Marcelo Bielsa tends to keep his head bowed during virtual media briefings and, staring determinedly down, invariably seems to be addressing the table top in front of him.
On Thursday lunchtime things changed. The Leeds manager was asked whether he feared the sack and suddenly Bielsa sat up straight, stared directly into the camera and started talking with unusual animation.
Attenders did not need to be able to understand Spanish to detect the passion in the 66-year-old Argentinian’s voice and no one will have been surprised at the translation delivered by Bielsa’s interpreter, Andres Clavijo.
“Do you think I’m so vain I don’t think I can be sacked?” said a manager clearly not merely hurt but mortified by Tuesday night’s 7-0 thrashing at Manchester City. “But I’m going to continue fighting until the end of the season, without any doubt. I hope nothing happens that doesn’t allow me to do that. I always think a manager in adversity has to fight.”
Bielsa possesses a humility rare among peers but he is also, justifiably, a proud man and there was a discernible, if slight, bristling in his body language when a journalist asked for his thoughts on the theory that he has taken Leeds as far as he can.
The former Argentina, Chile and, among other clubs, Athletic Bilbao, manager inquired whether the reporter subscribed to that view before querying the assumption underpinning it. “To say I’ve taken them as far as I can is to say it’s a closed cycle,” he pointed out. “Do you think the cycle is closed?”
It is a key question which will doubtless weigh on the minds of Leeds fans gathering at Elland Road for Saturday evening’s match against Arsenal. After only two wins in the past 10 Premier League games and having conceded 10 goals in their past two fixtures, Bielsa’s team are desperate for victory but even the manager’s harshest critics are unlikely to regard the performance as a litmus test of his enduring suitability for the job.
That has rather less to do with Arsenal’s abilities than the number of Leeds players trapped in the treatment room. While Covid outbreaks have seen several Premier League fixtures postponed, Bielsa’s squad – thanks to his powers of persuasion one of the division’s most heavily vaccinated – were virus-free on Thursday afternoon but are increasingly plagued by injuries.
If the absence of England’s midfield anchor Kalvin Phillips and last season’s leading scorer Patrick Bamford will again be particularly keenly felt, Leeds must also face Arsenal without Liam Cooper, Pascal Struijk, Daniel James, Rodrigo and Jamie Shackleton as well as the suspended Junior Firpo.
Sheer bad luck is partly responsible but this shortfall highlights the arguable folly of Bielsa’s insistence on working with an unusually small nucleus of experienced senior professionals. He has long believed strength in depth is not merely uneconomical but detrimental to harmony and only reluctantly concedes Leeds are understaffed in vital departments.
“I don’t want to use as an excuse the amount of players I have,” he said. “But I never said I don’t want any [new] players in January.”
If that can be interpreted as a tacit plea for assistance from his board, it comes hedged with caveats. As Bielsa pointed out, any incomer must be better than players already on the books, available and affordable.
Whereas some counterparts are cavalier about spending, he treats the Leeds bank account as if it were his own. “The club has invested £130m in the construction of this squad,” said Bielsa. “And I don’t know if they can or cannot invest more but I’m not going to demand anything. It wouldn’t be fair.”
His integrity is refreshing, yet given the real risk of a ruinously costly relegation there is a clear argument for Leeds speculating to accumulate. Bielsa, though, has always preferred to find solutions by improving players on the training ground.
Perhaps part of the problem is that he has been in West Yorkshire for three and a half years and the sheer intensity of his coaching is leaving certain players initially transformed by his methods a little mentally fatigued. Tellingly, the previously immensely influential Stuart Dallas appears to have taken a step or two back this season.
“You have to show fortitude at this time,” Bielsa said. “The 7-0 is the worst of all moments I’ve had at Leeds. It’s not just another defeat; no one has the tolerance to listen to the explanation of a conductor who has a 7-0 loss. But it is part of my job to face the most difficult moments and to come out of them correcting things, taking things on board and not delegating the reasons why to others.”
It is far from impossible that a coach who agrees only one-year contracts will avoid overstaying his welcome by departing Leeds this summer, but no one doubts that between now and May Bielsa will do his utmost to prove his largely glorious cycle at Elland Road is not yet quite closed.