clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United Form a Perfect Union

The phrase “doing a Leeds” is synonymous with failure on the grandest scale. Leeds United are back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence. Led by their iconoclastic Argentine manager, they’re impossible to miss.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A soccer team that won every game 7-0 would be impressive; a soccer team that lost every game 7-0 would be pathetic; a soccer team whose games always featured seven goals, but with absolutely no guarantees as to which side would score them, would be an extremely exciting soccer team to watch.

Leeds United, under the intense (not really a strong enough word for it) gaze of Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa, has played a pair of seven-goal thrillers to open this season, its first back in the Premier League since the dark old days of 2004. With Bielsa somehow more than intensely watching from the touchline, looking on as if he were a Roman statue on whose nose a fly had landed and you could tell the statue knew it, Leeds lost its first match, 4-3, to Liverpool, the defending champions, on an 88th-minute penalty from Mo Salah. Then, with Bielsa still staring, sphinxlike, out at the pitch, as if unimagined vistas of mathematics were invisibly coalescing before his eyes, and also as if those vistas were doing a mediocre job defending Aleksandar Mitrović, Leeds beat Fulham by the same score, behind two goals from Hélder Costa. After the first two matches of the season, Leeds found themselves tied for first in the Premier League in goals scored and second in goals allowed. These are statistical lists that Bielsa has also, undoubtedly, looked at, at least until the paper burst into flames. (The numbers dropped off a bit in Leeds’ third match, a 1-0 Yorkshire Derby win against Sheffield United, but even that lone goal had a wild quality, coming on an 88th-minute header by Patrick Bamford.)

What I’m driving at here is that three weeks into this new Premier League season, Leeds is one of the stories you should be paying attention to, and the reason you should be paying attention is that this squad is giving off unmistakable early warning signs of being fun. Put it this way: If fun were 11 heavily favored Premier League players lining up in a quarantine-emptied stadium in West Yorkshire, Leeds would both score and concede somewhere between zero and seven goals against them.

Now, if you’ve been following English soccer for a while, you might have noticed two deeply weird things about the previous paragraph. Namely, one, that it featured the word “fun” and the word “Leeds” in the same sentence, and two, that this sentence was not “fun threatened to break out, so several dozen Leeds players and fans joined together and beat it to death with a refrigerator.”

Leeds has not, historically, been a fun club. A storied club, certainly; a proud and tragic club; a club whose annals are populated by a surprising number of players named Ian; but a fun club? Not on your bruised shins’ lives. Decades ago, while other, weaker clubs were building their identities around artsy-fartsy concepts like rainbows and ponies and financial stability, Leeds preferred to err on the side of big, grim, battering, and unable to pay its debts. (In fairness to grim battering, it’s worth making as a historical footnote that Arsène Wenger’s attempt to field an all-pony XI at Arsenal resulted in several fourth-place finishes in the 2000s, though who knows what might have happened in ’09 if Twilight Sparkle hadn’t drawn that controversial red card against Newcastle.)

How unfun was Leeds? The phrase “doing a Leeds” has its own Wikipedia page. It means (I’m paraphrasing) “apocalyptic decline due to financial mismanagement.” It refers to the events that befell the club during English soccer’s Ancient Dark Age, before billionaire owners, Financial Fair Play rules, and the premium plan on Peacock. In this long-ago twilight era of the early 2000s, Leeds—long a mainstay of the top division and one of the original founders of the Premier League—spent heavily on its squad. Players like Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane, and Harry Kewell passed through the club, and also, unfortunately, through the club’s bank account. Leeds borrowed heavily to pay its wage bill, and it seemed to be working; they reached the Champions League semifinal in 2001. But the next season, they fell to fifth in the Premier League, and the loss of income from European competition left the board unable to pay its debts. The fancy squad was sold off piece by piece, and Leeds ended up falling into administration and dropping down to the third division before turning things around. Administration is to bankruptcy what a loo is to a toilet, something Leeds was also often described as having fallen into.

How unfun was Leeds? In the David Peace novel The Damned Utd (and also the film version, which is called The Damned United, because moviegoers aren’t forking over $16 for a film that scrimps on vowels), the legendary English manager Brian Clough takes a job replacing his equally legendary rival Don Revie. When he arrives, full of quips and optimism, he finds that the atmosphere of his new club is so poisonous, so striated with bitterness and resentment and violent central defenders named Mick whose idea of a nice Saturday is sending their opponents home on a stretcher, that it draws out all his own inner demons, with devastating results for all concerned. His new club is Leeds. Leeds is literally the Damned United. The book is based on a true story. Brian Clough, like hell, is real.

How unfun was Leeds? Though heroic sections of its supporter base have always stood up against the worst elements, the club spent the bulk of English soccer’s casuals-and-pipe-wrenches era building a reputation for having violent and racist fans. In Among the Thugs, Bill Buford’s first-person account of Thatcher-era hooligan culture, it sometimes seems as though 40 percent of every mob of xenophobic, lantern-jawed electrician’s assistants smashing Peugeot windows in support of the National Front have L-E-E-D-S tattooed on both sets of knuckles in a home-stenciled Fraktur typeface.

Comprehensively unfun, in other words. Defiantly, get-your-coat-Roxane-we’re-leaving unfun. One thing about Marcelo Bielsa’s gaze, though; the longer and harder he looks at any given entity (a rock, a tax return, Liam Cooper), the more exciting that entity tends to become. Still less well-known, at 65, than many far less influential managers, Bielsa is something like the Velvet Underground of soccer coaches: Not many people buy his records, but everyone who does subs in an attacking midfielder. His intense (not really a strong enough word for it!), hard-pressing 3-3-1-3 formations have influenced Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. The manic, swarming attack he favors has won him the nickname El Loco, the madman. But unlike most attacking coaches, who tend to do best with significant talent advantages—you don’t see a lot of tiki-taka at the relegation end of the table—Bielsa has made something of a specialty of turning around weaker sides. He’s still a folk hero in Chile, whose national team he took to the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, where they lost to Brazil. In the group stage, Bielsa’s side, down to 10 men, memorably fought back from a two-goal deficit against Spain, the eventual champion, before narrowly losing, 2-1. In Spain, Bielsa took Athletic Bilbao—a club with a policy of fielding only players with strong ties to the Basque region—to the final of the 2012 Europa League (knocking out Manchester United en route), and to the final of the 2012 Copa del Rey.

Bielsa is known for his modesty, his obsessive preparation, and his frugality. When he took the Leeds job in 2018, shortly after the club was bought by the American owners of the San Francisco 49ers, he moved into a one-bedroom apartment above a newsstand. Bielsa is a squared-off, bullish-looking man with a high brow and a receding hairline, and he wears heavy glasses on a chain that drapes behind his ears. He gives the impression of being utterly focused, to the exclusion of all else, on the mental effort of sowing happy chaos. He sometimes looks as though English soccer were a heavy object that he was trying to move via telekinesis. I’m not sure even Bielsa could pick up the entire Football League using only the Force, but during his first two seasons at Leeds, he certainly made it lurch a few times in its swamp.

After a January 2019 win against Derby County—Brian Clough’s old club —he admitted to having sent a spy to infiltrate Derby’s training ground. Now, in my opinion as a lazy pleasure-seeker, spies are fun and cool, every team ought to send out tons of spies, spy movies should be made about Wigan agents trying to infiltrate the Arsenal secret police, the fact that spies are not already a vital part of soccer discourse is an absurd disappointment, and Bielsa acted rightly and sensibly in James Bond’s adopted country. Still, many people were angry. The word “sportsmanship” was thrown around in that particular back-straightening tone that makes the formerly colonized nations of the world remember English rule with so much fondness. Leeds was ultimately fined £200,000 “for being so dope,” as I assume the disciplinary report put it. Bielsa, who attributed the incident to a cultural misunderstanding and promised to “adapt to the habits of English football” (hiss), invited a group of journalists to his office for what instantly became a legendary demonstration of the work he puts into preparing for matches. He also paid the fine out of his own pocket.

Later that same year, with Leeds and Aston Villa locked in a race for promotion to the Premier League, Leeds scored a goal while a Villa player was down with an injury. More bad sportsmanship! Don’t look, Your Majesty! Only this time, Bielsa ordered his team to concede an uncontested goal to make up for the offense. They did; Leeds failed to lock in automatic promotion and ended up having to spend another season in the EFL Championship. This time they won it by a double-digit point margin (“the Goddamned United,” I whispered when I saw the result) while being showered by Fair Play awards. His spy network now in tatters, Bielsa must have been surprised by each and every one.

So here we are. Leeds is back in the Premier League for the first time since Arsenal’s last title-winning season, which—going by memory here—was about 1067 A.D. On the one hand, as a newly promoted club, Leeds are inevitably a little overmatched. On the other hand, as a club coached by Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds are a zone of magical fury in which all sorts of strange things can happen. This is maybe the perfect recipe for seven-goal games. Players will score hat tricks the way you and I check our email. Goalkeepers might score hat tricks. Leeds striker Patrick Bamford, who has one of those high-fiber “Middlesbrough (Loan) → Crystal Palace (Loan) → Norwich City (Loan)” résumés that always make me think of eating muesli for breakfast, has already scored more league goals than he did from July 2015 through December 2016 (zero, for three different teams). You might score a goal, watching at home on TV. Even if you’re watching on Peacock.

There is no surer shuttle to psychedelic agony and ecstasy in the 2020-21 Premier League season than Bielsa’s Leeds United. Now’s the moment to get on board; Bielsa’s teams not infrequently fade a bit late in the season (all that superhuman intensity takes a toll on human legs), so catch them now, while the engine is spinning at full speed. Whatever happens, it will be a hell of a ride.