How El Loco’s eccentric method
Argentine manager’s passion as a fan fuels the high-tempo approach which has taken Leeds back to the Premier League
There is a picture of Marcelo Bielsa taken after Leeds United’s 2-0 victory over Huddersfield Town in March, their last match before the lockdown, that captures the manager in a rare moment of rapture. It is their fifth win in succession and the three points have shot them back to the top of the Championship, repairing the damage inflicted by four defeats out of five in January and February.
Yet it is not one of his own players who inspires Bielsa’s delight. It is Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte, a player given his debut by Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao, on a visit to the dressing room.
The two are photographed holding a City shirt Laporte has autographed and inscribed with a debt of gratitude to his mentor. Bielsa beams with pride that borders on the paternal. It is an uncommon glimpse of what lies behind the intensity: genuine joy in his work and the fruits of it.
“They call him El Loco cos he’s crazy,” Leeds fans sing in their main song dedicated to him. It is another variant of Bad Moon Rising but also a duplication of the theme of insanity that has been applied to Bielsa throughout his career. It is there in the title of Tim Rich’s fascinating new biography, The Quality of Madness. Indeed Dimitri Payet, who spent a year under Bielsa at Marseille, called the severity of his training methods “like a sickness, but it worked”.
The effectiveness of it, as Payet says, is the key. The lyric that follows the El Loco line, “but he knows exactly what we need” is one of the main reasons, along with two seasons of mostly thrilling football, why supporters have embraced him so warmly.
There is comfort in having a manager who has an aura of certainty, even if that inevitably proves illusory.
This combination of eccentricity, rigidity of focus, his Spartan lifestyle and belief in his system, which creates a tornado of movement, passing, pressing and overloading, has made disciples of them all. Bielsa arrived to a public desperate to be charmed and longing for a head coach with vision, someone who could shape a generation and the culture of the club just as Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson once had.
As journalist and author Paul Rogerson, a lifelong fan, says: “In his preoccupation with process and utter lack of pretension, Bielsa resembles the last Leeds manager who raised the club off the floor – Howard Wilkinson. History was bunk
Pride and joy: Marcelo Bielsa poses with his protege, Aymeric Laporte