Bielsa turned cloggers to champions, a miracle Leeds fans will never forget

In Depth
Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa during a match at Craven Cottage, London. 21 December 2019.

Speak to any Leeds United fan that was at Elland Road on August 5, 2018, and they’ll describe something akin to religious epiphany. 

The speed, the movement, the energy. Elland Road has stood for over a century but seldom had it witnessed football like this. Certainly not in the previous decade and a half it had spent hosting matches outside the top flight.

It was clear from the moment Marcelo Bielsa was appointed manager that Leeds were in for something different. And it was delivered from the first whistle of his very first competitive match: football from another planet.

Whether you were a football obsessive with a well-worn copy of Inverting The Pyramid, having fallen in love with the coach’s unforgettable Chile and Athletic Club sides, or you were new to him, but had read those fawning quotes from Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, Bielsa promised something exciting.

But Leeds fans had been here before. Even Dave Hockaday promised Champions League football. The club had been through nine coaches in six years prior to the Argentine’s arrival.

They’d spent eight successive seasons in the Championship, finishing somewhere outside the play-off spots but above relegation zone. Matches rarely mattered in April.

Going from the stewardship of Ken Bates to Gulf Finance House to Massimo Cellino had extinguished hope that the club was ever going anywhere, because it wasn’t.

Italian media mogul Andrea Radrizzani had arrived pledging more ambition and professionalism, but his first season as chairman ended with two managers sacked and a bottom-half finish.

That’s not to mention a humiliating badge redesign (shelved after a day), some incredibly scattergun recruitment and the risible decision to go on a money-spinning tour of war-torn Myanmar.

Same as it ever was, then. Fans could have been forgiven for a bit of trepidation, especially given Bielsa had famously walked out on Lazio after two days due to broken promises – two words that had become synonymous with Leeds.

That context means everything. Bielsa came into a broken club, and from his very first day, began to fix it.

“Nobody has forgotten day one of Bielsa’s tenure when he arrived at Thorp Arch and immediately complained about scuff marks on a wall caused by someone leaning against it with their feet. It was, he said, a sign of disrespect for the building,” observed The Athletic’s Phil Hay.

That story encapsulates the dedicated, all-encompassing approach that would ultimately result in a new generation of supporters enjoying their greatest years of following Leeds, delivering a style of football that older generations had long since stopped dreaming was possible.

Bielsa ended up staying longer at Leeds than any other club in his career, including hometown club Newell’s Old Boys, where he made enough of an impact for their stadium to be renamed in his honour. They were the original ‘Bielsa widows’, and now Leeds fans know that pain.

Bielsa’s work at Leeds is best observed through the six players to have made the most appearances in his entire managerial career.

Five he inherited when he walked through the door, the other is Jack Harrison, coming straight off a miserable half-season loan at Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, where he made four substitute appearances totalling 49 minutes.

Mateusz Klich had been frozen out, shipped out on loan to Utrecht, before Bielsa arrived. The Poland international has since become Bielsa’s all-time most-used player, an ever-present in the Championship promotion win who broke Gordon Strachan’s club record for consecutive starts by a midfielder.

Luke Ayling has admitted himself he only ever envisaged a solid second-tier career. Under Bielsa, he shone in the Premier League, beating Lionel Messi – and literally every other player in Europe – for the total distance carried with the ball towards the opposition’s goal in the 2020-21 season.

Stuart Dallas was a functional yet unspectacular winger prior to 2018. Under Bielsa, he flourished into an all-action utility man – Leeds’ Player of the Season in 2020-21, a campaign in which Leeds scored more goals and accumulated more points than any other newly-promoted side in 20 years.

Liam Cooper, a £600,000 signing from Chesterfield who used to play back-up to Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley, has since captained the club 40 times in the Premier League.

Kalvin Phillips was regularly subject to moans and groans from the Leeds crowd. He’d made nearly a hundred appearances for his hometown club before he was transformed into a one-man double-pivot by Bielsa. Many would have rather him sold than Ronaldo Vieira during that first summer.

Flash forward and Vieira can barely make it off the bench at Sampdoria, while Phillips was voted England’s Player of the Year in 2021 – a year in which the Three Lions made their first major tournament final in over 50 years.

Each one of those stories is a marvel. Together, with countless others, they amount to a miracle.

That journey transcends simply trading the Championship for the Premier League. It’s seen a club, a fanbase and a city transformed. The murals across Leeds and 5000 messages of gratitude sent to Bielsa via the Supporters Trust are testament to that.

Bielsa’s three and half years have been such a beautiful dream, the sudden dose of reality has felt especially brutal. There’s a cold logic to the cut-throat world of Premier League business that runs antithetical to the fantastical football masterminded by Bielsa.

There’s no escaping the fact that Leeds looked destined for the drop in Saturday’s limp 4-0 home defeat to Tottenham.

One point taken from the last 18 on offer. A record number of goals conceded in a calendar month. The risk-and-reward scales have tipped volatilely from one side to the other in the final weeks of the 66-year-old’s tenure.

It’s the kind of form that has seen countless Premier League managers sacked before Bielsa – including Claudio Ranieri, less than a year after delivering Leicester’s Premier League title – and no one is bigger than the club. The decision may well result in survival.

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READ: ‘So lucky for four glorious years’: 23 Leeds fans on what Bielsa achieved

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But Leeds United no longer being Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United will take some getting used to. The man resuscitated a long-dormant part of the club’s soul, and there’s a danger of that leaving with him.

Turning the ship around will take something special – which begs the question why is Jesse Marsch (or anyone else, for that matter) worthy of more faith than the man who made Leeds believe again?

Bielsa’s reign has not had the ending anyone would have hoped for. But the football produced, and memories made along the way, it will never be forgotten.

If you weren’t there, you just wouldn’t understand.

By Nestor Watach


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