Marcelo Bielsa exclusive: Leeds manager ready for Premier League challenge starting with Liverpool

He is one of the world’s most revered managers, a God-like figure to some who counts Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino among his disciples. He is viewed as an enigma, an eccentric, an obsessive. He is Marcelo Bielsa, saviour of Leeds and architect of their Premier League return.

His managerial career spans four decades. It has taken him to seven different countries on three different continents. There has been glory – although many would argue not enough – and acrimony too. Books have been written about his methods; papers published on his tactics.

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His idiosyncrasies only add to his aura. He sits on an upturned bucket in his technical area on matchdays and lives in a one-bedroom flat in Wetherby. There are shopping trips to Morrisons and coaching meetings in the local Costa. He is rarely seen in anything other than his Leeds tracksuit. He even wore it to the club’s black-tie centenary dinner last year.

It is rare, in the theatre of modern football, for a manager to come with a genuine air of mystique but it has followed Bielsa throughout his career. He does not care for the limelight. He keeps media engagements to a minimum and speaks without soundbites, eschewing eye contact.

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The Premier League, though, brings another level of attention and, ahead of Leeds’ opening game of the season against Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, Bielsa has agreed to take questions from Sky Sports.

It is, we are told, his first one-on-one interview in 27 years.

It takes place, by video call, after the press conference in which he has confirmed he is staying at Leeds for another season. The news is expected but it comes as a relief to supporters nonetheless. Bielsa is nothing if not unpredictable. He left his post at Marseille one game into his second season and walked away from Lazio two days after his appointment.

At Leeds, though, there is little doubt he is happy, his work unfinished.

Since the celebrations which greeted their long-awaited promotion in July, he has left nothing to chance – “I haven’t had any free time to take a holiday,” he says – in order to prepare his players for the challenge ahead.

“With preparation, you always have to consider every aspect,” Bielsa tells Sky Sports. “You have to prepare mentally and you have to prepare physically. I don’t know how the players are going to adjust. It’s something you have to experience before you can be sure of it.”

Bielsa’s devotion to the job is absolute. “His work ethic is incomparable,” says Guardiola in Sky Sports documentary Bielsa: El Loco and Leeds. There are stories of him shutting himself away for days on end to pore over match footage. His meticulous approach to analysis is legendary, enhanced by the PowerPoint presentation he gave during the infamous Spygate saga.

But it is not a reputation he much cares for. He is fixated solely on coaching, far more interested in the job itself than the discussions around it.

“I don’t distinguish myself by my analysis,” he says. “What I do is what every manager does.” Of Saturday’s opponents, Liverpool, he adds: “When we are talking about such a well-known side, the analysis I can do myself is no different to yours. They are a great team. One of the best in the world.”

The trip to Anfield underlines the step up in quality facing Bielsa’s side this season but Leeds swept all before them in the Championship last term, overwhelming opponents in the way Bielsa always demands from his teams; with a combination of slick passing football and breathless pressing high up the pitch.

It is exhilarating to watch and its success at Leeds has been a triumph of coaching more than anything else.

The quality is obviously higher in the Premier League, but I don’t think there are big tactical differences from the Championship

Marcelo Bielsa

Bielsa has transformed their playing style without overhauling the squad. Of the side that won promotion last year, six players – Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich, Kalvin Philips and Pablo Hernandez – were there when he arrived in 2018. The club have invested more heavily this summer, with £30m striker Rodrigo the headline addition, but Bielsa’s principles will remain the same.

“The quality is obviously higher in the Premier League, but I don’t think there are big tactical differences from the Championship,” he says, speaking slowly, as ever, and choosing his words carefully.

“I don’t want to see anything different from what my teams normally demonstrate. It’s not that the teams I manage play in a way that is better or worse than other teams. I simply try to get them playing in a way that can be clearly identified.”

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That said, there is also an acknowledgement of the physical challenge that lies ahead in a condensed Premier League season.

Bielsa prefers to work with a small, streamlined squad – only 15 players made more than 20 Championship appearances for Leeds last season – but he is notoriously demanding when it comes to fitness.

His players are weighed daily, their body fat measurements scrupulously recorded, and they are pushed to their limits in training. Their weekly schedule includes an infamous 11-v-11 drill in which every time the ball goes out of play, a new one is immediately introduced. “We call it murderball,” said midfielder Philipps recently. “He just calls it football.”

Leeds showed impressive stamina to power through last season and finish the campaign strongly but Bielsa’s teams have been known to suffer burnout in the past. Given the relentlessness of the schedule to come, it is something the 65-year-old accepts he will need to be wary of.

“This way of playing has limits and can be exhausting,” he says.

“It’s not just about playing in a specific way but being able to adapt to circumstances. Sometimes, to do that well, there are things you have to insist on, things you have to emphasise and things you have to develop.

“You have to keep all that in mind because when you are a manager, you are presented with many problems and the solutions are not always the same, due to evolution or change. You have to look at problems and decide whether they require different answers to the ones you are used to.”

How exactly that translates on the pitch remains to be seen, but does their most recent meeting with a Premier League side – a 1-0 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup in January in which they started at full throttle only to fade in the second half – provide any clues?

Mikel Arteta likened playing against Leeds to a trip to the dentist after that game but Bielsa insists he gleaned little from it.

“In that game we played well in one half and badly in the other,” he says.

“I don’t use it as a reference because we went into it without any pressure on us. To play without pressure is not real.”

The pressure will certainly be real this season. Bielsa regards the Premier League as the best in the world – “because of the quality of the players and the quality of the managers,” he says – and admits he will be fulfilling a long-held ambition when he leads his side into their first game on Saturday.

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It is not, however, the Premier League as we know it. The stadiums will remain empty for now and that is a source of sadness to Bielsa, a football romantic who has always been drawn to the emotional side of the sport. In his own words, he regards “the impact of our performances on the emotions of the supporters” as the highlight of his Leeds tenure so far.

“What has always attracted me to English football is what it is currently missing,” he adds. “What English football has that is special is the spirit of its supporters. Their emotion brings out qualities in the players. When a player feels that emotion, he can show a higher percentage of his qualities.”

His Leeds side will have to make do without the support of their vociferous fans for now, but Bielsa has already succeeded in galvanising the club like few others before him. His hero status is already assured. His face adorns murals in the city. His name is already embedded in its history.

Bielsa works on a season-by-season basis. His future beyond that is unknown. But Leeds hope the work he is doing now will endure. “Even if he does not stay long-term,” owner Andrea Radrizzani said on Bielsa: El Loco and Leeds, “I think he will impact and benefit the club for the long-term.”

Bielsa, though, shows his usual humility when it’s put to him that he is laying down a legacy at Elland Road.

“There are very few people who have left a legacy at a club,” he says. “If I ask you, who has left a legacy somewhere? You will tell me Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, but I don’t know who else. There aren’t many examples of consistent legacies, and obviously I don’t consider myself at that level.”

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