What went wrong for Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United?

To say it’s been a tough time for Leeds United fans is certainly an understatement. Having been promoted to the Premier League last season and staying up in a season in which the majority of games took place behind closed doors, their players must have been relishing the opportunity to play in front of a packed-out Elland Road — especially after they had been deprived of top-flight football for well over a decade.

Indeed, Leeds made a flying start to life in the big league. While they were hardly up there in the odds to win the Premier League, they played an attacking brand of football that made them hard to play against. This season though, not so much, as injuries have massively impacted an already thin squad, resulting in some rather embarrassing thrashings this season that perhaps overshadowed Marcelo Bielsa’s great work. The loss to Tottenham Hotspur proved to be the final straw, as the Argentine left Elland Road for the last time.

It’s testament to the Leeds hierarchy that they even managed to recruit a manager of that calibre in the first place given their Championship status. Bielsa transformed Leeds from top to bottom. As declarative a statement as that sounds, you’d do well to find someone that disagrees. So often the phrase ‘to change the culture at a club’ is tossed around, to the point it seems arbitrary considering the ruthlessness of managerial sackings — there’s simply not enough time to do so, with the average life span of a manager being just over a year. 

With job security this low, Bielsa did a fantastically to last as long as he did and to leave the club in the position they are now, albeit with the threat of relegation still looming over the Yorkshire skyline, edging perilously closer with each passing defeat.

The reality of the situation is that injuries have taken their toll on Leeds, and the way they play simply isn’t sustainable. For all the good their high pressing, high-intensity football is — with ‘murderball’ training sessions, a Spanish interpreter and strict dietary requirements a breath of fresh air to the league initially — Bielsa’s philosophy has clearly affected a plethora of the Leeds dressing room, as the treatment table continues to pile up and contains key players like Kalvin Phillips and top scorer Patrick Bamford.

It’s been that lack of potency, and some lackadaisical defending, that has put Leeds in the position they find themselves in — culminating in an almost inevitable Bielsa departure. You can’t question the Argentine’s recruitment, especially considering the requirements being asked of a successful candidate donning the white shirt. Raphinha is clearly far too good for the rest of the side, while Dan James’ arrival was shrewd business, albeit 18 months too late. Defensively, shambolic is putting it nicely.  

A relatively new term for newly-promoted sides is ‘second season syndrome’. Sheffield United found themselves in a similar situation to Leeds now, in which they perhaps overachieved in their first season and struggled in their second. Chris Wilder’s side were also ravaged by injuries and they failed to rediscover the spark of their initial 12 months of top-flight football. Bielsa’s departure is obviously disappointing, but comes at a time where Leeds can still establish themselves as Premier League regulars should they secure their safety this term. 

Jesse Marsch is the man now tasked with keeping Leeds afloat, and building on the foundations Bielsa left behind. The American has been credited for developing some world class players including Erling Haaland, whom he coached at RB Salzburg. Marsch spoke extremely highly of Bielsa upon joining the club, insisting he was a legend and there will be plenty of work to do between now and May.

“I think almost every job I’ve had, I’ve followed a club legend,” he said. “It will be a big challenge to do it in a short period of time and I’ll make sure we evolve in a way that can be successful for what the future may bring but do it now. I have to really identify how to do the important and simple things right away and then build complexity as we continue to move forward.”

Know about – Lainya Shearer


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