Among the many fascinating soundbites from Marcelo Bielsa’s first press conference as Leeds United manager was a promise to win the right way. The inevitable question was put to the Argentine of whether he preferred the contrasting styles of Brian Clough or Don Revie, a debate at the heart of English football for the last 44 years.
“In terms of winning the right way, I prefer to lose rather than cheat or play tricks,” he replied. “I prefer beautiful football rather than over-pragmatic football. Playing well brings you closer to winning things.”
Whites fans can make of that what they will, but his answer said much about what we can expect from him going forward.
Evidently clued up on his new club’s history, these are the kinds of footsteps El Loco is following in, not simply those of Paul Heckingbottom, who was sacked at the start of June having guided the club to a 13th placed finish.
For Bielsa, putting his grand plans into action will be easier said than done in the Championship, a league which he insists he is not underestimating.
It begs the question of what can reasonably be expected from Leeds this season. As much as he can encourage a group of players to be introspective and focus on adapting to his style of play, they can’t help but be aware of the vast number of clubs who are targeting the play-offs at the very least.
West Brom, Stoke, and Swansea will be looking to bounce straight back to the Premier League, while Aston Villa fell at the final hurdle at Wembley in May.
In 2015, Bielsa led Marseille to a surprise title tilt, eventually ended by Paris Saint-Germain in a 3-2 thriller. With Athletic Bilbao, he lost two finals and will want to avoid being seen as a ‘nearly man’ in his first stint in England.
If it can be assumed that he will remain in charge for the entire season – and it can’t be guaranteed given his track record, which includes a two-day spell at Lazio – then the play-offs ought to be seen as a realistic aspiration, even if the automatic spots are a step too far.
So often have new managers prompted false dawns at the club that fans will only be cautiously optimistic about this latest chapter in their history. It is almost unprecedented for a coach of such high calibre to head to the second tier and in theory, it should give them a huge advantage.
However, in theory, it should also have inspired Andrea Radrizzani to invest heavily in the transfer market and so far, that has not happened. Insofar as the revolving doors at Thorp Arch have been swinging, it has been through players leaving, with nine departures including loan spells.
Lewis Baker, on loan from Chelsea, became the first signing of the new era and he has since been followed by goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, who was convinced to join Leeds by staff at Stamford Bridge who commended Bielsa’s ability to develop up-and-coming players.
Bringing in a new stopper was a priority in light of Felix Wiedwald’s well-documented struggle for form last season, the German having left in June to join Eintracht Frankfurt. Elsewhere, the indications are that this will be largely the same squad as that with which Heckingbottom came up short. If Bielsa can transform them into genuine contenders for promotion, it will be further testament to his beliefs that it is nurture, not nature, which can make any footballer better understand the intricacies of the game.
That will be a big ask but, in the meantime, supporters can expect to see some pulsating football and the players are already buying into his methods. Kalvin Phillips is set to be used as a centre-back, making it all the more likely Leeds will be playing a 3-3-1-3, Bielsa’s preferred formation.
Using Phillips as a utility man will allow the defence to play the ball out from the back more comfortably, as well as facilitating the full-backs getting forward more. It immediately paid dividends in Bielsa’s first game in charge, a 2-1 victory over Forest Green Rovers, Luke Ayling playing a role in the opening goal and scoring the second.
The former Chile manager prepared for the friendly with meticulous video analysis of all the League Two outfit’s pre-season matches so far. His promises to take all opponents seriously were not hollow.
The way the game panned out might well serve as a microcosm of the coming season, Leeds flying out of the traps with two goals in the opening 25 minutes, looking very comfortable, but perhaps letting their opponents off the hook somewhat in the latter stages.
One of the 62-year-old’s greatest challenges will be to refute accusations, so often made against his teams, that his vigorous training methods and arduous fitness regimes can cause burnout. A pre-season of six games squeezed into 13 days should nevertheless have United in good shape by the time they welcome Stoke City to Elland Road on August 5th.
What was most noticeable was the fluidity and movement with which Leeds played. They looked comfortable on the ball and ready to adapt to shifts in formation. There were minimal celebrations in the dugout following Ayling’s strike, yet inwardly his new manager must have been delighted at an excellent team goal as everything clicked down the left-hand side.
A lean squad of just 15 made the trip to Gloucestershire and while it is too early to tell whether that will be significant going forward, it is another indication that Bielsa knew exactly what he is hoping to see from particular players over the coming weeks.
If nothing else, it is shaping up to be a memorable campaign at Elland Road.
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Also published on Medium.