It’s happening. Mateusz Klich plays a delicious back-heel to Pablo Hernández. It’s definitely happening. Hernández plays a first-time pass into the space that will shortly be occupied by Jack Harrison. This is not a drill. Harrison takes a look, doesn’t like what he sees, takes a touch, takes another look, crosses. The cross is deep, sailing over a sea of bobbing heads to the far post where Luke Ayling, having sprinted 60 yards from right-back, calmly smashes a volley into the roof of the net. You know, as you do. It’s happening. At this exact moment, the only able-bodied person at Elland Road not on their feet is Marcelo Bielsa. While his substitutes and coaching staff storm the pitch, while grown men scream “WHAT A GOAL! WHAT A GOAL!”, Bielsa remains perched on his bucket, takes a slow, measured sip of his coffee, as blank and expressionless as if this were a film he’s seen before.
In a way, he has. A few hours after Leeds had beaten Huddersfield 2-0 on Saturday, the club’s social media people put out a video of a recent training session at Thorp Arch, in which Ayling scores a near-perfect replica of that volleyed goal. Perhaps this is the curse of the obsessive: once you’ve seen all the tapes, logged every data point, mapped out every possible occurrence, reality itself must seem like a replay of something that everyone else is watching for the first time.
Perhaps this is what it will feel like the first time Bielsa takes his place in the dugout as a Premier League manager. Yes, Bielsa in the Premier League: as outlandish at those words look on the page, it’s a probability hardening into reality with every passing week. Gather your loved ones.
Avoid all non-essential travel. Stock up on toilet roll, hand sanitiser and non-perishable food items. One way or another, it’s going to be emotional.
Assuming Leeds do make it – and with a seven-point cushion at the time of writing, it’s a pretty safe bet – then it’s hard to imagine many other teams who will join the top flight on such a groundswell of goodwill. It’s hard to imagine another manager held in such unanimously high regard by his rivals, who seem genuinely honoured to have shared a technical area with him. “If you’re going to get out-managed, get out-managed by a genius,” gushed Huddersfield’s manager Danny Cowley after their defeat at the weekend. “I’ll be really interested, when Leeds go up, to see how the Premier League copes with it.”
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to turn out. Certainly not when Bielsa turned up at Leeds in 2018: the team who had got through 12 managers in five years, hiring a coach who had never spent a third season at the same club. Cowley had things the right way round: it’s not so much a case of how Bielsa handles the Premier League as how the Premier League handles Bielsa.
What, exactly, is going to happen when a principled, leftist, no-nonsense ideologue collides with the least principled, most materialistic league on earth? What happens, in short, when you fling this most of human of managers into the nonsense machine? Naturally, there’s an element of false opposition to the question. After all, the Premier League is a multiplex, and there are few more box-office managers in the world than Bielsa: a method actor in football’s theatre of the absurd. Whether it’s the frequent sightings of him in the Wetherby branch of Costa, hour-long press conferences where he pours out his tortured soul in front of a sponsored backdrop, or his latest wacky addition to the training ground – A bobsleigh track! A hydroponic farm! Actual ghosts! – you sense Bielsa will go down very well indeed in a league ever-hungry for new narratives and new characters, new themes and new memes.
Above all, he possesses that rarest of gifts in this saturated, permanently-logged-in game: genuine mystique. Pep Guardiola still had a little of it before he moved to England. Back in the 1990s, Arsène Wenger and Ruud Gullit certainly did. But in today’s climate of oversharing and overexposure, it’s harder to come by. Bielsa has preserved his by speaking not in Twitter-friendly soundbites or massaged platitudes, but the opposite: the sort of humble, brutal honesty that English football, with its encrusted layers of banter, bluster and bullshit, struggles to process.
Equally, part of you almost fears what the Premier League might do to Bielsa, fears how it might end, fears how easily this essentially complex man might be reduced to a quick punchline. We already got a whiff of this during last season’s spying “scandal”, but the Premier League will doubtless elevate it to a new level. The moronic press conference questions. Fans abusing him at train stations. Ex-pros on Talksport debating whether he needs to win a trophy to be taken seriously and grumbling about him not speaking English. Then, of course, there’s the football: thrilling and iconoclastic at its best, but vulnerable to a few billionaire-funded thrashings at its worst.
In any case, perhaps it might never happen. Perhaps Leeds will collapse and fall short again. Perhaps Bielsa will fall out with the board over transfers and quit four days before the start of the season. Perhaps he’ll simply get bored of trying to scrape a 13th-place finish in a wildly unfair league and hanker for a fresh start. Or perhaps, having finally taken Leeds back to the promised land, he’ll take on the Premier League like a man running into fire. But gosh, you want to find out either way.