The Daily Telegraph - Business
Pulis refuses to go wild about Bielsa’s chances of success in the top flight
TV pundit bides his time on hailing Leeds – and defeat at Anfield shows their manager’s idealism may not be enough
After a multitude of plaudits for Marcelo Bielsa, the first hint of a backlash did not come from Mohamed Salah’s hat-trick.
It arrived a couple of hours before Liverpool’s 4-3 win and emanated from Sky TV’s
newest pundit, Tony Pulis, who while admiring the Leeds United manager’s CV, said he would be reserving judgment on his Premier League performance based on a reference closer to home.
“It will be interesting to see how Bielsa does in comparison to Chris Wilder,” Pulis said, with enough mischief and edge to make it seem like he will be exploring the subject with forensic vigour at a later date.
The undertone was obvious, with Pulis’s emphasis on Wilder’s Britishness, implying our obsession with an exotic, eccentric South American manager is to the detriment of a home-grown one a couple of miles away at Sheffield United. Lest we forget, Wilder has already shown how promoted sides can defy the odds with funky formations. Pulis has a point when suggesting we are more easily seduced by the idiosyncrasies of an overseas manager. That is a natural consequence of the allure of quirky characters with fresh ideas.
Intuitive, open minds are drawn to different cultures and styles.
Besides, any hint of a sneer at the lauding of a foreign coach denying similar levels of acclaim for a British one is likely to see you allied with all manner of flag-waving undesirables. That is unfortunate because aside from the unnecessary and irrelevant nationality reference, Pulis’s broader point is right. When casting judgment, rather than assess Bielsa and Leeds’s first season in the Premier League against Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, a head-to-head with Sheffield United and Wilder makes more sense; two managers working in the same part of the country, with similar resources, who have navigated their way from the championship with their own, perceptible philosophy in a stadium where (when they can return) fans will influence outcomes. Leeds’ first 90-minute dash in the Premier League, and that’s what the thrilling opener against Liverpool amounted to, offered grist to the mill for those on both sides of Pulis’s argument.
Those who have observed and chronicled Bielsa’s career can observe the hype and praise, and
Hat-trick hero Mohamed Salah (top) copies the celebration of fellow Egyptian Moamen Zakaria, whose career was ended by motor neurone disease
ask the new members of his fan club: ‘What took you so long?’ There may be a few who feel a tad resentful they have lost a sense of ownership now one of their favourite performers has broken into the English mainstream.
But on the flipside, they travelled to Anfield in the most favourable circumstances possible – namely with no fans and with a home back four seemingly playing in three time zones – and were still beaten.
To steal an old quote from Klopp, they “failed in a beautiful way”, but their strategy proved no more rewarding than every other league visitors to Anfield since 2016, the majority of whom have willingly conceded possession rather than trying to dominate it.
As Bielsa acknowledged, “I can never be happy in defeat”, having ultimately shown visitors a new way to lose. Attacking Liverpool’s defence highlighted early season rustiness, but Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have rarely had such space to thrive. Had the wasteful Firmino been as sharp as Salah, Liverpool could have doubled their tally. The possession stats disguised the true number of goalscoring opportunities.
It all amounted to Bielsa leaving Merseyside with patronising pats on the head but no points. Against lesser sides, Leeds’s idealism will be rewarded, but many said the same about Norwich when they lost their opening game in an end-to-end encounter at Anfield a year ago. No promoted club has provoked this level of romantic fascination since Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in 1993.
Those who see their presence as making relegation for their club more likely will not be so enchanted. As Pulis’s remarks show, neither will those managers who have a track record of keeping teams up with less fashionable methods. There will be as many ready to pounce upon the first signs of naivety. For the moment, lips will be bitten and judgment reserved.
Bielsa’s approach amounts to a riveting experiment. That may yet be more reckless than ingenious, but the fact Klopp is relieved he will not have to face Leeds again until April is testimony to what the Argentine has already brought to the top division.
Leeds played with an endearing courage and intensity at Anfield, but the real measure of Bielsa might achieve this season was never going to come on Saturday.
Pencil in that first Yorkshire derby on Sept 27 as one of the jewels of the season.