Abrasive, eccentric and never afraid to take risks, Marcelo Bielsa has more than earned his ‘Loco’ nickname over the years as he has hopped from job to job. But with the veteran Argentine having now been appointed at Leeds United he might find for the first time he has bitten off more than he can chew at a club which has been run in a similarly outrageous manner.
Bielsa, 62, is one of football’s great characters. He shuns exclusive interviews, instead choosing to interact with the press in mammoth press conferences which can last up to three hours when he is in an eloquent mood. He is also an obsessive student of the game and spends endless hours picking over video footage of his teams’ and opponents’ previous fixtures.
That exhaustive analysis also applies to potential signings. In Bielsa’s first summer at Lille in 2017 the coach was asked who he would be looking to bring to the Ligue 1 club. Those reporters present at the press conference, it was fair to say, were somewhat surprised at the answer given.
“Working on [Lille director of football] Luis Campos’ proposition, I have given my point of view and I do that watching by 15 games from each player,” Bielsa explained, while also signalling that no less than 120 players made up his shortlist.
“That implies watching 1,800 games before August 31. Not even I would do that in full, nor will we watch the full 90 minutes.”
Along with his famous attention to detail, Bielsa is notorious for his tactical innovation and iron discipline. In Argentina he moulded a brilliant Newell’s Old Boys team at the start of the 1990s that won two national championships in as many years and which also served as a breeding ground for a host of Bielsa acolytes: Mauricio Pochettino, Eduardo Berizzo and Gerardo Martino all worked under El Loco and cite him as their mentor in their respective coaching careers.
As does one Pep Guardiola, who travelled to Argentina for a meeting with the coach in 2006 prior to taking the plunge himself with Barcelona. “My admiration for Bielsa is immense,” the current Man City boss signalled. “I have never met a player who has worked with Bielsa and has spoken badly of him. He helped me a lot with his advice every time we spoke. For me he is the best coach in the world.”
Unfortunately for Bielsa and his hordes of admirers that unique coaching talent has rarely translated to concrete success. Aside from those early titles at Newell’s, a single Primera Division title with Velez Sarsfield in 1998 and 2004 Olympic Games gold at the Argentina helm mark the extent of El Loco’s trophy haul.
Since cutting short a fantastic spell in charge of Chile in 2011 after falling out with the nation’s new FA president – clashes with authority figures are also a hallmark of El Loco – he has had short stints with Athletic, Marseille and Lille, the former two starting brightly before his charges eventually collapsed, exhausted by Bielsa’s incessant pressing style over the course of the season, while the latter was an unmitigated disaster that lasted just 14 games and left the French club rooted near the bottom of the table.
Now he’s taken over at Leeds he will at least be confronted with a team that has just as much of a chequered history as the man himself. Infamous in English football for the spendthrift tenure of Peter Ridsdale – which included a tank of tropical fish that cost almost as much as the players themselves – Leeds flirted with joining the Premier League’s elite before imploding spectacularly and falling into League One.
Now enjoying relative stability in the Championship, the Yorkshire side still have a penchant for the bizarre. An attempt to revamp the club’s badge at the start of 2018 had to be shelved after fans slammed the new design , which appeared to have been scrawled by a bored teenager let loose on Microsoft Paint.
Leeds also opted to hold a post-season tour to crisis-ridden Myanmar , a country which is suffering a military crackdown that includes what the United Nations has termed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in one province and where the UK’s Foreign Office advises “against all but essential travel.”
Things are hardly less stable on the pitch. In current owner Andrea Radrizzani’s year in charge three coaches – inlcuding Garry Monk, who Radrizzani held talks with regarding a contract extension before failing to agree terms – have come and gone, while an encouraging start to the 2017-18 season that saw Leeds briefly lead the Championship and enter the new year in a play-off spot fell to pieces with a shocking run of defeats.
Though Radrizzani’s tenure may seem somewhat stable compared to the madcap years under compatriot Massimo Cellino, suggestions are he remains unsure of the footballing capabilities of his team, leaving most of the decision making to director of football, Victor Orta. Meanwhile some of his business ventures – including a partnership with the Qatar-funded ‘Aspire Academy’ and the aforementioned trip to Myanmar – have certainly raised eyebrows.
Recruiting a coach of Bielsa’s stature is a statement of intent by a club desperate to return to the promised land and bolstered by new investment from San Francisco 49ers owners Jed York. That will mean the Argentine will enjoy no lack of funds to build a fast, furious squad in his own image. But it is a huge risk: a coach who has seen previous projects fall to pure exhaustion in Spain and France may well find the rigours of the Championship’s 46-game a bridge too far.
At the very least, Leeds are guaranteed an action-packed season – as the old adage goes, the lunatic is taking over the asylum, and fans and neutrals alike will not be disappointed.