For a man nicknamed ‘El Loco’ (mad man) and with little silverware in his long managerial career, Marcelo Bielsa is an unlikely hero to a younger generation of coaches including Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino.
However, hordes of Leeds fans will now treat him with similar reverence after he guided one of English football’s sleeping giants back to the Premier League after a 16-year wait.
The Leeds bust that followed a boom time of big spending and a Champions League semi-final at the turn of the century lasted far longer than many people anticipated.
Leeds last played in the English top-flight in May 2004. A further relegation and three years in the third tier followed before a decade stuck in the mud of the gruelling 46-game a season Championship.
There was plenty of heartbreak along the way but perhaps none more so than in Bielsa’s eventful first season at Elland Road.
After being caught sending a spy to Derby’s training ground last year, Bielsa revealed the exhaustive scouting he does of every opponent he has ever faced amid accusations of underhand tactics.
“I think he is the best-prepared manager I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Guardiola, who went to visit Bielsa in Argentina before setting out as a coach at Barcelona.
A FIFA fair play award also came El Loco’s way last season for allowing Aston Villa to equalise after Leeds had scored with a Villa player down injured.
However, that was the only trophy Leeds won as, in keeping with Bielsa’s sides of the past, they faltered down the home straight, with many pointing to the physical demands he puts on his players.
Bielsa made his name winning three league titles in Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield, where the season was divided into two leagues of 19 games.
“If they had been 38-game seasons I don’t know if the players physically and mentally could stand another 19 games,” Ricardo Lunari, another former Bielsa player to later become a coach, told Sky Sports.
Bielsa’s sides in Bilbao with Athletic Club, where he reached the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals in 2011/12, and Marseille, where he led Ligue 1 at the halfway stage in 2014/15, were also admired but ended up empty-handed as their energy ran out.
Last season, Derby and their manager Frank Lampard had the last laugh, beating Leeds 4-3 on aggregate in the play-off semi-finals, prolonging their agonising wait to return to the Premier League.
Many expected Bielsa to walk. But in his second season he has managed to leave a legacy similar to that he left at Newell’s — where the club’s stadium now bears his name — and with the Chilean national team, whom he led to a first World Cup in 12 years.
Coronavirus may have delayed Leeds’ title party, but it may also have played its part in getting them over the line.
The three-month break meant there was no burnout down the stretch this time as Leeds have lost just one of their seven matches since the restart.
– ‘He’s a genius’ –
Born into a bourgeois family in Argentina, there are few airs and graces with Bielsa — despite a reported £3 million-a-year salary ($3.75 million). He lives in a one-bedroom flat in the market town of Wetherby so he can walk to the club’s Thorpe Arch training base and is regularly photographed with locals in coffee shops and supermarkets.
“For me, he’s a person I will always admire,” said former Tottenham boss Pochettino, whom Bielsa recruited for Newell’s as a 13-year-old. “He’s a genius. A person with charisma and a personality very different from us normal coaches, and that’s what makes him special.”
Guardiola will get the chance to go head-to-head with the man he calls “the best coach in the world” next season despite the Manchester City boss being the one with a stunning array of titles to his name.
“To be loved is this biggest title, bigger than the Champions League or Premier League or whatever. To be loved is the most important thing and I think Marcelo has that more than any other manager in the world,” said Guardiola.
“I know how he is still loved in Bilbao, I know he’s an icon in Chile.”
Now Bielsa is also a legend in Leeds.