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From the 'Damned United' to Bielsaball: How El Loco transformed Leeds in quest for promotion
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09-Jul-2020, 03:04 pm

From the 'Damned United' to Bielsaball: How El Loco transformed Leeds in quest for promotion

Marcelo Bielsa Leeds United 2019-20

On his first day at Leeds United, Brian Clough wasted no time in laying down the law to his wary new charges.

While he was still yet to achieve that incredible double European Cup success with Nottingham Forest, Clough nevertheless had carved out a fine reputation on the bench by 1974, taking lowly Derby County from the Second Division to the top-flight title.

But upon taking the Leeds job he found himself on dangerous ground: an attack-minded boss looking to impose his ideas on a side which had found its own brilliant success playing in exactly the opposite fashion.

“There's one other thing,” Clough added to his stupefied players, as chronicled in David Peace's Damned United, a gripping account of Clough'sinfamous 44-day stay in West Yorkshire. “I don't want to hear the name of Don bloody f*cking Revie ever again. Any player who mentions that name will spend his working week with the f*cking apprentices. No matter who he is.”

The spectre of Revie, who with Leeds put together perhaps the most fearsome and loathed title-winning side in English football history, nevertheless continued to hang over his arch-enemy's head.

Unable to remove the uncompromising edge from a team he himself had dubbed “the dirtiest, most cynical in the league",Clough's Leeds stay went down in history as one of the most spectacular failures ever witnessed in the top flight.

A leopard cannot change its spots, as the old saying goes. So the Whites cultivated and thrived on their reputation as England's hardmen, with dour, pragmatic figures such as Howard Wilkinson and George Graham continuing Revie's legacy well into the 1990s.

The club's perceived image as consummate anti-heroes surviving long beyond the devastating tailspin which saw them drop as low as League One in the mid-2000s.

Then, one day in 2018, a bespectacled, thoughtful Argentine walked through the doors of Elland Road armed with little more than his distinguished name and thousands of hours of match footage.

In little more than two years Marcelo Bielsa has transformed the fortunes of Leeds. But perhaps even more impressively, he has done so in his own way, playing a style of football that was not only a huge departure from the club's heritage but widely derided as impossible to implement in the rough and tumble world of the Championship.

Back when he arrived there were no few observers who tipped Bielsa's tenure to finish in a similar manner and time-frame to that of Clough. El Loco, after all, suffers few fools, and just like his late colleague has never hesitated to walk away from a job if he feels promises or conditions have not been met to his satisfaction.

Both in his native Argentina and in Europe, his critics also point to the lack of actual silverware to accompany his fine ideas as a stick with which to beat him.

Against all predictions, though, Leeds proved a perfect destination for the former Newell's Old Boys, Argentina, Chile, Athletic Club and Marseille coach. Anear-blank canvas upon which he was given complete freedom to make his mark.

From his very first match in charge, a 3-1 demolition of newly-relegated Stoke City, the Whites took Bielsa's teachings to heart, playing the intense, dynamic, high-pressing football he has espoused throughout his long career.

"When I came backfrom the 2018 World Cup it felt like I'd signed for a new club," defender Pontus Jansson told reporters. "Everything was new, a lot of staff, new people around here and everyone was so more professional, in a good way, of course.

“The good thing now is that Marcelo and his staff don't want us to relax. I mean they are on us every day... We had a long meeting after the Swansea game which, 2-2 at Swansea was not a bad result, won a point but then we had a one-and-a-half hour meeting with Marcelo and he killed us almost.”

Having led the Championship for large stretches of the 2018-19 season, Leeds eventually fell short of promotion, finishing third behind Norwich City and Sheffield United after a rotten end to the campaign before coming unstuck in the play-offs against Derby County.

This time around, they and Bielsa are desperate to make up for that failure. The Whites have sat in the top two since November and can pull six points ahead of third-placed Brentford with just four games to play with victory over Stokeon Thursday.

No team in England's second tier can match Leeds for possession – averaging 64.2 per cent of the ball across the season to date – or shots taken, almost 70 more than nearest rivals West Brom.

Were it not for the club's pitiful conversion rate (just 12.5% of their shots find the back of the net, higher only than relegation-threatened Middlesbrough and Barnsley), promotion would probably have been sealed with time to spare, if not as early as last season.

Perhaps most impressive of all is Leeds' sixth place in the Championship Fair Play table, an outstanding achievement bearing in mind the harrying and pressure required of players operating outside of the top division. 'Dirty Leeds' this most certainly is not.

That is not to say that Revie would wholly disapprove of Bielsa's administration. The late manager, one of the first to keep detailed dossiers on opposition in an age when such practices were the domain solely of the innovative and/or obsessive, would surely have revelled in the Spygate scandal during the Argentine's debut season, in which a Leeds collaborator was caught peeking over the fence at a Derby training session.

Bielsa's response, calmly and meticulously revealing his extensive research on every facet of the Rams' play over the course of an unforgettablepress conference, would also have met with his approval.

Like his illustrious predecessor, Bielsa additionally understood that the key to winning Leeds over lay in the community as a whole. Upon taking the manager's role for the first time in 1960, Revie made the effort to get to know every single member of the club's staff, from players and their wives to the cleaners, and fostered an unbreakable sense of family.

Bielsa similarly did his homework before arriving at Elland Road, finding out how many work hours it took the average fan to save up for a match-day ticket. The answer was three, and his squad were promptly sent out to the Thorp Arch training ground to pick up litter in order to understand exactly what was on the line for the thousands that attend week-in, week-out.

This March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Leeds were among the very first squads to volunteer for pay cuts so that other club employees would continue to take home their salaries.

Fans have responded to such acts of solidarity by flocking back to the stands, boosting the side's average attendances from 31,000 in 2017-18 to over 35,000 prior to the lockdown.

Bielsa, meanwhile, has become a cult hero in the city, with his daily 45-minute walks to and back from training at Thorp Arch frequently interrupted by supporters desperate for a photo and moment together with the eccentric genius.

The Argentine has not had the luxury of a limitless chequebook at Elland Road, with Leeds far from the state of financial catastrophe into which they tumbled at the start of this century but still mindful of every penny that flows in and out of the club.

Instead he has strived to get the best out of the players at his disposal, drilling his tactics incessantly on the training ground while also impressing the need for commitment, hunger and intensity across every minute of every game.

The Whites have fulfilled his remit with distinction, and in doing so have waded into uncharted territory, which would certainly feel alien to Revie.

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