We feel guilty if we don’t work enough. [Watching the opponents train] allows us to have less anxiety and in my case I am stupid enough to allow this kind of behaviour.” With that endearing, typically self-deprecating introduction Marcelo Bielsa launched into a press conference that quickly went across the world, in which he faced head-on accusations that he spied on one of Leeds United’s upcoming opponents in a way that only El Loco could.
This bizarre storm erupted last Friday, hours prior to a top of the table clash in England’s second-tier Championship division between Bielsa’s Leeds and Derby County, coached by former Chelsea idol Frank Lampard. During the build-up to that clash Derby called local police when a man was spotted near the perimeter fencing of the club’s training complex. Upon further questioning the mysterious individual revealed that he was an employee of Leeds, and had been sent to their rivals in order to furtively pick up any further snippets of information that could help his team triumph.
Amid widespread condemnation from English football’s usual suspects, innately suspicious of any practice seen as unfamiliar, Bielsa called an impromptu press conference for Wednesday. Many feared this would be the end of his enthralling Leeds adventure, which has left the long-underachieving Yorkshire team sitting at the top of the table, playing brilliant football and dreaming of promotion to the Premier League – this, after all, would be classic Loco, walking out of a club when he was on the cusp of glory. Right?
Wrong. What followed was a ninety-minute masterclass that every coach, journalist and anyone with a passing interest in the sport should be made to watch back as required viewing. Bielsa was even generous enough to give the papers their soundbite - “I observed all the rivals we played against and watched the training sessions of all opponents” - before systematically showing that his subterfuge, a classic trait of his that dates back to his time at Newell’s Old Boys, was ultimately a waste of time.
After making such a fervent protest over Leeds’ man in the bushes, Lampard had to look on as his rival proceeded to divulge every tactical secret, every formation, every nuance of Derby County’s game he and his extensive analytical team had compiled from the last 50 matches. No detail escaped El Loco’s attention, even the fact that set-piece taker Harry Wilson (who did not even play against Leeds) raises both arms when about to attempt a certain type of corner.
The former Chelsea man surely would have shown little surprise had Bielsa additionally revealed that he favours two spoonfuls of sugar in his morning coffee and prefers his eggs boiled rather than scrambled. No less than 300 hours had gone into such exhaustive preparation, raking over an impossibly extensive number of variables, and similar dossiers had been prepared for all of Leeds’ potential league opponents. As the Argentine said himself, “I can’t speak English, but I can speak about the 24r teams of the Championship.”
Therein lies the key to understanding Bielsa’s enigmatic, near-impenetrable personality. He lives, breathes and perspires football and refuses to leave any detail unexplored, even if this poses a threat to his reputation in the game, or even to his life: a famous anecdote from his time at Argentina has him cornered by armed police in the early hours of the morning outside the Albiceleste’s training complex. Bielsa was so engrossed in his chosen jogging company, a self-recorded CD of 22 tactical formulae and the best way to combat each one, that he failed to hear a halt order from security personnel fearing a kidnap or robbery attempt. Only a timely shout of “Don’t shoot, I’m Bielsa” upon finding himself looking down the barrel of a gun saved the eccentric genius from what could have been an extremely unfortunate end.
What is more, even the man himself admits that his obsessive preparation is in the most part a useless thought exercise. In the same moment that Bielsa was revealing Derby’s set-piece tricks in exhaustive details, he turned the focus on himself with a typical moment of brutal self-effacing honesty. “Is this useful? No, because half of the goals we concede are from set pieces.” His anecdote with former Barcelona chief Pep Guardiola, who pra ised h im as knowing “more about his side than he did” following a clash with Bielsa’s Athletic team, ended on a similar note of bathos: “But it was useless because they scored three goals against us. I do this to feel well, I see that this information does not allow you to win games.”
The veteran coach’s penchant for snooping, then, can be read almost as the most contentious of his manic ‘tics’, a practice that most probably does not have a place alongside modern technology and the reams of data it provides. To dismiss Bielsa as a ‘cheat’, though, a word that has been bandied about with abandon in certain sectors of English football and in the ever-hypocritical mainstream press laced with overtones of xenophobia and stubborn stereotypes of sneaky Argentines, is to miss the point. He is one of the game’s gentlemen, who has made no attempt to hide his methods and appears genuinely bemused that an incident which in his native country would be greeted with chuckles and knowing nods has been blown up into a question of ethics and honesty.
Above all, even Bielsa’s new detractors should be grateful that this episode has allowed them a window into the mind of this most fascinating of characters. Leeds are on the same journey, with the coach already inspiring near-fanatical loyalty from his players and something approximating hero worship from his new supporters. Even so, one comment from his incredible conference must be contested. He may be obsessive, anxious, even borderline manic in his methods, but El Loco is anything but stupid; on the contrary, he is a wonderful asset that football would be much poorer without.