The amazing Bielsa shows up Mourinho fans for the hypocrites they are
Leeds United has been one of the big stories of the Premier League this season; that much is without a doubt. Back in the big time for the first time in 16 years, the Yorkshire club owes its return to relevance to its Argentine manager, Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa took over a group of players floundering in mid-table in the Championship and turned them, over the span of two seasons, into a team good enough to win the division by 10 points. Now, just past the midway point of their first season back in the Premier League, Leeds have accrued 35 points already. With 13 games to play, they are pretty much safe.
In spite of this, Bielsa continues to attract scorn from a section of football observers and fans, who deride his achievements.
In truth, one does not have to reach too far to find reasons to criticise Bielsa. He is considered idiosyncratic, difficult to work with and eccentric. He has been in coaching for over 30 years, but has not amassed an appreciable haul of trophies. These two factors, more than any other, lead some to consider him an acquired taste at best and a fraud at worst.
However, there is a rather large subset of observers that seems almost virulently opposed to the Argentine manager getting any kind of credit whatsoever. Were you to poll, there would be a very strong overlap between Bielsa-trashers and fans of Jose Mourinho.
Why Mourinho fans dislike Bielsa
On the surface of it, there is no real justification for this sentiment. The self-styled “Special One” is one of the most wildly successful managers in history, and for the most part, both men have not even managed in the same circles: at no time has Bielsa had the privilege of managing one of the top two clubs in any country he has worked in. This season, Mourinho has busied himself with steering Tottenham, a side established in the top six of English football at the time of his appointment. Very different circumstances from floundering Leeds.
So, why is there any sneering toward Bielsa from Mourinho supporters? Well, broadly there are two primary reasons: Bielsa shows up a lot of claims that Mourinho has made, both directly and indirectly; and Bielsa has the one thing that Mourinho has spent his entire career in management chasing after.
The stylistic differences between Bielsa and Mourinho
A lot of the ideas that Mourinho (and those who support him) have strongly espoused as essential to success over the years – the need for sizeable investment in order to achieve success; self-glorification in victory contrasting with blaming the squad in defeat; the futility of any kind of attacking style without a certain calibre of player – are exposed as false by the work Bielsa has done at Leeds.
Upon accepting to take the job at the Yorkshire club, the Argentine manager was asked what signings he needed. He insisted the squad that had only managed mid-table finishes before his arrival could be coached to the top, and requested to simply be allowed to work with the players available.
From Day 1 at the club’s Thorp Arch training ground, he instituted a breathless attacking style that has carried over to the Premier League and has kept them up despite having a mostly mid-table Championship side at his disposal. While every member of the Leeds squad insists they owe their success to Bielsa, the man himself refuses any credit, rebuffs one-on-one interviews, and stringently avoids the limelight.
Bielsa and his Leeds United side are a running rebuttal of every crutch and every excuse that has been devised for Mourinho.
Bielsa as a stark contrast to Mourinho
The second reason cuts even deeper.
Again, it is undeniable that Mourinho is one of the finest managers to have ever worked in football. There are few active managers who can even hold a candle to his trophy record. However, if there is one thing that the Portuguese has always wanted above all else, it is this: respect.
It is the desire for respect that has fuelled some of his more infamous rants, and that manifests itself in the less savoury aspects of his character. The insecurity of not having been a star footballer in his own right fed into an outsider mentality that carried over into coaching, and while that has informed everything right down to his preferred style of football, it has also caused him to blaze an incendiary path:
“I may not be able to make you accept me, but you will respect me.”
The trouble with this ideology is that respect is not demanded, it is given.
Bielsa may not have a tenth of the number of trophies, but he is effortlessly respected and venerated by much of the football cognoscenti. And so it is a bit of a blow to the ego to fans of Jose Mourinho that the very thing he has won so much in pursuit of is given effortlessly to another who has not won anywhere near as much.
This explains why even the most reasoned, rational explanations of what Bielsa has done and is trying to do are dismissed out of hand. The disagreement with the Argentine is an emotional one, not logical.