John Brewin: The Bielsa-effect has been fun – but it may not last long

Leeds are going to Leeds!



The EFL is back and, as ever, the plot lines come thick and fast. It begins on Friday with hometown hero and managerial rookie Jonathan Woodgate taking his Middlesbrough team to Luton, back in the second tier after 12 years of absence, having been to Hades and back in between.

After that, there’s the return of serial promotion winner Neil Warnock to his natural habitat with Cardiff and Fulham’s attempt to bounce back after spending over £100m and getting through three managers to little avail but relegation.

The round of opening Championship fixtures end at Huddersfield on Monday, where Jan Siewert needs to hit the ground running after failing to halt the Terriers’ slide against a team we can no longer call Frank Lampard’s Derby County.

Instead, how might Philip Cocu’s version of Total Football get on in the East Midlands?

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Further down the divisions, there’s Sunderland’s attempt to climb back up from League One after losing the play-off final, and the continuing, distinctly worrying sagas at Bolton and Bury. And down in League Two, the Class of 92 will be strutting their stuff with Salford City, where Sol Campbell is taking on another mission impossible with Macclesfield Town.

All good stories, but the season will begin, just as it did last year, with Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa as the greatest enigma of all.

Last season, just as it has been for Leeds throughout the club’s history, even going back to the days when Don Revie’s team really should have won more despite being the best team around, was a glorious near-miss. Sunday’s visit to Bristol City may well be the beginning of an end that could come swiftly.

With Bielsa, things usually fall apart spectacularly.

That Leeds would combust at some point was all part of the Bielsa blueprint; he admitted as much when his team started hitting the skids last season.

After all, it has been that way with every team he has managed. One win in their six closing matches, and that being the first leg of the playoff battle royale with Frank Lampard’s Derby County, gave the lie to the idea that Bielsa teams eventually run out of puff.

A season of multiple training sessions was always going to take its toll. Not even those sleeping pods at the Thorp Arch facility were going to prevent a thin squad going down with a spate of injuries.

His career so far suggests that this relationship is already on borrowed time; he has not managed a team for more than two years, only doing so with the Chilean national team from 2007 to 2011 and Argentina from 1998 to 2004. Soon enough and even at clubs like Newell’s Old Boys and Athletic Bilbao, to whom he took to new heights, the intensity spun things loose.

The latest suggestion from the training ground is that Bielsa has entered one of his experimental phases, and will be playing the lesser-spotted 3-3-1-3 formation, which you may recall from the Chile team that lit up the 2010 World Cup, and was rather less successful when Argentina’s galaxy of stars crashed out of the 2002 World Cup.

Three central defenders, two wing-backs either side of deep-lying midfielder and a playmaker sat between that group and three attacking players, formed of two wingers either side of a centre forward; it’s a crazy plan but it might just work.

A pre-season that took in a tour of Yorkshire, a training camp in Australia either side of a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in Perth, last weekend a visit to Sardinia and the requisite heavy-duty sessions has already taken its toll.

Luke Ayling and Kemar Roofe, key players, picked up knocks and there is just one fit striker in Patrick Bamford to rely upon.

Meanwhile, it could hardly be said that the club’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani, has signed off on a huge spending spree, with loan deals done for Wolves’ Helder Costa, Brighton’s Ben White, Manchester City’s Jack Harrison and Jack Clarke, sold to Tottenham but back for a season.

The most striking deal of the window so far is the departure of captain Pontus Jansson to Brentford, the former standard-bearer allowed to move on.

Bielsa has never been one to rely on big-money purchases; he prefers to mould players and teams into the shape he desires. And for spells of last season, particularly that pre-Christmas spell of seven successive wins that propelled Leeds to the top of the table, he looked to have revived one of the English game’s sleeping giants, a club stricken by a curse.

The combination of a coach who will not and cannot bend his ways and a team never quite sufficiently equipped to last the pace was always going to crash down at some point.

The loss of 13 matches betrayed a greater collective fragility than Sheffield United and Norwich, who eventually secured automatic promotion.

But, Leeds and their manager made a huge contribution to what was a vintage promotion dogfight, and it was to the disappointment of many a Premier League fan, even those of Manchester United, that they could not take the step up.

In the process, Bielsa delivered a season that will never be forgotten by Leeds fans after so many years of disappointment and austerity. To watch a team of journeymen and youngsters playing the same football as his teams in South America and Spain have done was a pleasure.

The ‘Spygate affair’, which revealed Bielsa’s eccentricity, nobility and taste for the dark arts during one highly amusing saga, took Leeds to the back pages for the first time in years. And then there was his pronunciation of ‘Ipswich’.

That it ended in failure – or at least the denial of dreams – only accentuates the legend and adds a bittersweetness.

Perhaps soon – almost certainly soon –  the novelty of Bielsa may wear off, but it will have been fun while it lasted.

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