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Marco Bielsa both Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and in Good Will Hunting to Leeds – club needs his spirit

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Former Leeds manager Marco Bielsa. Photo: Reuters

Former Leeds manager Marco Bielsa. Photo: Reuters

Former Leeds manager Marco Bielsa. Photo: Reuters

It has been quite the week for statements from football clubs. Without doubt, the most trivial in the grand scheme of things was the one dropped by Leeds United on Sunday. Trivial because it pertained exclusively to results on the pitch, though not so for those touched by the last three-and-a-half years at Elland Road.

Even so, it was not insulated from cynicism. The penultimate paragraph of 17 dedicated to the news that Marcelo Bielsa was relieved of his position as Leeds manager was the main focus, revealing plans for a permanent tribute at the ground for the Chilean. Leeds sit 16th, facing the very real threat of relegation with 12 games to go. To some on the outside, such a gesture for one who had only been in situ since the summer of 2018 felt a little over the top.

That it was lost on some is irrelevant, really. If rival fans got a say in how others celebrate their own, football would be an even more soulless, joyless place. He returned the club to the top-flight after a 16-year absence and reinvigorated a club desperate to claw back its sense of self. The kind of things that count but cannot be counted. Whether the club decides upon a mural or statue to celebrate Bielsa remains to be seen. One thing is for certain – the way he emboldened those under his care needs to sustain over the next two-and-a-half months for Leeds to retain their Premier League status.

Bielsa was more than a manager. He was a tutor and a life coach, their inspirer and instigator. The one who coddled them off the pitch to allow them to express the best versions of themselves on it. Both Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.

The social media accounts of Premier League footballers are rarely a good gauge of dressing room atmosphere given how few actually post themselves. But the messages following Bielsa’s sacking last Sunday carried a refreshing sincerity. Liam Cooper said he will be “forever grateful for everything you and your staff did for me and my family”. “You saw in me what I didn’t even see in myself,” tweeted Kalvin Phillips. Over on Instagram, Patrick Bamford paid tribute to “the man who changed everything”.

Evidently, the players are mourning with the fans. And speaking of Cooper, Phillips and Bamford in particular, their long absences this season have contributed to Leeds’ missteps in defence, midfield and attack. Indeed their returns – collectively, maybe in a month’s time – will undoubtedly lift the team out of its current malaise. Therefore it’s hard not to wonder if Victor Orta pulled the pin on Bielsa too early.

The trio has benefitted hugely from Bielsa’s influence. But at the same time, you cannot say for certain that they would not have come good on their promise under someone else. Bamford, for instance, has long been regarded as a footballer of great untapped potential. We could probably chuck Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Ilan Meslier into that group – those with the baseline talent to flourish in the Premier League.

But the real “magic” of Bielsa was not simply that he raised the collective ceiling but that he raised the floor. One of the key tenets of his work is the appreciation that the meritocracy of football only goes so far. That not every player who makes it into the professional game was given the same care and attention. Those perceived to be without the raw materials were not trained or tactically informed in the same way as those who evidently did.

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Patrick Bamford

Patrick Bamford

Patrick Bamford

He knew limited players needed time on the ball, so he drilled them to within an inch of their lives with his training ground methods to help them find that in games. Along with an accompanying structure of, well, little structure at all, during 90-minutes of endless back-and-forth that encouraged them to play on “grooved” instinct. By giving them more room and less time to second-guess, they thrived.

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Alas, five defeats in the last six – and indeed the evidence over the 26 Premier League games so far – show the messaging and belief has been lost. While Jesse Marsch is seen as something of a like-for-like replacement, it is worth noting the former RB Leipzig coach has spent the week moving the squad away from man-marking to stop them from being caught out in transitions. A necessary shift after conceding 14 goals across three games just last week. Against Leicester City on Saturday, expect to see less hectic and less fanciful Leeds, all in the name of survival.

Perhaps Marsch’s most important quality in the immediate term is his empathy. Those familiar with his work say he is on the more holistic end of the spectrum, which feels especially necessary for a group so enamoured with their previous leader. Over the next six games into the first week of April, which includes relegation clashes at home to Norwich City (20th) and away to Watford (1th), he will only be able to call on those who have so far been unable to turn the tide.

Leeds are fourth favourite to go down, their two-point cushion from the drop zone – not much but enough given Burnley (18th) have Chelsea this weekend and Manchester City two games later. The quality of those set to return should be enough to keep their heads above water. They should have enough to remain a Premier League team next season. But to do that, the majority must retain the belief they are Premier League players, even if the one who made them believe is no longer there.


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