If you follow English football closely, by now, you surely know about the spy-gate scandal involving Leeds and Derby County where a member of Leeds FC staff was stopped by police outside the Derby training ground with a pair of binoculars. On this incident being published in the papers, the Leeds manager – the 63 year old Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa took full responsibility for his actions saying “I’m the only one responsible for it…I’ve been using this kind of practice since the World Cup qualifiers with Argentina. This is not unlawful, we’ve done it publicly…” One can imagine the outrage as the British sporting press ran with the story and turned it into a major controversy regarding sportsmanship, ethics and legality issues especially as Leeds comfortably beat Derby 2-0 the next day. The Football Association opened an investigation and talking heads in the press are calling for Leeds to be docked points.
With this controversy swirling in the background – Bielsa called an unscheduled press conference yesterday at the Leeds training ground. There were whispers Bielsa had decided to call it quits after only 4 months in English football – that his position was untenable given he confessed to sending a spy to watch his opponents train before a match. But what happens as the press conference starts? Bielsa speaking exclusively in Spanish for over an hour using his translator gives a powerpoint presentation of his preparation for the Derby match. It is nothing short of a coaching masterclass. It was well known before the press conference that Bielsa was scrupulous in his preparation, but for him to display the amount of work he and his staff do to study every opponent before a match was still amazing: Bielsa and his staff had watched EVERY Derby County match this season and last – a staggering 51 matches, it took them 4 hours to watch and analyze ONE match, he had statistics and data of every Derby County player and what positions they had played in every game, he knew every formation Derby County had ever used in all of their 51 matches and the exact percentage of the times they played in their favorite formation. He further states he has observed all 23 teams in the league practice and he has compiled similar data on all of them. Bielsa further goes on to say, for their next match they face Stoke but since Stoke have a new manager and has only coached them for 3 matches, Bielsa and his staff watched 26 matches of the team the new manager was in charge of before Stoke. Holy mother of god, can you say indefatigable?!?
I have known about Marcelo Bielsa since 2011 when he coached the fantastic Athletic Bilbao team that beat Manchester United twice in the Europa League. I had read sparingly that he was a football obsessive, a student of the game and a master tactician. It wasn’t until Pep Guardiola called him the “best coach in the world” in 2017, I really got interested in the man they call El Loco (Madman) Bielsa. Jorge Sampoli, Diego Simeone, Pocchetino and Guardiola have been heavily influenced by him, he favors a revolutionary attacking 3-3-1-3 formation where he uses only 2 midfielders: one to hold and the other to attack. His wingbacks tuck in, coming into the middle of the pitch – a tactic Guardiola ‘borrows.’ After a match in la liga where Pep’s Barcelona beat Bielsa’s Bilbao 3-0, Bielsa gave Guardiola all the data he had collected on Barcelona, Pep was amazed by the sheer volume of it saying, “you know Barcelona better than me.”
Bielsa did not need to spy on Derby County to beat them, he and his staff had done over 300 hours of total analysis for the match, but yet he felt that he needed that slight edge to make sure nothing was left out. This short of preparation is something most people know nothing about, but as one reads more and more about the greats in every field one realizes, this the level of practice, studying and preparation that is needed to be at an elite level to rise above the good and the ordinary. Bielsa should not get into trouble for this episode, instead he should be celebrated for his dedication and marveled for his industriousness.