Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United: a myth being assembled in real time

Argentinian manager has taken Yorkshire side to the top of the Championship with thrilling football and eccentric methods

There is no greater story in English football right now than Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. You could argue there’s nothing better in British sport full stop. Other teams, other individuals – Jimmy Anderson, Dina Asher-Smith, Harry the Hornet – may be pushing the limits of their performance, creating headlines, drawing the eye, but the Argentinian has gone further. In West Yorkshire, there is the live sense of a myth being assembled in real time, of a period that will linger in collective memory.

The myth is made of more than just good football, but could not exist without it. Leeds United sit top of the Championship table, leading by goal difference from Middlesbrough, their opponents this Friday night. The 14 goals Leeds have scored in five league games have, almost without exception, been corkers: from Kemar Roofe’s dribble and finish against Derby; to Pablo Hernández’s late equaliser on the break against Swansea; and even the scrambled opener against Rotherham, finished with a diving header by Luke Ayling.

Leeds made rather light work of Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday. Brave on the ball, always looking to progress up the pitch and playing with their head coach’s trademark intensity, Bielsa’s Whites beat the Canaries 3-0. Ezgjan Alioski scored the pick of the goals, advancing on to a cute flick from Roofe to fire low inside the near post.

Afterwards, the Macedonian winger revealed some of the gruelling work Bielsa had put the squad through in pre-season. He spoke of 12-hour shifts and players being prevented from returning home at night. Such demands can make a difference on the field (though they also raise the prospect of burnout at a later stage in the season) and Bielsa is not alone in making them. The extent to which his players comply with his demands is what’s unusual.

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Alioski went on to illustrate another aspect of his manager’s character that might help explain why this was the case. Before the match Norwich were revealed to have painted their away dressing room ‘deep pink’, a colour the club understood to lower testosterone levels. After the Canaries’ cunning plan became public everyone ventured an opinion on it, including Bielsa, whose response was to ruminate on the nature of desire (“Men can’t say that women are not a source of stimulation”), before dismissing the whole wheeze out of hand (“you don’t have any colour that has the capacity to weaken the desire for competition”).

Saturday’s result bore Bielsa out but, according to Alioski, that was not the end of the matter. After the game the Leeds manager insisted his squad clean the pink dressing room from top to toe. “He wants to change this mentality – that we are clean,” Alioski said. “After the game you can see how clean it is inside the dressing room. And the coach helps also. It’s really a respect he wants. It’s not only football, it’s also how the person is outside. None of the players have ever worked like this before.”

Mateusz Klich, left, celebrates with Kemar Roofe after giving Leeds the lead at Norwich
Mateusz Klich, left, celebrates with Kemar Roofe after giving Leeds the lead at Norwich. Photograph: Richard Calver/Rex/Shutterstock

Not just a mark of respect but a sophisticated rebuke to sneaky hosts, this is the stuff of which myths are made. Bielsa’s eccentricity may never have been hidden. In his first job as manager of Newell’s Old Boys he signed a young Mauricio Pochettino after visiting his home to inspect his legs as he slept. But such moments seem to be coming thick and fast since Bielsa moved to Leeds. In his first remarks on joining, Bielsa declared them a better club than he deserved. Since then there has been the demands for cleanliness, the eight-minute digressions about the one time he disappointed Hernán Crespo, the selfies with fans at petrol stations and street corners; something new almost every day. And that’s without even mentioning the bucket.

Bielsa has taken to sitting on a plastic tub during home matches. He claims it gives him a better vantage point, because the dugouts at Elland Road are below pitch level. Nobody quite believes him, though, and whenever Bielsa holds a press conference he is peppered with questions about the bucket. It has acquired such a totemic status that, before the last home match against Rotherham, fans crowded to get pictures of the bucket. The Millers’ manager, Paul Warne, even confessed it had got inside his head, leaving him uncertain as to whether to stand or sit himself.

It’s almost like Bielsa is doing all this on purpose. That his idiosyncrasies are not accidental but part of a process that intrigues others, from players to fans, and slowly binds them towards him. Without the football this would not be very effective. But with the football, with Leeds playing better than they have for years, it all acquires a magical lustre.

Some Leeds supporters are already tired of it – they feel the patronising gaze of the football hipster (and the media) descending on their team once more after a decade in the wilderness. But most are just happy and, yes, intrigued (and even the grumpiness has a wry quality to it). Bielsa is an eccentric and his methods rarely bring much in the way of silverware. But he knows how to build a myth. The ride won’t last forever, and it may fail to deliver on its promise, but Leeds fans seem unlikely to forget their time in the company of El Loco.