No matter how long the nationwide lockdown imposed during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak ultimately lasts, one thing is for certain: we will not be seeing Marcelo Bielsa juggling toilet rolls, washing his hands to music or engaging in other social media challenges. The Leeds United manager jealously guards his privacy, refusing even to hold interviews with media outlets outside of mandatory press conferences; Instagram and Twitter are most definitely alien territories for ‘El Loco.’
That is not to say, though, that he has not made his presence felt in these long weeks of football abstinence. Indeed, Bielsa, followed quickly by the rest of the first team, was one of the first in the English game to take a voluntary pay cut in order to keep Leeds’ finances above water. It is far from an empty gesture: the club reported losses of £36 million in the 2018-2019 season, a swathe of red ink on the balance sheet common to many clubs in the second-tier Championship and likely to become far more prevalent in the coming months due to the loss of incomes occasioned by the outbreak. True to his reputation for both generosity and mind-boggling attention to detail, meanwhile, the Rosario native also oversaw the delivery of stationary bicycles and other exercise equipment to every member of his squad to ensure that this prolonged recess will not take too hard a toll on their fitness.
“We’ve had bikes dropped off, we can go and do runs, as long as we do it on our own,” Leeds captain Liam Cooper revealed to the Yorkshire Evening Post at the end of March.“We’ve got to stay in shape. We’re not going to be in the same sort of shape if we were training every day but that’s the way it’s got to be. We’ve got to listen to the professionals and experts and deal with it together.”
It may be unorthodox, but El Loco’s spell has enchanted the West Yorkshire sleeping giants. After narrowly missing out on promotion in his first season Leeds went into the recess at the top of the Championship, seven points clear of the playoff spots with nine games left to play. As with previous spells at Newell’s Old Boys (where the stadium now bears his name), Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, he has galvanised the entire club, with more than 30,000 streaming through the turnstiles at Elland Road for every game to watch his dynamic, rapid charges in action. And yet, there are still some who will maintain against all evidence that Bielsa is somehow a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman that jumps from club to club peddling his dubious philosophy and all the while failing where it most counts: in silverware.
It is true that, for all his expertise Bielsa’s return in terms of pure trophies is slim: three Primera División titles in the 1990s with Newell’s and Vélez Sarsfield and gold in the 2004 Olympic Games at the Argentina helm. It is equally valid to point out that in the biggest test of all the coach fell short, leading the Albiceleste to an ignominious first-round World Cup exit in 2002 with a squad that promised more. That failure more than any other has coloured the opinion of his most determined detractors when at the time it was quickly consigned to the past, El Loco staying in the hot seat for two further years before stepping down.
What the naysayers refuse to accept is that Bielsa’s value can be measured in far more than titles – and besides, how many trophies can the likes of Athletic, Marseille and Leeds boast in the last two decades, with or without the Argentine? His real legacy can be seen in the dominance of stars like Mexican legends Rafa Márquez, Oswaldo Sánchez and Jared Borgetti, all of whom received their big break during his short spell at Atlas and went on to become fixtures in the national team.
It is in the words of Pep Guardiola, Gerardo Martino, Mauricio Pochettino and countless top-level coaches who worked with El Loco or sought him out to learn what it meant to sit on the bench at the start of their careers. It is the spike in cooler sales in Marseille due to the simple fact that Bielsa prefers them as a seat from which to watch his charges play, or the young Leeds fanatic who dresses up as the coach for Halloween, glasses and all. And it is gestures such as those he has shown since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, making sacrifices without a second’s thought to help his employers and players.
On such terms should El Loco’s impact be judged; at Elland Road at least, as with so many clubs he has passed through, fans are in no doubt of his eccentric genius.