After rumours aplenty and a rather prolonged courtship, on 15th May 2023, Uruguay announced that they had appointed Argentine boss Marcelo Bielsa as their head coach. Bielsa was sacked by Leeds United at the start of 2022 after a disastrous run of results that the hierarchy feared would see the West Yorkshire side drop into the Championship. Many Leeds fans were, and indeed still are, heartbroken and supporters of a number of the Argentine’s former sides still feel great affection towards Bielsa.
But why is the man from Rosario so loved by fans? And indeed, why do coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Chelsea manager-elect Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, among many others, hold him in such high regard? He has won very little in his long career as a manager and nothing outside his native Argentina, with an overall win percentage of a respectable but slightly underwhelming 46%. In addition, in just two of his 11 jobs to date did he stick around long enough to rack up 100 games in charge. So the question is this: is the one they call El Loco Bielsa a genius and a maverick, or is he overhyped, overrated and simply a triumph of style over substance?
Naïve, Outdated, No Plan B and Cares More About Process Than Results
Critics of Bielsa, who accepted the Uruguay job aged 67 having previously managed both Chile and Argentina, are not short of issues with the former defender. He is said to be erratic (hence the nickname “Crazy Bielsa”), tends to overtrain players and it is suggested that he possesses an outdated reliance on a small squad that simply cannot work in the modern game. In addition, he has very fixed beliefs about the way the game should be played and those have changed little, if at all, over the past 20 years.
His critics argue that even when it is clear something is not working, he will not budge, and this stubborn approach meant that even when Leeds were being cut to shreds in the Premier League, he would not change tack. The Elland Road outfit lost the last four games of his tenure by an aggregate of 17-2 and yet there was no sign that Bielsa would change his aggressive high press and man-to-man approach.
There was, and never has been, much in the way of a plan B, instead he simply insists on his players attempting to do plan A better. Moreover, his reliance on a small squad was found out by the pace and fixture frenzy of English football. His frenetic training, with the infamous “murderball” sessions, only exacerbated this, with injuries guaranteed and no depth of squad to cover for that.
Ultimately, though, the biggest criticism levelled at the Argentine is that his approach does not bring success. He won the Primera Division and Clausura with his hometown side of Newell’s Old Boys and the latter with Velez Sarfield. In addition he landed the 2004 Olympic gold with a side that included Carlos Tevez. But can a coach with so little silverware really, truly, be classified as a genius and an era-defining manager who changed the game? And should such a boss inspire the passion, loyalty and even love that Bielsa does?
Mad, Maybe: Magical and Mesmerising Beyond Doubt
There are many quotes about Bielsa and countless stories, some of which are surely apocryphal. However, there is no doubt that almost all fans of Leeds, Athletic Bilbao, Newell’s, Argentina and Chile do love him. And there is also no doubt that Guardiola called him the best coach in the world. We include Pep’s quote in full below, simply because it is so instructive:
“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge because he makes the players much, much better. Still I didn’t meet one guy, a former player from Marcelo Bielsa who speaks no good of him. They are grateful about his influence on their careers in football. He helped me a lot with his advice. Whenever I speak with him I always feel like he wants to help me. He’s the best coach in the world.”
Bielsa undoubtedly improves players, with many of the Leeds team that won the Championship going on to become established Premier League players thanks to him. Some of that squad were League One footballers but Bielsa gave them belief, improved their fitness, sharpened their football brains and turned them into internationals. Kalvin Phillips called him the “best manager” and added that “he gave me everything I needed to become the person I am today, on and off the field.”
Bielsa is a one-off, a man who inspires, captivates and mesmerises whole cities. A man who has his own unique demands and his own ideas and someone who is so much more interesting than just about every other manager out there. If he cares about the process more than the results then maybe we should all recognise that football is a sport. It isn’t life and death and perhaps there is greater joy and satisfaction in having principles.
Bielsa himself said, “But I also can’t say that my only interest is winning. What also interests me is the way we build to the victory”. For Bielsa, humility, honour, humility and conviction are everything. He earned millions of pounds a year at Leeds and yet remained accessible. He lived in a small flat above a sweet shop and could be seen wandering around the village in his Leeds training kit.
The respect and love he garners from fans is perhaps because he gives them such respect. He said that everyone in football is replaceable but “The only people who cannot be replaced are … the fans. The people who don’t ask for anything in return, only emotions.” He even made the players at Leeds collect litter from around the training ground, doing so for the amount of time the average fan would have to work to afford a ticket to Elland Road so his gilded players could understand the commitment and passion of the supporters.
Winning matters so much to supporters, of course, but a team that represents them, fights for them and brings joy can mean just as much. Or maybe more. Bielsa said, “The most valuable thing is the happiness that we are able to provoke in those that struggle to find happiness in other ways away from football.” Amen to that!