After 16 years away, Marcelo Bielsa has guided Leeds back to the Premier League with promotion from the Sky Bet Championship.
The Whites secured their spot in the top-flight of English football with two games of their season remaining after West Brom’s defeat to Huddersfield on Friday night.
Bielsa has completely transformed a team who were often left battling in mid-table. They have failed to get anywhere near promotion since their appearance in the play-off final back in 2006. Numerous managers have tried to get Leeds back to the big time but none of them have come close to achieving what Bielsa has during his time in West Yorkshire.
Not only have Leeds been promoted but they’ve done so thanks to a unique brand of football: possession-based and attack-minded with the ball; relentless pressure and forcing the opposition to panic without it. Leeds have done it their way and they’ve rightly earned plaudits because of it.
Leeds’ downfall since exiting the Premier League in 2004 is well documented. Fourteen managers have been through the doors but none have been able to handle the pressure like Bielsa. There have also been five owners; getting Leeds to where they want to be hasn’t been just about what happens on the pitch.
The ups and downs verse of Leeds’ iconic ‘Marching on Together’ somewhat understates what they have been through since falling out of the Premier League. Poor ownership saw the club end up in League One and they needed three years to get out of it. Aspirations of further promotion were never matched with the right recruitment but attitudes changed under new owner Andrea Radrizzani; he has invested in all aspects of the club, and the appointment of Bielsa proved to be his best move to date.
The impact Bielsa has made in such a short time has been dramatic. Leeds had direction off the pitch but little on it as Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom both failed to guide them anywhere near promotion. The arrival of the former Argentina and Chile boss in the summer of 2018 completely changed that.
Taking over just six weeks before their opening game of the season, Bielsa made the changes he wanted in all areas. His first competitive game in charge saw Stoke arrive at Elland Road. Recently relegated from the Premier League and with a squad that appeared capable enough to return at the first time of asking as champions. On paper, it was the perfect test.
Even before the game, some doubt crept in when Pontus Jansson was left on the bench, alongside summer additions Jack Harrison and Lewis Baker. Barry Douglas was the only new face in the starting XI for a side which had finished 13th the season prior.
And yet, despite being fancied for victory, Stoke were on the back foot throughout as Leeds’ pressing left them struggling, Benik Afobe’s second-half penalty the only real threat the visitors posed. it was a first hint of what was to come under their new head coach.
“It was a game with high intensity, our players were very ambitious and they put in a great physical effort,” Bielsa said afterwards. “The physical effort pleased me, the productivity was very high.”
That physical effort stayed as Leeds dismantled Derby 4-1 the following week. Frank Lampard, just two games into his senior management career, could do little as his side were heavily beaten in front of their own supporters.
Leeds lost just three of their 24 games in the first part of the season but the second-half of the campaign brought nine defeats. They fell out of the top-two at the expense of Norwich and Sheffield United and had to settle for a play-off appearance. Leeds have struggled in play-offs and history repeated itself when Lampard and Derby got their revenge by overturning a 1-0 deficit in the second leg at Elland Road.
The off-field issues surrounding the game ended up being discussed more than those performances on it. The focus was on Bielsa following the famous ‘Spygate’ saga with Derby and the Rams’ play-off victory perhaps the perfect storyline for some. It divided English football and Leeds were hit with a hefty £250,000 fine – a fine paid personally by the Leeds boss.
The media fascination with Spygate was understandable. English football had seldom seen anything like it before and it was all anybody could talk about. Bielsa wasn’t apologising though; he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong.
“When I was in Athletic Bilbao, we had 280 training sessions and all the training sessions were public,” Bielsa told a stunned press conference in which he spent well over an hour giving insight into his usual pre-match preparations.
“In this case, as all the training sessions were public, all the opponents could come and watch.”
Whether or not Bielsa broke the rules depends on who you ask. Lampard was outraged with the behaviour, stating that Leeds had broken the fair play rules. Others, such as Mauricio Pochettino, a ‘disciple’ of Bielsa, and even Chris Wilder who was also involved in the promotion race with Sheffield United failed to see such an issue.
You couldn’t avoid the aftermath the following day with every newspaper back page filled with Bielsa. The press were in disbelief at the admission and the lengthy explanation that followed. Whichever side of the fence you were on, there was no doubt that it only enhanced Bielsa’s legend further.
On the pitch Leeds struggled and the ‘Bielsa burnout’ theory proved true. Physical levels were fine, according to the staff at Thorp Arch who claimed they were the best they’d been all season, but the pressure that comes with the demands and expectation imposed on the squad were too much to handle.
It was easy to forget though that this was Leeds’ building season. Teams who stand any chance of success in the Championship often need longer than a single season to build. Their two promotion rivals in Norwich and Sheffield United had already spent at least a year prior with their current manager.
But that was testament to the instant impact Bielsa had made in West Yorkshire. This was a club which had finished in the bottom-half for six of the seven seasons prior to his arrival. The popular ‘Leeds are falling apart’ chant that serves as English football’s second anthem, beaten only by ‘we all hate Leeds’, doesn’t actually hold any weight when you look at Leeds’ recent past.
It was right to get carried away in their new aspirations; both for fans of the club and those who want to see a Premier League return. Bielsa had not only transformed a team on the pitch but the club as a whole. Leeds always held hopes of reaching the top-flight of English football but the Argentine coach gave them a real chance of achieving it.
The fears of falling short were always there and it’s not a problem that’s exclusive to Leeds. The pressure of a promotion race affects every team involved in it. This season, a poor run of results over January and February led to the doubts kicking in again. After a loss to Nottingham Forest, their 11-point gap over third had eroded to nothing. Leeds were now level with those in the play-offs.
“The responsibility for defeat is on me and not the players,” Bielsa said after their defeat at the City Ground. “The players gave me everything. The team gave a big effort, but it was not enough. It is not necessary to offer a justification at this stage for the defeat. The players gave maximum effort.”
His faith in the current group of players has always been there but that defeat to Forest was Leeds’ lowest point of the current campaign. They’d let a comfortable lead slip and now had a number of teams eyeing up their spot in the top-two. West Brom sat four points clear and took over favouritism when it came to winning the title.
Leeds had learned the lesson from last season though; they weren’t going to let this opportunity go. Bielsa’s side picked up points in 12 of their next 13 matches, of which ten were victories. Remarkably, there were nine clean sheets in that run.
They were well aware of the pressure on them to be successful this time around and they didn’t let it stop them. With Leeds fans getting excited, Bielsa typically avoided questions on promotion and said he couldn’t enjoy it until the job was mathematically done.
That was evident in Leeds’ victory over Barnsley – arguably their worst performance under his guidance. The Tykes were battling for survival at the other end of the table and outplayed Leeds in a second-half that could have easily brought an equaliser for the visitors. Instead, Leeds found a way to win and the relief at full-time demonstrated perfectly the situation they were in; one point away from ending that long wait.
That performance was eye-catching for the wrong reasons because Leeds have dominated the statistics since Bielsa’s arrival. They’ve topped the expected goals charts while sitting bottom when it comes to goals conceded. Across the board, they lead the way from shots attempted to through balls completed. Progressive runs, which measures how often a team attempt to get closer to the opposition goal, has Leeds clear at the top.
Not only has Bielsa turned Leeds into a Premier League side, he’s done so by completely changing the way they approach a game. Leeds have embraced his unique style and have become a team that others fear. Trips to Elland Road used to bring the promise of points. Now, it’s likely you’re going to leave empty-handed.
At its best, this is a style of football that is wonderful to watch. Stoke, Hull and Middlesbrough can provide a first-hand account of that; Leeds hit 13 goals past those three teams with no reply. The 5-0 demolition of Stoke that came in the 42nd game of the season was perhaps their most important, and most entertaining; Leeds had taken apart an opponent at the most vital time in the campaign.
These goals came despite only having one senior striker available at Bielsa’s disposal. Eddie Nketiah was recalled by Arsenal in January for first team involvement while Jean-Kevin Augustin picked up an injury when he was just about to hit full fitness during the break. The Leeds boss had limited options but had no interest in excuses; they found a way to win and win in the way they wanted to.
Perhaps that is the biggest impact Bielsa has made during his time at the club. The stats will show how Leeds dominate on the pitch but they don’t highlight the resources that have been used to get to that position. Leeds have spent, Helder Costa and Patrick Bamford being two players who came with big price tags, but they’ve done that by freeing up budget elsewhere. This isn’t a side who have bought their way to success.
Leif Davis had never played a senior game before he got the call-up minutes before they took to the pitch at Aston Villa last season. A quick briefing before lining-up in the left-back role demonstrated the faith Bielsa has in his young players. Others such as Jordan Stevens, Jamie Shackleton, Alfie McCalmont, Robbie Gotts and Pascal Struijk have also benefitted from first team involvement.
Rather than go out and spend on building a squad, Bielsa has preferred to use the best young talent at the club. Not only had he taken it upon himself to get Leeds into the promotion picture, he’s also done so by wanting to develop current players into the players he needs for involvement in his system. That area of impact at Leeds highlights why so many of football’s top players and managers hold high praise for Bielsa and his methods.
Kalvin Phillips has found his home in defensive midfield and he is a player who looks certain for England involvement in the near future; those international chances have been enhanced by Leeds’ place in the Premier League. Shackleton and Gotts are two who could well be the next big thing to come out of the Leeds academy.
That’s an academy that reached Category One status recently. It’s the way that Bielsa wants to operate, aided by the owner Radrizzani. Having a good academy and strong training facilities goes hand-in-hand with success on the pitch. That has been evident in achieving their goal.
Bielsa still needs to agree a new deal to stay at the club but he’ll want to have his chance at the Premier League. Leeds have supported him so far and will likely continue to do so as they improve a squad who have sat at the top end of the Championship for the entire season.
He may afford himself a few days off before getting back into the rhythm of it all over again; preparing everything he can possibly get on all 17 of next season’s Premier League opponents. Bielsa lives and breathes football and that is why his match with a club like Leeds is perfect.
Leeds’ final game of the season will be Bielsa’s 100th in charge and the 54.64% win-rate he currently sits on is the best of any manager to have been at the helm at Elland Road.
Leeds is a club full of history and one that remembers the greats. Don Revie’s incredible team of the 1960s and 1970s was Leeds at the peak of their powers. Howard Wilkinson is loved after he delivered the Division One title in 1992 while Simon Grayson became a modern day legend when he guided them out of League One and their lowest of points.
Bielsa’s not interested in the fame or glory that his football and its results brings but he has firmly established himself in Leeds folklore. Whatever happens in the Premier League, he will always be loved and remembered as the one who ended the long wait for top-flight football again.
Source: Tom Carnduff