As Leeds United travel to the Emirates Stadium to take on Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday night, Marcelo Bielsa will surely be in the centre of the limelight.
Match-ups like the FA Cup tie could become a regular affair for El Loco’s boys as they aim to rub shoulders with England’s elite.
Anyone who has watched Amazon Prime’s documentary ‘Take me Home’, narrated by Gladiator star and lifelong Leeds fan Russell Crowe, will appreciate what football means to the Elland Road faithful.
Last year, they agonisingly missed out on a Premier League place, losing to Derby County in the play-offs.
This season though, Leeds are firmly entrenched in the automatic promotion places, nine points ahead of third-placed Brentford and, barring a burnout, usually the case with Bielsa’s sides in the past, they can dare to dream.
This year, as the majority would agree is a ‘do or die’ situation for Leeds. Promotion would mean they are back where they rightly believe as their own; ambitious Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani will try his best to keep the club in the upper echelons of English football and, most importantly, Bielsa will stay.
As West Brom manager Slaven Bilic said after his side’s 1-1 draw against Leeds on New Years’ Day, the Championship is lucky to have Bielsa, so will the Premier League be graced by his solemn presence.
However, things will look straight south if Leeds are a Championship side next season.
A mass exodus is expected in the summer with the likes Liam Cooper, Kalvin Philips heading for the exit, having no shortage of suitors in the Premier League. The loan spells of Helder Costa, Ben White, Eddie Nketiah and Jack Clarke would also be over.
The biggest loss would be Bielsa. Rarely do you find a manager of his calibre in the Championship.
Football is a harsh sport, as success is measured by the count of silverware or medals. It’s true that the 64-year-old should have won much more in his managerial career, with only an Olympic gold in 2004 and two championships with Newell’s Old Boys way back in the early nineties, to show.
Bielsa’s gung-ho, attacking approach employed at Athletic Bilbao, Chile and Marseille has been revered across the globe. His idiosyncrasies accompanied with outbursts of rage, touchline squatting and eccentricities have been in display right throughout his managerial career.
History suggests that players inevitably fail to match his ‘high-pressure’ system, demanding methods thus draining out physically. Extreme fatigue crops as the player fail to replicate their early-season promise also leading to injuries. This season though, surprisingly, Bielsa has ensured calmness prevails.
That said, there is no lack of intensity but accompanied with a more measured approach. Leeds have been extremely pragmatic, have managed games well and look more mature than last season.
They have had fewer injuries too and the return of the likes of Pablo Hernandez, Tyler Roberts and Adam Forshaw later in the campaign will be an added boost towards the business end of the season. The January transfer window will also serve to bring some quality additions to the side.
With Bielsa, however, obsession comes for free. His philosophy has influenced the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jorge Sampaoli and his former players, and now successful managers Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone have the highest of regards for him.
Mikel Arteta, his opposition number on Monday, seems to be also a protégé, now having come out of Guardiola’s shadows to take over the reins at Arsenal.
Bielsa brings with him unconventional methods, rigorous training, in-depth opposition analysis, strict diet, emphasis on hard work and above all unifies players to believe in his philosophy.
Despite his wealthy family background, Bielsa seems to have little interest in financial gains. He enjoys a modest existence, rents a one-bedroom flat, staying close to Leeds’ training camp, often walking 45 minutes to work with a backpack full of notes.
He takes his staff to talk tactics at Costa Coffee for hours, while he has also been seen shopping all by himself at the local grocery shop sporting the club’s tracksuit. Simplicity and modesty off the pitch from such a personality are not often seen.
If Leeds do hang on and win promotion, Bielsa, already a cult figure at the club, will be immortalised alongside Don Revie.
And how much do Leeds need the Argentine as their guiding light. After all, we all heard what Russell Crowe said in the Gladiator ‘What we do in life, echoes in eternity’.