“No coach this millennium has been so influential as Bielsa but, since taking gold with Argentina at the 2004 Olympics, he has won nothing” – Jonathan Wilson. 

As of last month, that statement is now only half true. Leeds United’s brazen experiment with the godfather of modern football has finally paid off and they’re returning to the Premier League after a sixteen year absence as Championship champions. But what can we expect from Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds in the Premier League? Can they emulate the recent successes of Wolves and Sheffield United by similarly imposing their tactical style on the top flight? Or will they succumb to the issues of physical and mental fatigue that have dogged Bielsa throughout his managerial career?

To best understand how Leeds will approach the Premier League, however, you must first understand Bielsa. Born in Rosario in 1955, the same city that Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi call home, he realised from an early age that he wanted to play football. Coming from a long line of lawyers, this was in stark contrast to the goals of much of his family. But Bielsa’s academic background held him in good stead when he made his move into football, especially when he realised his future lay in coaching rather than playing. 

Bielsa is primarily defined by his love for fastidious analysis and preparation. Upon taking his first coaching role as manager of the University of Buenos Aires’s football team aged 25, he apparently reviewed 3,000 players in order to select his 20 man squad. While coaching Newell’s Old Boys youth side, he divided Argentina into 70 equal sections and drove 5,000 miles to watch trials in all of them because he hates flying. And during his first pre-season with Leeds, he asked for full videos and analysis of their opponents, Forest Green Rovers, when they played against a series of non-league sides in the south west. His passion for research has even gotten him into trouble, after last season’s ‘Spygate’ saga in which he openly admitted to controversially spying on Derby County’s training sessions before the 2018/19 playoffs. Leeds were subsequently fined £200,000, which he paid himself

But ‘El Loco’s’ obsession with analysis is inherently linked to how he sets his sides up. A Bielsa team is all about playing high tempo possession based football in attack and aggressively pressing the opposition high up the pitch in defence. As such, in order for his side to press effectively, they have to anticipate exactly how the opposition will approach the game. It’s for this reason that he runs his players through hundreds of possible opposition scenarios in his player briefings and trains his reserve side to play like that week’s opponents so that the first team know what to expect. 

His wider training sessions carry the hallmark of his fixation on detail. In order for his teams to press as aggressively as he wants them to, they have to be as fit as possible, which is why the now infamous games of ‘murderball’ have become the keystone of his training sessions. In essence an ordinary game of 11v11 football, the only difference with ‘murderball’ is that you can’t stop running. Coaching staff bark orders from the sidelines to keep the players going and when a ball goes into touch, someone is on hand to put another straight back into play. While games of ‘murderball’ can last anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes, other sessions for more specific scenarios, such as set pieces, can go on for hours. Bielsa will only bring it to an end until everyone involved has done it perfectly. 

His almost ridiculous obsession with detail and preparation extends to how he chooses which team he works with. While his CV may read like that of an erratic journeyman manager – Newell’s Old Boys, Atlas, América, Vélez Sarsfield, Espanyol, Argentina, Chile, Athletíc Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio, Lille and Leeds – there is in fact method to his madness. The truth is that clubs don’t choose him, he chooses them. As a source close to him told The Athletic: “As far as I know he has never sought a particular position. Rather, he actively devotes time to rejecting jobs.” 

But while Bielsa may seem cold and analytical, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He bases a huge part of his decision over which side to work with based on whether he can relate to the city, not just the squad. And in Leeds United, that is what he found. Leeds is an historically working class city, with a working class ethos and a near hysteric devotion to football. According to those who know him, that is something he emphatically chimed with. It is also part of the reason why he turned down West Ham, seeing in London a far more disparate society in which a community is far harder to pin down. 

As a result of his intense work rate, relentless training sessions and connection with the city, Bielsa has cultivated a supreme brand of football at Leeds United over the last two seasons. Key to his approach has been his unwavering commitment to attack. “My football, in defence, is very simple: “We run all the time,” he once said. “I know that it’s easier to defend than to create. To run, for example, is a decision of the will; to create you need an indispensable amount of talent.” 

Defending for Bielsa is about proactivity. In order for a side to turn defence into attack as swiftly as possible, every one of his players has to engage the opposition as high up the pitch as possible, harrying those in possession into making a mistake. This is in direct opposition to how someone like Jose Mourinho sets his sides up, with Spurs regularly sitting in an deep organised block designed to engage the opposition in their own half. 

In order for Bielsa’s system to work effectively, positional interchangeability is essential. All his players must be comfortable in a variety of positions so that they can truly work as a team to both recover the ball and play effectively in possession. While managing Lille in 2017 he frequently used midfielders like Gary Medel and Ibrahim Amadou in central defence to ensure the team had the technical ability to play the ball out from the back. He then converted the promising Algerian striker, Yassine Benzia, into an enganche, literally translated as a hook, to play in midfield and feed the ball into the wide players, in this instance Anwar El Ghazi and Luiz Araújo. Every one of his players in this positionally fluid set up was then expected to press the opposition when they were out of possession, blurring the lines between defence and attack and individual positional responsibilities in a way akin to Total Football. 

Bielsa’s tactical approach has remained largely intact at Leeds, the only difference being that his side has typically lined up in 4-2-3-1 formation, instead of his usual 3-3-1-3 shape. This is mainly to do with Bielsa’s desire to have one more central defender than the opposition has strikers and, with most Championship sides preferring a one striker set up, a four man defence was the most effective for Bielsa’s tactical system. Nonetheless, their domination of the ball is no different to any other Bielsa side. No team has had more possession in the Championship than Leeds this season – 60% on average – with the Whites also topping the league for possession in the opposition’s third. Moving the ball in that final third isn’t ponderous either, but fast and direct. With expert passers in the side like Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez, their forwards can receive the ball while on the move rather than stood still with their backs to goal.

In attack, Leeds’s game is defined by positional overloads in the wide areas. Wingers like Hernandez, Helder Costa and Jack Harrison, stay as wide as possible, drawing the opposition defenders out of position. Stuart Dallas and Liam Cooper then bomb forward from full back to make the most of the newly available space, knowing that they have the security to do so with  Kalvin Phillips just behind in central midfield. These overloads in wide areas also mean that Leeds were the most prolific crossers in the Championship this season, playing the ball into the box from wide an average of 26 times a game. 

Attacking in this way requires a large proportion of players to play in the opposition half, leaving Leeds almost comically exposed at the back. This is why pressing as a team is so important to how they play. Without the immediate pressure on the opposition the second they lose the ball, they run the risk of a long ball over the top that sees them torn apart on the break, as happened with Nottingham Forest’s second goal as they lost to the Reds in February. The effect of the Leeds press was best described by Rotherham United manager, Paul Warne, who remembered what it was like to compete against Bielsa’s men during the 2018/19 season. After studying a series of video clips, they saw a chink in Leeds’ armour with crosses to the near post from the right wing. “But here’s the problem,” says Warne. “First of all, you have to get yourself into a good position down the right. Then you need your striker to make a good run off the ball. Then the delivery needs to be spot-on and the final touch needs to be perfect. So even though you have this idea, in practice Leeds make it so hard to pull it off.”

It’s undeniable to say that Leeds have played some beautiful football this season and deservedly finished the season as champions. But the transition into the Premier League is going to be huge for the Whites who will look to impose their style of play on the division in much the same way Wolves and Sheffield United have done. 

There are a lot of similarities between the three sides to give Leeds fans some hope. They all used a small group of players to win promotion, with Leeds only using nineteen players in this year’s successful campaign. Bielsa will also remain loyal to the players that got him to the Premier League, just as Nuno Espirito Santo and Chris Wilder have done, so there won’t be a repeat of Fulham’s catastrophic 2018/19 season where they effectively replaced their entire promotion squad.

But Bielsa’s loyalty is also largely down to the physical demands he places on his players. So great is their physical fitness expected to be that it is incredibly difficult for a new player to simply slot into the side. Jean-Kévin Augustin is the perfect case in point. Bought in January to offer attacking support to Patrick Bamford, the young French forward had to make huge adjustments to adapt to Bielsa’s training regime. As a result, he made only three substitute appearances before pulling a hamstring injury in training in February, something that he struggled with again after the COVID-19 lockdown had ended. Therefore, Bielsa undoubtedly needs reinforcements, but who they are and how quickly they can adapt to the physical rigours of Bielsaball will be of paramount importance.

As such, Bielsa is faced with the conundrum of physical and mental burn-out that has dogged his entire managerial career. After winning the Argentinian League with Newell’s Old Boys in 1991 and reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores, the 1992-93 season was a complete blow out as his players suffered heavily from fatigue. He later managed the Argentinian national side who dominated qualification for the 2002 World Cup, but when it came to the tournament itself, they were dumped out in the group stages. The Athletic Bilbao side he coached from 2011 played some of the most refreshingly attractive football in all of Europe and in 2012 they stormed their way to the finals of both the Europa League and Copa del Rey. But, as his side struggled to find the energy to even compete, they lost both finals 3-0. It was a similar story with Marseille who were top of Ligue 1 by Christmas 2014, but had faded to fourth come the end of the season. And last season’s burn-out with Leeds that saw them slump out of the automatic promotion spots and then beaten in the playoffs by Derby seemed to cap it all off. 

Falling short has always been a feature of Bielsa’s football. The way his teams play is gorgeous, but in the final stretch they almost always run out of steam. While he may have won the Championship this season, burn-out is still an enormous issue he will have to contend with in the Premier League. Wolves and Sheffield United may have also utilised small squad sizes and stuck with the core group of players that got them to out of the Championship, but their brands of football, while unique, are far less high energy. The risk of physical and mental exhaustion is less likely with two sides who are happy to mix up their game by digging in when needed against the top six, as well as attacking in the attractive way we all know they can. Leeds, on the other hand, will look to impose their style of play on every Premier League team they face. Their FA Cup third-round tie against Arsenal earlier in the season will be the archetype to their future approach. The question is, can they sustain it? They will want to emulate Wolves and Sheffield United by staying true to their system, but in order to do that they either need to buy extremely well in the transfer market, or enact some necessary stylistic changes. But asking Bielsa to give up his defining principles is not a task for the faint hearted.