It was described locally as a “bitter disappointment”.
Those issues have not stopped them navigating their first three league matches without defeat. Tonight they host Bielsa and the only side in the Championship with a 100 per cent record, a fact which suggests the division will be as open and competitive as ever.
Bielsa sees much to admire in Swansea’s style.
“They’re a team who take care in how they move the ball,” he said. “They’re very interesting with how and where they put the ball and they have players who know how to build from the back. In their style, the goalkeeper and defenders build and it’s the feature that you can underline with Swansea. They have a real number nine (Oli McBurnie) and they have substitutes who can change the game.”
In pursuit of a fourth straight league win, Bielsa is unlikely to deviate far from the line-up which delivered three previous victories but this week should demand a touch of squad rotation. Leeds will travel the width of the UK in the next five days, away at Swansea this evening and Norwich City on Saturday.
Bielsa has been surprisingly transparent with his plans for individual games and was open yesterday in confirming that a back injury would keep Pontus Jansson out of the trip to the Liberty Stadium but he is keeping an open mind about how to manage the schedule in front of him.
“It’s not convenient to talk about the second game of the week when we haven’t played the first,” he said. “After the game against Swansea it will be the right moment to think about which players will play against Norwich.”
In any case, the flood of early matches – eight in August alone – appears to appeal. The chance to train and work on tactics would be short, Bielsa admitted, but competitive fixtures beat hours spent on the training ground.
“There are differences where you have one game to play in a week and two games,” he said. “The possibilities to make corrections are less frequent and also, you have less time to watch the opponent.
“But the good thing is that we like to play games. We prefer to play rather than prepare to play, rather than train.”