Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds legacy runs much deeper than long-awaited promotion

Marcelo Bielsa will always be revered by the city of Leeds, not just Leeds United. He restored the club to the Premier League, but his impact on the wider community ran deeper than that.

His legacy transcends Elland Road and cannot be measured by a long-awaited promotion or, when at its best, the breathtaking beauty of his football alone. Bielsa helped one of the UK’s largest cities rediscover its sporting identity.

A city centre street renamed after him and murals depicting Bielsa the saviour in suburbs such as Holbeck, Guiseley, Hyde Park and Wortley attest to that.

As does the outpouring of sadness, indignation and even outrage from fans on social media at the manner of his departure. Did he have to go now, like that?

There will be demands for a statue because after 16 years of hopeless failure on and off the pitch, Bielsa made the fans fall back in love with their club.

He made the city stand up and sing for Leeds United.

And new fans, from South America and all over the world, came to share in the dream and stand alongside them.

In six short weeks in the summer of 2018 after being unveiled as Leeds’ new head coach, he transformed a mid-table Championship side into promotion contenders.

It was true what they said about ‘El Loco’. If he was trusted and allowed to do things his way, they said, he would perform miracles. And he did.

He turned the dream into spectacular reality for a negligible financial outlay. Even Gary Neville and Roy Keane became big fans of Bielsa-ball.

But all dreams must come to an end and as the next page is turned when Leeds are on Monday expected to announce Jesse Marsch as their new manager, fans may begin to realise this was the way it was meant to be.

Leeds are after all English football’s boom and bust club and not even Bielsa can keep pulling rabbits out of his hat forever. Not in the Premier League.

He came unstuck because he ran out of players. The ones he had moulded in a notoriously small squad, which he insisted was the only way he could operate.

At one stage this season Bielsa was without 11 injured first-team players and the loss of Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford and captain Liam Cooper to long-term problems was a conundrum too far.

Bielsa’s critics said it had only been a matter of time, that the physical demands required to play his turbo-charged pressing brand of football would take their toll.

In his fourth year at the club, Leeds have struggled to replicate the form which had swept them to a ninth-placed finish in their first season back in the Premier League.

Bielsa’s great entertainers have still made for compulsive viewing, but the 20 goals conceded in February, a new top-flight record for a calendar month, and 60 in total during this campaign has left them facing relegation.

Some boos were heard after Saturday’s 4-0 home defeat to Tottenham and chairman Andrea Radrizzani felt compelled to act.

The Italian has been savagely criticised by a large section of fans for not giving Bielsa until the end of the season to try and turn it round.

Bielsa the romanticist versus Radrizzani the realist.

But it must not be forgotten, Radrizzani backed director of football Victor Orta’s romantic notion that Bielsa could be the one to stir the sleeping the giant in the first place.

Radrizzani will argue he had no choice but to apply the brakes to a thrilling roller-coaster ride in order to protect the club’s wider interests, albeit as well as his own.

Marcelo Bielsa oversaw Leeds’ return to the Premier League (Richard Sellers/PA)

(PA Wire)

The investment arm of NFL franchise the San Francisco 49ers, 49ers Enterprises, increased its stake in Leeds from 15 to 44 per cent in November last year and a possible full takeover could hinge on top-flight status.

Radrizzani has always maintained that Leeds need deeper pockets if they are to break into the Premier League’s ‘top six’.

That is the reason why Radrizzani and his board decided Leeds’ love affair with Bielsa had to end.

Bielsa does not deal in pragmatism. He admitted himself he could never change his style of play and Leeds’ joint-owners refused to risk more heavy defeats.

Bielsa the maverick, the reluctant hero, delivered more than just promotion and the city will be forever grateful that he came.

But whether we like it or not, it appears romanticism alone will never be enough to challenge in the Premier League.

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