Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure as Leeds head coach is over, with the Argentinian shown the door in the wake of Saturday’s 4-0 home defeat to Tottenham.
The loss was Leeds’ fifth in their last six games, a run that had seen them concede goals at an alarming rate – 60 for the season and 20 in the month of February alone.
But it is a measure of the impact Bielsa had in his three and a half years in charge that the announcement of his exit was accompanied by news that the club plans a “permanent tribute” to him at Elland Road.
Here the PA news agency looks at the highs and lows of Bielsa’s reign.
In April 2019 Leeds faced Aston Villa in a match between two sides still in with a shout of automatic promotion. Mateusz Klich put Leeds 1-0 in front in the 72nd minute at a time when Jonathan Kodjia was down injured, sparking a furious reaction from Villa’s players – with Anwar El Ghazi sent off. Bielsa responded by instructing his players to allow Villa forward Albert Adomah to score an unchallenged equaliser. The match finished 1-1, putting automatic promotion out of reach for Leeds. Bielsa and his players were subsequently awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award.
Return to the Premier League
Bielsa had to wait until his second season to deliver what Leeds craved the most – a return to the top flight after a 16-year absence. They did it at a canter too, winning 28 of 46 league games to take the Championship title by 10 points from West Brom. The final run came behind closed doors as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, but though locked out the Leeds fans had already built a special bond with their idiosyncratic coach, and promotion was greeted with a street in Leeds city center being renamed Marcelo Bielsa Way.
Leeds needed little time to settle back into the Premier League as Bielsa’s side delivered a string of impressive performances – so much so that by December of their first season back Bielsa finished third in the voting for the Best FIFA Football Coach award. They lost only one of their last 11 games, a run highlighted by a 2-1 win away to champions-elect Manchester City – despite playing most of the match with 10 men – after home draws with Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Leeds finished in ninth, having collected more points (59) and scored more goals (62) than any promoted side in two decades.
Bielsa caused controversy for months into his reign when he admitted sending a spy to Derby’s training ground before their 2-0 win over the Rams in January 2019. Though defended by the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, then Tottenham boss, Bielsa’s admission brought a furious reaction. The man himself responded by delivering a lengthy press briefing outlining his coaching methods but the English Football League nevertheless issued a fine of £200,000 for a breach of its “good faith” regulations, while also announcing a new rule preventing teams from watching each other’s training sessions within 72 hours of a match. Bielsa paid the fine out of his own pocket.
After the controversy of that 1-1 draw with Villa, Leeds had to settle for third place in the Championship in Bielsa’s first season. They were pitted against Spygate victims Derby in the play-off semi-finals, but though Leeds won 1-0 at Pride Park in the opening leg, Bielsa’s side lost 4-2 in a heated second leg which saw both sides reduced to 10 men . The failure saw the manager forced to deny the ‘Bielsa Burnout’ theory that suggested his methods were too demanding on players, explaining both the lengthy injury list he had dealt with, and their drop off in form over the second half of the season .
Second season syndrome
Bielsa’s second season in the Premier League began with a 5-1 home defeat to Manchester United and only occasionally got better. Injuries ravaged Leeds, bringing into focus the manager’s insistence on working with a small squad and raising some controversy – Leeds soldiered on with a bare bones squad at a time when other clubs were able to get fixtures postponed due to cases of Covid-19 within their camps. They have never managed to get above 15th in the table, and a run of five defeats from six – with 20 goals granted in five outings – proved the final straw.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.