LONDON • Leeds are back in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years with a style of play under eccentric manager Marcelo Bielsa that is as far removed from their historic “Dirty Leeds” image as it is possible to get.
During a long and varied career, the 65-year-old Argentinian has deployed an exhilarating, whirlwind brand of football designed to not let the opposition breathe – although it risks leaving his own players exhausted before the end of the term.
His teams invariably deploy a high press and attack using quick, vertical passes, with his two seasons at Leeds in the Championship being no exception as he steered them to the title and promotion to the English top flight last season.
For Bielsa, taking the initiative is a sacrosanct principle and he has no time for teams who sit back in defence, or “speculate” as he disparagingly describes it.
The former Argentina coach’s influence is widespread, with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino among those who regard him as their mentor, even if the contents of his trophy cabinet are modest.
Rather than big-name players, Bielsa works better with those who are prepared to adapt themselves to his heavily demanding style, making Leeds an ideal club for his Premier League debut.
It will be the third of Europe’s top leagues to experience his system after the Spanish La Liga and France’s Ligue One.
While initial positive campaigns at Athletic Bilbao and Marseille fizzled out, leading to his departure, Bielsa appears settled at Elland Road unlike his past clubs and eventual winners Arsenal experienced a foretaste of what is to come during a 1-0 win over Leeds in the FA Cup third round last season.
“They are a nightmare for any team to play against,” said Gunners manager Mikel Arteta. “It is like going to the dentist… if you are not ready, you get exposed.”
It is far removed from the 1960s and ’70s when their perceived win-at-all-costs approach under Don Revie earned them the “Dirty Leeds” nickname as they swept up trophies including the league title, FA Cup and League Cup.
But even if that label no longer applies on the pitch, they still quite like the concept.
“We actually channel that,” club chairman Andrea Radrizzani told Fifa magazine. “We want to play great football and we are doing that but we also need to fight every time we go onto the pitch… having that character is important to being a Leeds United player.”
- LEEDS TRANSFERS IN
• Rodrigo from Valencia (£30 million, S$53.3 million)
• Helder Costa from Wolves (£16 million)
• Robin Koch from Freiburg (£13 million)
• Illan Meslier from Lorient (£5 million)
STEPPING UP A LEVEL
One of the difficulties we will face this season (is when the going gets tough) and we have to show we can continue to play the way we want. ”
MARCELO BIELSA, Leeds manager.
FULHAM TRANSFERS IN
• Anthony Knockaert from Brighton (£10 million)
• Harrison Reed from Southampton (£6 million)
• Antonee Robinson from Wigan (£2 million)
• Mario Lemina from Southampton (loan)
• Alfie Mawson to Bristol (loan)
You can’t build teams with drastic changes, drastic swings of players. Some clear errors were made last time and we will learn from that. ”
SCOTT PARKER, Fulham manager.
WEST BROM TRANSFERS IN
• Grady Diangana from West Ham (£12 million)
• Matheus Pereira from Sporting Lisbon ( £8.25 million)
• Cedric Kipre from Wigan (£1 million)
• Nathan Ferguson to Crystal Palace (free)
FIGHT TO STAY UP
If you ask me in the short term – your ambition is to stay up. The dedication, fight, commitment, passion – they are the words for our club. ”
SLAVEN BILIC, West Brom manager.
With that kind of battling spirit plus the quality of recent £30 million (S$53.3 million) club-record signing Rodrigo from Valencia, the Whites can be expected to scrap to ensure their stay in the top flight will not be short-lived.
The same, however, cannot be said of the other two promoted clubs, Championship runners-up West Bromwich Albion and Fulham.
Both are perennial yo-yo clubs, experiencing two relegations each in the past 11 years. And with money tight and only a few unknown buys, the Cottagers and Baggies face a long and tough season ahead.
Teams who gain promotion via the play-offs have a 61 per cent chance of going straight back down but Fulham will be looking to their bright young manager Scott Parker to inject hope.
“You can’t build teams with drastic changes, drastic swings of players,” said the 39-year-old, Fulham’s caretaker boss when they were relegated from the top flight last year.
“Some clear errors were made last time and we will learn from that.”