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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Whatever Leeds do this season it is going to be great fun to watch

So much more to watching a match than just the result

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa lays down his tactics
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I enjoy watching a Marcelo Bielsa team play football for the same reason that I might enjoy reading a novel: not for the ending but for everything that comes before.

This season Bielsa is manager of Leeds. They won their first three Championship games and are now favourites for promotion to the Premier League. When Leeds do not have the ball they want to get it and attack and try to score. Players buzz round opponents like annoying flies.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says Bielsa is the best coach in the world. Before Guardiola became a coach he visited Bielsa in Argentina. They spoke for 11 hours with Bielsa scraping chairs across his kitchen floor to show how he thought players should move.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is another admirer. He played for Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina.

For Bielsa, though, results have not always gone as well as they have so far at Leeds.

Last season Bielsa coached Lille in French Ligue 1. After 13 games Lille were second from bottom and Bielsa was sacked.

His previous job was also in Ligue 1 for one season with Marseille. In 2014-15 Marseille finished fourth. Their average finishing position in the ten seasons before had been fourth.

Earlier Bielsa spent two seasons with Athletic Bilbao in Spain. In La Liga they finished 12th in his second season and tenth in his first season. Their average finishing position in the ten seasons before had been tenth.

In Bielsa’s debut season – 2011-12 – Athletic reached finals of the Copa del Rey and Europa League. They did not have to beat anyone good to get to the Copa del Rey final but in the Europa League they topped a group that included Paris Saint-Germain and in the round of 16 overran Manchester United.

In the 1990s Bielsa won titles in Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield: they are clubs who had won titles before and have won titles since.

You might wonder why a coach should be praised if his results have been no better generally than those of his successors and predecessors. It is because of how his teams play. Bielsa’s teams are more fun to watch.

Football is not just the score. Over half an hour goes by between each goal. There must be something between the goals that people find entertaining. Otherwise why would they watch? There are more of those other pleasures with a Bielsa team.

He likes his players to run, to pass the ball forward and to have shots. And when they lose the ball he wants them to scurry after it. There is more going on when a Bielsa team play. The game is end to end. There might not be any more goals for or against than there would have been if they had played another way – often there have not been – but between the goals there are more thrills.

Bielsa himself displays no emotion. He trained to be a PE teacher and looks like one with his glasses on a chain and baggy tracksuit. He watches matches sat on what could be an upside down wastepaper basket. He does not move even when a goal is scored. But throughout the match other spectators show lots of excitement.

The first seven parts of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina were published between 1875 and 1877 in a magazine called Russian Herald. It refused to publish the last part because of one character’s long speeches attacking Russia’s war against Turkey. Instead Russian Herald printed a short summary.

Tolstoy was furious. He wrote to another magazine: “The masterly exposition of the last unpublished part of Anna Karenina makes one regret the fact that for three years the editor of Russian Herald gave up so much space in his journal to this novel. With the same economy he could have recounted the whole novel in no more than ten lines.”

The novel was all the other lines, more than 800 pages of them when all eight parts were published as a book.

If I like a novel it is not for the synopsis of the plot on the cover, or for how the plot ends on the last page, but for everything else – the writing, how the story is told, how the descriptions of people and places put pictures in my head.

If I enjoy watching a football team it is for more than their results.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said last season that he can organise his players to control a match without the ball. He can. But do Manchester United fans go to Old Trafford to watch the other team have the ball? Perhaps they will for a while if results are good enough, but not forever.

I hope Leeds keep on winning in the Championship but if they do not I will still want to watch them. Bielsa strives for the things that can be good in football and wants nothing to do with the things that are bad. Almost every time one of his teams run out on to a pitch the contest is Bielsa versus Beelzebub.


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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says Bielsa is the best coach in the world
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