The Bielsa Burnout
Fans of ex-pro punditry would be forgiven for believing that Elland Road and Thorpe Arch are nothing more than rubble and embers, given the consistency of Leeds United’s burnouts. Like clockwork, a game is lost, and footballers made in Marcelo Bielsa’s image have nothing left in the tank. Bielsa’s brand is one of high-intensity running, consistent application of the press and an attitude that just won’t quit. In short, it is no secret that he demands a lot from his players.
In return, the Argentine shows almost unrelenting faith and commitment towards his players and his style of play; if Leeds are outperformed it is not the fault of his players or the intensity he demands, but the tactical setup of the team. As he has consistently argued, Plan B is performing Plan A more effectively.
Similarly, Bielsa tends not to blame referees or injuries for Leeds’s shortcomings if we take his post-match interviews at face-value. Last week, after a third round FA cup defeat to West Ham, Bielsa suggested that it was a manager’s duty to help referees by accepting decisions, by which we can assume he means those which he does not agree with, “even if they jeopardise us”. Despite Bielsa’s denial of external factors, the questions he faces highlight a myriad of issues which should be considered when analysing the pros and cons of a Marcelo Bielsa team, and to an extent, the burnouts they encounter.
The most obvious and pressing long-term issue for the footballing veteran, and a curious question mark in the career of a lauded coach, is the distinct lack of longevity and success at major clubs that Bielsa has managed. Whilst each club (and country) he has managed have their own caveats and contexts, it cannot be ignored that Bielsa has often struggled to settle.
In the most extreme case, he left his post at Lazio after only two days, owing to reported rifts over transfer policy. In one that suits the burnout theory, his tenure at Athletic Bilbao saw some real highs (including a famous two-legged triumph over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United in the Europa League) followed by a disappointing slump in the 2012-13 season, leading to a mutual departure in June 2013. It is this history of steady decline which provides ammunition for his critics.
On the rare occasions Bielsa comes out swinging in his press appearances, it tends to be when certain sections of the media have created a cloud of uncertainty over his team and philosophy. Take his press conference a couple of days after Leeds’s humiliating 7-0 defeat to Man City on the 14th of December, for example. Having been asked if he has ever feared the sack at Leeds, the Argentine responded with a question of his own: “do you think I’m so vain I don’t think I can be sacked?”. For a manager who picks his words carefully, this was a stark response to a question challenging his character.
A further episode of defiance can be traced back to the 19-20 season, the one in which Leeds finally achieved promotion back to the Premier League. Away to Queens Park Rangers, who had lost seven in a row, Leeds lost what should have been as routine a victory as they get in the unpredictable second tier, thanks to a Nakhi Wells goal and a penalty miss from Patrick Bamford. As has become customary in South Yorkshire, the defeat led to questions over fatigue in the Leeds squad. This time, Bielsa responded by saying he was “bemused” by these suggestions, and “like every side in the division, we have problems, but as a team we do not lack energy”. For Bielsa, it is strange to question his failures on what he takes pride in: his team’s fitness.
One of the easiest rebuttals to burnout at Leeds is that Bielsa has now been at the club for almost four years, the longest tenure of his managerial career. At other clubs, Bilbao included, he tended to oversee one or two good-to-brilliant seasons, followed by a departure or a decline in form. Yet, at Leeds, his best season was arguably last year, in which his team defied expectations by claiming a top half finish on their return to the Premier League. In response, they were consistently praised from their high-risk approach which involved impressive numbers regarding sprints and distance covered.
Yet, in data shown by The Analyst, Leeds United’s running stats seem no less significant this season. As of 13th of October, just over a week after Leeds had finally secured their first win of the season over Watford, they had covered more distance and completed a far higher number of sprints than any other team in the Premier League.
If the burnout is not physical, then is it a matter of mental fatigue? Of course, mentality is nigh-on impossible to analyse quantitatively but there has been little suggestion from the manager, staff, players, or journalists close to the club that there were any doubts in the methods of the Bielsa philosophy. Instead, there have been acknowledgements in interviews from the likes of Dallas and Forshaw that this season has been a tough one, but the finger is pointed towards injuries and COVID-19 cases. Pandemic-related absentees are unavoidable, but it could be argued Bielsa’s intense training methods and expectations lead to increased risk of injury. Despite club doctor Rob Price arguing that most injuries in the past two seasons have been impact ones, it is hard to deny that some of Leeds’s injury toll must be related to these factors.
Despite doubts over physical exertion, I’m sure most Leeds fans would agree that in Bielsa and his philosophies, Leeds have gained a lot more than they have lost this season through injury. After 18 years, he guided them back to the promised land and secured a top-half finish in the first season back. The 21-22 campaign is proving a lot more difficult so far; after a gutsy 3-2 win at West Ham, Leeds fell back down to earth with a 1-0 defeat to fellow relegation candidates Newcastle. There are signs that Leeds are starting to crack, and this could well be Marcelo Bielsa’s last year as manager of Leeds United. Whatever the outcome of this season, Bielsa and his squad will be determined to prove the burnout theory is just smoke without fire.
Image Credit: Leeds United Football Club