“I designed a structure to observe 20,000 players a year,” Marcelo Bielsa told a Mexican newspaper in 1997. As Liga MX side Atlas’ director of football, Bielsa had devised a plan to scout talented players that had escaped the bigger Mexican sides at youth level. His eccentric, obsessive ways were nothing new. Previously, as part of the scouting set up at Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys, Bielsa drove over 5,000 miles in boxy Fiat 147 to watch potential targets, having divided Argentina into 70 sections; visiting every one.
The methods of ‘El Loco’, literally translated as ‘crazy one’, have long been unique but the ‘loco’ tag has become an increasingly apt nickname for Bielsa over recent seasons. Relative success with Chile, Newell’s and Bilbao and that mad-scientist persona of the once bespeckled scout in a clunky Fiat have been replaced by an unworkable irascibility and failure.
A characteristically gung-ho spell in charge of Marseille for the 2014/15 campaign ended in perplexing circumstances after a sole season, Bielsa later accusing the OM hierarchy of forcing a pay cut on him and his staff, the following stint at Lazio bizarrely lasted just two days as promises on transfers prior to his arrival were not fulfilled, while Bielsa’s radical overhaul of Lille’s squad in the last 12 months nearly relegated Les Dogues this term. A disagreement between Bielsa and Lille sporting director Luis Campos on who had the final say on player recruitment added to Bielsa’s eventual downfall, as did some oddly dull and lacklustre displays which stranded Lille in Ligue 1’s bottom three.
However, as Bielsa was photographed in a Lille cafe watching his now former team on a laptop, a scene somewhere between peak El Loco and a bout of shark jumping, the aura that Bielsa has enjoyed throughout his career – one of innovation and mystery – seemed to melt away. Now well into his sixties, there was a sense that the modern game, which he played a large part in designing, might have finally passed him by like so many other managers of his generation before him.
Leeds United are a club equally deserving of the ‘El Loco’ moniker. A rotating door to the manager’s office, Bielsa is their 12th since Simon Grayson was sacked in February 2012, and an often combustible boardroom at Elland Road have characterised, and largely prevented, Leeds’ efforts to return to the Premier League after more than a decade of absence. As a result, the announcement earlier this week that ‘el club loco’ and ‘el loco entrenador’ had joined forces ahead of the coming season is likely to be seen as an exciting, but ultimately fruitless and potentially explosive marriage. The recent history of both club and man suggests little else than eventual chaos. But Bielsa’s time in France, albeit somewhat unhinged, does offer some hope.
Although by no means a rule to generalise by, various Bielsa sides have often followed similar paths. An all-action, fast start is then followed by a crash, as his teams’ intense style becomes unsustainable and their season collapses under its own weight. While not wholly true of his Lille side in the campaign just finished, perhaps lacking the quality to perform in such a manner, the year the Argentine spent at Marseille began in typically exuberant and effective fashion. OM were Ligue 1 winter champions but just a pair of wins from eleven games in spring 2015 dropped Bielsa’s side to fourth come May, despite the fact that Marseille did recover to win their final four.
In quintessentially curious circumstances, Bielsa resigned following a 1-0 opening day loss at home to Caen as, later explaining when Lille coach, that the club hierarchy had demanded that he and his staff take a pay cut while one staff member supposedly repeatedly yelled “MEXICO!” drunkenly at Bielsa in reference to untrue reports that he was considering an offer to become El Tri’s head coach. Amid the mayhem however, OM’s campaign was not without positives. The end of season revival pointed to an ability to maintain the success promised during patches of the previous season. Bielsa would argue that a similar situation had developed in Lille; his staff interfered with and Campos, from the coach’s point of view, intervening with his own transfer philosophy.
The radical nature of that transfer policy arguably contributed substantially to Lille’s appealing season however. Experience was stripped away and a disperate prohibitively young squad was thrown together. With stalwart Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama banished, unpolished full-back Kévin Malcuit and new signing Thiago Mendes became the senior players at just 26. “For me, that was when the project was broken,” Campos said later, unsurprisingly blaming Bielsa, “the club decided to give practically all the power to the former coach and in my opinion, that moment [was] going to weigh heavily on the whole season.” Although Campos may have a point, Lille did seem to be finally on the up when Bielsa was relieved in December. A painfully young, fractured squad may have simply been taking time to settle.
Whether Bielsa or Campos had more power over recruitment, it seems that Bielsa’s notoriously specific and eccentric, but often effective, ideas were interfered with, an issue that El Loco himself is always very conscious of. When leaving Lazio he bemoaned “not sign[ing] any of the seven additions… expressly approved by the President Claudio Lotito,” which Bielsa described as “essential to the implementation of the work programme,” before explaining that “for my style of work we needed to have these players arrive in a timely manner to train.”
Although the now close to ubiquitous Sporting Firector model means that clubs are understandably reluctant to hand sole responsibility on recruitment over to the coach, Bielsa, as he is on a number of levels, remains a special case; his eye for a player undeniable as his scouting exploits with Atlas and Newell’s underline. Combine this with how irked he can become over what he sees as interference from the likes of Campos, the Leeds hierarchy would be best off buying into Bielsa’s ways of managing a team and a squad absolutely. Although risky, the potential rewards are high if Bielsa is left, or somehow made to feel, in sole control of the playing staff. Before his year at the Velodrome, two relatively stable years in charge of Athletic Bilbao (2011-13) were far more successful as a result in making both Europe and Copa del Rey finals. Bilbao being a club with helpfully restrictive basque-only guidelines in signing players.
Perhaps pivotally, in contrast to his arrive in Northern France, Bielsa already seems invested at Elland Road. “It has always been my ambition to work in England and I have had several opportunities to do so during my career.” explained El Loco upon signing with Leeds, “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.” Free of a project-heavy Lille under Campos and owner Gérard Lopez, the cauldron of the Vélodrome and the unkept promises in Rome, assuming Leeds can unequivocally trust his methods, the Premier League could be less than a year away for Bielsa and Leeds. Interfere, and Bielsa’s Leeds United reign, along with the genius of the scout in a Fiat 147, could quickly become a thing of the past.