When Leeds United sacked Paul Heckingbottom as head coach after only four months in charge at the end of 2017/18 Championship, it was of little surprise to anyone. Heckingbottom had won just four of his 16 games, having replaced Thomas Christiansen in the February, and eventually lurched to an unflattering 13th position in the division.
Heckingbottom left Elland Road as Leeds’ 10th boss in four years. Now, once again the Yorkshire club were preparing to meander in the Championship, outside of the top-flight for the 15th consecutive season, but subsequently stated their intention in saying they want to bring in a "more experienced" manager to take over from Christiansen and back into the sanctuary of the Premier League.
Enter stage right, Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera.
The man, the mystery, with almost three decades of management under his belt, had decided to tread the English boardwalk for the first time in his career. The manager who Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino pray at the altar of, the manager who had once faced his former club’s angry supporters who had besieged his home, armed with a hand grenade.
Marcelo Bielsa: the messiah and the pariah.
In 2018, the Argentine artist needed a new canvas on which to paint his idiosyncratic style, and appropriately, that canvas was White, though one steadily suffering a smirched shade.
For Bielsa, after a pair of disastrous episodes in Italy and France, the stock had fallen. He himself needed a hit, an ignition of resurgence. Leeds United and their historically strong standing offered that, as well as making him the highest paid manager in the second tier.
Two seasons later it has proven to be a reciprocally beneficial relationship, not just for Leeds United, not just for his personal purse and profile, but for the Championship and English football itself.
“Leeds’ acquisition of Bielsa is the greatest coup outside of the top flight since Kevin Keegan went to Newcastle United in 1982,” says sports journalist and author Tim Rich, “It’s of that magnitude.”
Tim has authored the first English-language book on Marcelo Bielsa, ‘The Quality of Madness’ a comprehensive chronicle that sprouts from the elusive manager’s beginnings in South America to his taking over at Elland Road.
“Bielsa came at a price,” Tim tells The Sportsman, “But what he’s given has absolutely revolutionised Leeds United. Elland Road is once again loud, it’s noisy, it’s fervent, and there’s total belief in Bielsa.”
Marcelo Bielsa began his coaching career in his homeland at Newell’s Old Boys, a decision that reputedly repulsed his father, a fan of the team’s rivals, Rosario, to the extent that he refused to watch his son’s games. Short-term spells in Mexico and once again in Argentina followed before two periods of longevity with the national teams of Argentina and Chile. Bielsa returned to club management at La Liga side Athletic Bilbao, a year in Marseille, a costly misunderstanding in Italy with Lazio, and a quick termination at Ligue 1 outfit Lille.
Leeds was a huge club with an enormous, notoriously rambunctious fan base but since their descent from the Premier League in 2004, had become ‘an irrelevance’, suffering the ignominy of three years in League One and a burgeoning reputation for battery-farming managers. There were several different reasons, Tim explains, as to why Bielsa was drawn to the challenge of managing for the first time in England, and with Leeds United in particular.
“He was a contender to manage West Ham in 2015 and his stock was higher than the man that was eventually chosen, Slaven Bilić.
“Fast forward three years, and those years for Bielsa have not been good ones. The fiasco of his two-day spell at Lazio, then the fiasco at Lille where he almost got sacked after just a few months.
“He needed a strike and Leeds offered him that opportunity. He took over a team in the Championship, the most unpredictable football league in Europe, but the attraction of Leeds United was unquestionably the fans.
“In return he’s energised the team, he’s energised the city, and he’s energised the entire division.”
A playoff-run, a Championship Manager of the Month accolade, and a fair-play award for Leeds United after a deliberate concession to Aston Villa instigated by Bielsa that denied themselves automatic promotion, were forthcoming. Before the postponement of the 2019/20 season, Leeds were enjoying life at the top of the tree, in first place on 71 points after 37 matches of a 46-game season.
“In 2020, after two years, his star is pretty bright again,” says Tim, “Ultimately it’s proven to be a reciprocally beneficial relationship.”
It certainly synchronises with the Bielsa’s own statement upon his unveiling as the first man from outside Europe to take on the task of helming the Whites squad, "It has always been my ambition to work in England and I have had several opportunities to do so during my career,” Bielsa said in June 2019, “However I have always felt it was important to wait for the right project to come along and so when a club with Leeds United's history made me an offer, it was impossible to turn down.”
The man’s influence shines far brighter than his trophy cabinet. There is certainly more time to spend shaking grateful peers’ hands than polishing silverware. The appraisal from Messrs. Guardiola, Pochettino and Tata Martino are testament to that. However, the easy judgement in the current sporting climate is to tally up medals as a measure of success, and therein lies the naivety and the danger.
“Across a 30-year career, Bielsa’s only really won four trophies,” Tim explains, “And one of the great questions in sport is, ‘do you only analyse a great career through trophies?’ Or another way of putting it, the greatest being judged by what is won.
“In this respect, with 11 Oscars from 17 nominations, the greatest film ever made is Titanic.
“Instead, you have to broaden the parameters out. Simply put Bielsa is regarded by other managers as a trailblazer. Someone who began things early. David Bowie never sold the most records but blazed the trail for a host of successful musicians.
"This is why Bielsa is regarded so highly, because he devised a whole new way of working, of thinking, of playing and success shouldn’t be measured in such a base fashion.
“The last words of Leonardo da Vinci were purportedly ‘Mostrava tuttavia quanto avea offeso Dio e gli uomini del mondo, non avendo operato nell’arte come si conveniva.’ (“I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”)
The title of Tim’s book, ‘The Quality of Madness’, comes from a quote from the actress Margaret Rutherford. Rutherford’s cousin was the politician Tony Benn, of whom she said ‘there is more latitude in eccentrics, they are always honest, and have their own quality of madness and in the final analysis they will be saints.’
The very same quote can very easily be attributed to Mr Bielsa, who from his very early days has been known as ‘El Loco’ - the ‘madman’ - and not just from brandishing an explosive in front of his own club’s passionate supporters, the ‘barra bravas’ (the Argentine term for ‘ultras’), which happened in the aftermath of a 6-0 loss for his first (and boyhood) club, Newell’s Old Boys in the Copa Libertadores against Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo.
“Bielsa’s methods when he started his managerial career in Argentina in 1989, 1990 - the intensive training, the repetitions, what is now called the high-press game - was different, it wasn’t ‘the way’, and was thus thought to be ‘mad’.
“The book ends however, with the observation that he is rarely referred to as ‘El Loco’ anymore because the tactics that he espoused have now become mainstream. Attaching the word ‘mad’ to something different is easy because it’s unknown.
"But all revolutions have a degree of madness within them."
Tim’s ultimate aim with his book is to put Bielsa and the Bielsa family into context, the latest book documenting the life of a person in the pantheon of football eccentrics.
“I’ve always been attracted to the outsiders and Bielsa definitely falls into that category, although he was born into an incredible establishment family in Argentina - his grandfather essentially wrote the Argentine constitution.
“It was particularly important to set him in the context of a figure experiencing the military dictatorship in Argentina to an Argentina emerging from the junta.
“The greatest failing of Bielsa’s career so far was the 2002 World Cup with the Argentina national team, when they went into the competition as favourites and were eliminated at the group stages.
“But you can’t write about that tournament from an Argentinian point-of-view without mentioning the economic collapse of their country that surrounded it.
“Bielsa was expected to bring the World Cup back as compensation for Argentina’s economic misery.
“Politics and culture is at the heat of this study.”
As Tim’s research into Bielsa progressed he became able to understand, to an extent, certain reasoning behind the enigmatic coach’s decisions.
“Bielsa wanted to be a film director and he sees being a football coach in much of the same prism. As a coach, like a director, you have a cast, and you have to get the best performances out of that cast.
“He worked with some very good casts but aside from the Argentina 2002 team, they are ultimately very modest casts.
“His choices of club, from Vélez Sarsfield and Athletic Bilbao, to Olympique de Marseille and Leeds have a common theme: they have passionate fans, and they are either underdogs or down on their luck.”
As to whether Marcelo Bielsa personally enjoys being ‘one of the great enigmas of world football’, a title that echoes within the title of Tim Rich’s book ‘The Quality of Madness’?
“Eccentrics think of themselves as eccentrics,” Tim vehemently states, “The eccentrics, the individuals make the best books, and make the subjects the easiest and enjoyable to write about.
“Their world is normal.
“Marcelo Bielsa’s world is normal, and his world is football.”
The Quality of Madness: A Life of Marcelo Bielsa, by Tim Rich, Quercus, £20.00