Leeds aren’t falling apart, in fact Bielsa has built something very special


The first Leeds United match I went to was in January 2016. It was a third round FA Cup tie against Rotherham and despite a 2-0 victory for the Whites against a fellow Championship side, it was a drab affair lacking in any real atmosphere.

The weekend before, a 1-1 draw with MK Dons had seen Leeds slip to 13th in the table. The Whites had the pleasure of having Steve Evans as a manager, and Kalvin Phillips was just a peripheral academy prospect in the shadow of Lewis Cook.

It was also heading towards the final stages of the disastrous Massimo Cellino ‘era’, and the mood of the club was understandably frustrated and dour. Elland Road, a great and historic ground, was devoid of positivity.

At that point – after roughly 12 years of exile from the Premier League with a stint in League One – any suggestion that Leeds’s fortunes would suddenly turn drastically for the better in just a couple of years would have been greeted by cynicism.

The key moment came in the summer of 2018 from the fantasist suggestions of director of football, Victor Orta, at the time the club were looking to appoint a new manager.

Antonio Conte was the ambitious managerial target to end all ambitious managerial targets. Nothing came of it, and approaches for Claudio Ranieri and Roberto Martinez were not successful.

So instead of scaling down his ambitions, Orta went for another unrealistic target: Marcelo Bielsa.

While Bielsa may not have the same Premier League pedigree as the likes of Conte and Ranieri, he is a revered figure in football. A man described as the best coach in the world by Pep Guardiola.

His demands are high too, and owners must be prepared to devote themselves and the club to his ways. Cooperation is important to Bielsa – West Ham had an approach for the Argentine turned down in 2015, presumably in part due to potential difficulties in working with the owners.

Leeds were committed to closing the deal on Bielsa though, with upgrades to Thorp Arch including sleeping quarters for players agreed to help lure to former Newell’s Old Boys manager.

Bielsa came in, and a tense wait began for the start of the 2018/19 season. Nobody really knew how it was going to turn out, and the Whites faced an incredibly stern looking test on the opening day against newly relegated Stoke City.



But there was no need to worry.

The collective whirlwind of Leeds under Bielsa swept away an individually talented Stoke side 3-1, something that would consummately set the tone for how things were now going to be.

There were players with new roles in the side. Phillips was suddenly transformed into the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’. Mateusz Klich went from squad reject to key first teamer, and has since started every league match under Bielsa.

And then there was the style of the team. It would be fair to say that Leeds’s squad doesn’t immediately stand out as one that would you win you promotion from the Championship.

But through individual coaching of the players and a vigorous possession and pressing system installed in the team, Bielsa’s Leeds have become the most feared team in the league.

But it’s not only on the pitch that Bielsa has turned the club around. He has endeared himself to the city of Leeds, and the city of Leeds seems to have endeared itself to him.

He has rejected the luxurious offerings of properties in Harrogate for a small flat above a sweet shop. And while that flat may be in the idyllic town of Wetherby – roughly 12 miles north east of Leeds itself – this is for proximity to the Whites’ Thorp Arch training ground.

Selfies with Bielsa in the Morrisons in the centre of Wetherby, or in his favoured Costa branch, are ten-a-penny. And pretty much all of them see a warm smile spread across the Argentine’s face, seemingly contented with making a fan’s day.

Playing great football and winning football matches is obviously important to winning adoration from fans. But Bielsa has also struck up an emotive connection with Leeds, one that surely played a part in helping him and his team bounce back from the devastation of the playoffs last year. The bond between team, manager and city is strong.

Upon confirmation of Leeds’s promotion yesterday, thousands turned out in the city centre and outside Elland Road to celebrate, the players waving at them from inside the ground.

Halfway to York, a small crowd of 30 or so people gathered outside Bielsa’s flat in Wetherby to gush with admiration. It was a touching moment as those present expressed their congratulations and gratitude to Bielsa, a wide smile spread across his face as he bumped elbows with fans.

To have visited on match day in the past couple of years, there is a sense of joy and excitement of a club with new found optimism. Bielsa has inspired this, and has now sent Leeds back to the Premier League after 16 years of pain and anguish.

Unlike last year and years before it, Leeds are NOT falling apart again.

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