Leeds United used to be one of the most famous soccer clubs in England. The Peacocks were the last winners of the English First Division, before it was renamed the Premier League, back in 1992, and their heated rivalries with Manchester United and Chelsea were the stuff of top-flight legend.
However, more than a decade of financial mismanagement and turmoil at the top echelons of the club have left Leeds in second-division purgatory, not good enough to crack the Premier League but not bad enough to drop any further into the abyss. What the club needed, more than anything, was a reboot, particularly on the field, to get fans excited about Leeds once again.
Enter Marcelo Bielsa. The club’s new mastermind is one of soccer’s most innovative coaches, as well as one of its biggest personalities. Take the recent bizarre story from the build-up to Leeds’s showdown against Frank Lampard’s Derby County: Derby found a “spy” of sorts checking out the team’s training, and filed a complaint with the English FA. Bielsa’s response? He admitted that it was true, said he told the spy to go watch Derby, and furthermore, he’s not particularly sorry about it.
In a country so devoted to propriety and respecting the unwritten rules of soccer, Bielsa sticks out, but you won’t hear any Leeds fans complaining after the work he’s done in turning the team around. Bielsa has taken a side that finished 13th last season and shot them up to the top of the table, where they currently sit four points above Sheffield United and Norwich City. He’s done this by implementing the playing style that earned him the nickname “El Loco” in South America; “The Crazy One” has his teams rely on possession and expansive attacking soccer at the expense of everything else.
Though 27 games played, Leeds has not only adapted the style, but it’s thrived within it. The team is currently averaging 59.5 percent possession per match, stifling Championship opponents in the style of Guardiola-era Barcelona while also scoring the third-most goals in the division (46). Surprisingly, Leeds is also defending like a top club: the focus on possession has made it difficult to get scored on, and the club is currently tied with Sheffield United for the second-least goals conceded (28), trailing only recent Premier League-relegated side Middlesbrough’s 19.
Derby County has been Leeds’ favorite victim this season, with the first matchup back in August finishing 4-1 to Bielsa’s side, while Friday’s 2-0 victory at Elland Road proved to be a defensive master class. It’s the type of performance one does not associate with a Bielsa side, but that’s why this Leeds team is both different from what came before and so exciting when looking forward at the rest of the Championship season.
Critics of Bielsa’s style have always pointed to the man’s lack of trophies; the 63-year-old Argentine has never won a club trophy outside of South America, though he did lead his home country to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Despite going trophyless, he is also beloved in Chile, after he guided the national team to its first World Cup in 12 years back in 2010; not only did he push eventual champions Spain to the brink at in the group stage, but a lot of the players Bielsa introduced or emphasized—such as Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal—went on to become Chile’s “golden generation,” winning back-to-back Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016.
Bielsa’s best club accomplishment was likely Athletic Bilbao’s 2011-2012 season; El Loco led the Basque club to the finals of the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey, though they would lose both, to domestic rivals Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. Those same critics could point to the failure to win either final as a flaw of Bielsa’s style, but the focus on trophies comes at the expense of context. Bielsa is usually brought in to revitalize staid sides, as Lazio and Lille tried to do in recent years. These are usually not clubs contending for honors, but rather clubs that need a kick in the ass to right the ship.
Leeds is no different; the club has been a Championship fixture since 2010, and the mid-table finish last year was clearly not up to par for the club’s new owner, Andrea Radrizzani, who bought Leeds outright in March of 2017. Radrizzani has implemented a plan to get the club back into the Premier League and beyond, and Bielsa has so far looked like the right man to get them there.
While the hiring of a famous and well-respected coach—Guardiola once called Bielsa the best manager in the world—has driven off-the-field interest from both inside England and as far as Bielsa’s home continent, it wouldn’t matter if the club weren’t racking up the results. Not only has the club picked up 54 points out of 27 matches, but the players look like brand-new acquisitions under the new coach.
On the field, no one has benefitted from Bielsa’s tenure more than striker Kemar Roofe. The 26-year-old Englishman wasn’t exactly tragic in front of goal before this year—he notched 11 goals last season for Leeds—but he’s been transformed by El Loco’s hyper-attacking mentality.
Take Roofe’s game-winning 95th-minute goal against Aston Villa on Dec. 23. Most teams would be content to get a point on the road, particularly in a game where they were down 2-0 after 17 minutes. Not Bielsa’s Leeds, though. After drawing level in the 61st minute, Leeds kept the pressure on, and it was rewarded with a Bielsa classic of a counter-attack: two long passes get the ball into the box in no time, followed by Roofe capitalizing on a Villa miscue with great positioning and a perfectly-placed shot to clinch the three points that were so in doubt in the first quarter hour.
Against Derby, Roofe was at it again, turning in a second-chance attack after a botched corner kick, running across the front of the goal to meet Jack Clarke’s low cross for the score that would prove the difference against Leeds’ off-and-on rivals from East Midlands.
Clarke was at it again later in the Derby match to seal the deal, hitting another superb cross that eventually found its way into the back of the net via former New York City FC man Jack Harrison:
There’s always a bit of concern trolling when it comes to Bielsa’s style; critics say that it’s too intense, or that it doesn’t work in the more pragmatic landscape of European soccer. Maybe more than any other goal, Harrison’s tap-in perfectly encapsulates what has made Leeds successful so far this season, and why the concern is misplaced. It’s not a vivid daydream of a counter-attack, or an exquisite passing move the likes of which you rarely see in the Championship.
Instead, it is a well-worked cross and a lot of positional awareness from Harrison—more of a winger than a poacher in years past—to be exactly where he needs to be to slot in the goal. That comes not only from Harrison’s own instincts, but also the way that Bielsa drills his team in between games.
Bielsa is famous for training sessions that go above and beyond what soccer players experience at other clubs. One of the effects of that training is that players learn exactly where they should be at all times in Bielsa’s wild systems. There’s an anecdote from earlier this season about how he doesn’t often have players training against their teammates, but rather against mannequins, in order to better position everyone so that the correct runs and moves become second nature.
You can see the same positional awareness in the equalizing goal from Leeds’ January 6 match against Queens Park Rangers; Aapo Halme runs straight at the keeper from Lewis Baker’s free kick, just in case there happens to be a spilled ball. There was, and suddenly, the ball’s in the back of the net. Bielsa’s training emphasizes movement more than anything else, and it’s led to a multitude of easy goals for his side.
The training might be gimmicky, sure, but it’s working. Whether Leeds hang on to the Championship top spot for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but there’s real hope at Elland Road for the first time in over a decade. The next few weeks will help suss out whether Leeds is for real or whether they’ll falter; sandwiching a cupcake game against relegation candidates Rotherham are a pair of tough bouts, against Stoke City (who admittedly has been poor this season but who still have Premier League quality players) and then a likely top-of-the-table showdown against Norwich City on Feb. 2.
If Leeds is able to get full points from this stretch, it should make it clear to the rest of the English soccer pyramid that Bielsa has found the perfect club for his style, and that should scare the crap out of every other team in the Championship and, perhaps, the Premier League. Regardless, it’s probably time to jump on the bandwagon and enjoy the ride; there isn’t a more fun one to be found in England right now.