Marcelo Bielsa: The man who made Leeds United believe

A frustrating defeat at QPR in late February was already a concern for Leeds United supporters. Then, within an hour of full-time, the photograph emerged on Twitter.

Marcelo Bielsa was the subject, crouched with his back resting against the wall of a Loftus Road corridor. Completely alone, his head was bowed, eyes staring into his lap. 

The picture - taken by Bruce Rollinson of the Yorkshire Post -  was widely shared by Leeds fans in the days that followed. Though some saw it as nothing more than a manager struggling to hide his disappointment at a potentially damaging loss, to others it represented something more: a feeling that, yet again, the dream of a top flight return might just be unravelling.

Since Leeds slid out of the Premier League in 2004, the club's supporters have grown used to setbacks. A play-off final defeat to Watford in 2006 remains as close as they have come to rejoining the Premier League. The following season ended in relegation to League One.

After returning to the Championship in 2010, Leeds have repeatedly failed to mount a serious promotion push; early season optimism quickly fading by Christmas. In recent years the club’s ownership has generated more headlines than on-field performances, with supporters powerless to intervene.

“We’re a proud club,” says Rob Mulholland, a stand-up comedian and lifelong Leeds fan. “To have so many awful owners and people taking the piss out of the supporters has been embarrassing. 

“There aren’t many clubs - Blackpool and Coventry aside - that have had it as bad as us. It goes on for so long that you just expect things to turn to shit, even when it all seems quite good.”

“You learn to fear the worst,” adds Thomas Bradley, creator of fan site I’d Radebe Leeds. “Even now, with a few games left, there’s that slight worry that we might not get over the line again, despite how brilliant the football’s been this season.”

Such cynicism is understandable for a fanbase that have lived through plenty of false dawns, but speaking to Leeds supporters as the Championship reaches the business end of the season, there is also a quiet confidence that this time things will be different.

That is mainly down to one man.

One of three clubs in contention to finish in the two automatic promotion places, Leeds have been reborn since Bielsa took charge at Elland Road. The Argentine swiftly imposed his brand of high-intensity football - all high-pressing and fast-paced transitions - transforming a squad that had finished an unspectacular 13th in the previous campaign.

“Instantly, players that were looking like nobodies last season suddenly looked like superstars,” says Bradley, recalling the August afternoon Leeds blitzed Stoke City 3-1 to record an opening day victory.

“We couldn’t believe how he’d got this squad of players - with only a few summer additions - to play such attractive football with such high levels of fitness in such a short space of time.

"His impact was phenomenal.”

Bielsa’s arrival in Yorkshire came out of the blue. His last job had been in France with Lille, where he lasted just a few short months. In many ways, that has been the story of the Argentine's managerial career, but it didn't deter Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani.

Eyeing a big name with the experience to mount a genuine title challenge, the Italian made his move and Bielsa inked a two-year deal in June.

“I remember his Bilbao side playing Man United off the park in Europe a few years ago, but other than that I didn’t know that much about him,” recalls Ryan Wilson of the LS11 podcast. “When I heard he might be coming in, I read up on him and the teams he’d managed in the past and - typical Leeds fan mentality - began to question why, if he was so good, he’d be coming to us!”

“It wasn’t just the teams he’d managed that was exciting, it was how much the fans of his old clubs loved him and how respected he is by people like Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino,” says Liam Tunney, a regular contributor to The Scratching Shed. “The whole atmosphere around the club has been totally different this season. Him coming here is the main reason for that.”

Leeds’ early season form was impressive. Following the comfortable opener at home to Stoke, they blew Derby County away 4-1 at Pride Park in their next outing. A 3-0 win over Norwich at Carrow Road capped off a fine August.

As the weeks passed, it wasn’t always perfect - defeats to Birmingham and Blackburn kept even the most optimistic elements of the Leeds support grounded. They were humbled 4-1 away at West Brom in November too, but responded by posting a seven-game winning streak.

The last of those victories - a last-gasp 3-2 win over Blackburn at Elland Road on Boxing Day - left them top of the Championship; three points clear of Norwich in second, six off West Brom in third.

“Nobody was getting too carried away, even then,” says Tunney. “We’d kind of expected the wheels to fall off at some point. It’s what happens with Leeds.”

Sure enough, their form dipped. Starting with back-to-back defeats to Hull and Nottingham Forest either side of New Year, Leeds began to creak, picking up just 10 league points from a possible 30.

It was during this run that Bielsa's side beat Derby 2-0 at home. Undoubtedly an important victory, the manager's decision to openly admit that he had sent a member of staff to spy on the Rams in training - a move that incensed counterpart Frank Lampard - threatened to overshadow the revival.

“That was the moment we all thought it was going to collapse,” Mulholland says. “The press conference he called after the game - the one where he essentially ruined Derby’s season by telling everyone else how to play against them -we all thought that had been arranged because he was going to quit.”

Those fears turned out to be premature, but arriving at a frosty Loftus Road in February - also the scene of Leeds’ FA Cup exit the previous month - Bielsa's side had reached another turning point.

While Leeds looked the better team against QPR, spurning several good chances before losing by a single goal, the result raised concerns about their staying power in the battle for promotion.

If questions hadn’t already been asked about whether their high-intensity style of play was starting to take its toll, they were after this latest setback.

As with Leeds, there are plenty of examples of Bielsa starting a campaign convincingly only for things to eventually fizzle out.

His Marseille side were guilty of this four years ago, topping Ligue 1 at the halfway point before fading away to finish fourth, 14 points off champions Paris Saint-Germain and outside the Champions League qualification berths.

Some might suggest his first season at Athletic Biblao followed a similar pattern. There, his young Basque charges thrilled for much of the season - beating Manchester United in both legs of their Europa League tie - before stuttering to a tenth place finish in LaLiga and defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final.

Athletic failed to replicate their best form during the next campaign and Bielsa left at the end of it.

These experiences in Europe have led to accusations that Bielsa’s teams burn out due to the physical demands he places on his players.

Though the manager fiercely refuted this line of questioning after the loss to QPR, Leeds' patchy form and lengthy injury list might well have caused some supporters to grow restless - regardless of what the running statistics said.

“When you look at his record before he came to us and then see these questions about us burning out, it is in the back of your mind a bit, even if we don't agree with it,” Bradley admits.

“I’m just hoping we can use it to our advantage: that other teams will fall into the trap of thinking we might burn out when we're not.”

“We keep hearing about this ‘burnout’ thing, but there was nothing to suggest that was the case at QPR,” Wilson adds.

“It wasn’t a game where we looked tired or leggy, we just didn’t have a good night and missed chances.”

What happened next went a long way to silencing suggestions that Bielsa’s side are lacking in energy.

Seventy-two hours on from their frustrating night in west London, Leeds roared back with a comprehensive victory over West Brom under the lights at Elland Road.

Pablo Hernandez’s opener after just 16 seconds set the tone as Leeds turned in a breathless, high-tempo display. Two goals from Patrick Bamford - one in each half - and another from Ezgjan Alioski in stoppage time completed a dominant 4-0 win against a promotion rival.

From there, they won by a single Bamford goal against play-off hopefuls Bristol City, before a dominant 3-0 victory at Reading.

Having risen from their slump, Leeds now welcome fellow automatic promotion chasers Sheffield United to Elland Road knowing that another three points will see them take a significant step towards the Premier League.

“Whatever happens, the fact we’ve got a chance of going up at this time of the season is saying something,” says Tunney.

“We’ve been out of contention by March so many times, but not this year. The stadium is sold out for every home game and there’s an actual belief we can do it, even if we’re all scared it could go horribly wrong.”

As a city, Leeds has changed a lot since it last played host to Premier League football 15 years ago. The sheer amount of investment and regeneration in the centre shows that it is very much on the way up.

“It’s a brilliant, vibrant city,” Wilson adds. “It just needs to have a Premier League team again now. If it gets one, the buzz around the place will multiply a few hundred times. The place will explode with joy.”

Should Leeds clinch promotion in the weeks ahead, their supporters are in little doubt about who deserves most of the praise.

“Marcelo’s got a very unique character and I think it really suits Leeds United as a club," says Bradley. “We’ve missed that eccentricity in the past and needed someone who is as meticulous as Marcelo to come in and give it a good push.”

“I’m completely obsessed with him to the point where I’ve told my girlfriend our first born is being called Marcelo, regardless of gender,” jokes Mulholland.

“People already talk about him in the same breath as [Howard] Wilkinson and [Don] Revie - gods at Elland Road. He’s the reason we believe again, the reason we finally have some hope to grasp hold of again. I can’t overstate what he means to us.”