Is Marcelo Bielsa the coach's coach or a man with unbeatable PR?

Get ready to go mad for El Loco! The Leeds boss has had punch-ups with his players and once threatened thugs with a GRENADE… yet Pep Guardiola says he’s a genius. Is Marcelo Bielsa the coach’s coach or just a man with unbeatable PR?

  • Leeds are preparing for their first Premier League game in 16 years this week 
  • Manager Marcelo Bielsa is considered as one of the greatest coaches in football
  • His tactics have been an influence for many of the top managers in the game 
  • But he has a controversial past and has been involved in bust up with players
  • ‘El Loco’ once threatened hooligans with a grenade after coming to his house

Kalvin Phillips wasn’t entirely aware of the significance of the gift when Marcelo Bielsa first presented it to him earlier this week, as he became the first Leeds player to be picked by England since 2004.

Bielsa had called him into his office at Leeds’ Thorp Arch training ground, a sanctuary rarely breached by players. ‘He calls up his staff [up there] when he needs them, so we don’t really see him unless he’s out on the training pitch,’ said Phillips.

But the elevation of Phillips to the England squad, the latest confirmation of Leeds United being a serious football club once again, was worth marking.

Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa is preparing for the club’s first top flight game in 16 years 

 ‘El Loco’, one of the most influential coaches, has finally guided the Cinderella club to the Ball

The mood wasn’t entirely celebratory, however, Leeds have to prepare for their first Premier League game in 16 years this week, against champions Liverpool, without a number of international players, including Phillips, because of the condensed football season.

‘He was pulling his hair out because there were quite a few lads going off to internationals,’ said Phillips. ‘He was thinking he didn’t have enough time to prepare for Liverpool. So, he was pulling his hair out at the time but once he settled down he gave me a gift.’

Bielsa handed across a plain, old-fashioned collared T-shirt with red and black halves. ‘I didn’t really know what shirt it was, I just thought it was a random polo T shirt,’ said Phillips.

Slowly it dawned on Phillips just how precious the gift was. It was a 1970s Newell’s Old Boys shirt, once worn by Bielsa in his brief professional career at the iconic Argentine club for whom he played 25 games, the peak of his professional playing career.

Bielsa gave Kalvin Phillips a a 1970s Newell’s Old Boys shirt he previously wore as he decided to acknowledge his England call up this week

There was also a personal written message for Phillips, his mum and his grandma. The Leeds player was visibly moved when talking about the ceremony this week. ‘I’ve seen him wearing that shirt and it’s obviously a very nice touch for me, he said.

And he has plans for his precious first England shirt, should he make his international debut against Denmark this week. ‘I’m giving it to the manager, Marcelo,’ said Phillips. ‘I thought I’d give him a trade.’

The Premier League has waited long enough for this 65-year-old, described by Pep Guardiola as the best coach in the world, who inspires such devotion from players. Next weekend he finally arrives, after two years in The Championship when Leeds United, the Cinderella club of English football, finally get to go to The Ball for the first time since 2004.

On trophies alone – three Argentina league titles and an Olympic gold medal – Bielsa doesn’t get anywhere near the likes of Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp. Indeed, line a niche artist dismissing commercial success, he refuses to be judged by that criteria, referring to the ‘tyranny of trophies.’

Yet he is arguably the most-influential coach in the 21st century. Manchester City wouldn’t play the way they do were it not for him; video analysis of games would probably not have become so complex had his near-neurotic desire for detail not made it standard; and his old-school faith in scouting youths and giving them chances has affected thousands and now defines the modern academies.

Phillips is typical example of a Bielsa protégé. Like Johan Cruyff, his contemporary, he refuses to accept traditional positional definitions so took a typically English over-eager box-to-box midfielder and made him a cerebral holding player.

‘He knows exactly what he wants and if he wanted me to play centre half, he’d coach me to play centre half,’ said Phillips. ‘He videos every minute of every training session – the warm-ups, the tactical stuff – and will just tell us what we need to do in specific moments. That’s why he’s classed as one of the best managers in the world, because he’s just amazing and relentless at what he does. He’s obsessed with football and he’s obsessed with making the players that he’s got the best players that he can. I think he’s done that with me in the two years.’

For a man who refuses to grant one-on-one interviews with the media, says he can’t speak English and struggles to look inquisitors in the eye, his charismatic appeal can seem baffling. But Bielsa does connect. When Leeds’ promotion was confirmed, he emerged from the small flat he rents above a sweet shop in Wetherby and, as he bumped elbows with children and apologised for his English, the bond was apparent. ‘You are God!’ shouted one admirer, to which Bielsa wagged an admonishing finger.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola described Bielsa as the best coach in the world

His passion, intensity and fierce sense of what is right was evident in another public meeting, less benign, when a group of well-connected hooligans at Newell’s Old Boys turned up at his house to demand his resignation after a 6-0 defeat. Bielsa, whose wife and young daughters were at home, emerged with what he says was a live hand grenade, and approached the hooligans.

‘If you don’t go now, I will pull the pin!’ he threatened. One witness spoke of the madness in his eyes. ‘Nobody could look at Bielsa, only the grenade.’ The fans backed off. And Bielsa, already nicknamed El Loco for his crazy, fast-paced tactics, would carry The Madman moniker for life.

Confiding with Jorge Valdano, the 1986 World Cup winner and former Newell’s team-mate, on a flight to Euro ’96, Bielsa said: ‘After losing a game, do you ever feel like killing yourself?’ When his Newell’s team were challenging for the title and had to win their last game he told his team: ‘My wife is pregnant with complications. I told them if there is an emergency, she can call her parents or her sister, but not me. 

‘If anyone needs a telephone for a situation more urgent, then they can use it.’ When he asked a player before the derby with Rosario Central whether he would cut off his finger to win the game, and the player hesitated, Bielsa stormed out saying: ‘It seems to me you haven’t understood a damn thing what this is all about.’

Next weekend Bielsa finally arrives, after two years in the Championship with Leeds United

So, for every Kalvin Phillips, there is a player ready to reveal another side to the Bielsa enigma. Like José Luis Calderón, who in 1999 was the top scorer in the Argentina league and fully anticipating a fruitful Copa America tournament with the Argentine national team managed by Bielsa.

Calderón didn’t merit a single minute in the tournament, which saw Argentina eliminated in the quarter finals by Brazil. At the airport, as the squad waited to board a flight home, Calderón did a standard post-tournament radio interview from a disappointed player, in which he said Bielsa had toyed with him by not using him.

But Bielsa was informed as the interview went out and reacted with volcanic rage, storming over to the player in the airport lobby and gathering the rest of the senior players, like Diego Simeone and Roberto Ayala around for a public confrontation.

‘Simeone, Ayala, come I want to talk to you!’ Bielsa is said to have shouted in the airport waiting area. ‘Calderón! You didn’t deserve to have come! How could you have said publicly that you were here just to complete the squad? You have shown disrespect to the group!’

Calderón was unimpressed. ‘It is what I said it was,’ he replied. ‘I was a just a decoration. Admit it. Why the f*** did you bring me?’

Bielsa rage was uncontainable by now, according to eyewitness. ‘You’re talking rubbish!’ he yelled. ‘And you’re the son of a b****,’ shot back Calderón.

It is said Bielsa flew at the player, ready to fight, only to be restrained by the rest of the squad.

But as Bielsa’s translater, Fabrice Olszewski, once told him: ‘You are like van Gogh: a genius. But in terms of human relations, it is a bit compliacted!’ Indeed Bielsea once offered to fight Olszewsk over because he refused to translate his derogatory comments to a player at Marseille.

Others, such as former Argentina coach Alfio Basile, who won two Copa Americas with Argentina, which is a better record than Bielsa’s, consider the whole fuss to be a gigantic fraud perpetuated by the media. ‘I do not want to talk about Bielsa, because he is surrounded by a marketing machinery that I have not seen in my life,’ said Basile recently. ‘It’s not his fault because he seems like a very good guy, but I can’t understand how they televise an England Second Division match in Argentina. I cannot believe it. He never takes a big team, with pressure to win trophies.’

Bielsa has had tense moments with his players in the past and once had to be restained 

The contradictions are part of the fascination. In the same season that an intern working for Bielsa was caught spying on Derby’s training – which resulted in Leeds being fined £200,000 (Bielsa paid it himself) and EFL rules being rewritten– he ordered his team to concede a goal to Aston Villa because Leeds had scored after playing on after an injury. He received a FIFA Fair Play award for that which Chelsea manager Frank Lampard, who was at Derby at the time of Spygate, said was ‘ironic.’

‘Possibly for the first time in their lives in the last couple of years Leeds have become people’s second team,’ says Jamie Carragher: not a sentence anyone who grew up with Dirty Leeds in the 1970s could ever have thought credible. ‘People have been intrigued by Bielsa, they want him in the Premier League. I want to analyse his teams, I want analyse what he does. This is one of the managers who some of the best managers in the world look up to.

‘There’s the mystique, sitting on the little stool, everything about him is quirky. Even the spying stuff: I loved it! The fact that he’d go to that extreme to want to win a game to find out. You want different people and characters in the Premier League and he’s certainly that.’

Bielsa might have obsessed about football from infancy but it is not the profession into which he was born. His grandfather served on the Argentine Supreme Court and was a Professor of Law at the University of Buenos Aires and an honourary professor at The Sorbonne in Paris.

His father, Rafael, was an eminent lawyer in Rosario and his brother, also Rafael, was the Argentine foreign secretary who held talks with Jack Straw over normalising relations with The Falkland Islands and is now Argentina’s ambassador in Chile. His sister. Maria Eugenia, a renowned architect, has been Deputy Governor of the Sante Fe province in Argentina and now heads up Argentina’s Ministry of Housing.

Yet politics has been a dangerous passion in Argentina. Rafael, an opponent of the junta, was among the famous ‘disappeared’ political activists of that era. Blindfolded, he was interrogated by the man who oversaw a reign of terror in Rosario, General Leopoldo Galtieri, later infamous in the UK for ordering the invasion of The Falklands when he would became president. Rafael was one of the lucky ones: he was released and fled to Spain to live in exile escaping the fate of the thousands who were murdered and dumped in the Rio Plata.

Older brother Rafael negotiated his Leeds contract and while Bielsa remains one of the best-paid manager in world football, the sweet shop flat in which he lives is typical of a man, whose first act as a manager was to stop pre-match stayovers at a luxury hotel so that the players would stay at a more austere training ground dormitory. ‘Marcelo does not know how to enjoy the usual pleasures,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t need more than two bedrooms, a living room and a good bathroom. It’s the same with cars, watches and clothing. He is old fashioned that way.’

Manchester City wouldn’t play the way they do were it not for Leeds manager Bielsa

Bielsa himself wears the mantle of outsider easily. Rosario, three hours north of Buenos Aires, perched on the edge of the mighty Parana River, maybe a major conurbation and the hometown of Lionel Messi, but is a definitely the regarded as something as an afterthought in football terms by Buenos Aires residents.

Rosario does boast a fierce rivalry. Travel the streets of Rosario and whole blocks are either painted red and black for Newell’s Old Boys (Bielsa and Messi’s favoured team) or yellow and blue for Central. In recent years, the colourful graffiti has taken on more sinister tones, also demarcating territories controlled by the powerful drug gangs, which seek to associate themselves with the clubs.

The spacious central park of the city is dominated by Newell’s stadium: El Estadio Marcelo Bielsa. More than any individual, he is regarded as the man who built the club in the modern era. He and Jorge Griffa, an 85-year-old now living in an elegant apartment in Buenos Aires, were the architects behind a brief period when the club were not only the envy of all Argentina, including, grudgingly, the capital city, but also came within touching distance of winning the Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of the Champions League.

Understanding that they could never compete with River Plate and Boca Juniors for money, Griffa and Bielsa, who was initially the academy coach, made it their mission to scout every single youth player in the Argentine outback, from Misiones on the Brazilian border to Rio Negro, on the cusp of Patagonia.

Their obsessive, methodical scouting, done in a pre-digital age, was reliant on road trips across in the pampas in a Fiat 147, have perhaps set the standard for modern football scouting. They discovered Batistuta and Griffa would later discover Carlos Tevez among scores of others. Most famously, on one of their road-trips, they diverted to the one-horse town of Murphy’s, deep in the backwaters of the pampas, because they had heard a local teenager, Mauricio Pochettino, was worth signing. Arriving at the farmhouse at 2am, they talked their way in to view the sleeping Pochettino and to persuade his parents he should sign for Newell’s.

Pochettino would at the heart of a home-grown team when Bielsa, who previously had only coached the first team at the University of Buenos Aires, was elevated from academy chief to first team coach. They didn’t just enrapture Argentina but all South America. ‘He took Newell’s to a higher level than any other team and our tactical variations changed the structure of Argentine football,’ said Pochettino. ‘We played man-to-man marking and players were expected to perform equally well in defending and attacking or be able to stand in for another player’s position.’

They won two Argentine titles and reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, the South America equivalent of the Champions League, where they lost to Brazilian powerhouse Sao Paulo.

Like Johan Cruyff, his contemporary, Bielsa refuses to accept traditional positional definitions

In truth, that would be the peak of Bielsa’s coaching career. He would win the Argentine title again in 1998 with Velez Sarsfield but winning the league championship with Leeds this year was his first trophy since winning the Olympics with Argentina national team in 2004, a job in which he had failed miserably at the 2002 World Cup, hastened on his way in the group stages by David Beckham’s penalty.

Yet his influence has burgeoned through world football since that period. Before Bielsa, Argentinian football was played somewhat languidly, with the iconic No.10 the focus. Bielsa took the technical prowess associated with Argentine players, added lung-burning conditioning training so they could press opponents all over the pitch and play at 100mph.

Hence, the ‘Bielsa burn-out’ trope. Ander Herrera, who played in his Athletic Bilbao team which thrilled Spain by reaching Europa League and Copa del Rey finals but ended up losing both, told The Big Interview podcast [please leave credit in]: ‘I can’t lie to you; the final months of the season were a nightmare. We were physically f*****.’

But what took Bielsa’s influence in Argentine and amplified it into a global phenomenon was a meeting at the aptly named Maximo Paz in 2006. After quitting the Argentina job in 2004, he had retired to a convent for three months to reboot. And then moved to an out of town ranch to give himself time and space for a three-year sabbatical. He refused to coach but he did accept the visit of a curious disciple.

Guardiola was in Mexico playing for Dorados de Sinaloa in the twilight of his career, so that he could learn from Juanma Lillo, now his assistant at City. Lillo, profoundly influenced by the Argentine, suggested that Guardiola, a child of the Cruyff revolution, needed to meet Bielsa. Travelling with film director David Trueba, Guardiola made the pilgrimage: they talked for ten hours and Bielsa’s idea had a huge impact of the man who was about to take over as Barca’s B team coach.

In essence, Guardiola took Cruyff’s Total Football and injected it with Bielsa rocket fuel to reboot it for the 21st century. The result was the extraordinary Barca team of 2008-2012 and the sight of the perhaps the world’s greatest No.10, Lionel Messi, backtracking and pressing, thus adding intensity and energy to his genius.

Guardiola’s other great asset when he became Barca coach was the long hours he spent analysing opponents on video tape. Again, that was a Bielsa trait. When he went to the 2002 World Cup finals, he packed 2000 DVDS of opponents’ games with him, nit that it did him much good. Video analysis wasn’t new. As Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager, points out, his predecessor Andy Roxburgh was obsessed with video analysis in the 1980s. But Brown concedes: ‘Bielsa took it to another level.’

When Leeds’ promotion was confirmed, Bielsa emerged from the small flat he rents in Leeds

As such, Bielsa is perhaps one of the few who was suited to lockdown. He was seen a little less often in his favourite haunts in Wetherby; Morrisons, Costa Coffee and Sant’Angelo Italian restaurant. But he would not have been bored: there would have been hundreds of football matches to watch. And South American films. When he is not working, Bielsa confesses to getting through two a day. The Peruvian film director, Francisco Lombardi, received a package from Bielsa which was a detailed critique of every one of his films

Kalvin Phillips grew up in the Leeds suburb of Wortley so it is fitting that the most powerful artistic depiction of Bielsa can be found there. It is a mural painted by Nicolas Dixon, a Leeds fan and renowned abstract artist , depicts Bielsa as Christ Redeemer.

‘I wanted the portrait to be of Bielsa as a symbol of how football can change places,’ he said. ‘Marcelo Bielsa has changed everybody’s perception of Leeds, the club and the city. What he has done will resonate for years here because being part of the Premier League will bring millions into the city and make us a proper European destination again.’ Therein lies the Bielsa enigma: false Messiah or genuine revolutionary?

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