The Importance of Being Bielsa
In the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell exclaims “A HANDBAG?” when confronted with conflicting news. Until that point in the play, she had formed one opinion of the character Jack and had just been made aware of another side to his past.
In much the same way I exclaimed “BIELSA?” when it was confirmed we were in serious talks with him.
I’ve interviewed many people for jobs over my life and never found any one person who is exactly right for the role I was searching for: However, after analysing many pros and cons, I’ve selected very suitable candidates who have worked well in their roles.
The rumblings about Leeds United’s search for a manager reminds me of those processes.
I must confess that my starting point with Bielsa comes from the negative side.
I’m not a great follower of players and managers away from Leeds United and rarely remember names. There are certain events I read about that stick in my mind though and Lazio having a manager who had a row and left before he started is one. Another story that caught my eye, due to its financial nature, was the guy who was sacked by Lille and then sued them for 19 million euros, risking Lille going bust.
At the time both events were merely interesting stories and I soon forgot the names.
Then Ranieri was linked with Leeds United and I did a quick Google search to see what he’d done recently. Up pops Lille again. This time it is in relation to the first match of the season between two giants from management, Ranieri verses Bielsa. Nantes verses Lille. In the event, Ranieri lost to Bielsa but he went on to better success as the season continued, whereas Bielsa’s season fell apart until his acrimonious sacking.
Having done some research on Ranieri I was in two minds – his age is against him, is he only a short-term coach, did he take over a ready-made team at Leicester etc. – but I’d pushed Bielsa to the back of my mind.
Then Phil Hay said he’d heard another name in the fray, Alan Nixon hinted at a maverick coach from Europe. Who they were referring to I didn’t know but I dismissed Bielsa.
So when it became clear Bielsa was in the running my reaction was to exclaim “BIELSA?”.
What I wasn’t expecting was the frenzied, almost maniacal, acceptance of Bielsa by so many vocal Leeds Fans on Twitter and Facebook. Yes, some dissenting voices but an overwhelming caucus just wanting him signed up and in office.
At one point over the weekend I suggested a dispassionate debate but the overall feeling was “sod it, he could be trouble but he’s exciting, let’s give it a whirl”.
Fortunately, the management at Leeds United is taking a more measured view and are taking their time to look at the pros and cons.
As I’ve started to hint at earlier, Bielsa comes with a lot of cons.
Bielsa doesn’t come cheaply! When he was sacked by Lille he sued them for the remainder of his contract to be paid. There was around a year and a half left in his contract and it was valued at £12m.
Yes, that’s an annual salary of £8 million!
He also has firm views on player signings and spent, or encouraged Lille to spend, 60 million euros on new players. The resulting financial mess Lille found themselves in got them a transfer embargo last January after his sacking.
Obviously, Lille management was heavily to blame for putting their trust in Bielsa and their money in the transfer market in the belief that “really going for it” would get them into Champions League football and the rewards associated.
However, given that Lille took on Bielsa knowing he’d walked out on Lazio for failing to bring in his transfer targets, this does also perhaps demonstrate the man is “heavy maintenance” in the transfer department.
Director of Football
The revitalisation of Lille, under new owner Lopez, brought Luis Campos to work with Bielsa as director of football. It seems that Bielsa wanted much more control within the club than Campos would allow him and the relationship broke down, well before Bielsa was sacked.
Of course, a failing out between colleagues often happens and Bielsa is not necessarily to blame.
Looking a little further back in time we find that he left Marseille of his own accord but did so because his control over transfers was eroded and he had a reportedly belligerent relationship with club officials.
In some ways, it is to his credit that he has walked out of clubs previously rather than being sacked. Only Lille have got to the end of their tether and sacked him.
After this sacking Bielsa sued Lille for his remaining contracted salary and £4m in damages. He claimed he was sacked due to him making an unauthorised visit to see a dying friend. Lille denied that claim and said he was sacked for the poor performances on and off the pitch.
The judge rejected Bielsa’s claim of unfair dismissal, choosing to believe the club. Bielsa lost his claim for £16m and was ordered to pay 300k euros to Lille for bringing such an “unreasonable” case.
Bielsa arrived at Lille to a fanfare of hope and expectation. They are a club that has fallen on lean times in recent years and Bielsa was seen as a new hope of glory.
As mentioned above, the reality was far different. Bielsa started well with a 3 nil defeat of Ranieri’s Nantes but then won only TWO more of his next 12 games.
Of course Leeds United would not be considering him at all if there were nothing good about him.
Bielsa is famous for playing a controversial 3-3-1-3 formation but does, in fact, vary this to suit the occasion.
There are reports of players being confused by the system but often this comes from players being fielded out of their normal position.
Bielsa is apparently fanatical about training and preparation. This is manifest in high-intensity work in training which he expects his players to continue during matches.
His methods draw praise from players who recognise that they are meticulously prepared for each match both physically and tactically, though some players can suffer burn-out as the season progresses.
Bielsa demands a fast-moving attacking team with close ball control that is exciting to watch.
Bielsa’s willingness to discuss football at length is welcomed by fans and has gone a long way to creating the cult status he has within the game.
There has been much written about the high esteem Bielsa is held in by other successful coaches and I’ll not repeat them here.
Suffice it to say, he’s viewed as an innovator bringing attractive football to fruition that, with the right players, brings success.
I’m not going to come down with a hire or reject conclusion.
The above essay hopefully brings out some of the many pros and cons that the club management team must discuss with Bielsa.
I can’t know what answers he will give, what compromises each side will make, what promises will be given and so forth.
My essay might seem biased against Bielsa but it is not intended to be. When reading up on his recent history it is mainly cons that come to light, whereas you have to go back many more years to find true success on the football pitch, which is what forms his biggest pros.
My conclusion really is that employing a Head Coach is not easy and I’m glad that the club is taking time to do it.
Whatever the outcome, I’ll be supporting the Coach and the Team next season with my normal expectation of some wins, some losses and lots of enjoyment.
Mike Thornton 5th June 2018