The arrival of the new decade may well see the return of an old face to the Premier League.
Entering 2020, it has been nigh on 16 years since Leeds United last graced the top-flight, a miserable descent that began in 2004 reaching its nadir on the final day of the 2006/07 season when they were condemned to League One.
Now, they’re back riding high in the Championship, topping the table ahead of West Bromwich Albion but with enough distance from the rest of the pack to suggest automatic promotion is firmly within their grasp. The man who has pulled the strings expertly, as this ascendancy provides Leeds fans everywhere with accelerated heartbeats, is the incomparable Marcelo Bielsa.
The man who gets the football fanatic tingling, Bielsa will be given an even more prominent spotlight on Monday evening in Leeds’ FA Cup Third Round tie. Preceding his appointment in June 2018, Leeds claimed 11 different permanent managers since the start of the decade. 11, in eight years.
Bielsa has not only given Leeds a taste of stability but has revitalised the wider interest in the Yorkshire club as well as injecting the side with a hard-working, determined attacking style, aesthetically pleasing but retaining the grit.
Bielsa has previously been in charge as such European heavyweights Olympique de Marseille, Athletic Bilbao and Lazio (albeit extremely briefly), but it is his role coaching the Argentine and Chilean national sides where he rose to prominence and enjoyed more longevity.
Renowned Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague has stated that he “cannot think of more managers who have had such an influence in the game as Marcelo Bielsa has” and considers him in the same breath as legendary greats Johann Cruyff and Arrigo Sacchi.
Those whose focus is predominantly distracted by the teams of the top tier will be provided with a teaser of a touchline to feature Bielsa against one of the Premier League Big Guns. Monday night’s FA Cup encore invites Bielsa and Leeds to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal, who hold the record number of titles in the world’s oldest association football competition (13).
With confidence high at Leeds and recapturing the Premier League dream, there is a statement to be made in N7. This is the 17th FA Cup match between the two sides and the first since January 2012. On that occasion, Arsenal won 1-0 thanks to some heroics from a returning Thierry Henry. Leeds have in fact lost five of their last six matches against the Gunners. A win when they were not far away from having their Premier League status revoked in 2003 at Highbury their most recent high against the north London outfit.
Bielsa can eradicate that woeful recent history by knocking Arsenal out of the tournament, as well as certify his credentials. The Argentine will have to let old habits die hard if he is to remain with the Whites after (probable) promotion.
Leeds fans can legitimately claim to have one of the best managers not just in the Championship, but in England, and certainly one of the most globally respected. His prestige and acknowledgement by his peers and prodigies is hard to equal. In the top tier, it’s only Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Jose Mourinho who could engage in equal conversation of their experiences in management. Guardiola - the most successful manager of the past twenty years, himself has called Bielsa “the best coach in the world”. The 64-year-old is well-regarded for instilling a high-pressing style and demanding exceptional levels of fitness. No other person scrutinises his sides more than himself.
He is also the man they call ‘El Loco’.
Marcelo Bielsa and eccentricity go hand in hand. The Argentine is famed for sitting on an upturned bucket rather than in the dugout, but it was also noticed while he was managing Athletic Bilbao that every time he left his sedentary position he would take exactly 13 steps before coming to a stop. That’s not to mention his decision to walk out on Lazio after just two days which led to the Roman club attempting to sue him for €50million.
Upon arriving in England to take up the job at Leeds United he presented a full dossier of each Championship game from the previous season. The backend of his debut campaign brought the infamous #SpyGate saga of 2019, in which he had sanctioned members of his technical team to sneakily observe a Derby County training session ahead of their tie with Leeds. Then admitting to spying on every team in the Championship.
His deliberate concession of a ‘fair play’ goal to Aston Villa which denied Leeds a chance of promotion to the Premier League, however, it was widely celebrated and earned the Argentine further respect, as has making his Leeds lads go litter-picking. A humble manager teaching humility.
Having won both legs in a Europa League tie whilst in charge of Athletic Bilbao against Manchester United in the 2011-12 season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s penultimate campaign with the Red Devils, Monday night will be the third time Bielsa has faced a Premier League side in his managerial career.
Regardless of the result, football fans should be hoping for many more.