Can Marcelo Bielsa's Genius Inspire Leeds United Towards Europe?
For a team that was out of the Premier League for 16 years, it’s as though Leeds United never left.
The return of one of English football’s most iconic clubs, and who have been crowned champs three times and been runners-up five times, there’s something beautifully familiar about seeing Leeds back in the top-flight.
And their return to the Premier League saw them give the reigning champs Liverpool a run for their money, out-possessing the Reds 51.2%to 48.8%, ultimately losing an enthralling 4-3 encounter.
Since the beginning of the year, Leeds joins only Chelsea, Watford, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid to score three goals against Liverpool, doing so courtesy of strikes form Patrick Bamford, Helder Costa and Mateusz Klich.
One of the most exciting things to come out of Leeds’ promotion to the Premier League is the arrival of their enigmatic, charismatic manager Marcelo Bielsa- known widely as 'El Loco'.
Leeds owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Argentinian, who took over the reins at Elland Road, returning them to the Premier League in just his second season in-charge.
Despite suffering heartbreak during the playoffs at the end of the 2018-19 season, Bielsa ensured that the team was not mentally affected, going on to win the Championship a year later and cementing the club’s EPL return for the first time since the 2003/04 season.
Since Bielsa joined, the club has employed a high-intensity game which has aimed to keep possession with short passes, while also remaining dangerous on the counter. As we saw in their first game against Liverpool, they did not shy away from attacking football, denied a point against Liverpool only by Mo Salah, with the brilliant Egyptian completing his hat-trick in the 86th minute via the penalty spot.
The style of play Leeds implemented worked in the EFL Championship as they boasted the best defensive record in the league conceding just 9 shots per game. While they were tied second with West Brom on 77goals scored, they conceded just 35 goals all season, which is an average of just 0.76 per game.
The experience Bielsa brings to the Premier League has earned him much respect from his peers. Pep Guardiola has labelled him an “extraordinary manager” and said that he learnt a lot from Bielsa’s style in a press conference a few months ago.
Under Bielsa, so many players have made great strides and realised their potential.
Mateusz Klich barely made an appearance in the first-team before Bielsa arrived but has since developed into a vital cog in the Leeds’ midfield. Since he took over, the 30-year old Pole, who’s been capped 25times for his national team, has played 91 of 92 matches for the club and scored 17 goals.
Manchester City’s Jack Harrisson has been a great addition to the squad as well, adding 6 goals and 8 assists in 46 games last season, while his ability to draw defenders has helped the likes of Patrick Bamfordand Pablo Hernandez thrive. In fact, that duo combined for 25 goals last season, while at 35-years of age, Hernandez was one of three Leeds players, along with Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper,to make the Championship ‘Team of the Year'.
This season, Leeds will enjoy the services of their most expensive addition since Rio Ferdinand arrived in 2000, welcoming in their six-foot striker, Rodrigo, who joins from Valencia where he netted 35 times, producing elite form which earned him 23 call-ups to the Spanish National team.
While it’s always welcoming to see a club’s ambition and to marvel at their willingness to spend, it will be interesting to see if the Leeds squad will be able to survive Bielsa’s patented intensity considering the stakes have been raised regarding Premier League survival.
Over the years, while Bielsa’s training and managerial style have been applauded by many, however his eccentric approach to training and in-game tactics have come under cdriticism for causing fatigue by the end of the season.
The ‘Biesla burnout’ phenomenon hasn't been a stranger at Leeds either.
In the 2018-19 season, 'The Whites' suffered 13 defeats in the Championship all season, yet 10 of those arrived in the second half of the campaign and ultimately derailed their EPL push.
When he was at Athletic Bilbao, his squad in the 2011-12 season was good enough to reach both the Europa League and Copa Del Rey Finals, yet faded badly domestically and finished 10th in La Liga. When he was in charge at Marseille in 2014-15, they sat in first place on Christmas Day, yet ended up finishing 4th, some 14 points adrift of PSG.
"[Bielsa] is relentless, especially with his weight targets and how he goes about training every day," Leeds player Kalvin Phillips told Sky Sports earlier this year. "I never thought he would improve me as much as he has. He is on my case about my weight all the time!"
While Leeds’ return to top-flight English football could not be more exciting, expectations must be tempered. Last season all three Championship teams that celebrated their promotion were relegated a season later. It's of course one thing dominating the Championship, something else entirely navigating your way through the world’s most decorated league.
With Bielsa at the helm however, Leeds United will continue to play sophisticated, cutting-edge football, and, helped along by their spending, might even be able to go beyond merely surviving relegation, and perhaps even push for a spot in Europe.
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