Imagine a procession of supermodels sashaying down a catwalk. One has been described as “capturing the essence of Leeds United” and is instantly identifiable. The artfully messed-up hair and the barely-there makeup scream “natural beauty” but, having taken ages to perfect, seem strangely emblematic of Marcelo Bielsa’s apparently spontaneous yet supremely well-rehearsed team.
When Leeds kick off against Liverpool at Elland Road on Sunday afternoon and Bielsa’s players begin interchanging positions with bewitching, sometimes bewildering, kaleidoscopic rapidity it will be easy to assume they are passing and moving off the cuff. Junior Firpo knows different. The £13m left-back, signed from Barcelona this summer, has recently revealed his game was subjected to more detailed video analysis inside his first fortnight in West Yorkshire than during an entire two-year stay at the Camp Nou.
Like Bielsa, Rafael Benítez believes the devil really is in the detail but Everton’s famously meticulous manager claims that, next to his Leeds counterpart, he looks almost slapdash. “Marcelo makes me appear normal,” Benítez jokes.
The consequent hours of training-pitch drilling, classroom analysis and relentless fitness conditioning at Leeds’ training HQ near Wetherby have not only transformed Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford into England internationals but imbued Jürgen Klopp with a certain nervousness as he aims to prevent Bielsa choreographing a first Premier League win of the season.
“Leeds press high and intensively,” says Liverpool’s manager. “They go for it. They’re good in possession. Marcelo Bielsa’s style and philosophy is different. It’s man-marking all over the whole pitch so you have to know about it. It’s special. And, for sure, they’ll think they have a good chance against us.
“Games against them are always tricky, always really exciting. They are very, very flexible, very brave and dynamic in possession. The ground will be full and everyone tells me the atmosphere will be absolutely outstanding. We have to be at our best to get anything there.”
As the architect of gegenpress, Klopp is an expert on high tempos and high defensive lines. He expects surrendered possession to not only be retrieved swiftly and aggressively, but to serve as the springboard for ruthlessly fast-paced counterattacks.
Bielsa’s football blueprint shares several characteristics – not least an emphasis on emotionally intelligent man-management. Yet there are some key divergences in their mutual addiction to attacking fluidity. If Liverpool’s football is heavy metal, Leeds’s is more glam rock.
Whereas Klopp’s teams increasingly place greater stress on passing than pressing these days and tend to restrict the latter art largely to the opposition’s half, Bielsa’s press almost anywhere on the pitch and the Argentinian’s commitment to total football seemingly runs deeper. His deployment of individual players is often more experimental, with Stuart Dallas, for instance, regularly fielded in assorted starting positions.
It remains unclear whether the Wales winger Daniel James will find himself on the bench, the right, his preferred left or possibly even an inside role on Sunday, after a £25m transfer from Manchester United. James may be seen as the man who made way for Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford but he has ranked high on Bielsa’s wanted list for nearly three years and is regarded as the type of player capable of ensuring Leeds higher than last season’s ninth.
“James can play on either side and combines his ability to unbalance the opponent,” says Bielsa, the idiosyncrasies of his language amplified by the filter of speaking through an interpreter. “He passages into empty spaces, considering his speed.”
Albeit after only one season back in the Premier League, Leeds fans still await a statement home win against one of England’s elite sides and hopes are high James can help achieve that watershed. Although Bielsa’s team held their own against last season’s eventual top six, winning at Manchester City and Leicester and holding City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool to draws at Elland Road, their supporters are anxious to see a major scalp taken in West Yorkshire.
If Phillips’s anchoring of midfield and Bamford’s goalscoring are likely to prove pivotal, this landmark victory could well be conjured on the flanks. It is no coincidence that Bielsa has invested most heavily in wide players, with James, Raphinha, Jack Harrison and Firpo costing a collective £66m.
James recently said he had started to “play safe” at Old Trafford but there appears little danger of that continuing on the other side of the Pennines. “Hopefully I can adapt quickly to the system, but I think it’s going to take me a little while,” the 23-year-old says. “It’s very tactical but the manager has a way of playing I think will suit me.”
In January 2019, James came so close to joining Leeds from Swansea that he sat in the Elland Road boardroom eating a Chinese takeaway only to see the deal collapse at the 11th hour. Now, though, Bielsa can finally teach him precisely how to light up football’s catwalk.
“What excites me a lot is making it possible for Leeds players to become players who have the quality to compete with the best players,” says the 66-year-old. “When Sunday’s game arrives with Salah, Jota and Mané playing for Liverpool, I dream that Raphinha, Bamford and Harrison are going to be better than those three. That is always my dream.”