Marcelo Bielsa's history of burnout: Is it a myth about the Leeds boss?

Leeds host Sheffield United on Sky Sports Football this Saturday

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As Leeds United prepare to face Sheffield United in their promotion showdown on Saturday, we put the talk of Marcelo Bielsa’s history of burnouts under the spotlight. Is it all a myth? Adam Bate takes a look…

When Leeds United scored twice in stoppage time to beat Blackburn on Boxing Day, Marcelo Bielsa's men moved five points clear at the top of the Championship table. But five defeats in the next seven games saw them knocked out of the FA Cup and overtaken by Norwich in the league. The talk of the notorious 'Bielsa burnout' was inevitable.

A subsequent upturn in fortunes has alleviated the concerns. Leeds supporters are sick of hearing about it and it seems they are not alone. After QPR ended a run of seven straight defeats with a surprise 1-0 win over Bielsa's side last month, the Argentine was unimpressed by the suggestion that fatigue was affecting his players.

"After the game, the energy levels of the side were questioned, which I found bemusing," said the Leeds boss. "Like every side in the division, we have problems, but as a team we do not lack energy. The team has shown in every game this season that they have an excess of energy and I am confident that will continue until the end of the campaign."

Bielsa has had little choice but to become accustomed to the accusations, but what is the root of this familiar complaint about his methods? And is it even fair? Here, we take a look at the history of Bielsa burnout, the views of those who have played under him and the mitigating factors that need to be considered before rushing to judgment…

THE REASON

Bielsa is one of the most celebrated and influential coaches within the game. At its best, the football that he insists upon is as entertaining as it gets. But that style comes at a price, or so the theory goes, because of the huge physical demands that are placed on the players.

He wants his teams to pass the ball at pace but press the ball too. Not only are players asked to close down the nearest man but also to cut off the passing angle to the next man too. Formations can appear less rigid because of the astonishing movement on show.

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His Leeds side have adopted some of these traits. They have made by far the most tackles of any team in the Championship this season and also rank third for the number of times that they have won possession of the ball in the final third.

It can be a joy to watch but it is hard to make this high tempo game work. The fear is that it can be wearing, leading to injuries and an inevitable dip in performance levels over time.

THE HISTORY

Bielsa made his name in his home country with Newell's Old Boys when he not only won the domestic title in 1991 but also took the team to the final of the Copa Libertadores the following year. His time there was a resounding success, so much so that the club's stadium is now named after him. They have not been back to the Copa Libertadores final since.

Even so, there were dramatic dips in form during his time there. After topping the table in the first round of games, Newell's faded badly during the second half of the season. In fact, they won only nine games in the calendar year of 1991. Bielsa eventually revived his team but only temporarily. After his departure, they finished bottom of the league.

His success at Athletic Bilbao came with a caveat too. The Basque club were one of the most exciting teams in Europe during his first season there. A 2-0 derby win over Real Sociedad in March left them fifth, just one point outside the Champions League places, and in the very next game they went to Manchester United and played them off the park at Old Trafford.

Athletic Bilbao players celebrate their goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2012
Image: Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2012

Unfortunately, that proved the peak. Athletic faded in La Liga, eventually finishing tenth, and lost in the final of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. Bielsa's second season in Bilbao was altogether less impressive as the team appeared to suffer a hangover from the previous campaign, and he departed in the summer having finished twelfth.

With the idea of Bielsa burnout now entrenched, his one season at Marseille was seen as providing incontrovertible proof of the flaw in his approach. After a spectacular start to his reign, the French club topped the table with 41 points at the halfway stage of the season.

However, once again, it was not to last. In February, they conceded last-minute equalisers against Reims and Saint-Etienne, before going on a run of four consecutive defeats. In the end, they mustered only 28 points during the second half of the season and had to settle for fourth place - two points behind Lyon in the race for the final Champions League spot.

THE THEORY

Bielsa revolutionised Newell's Old Boys and remains much admired there, but even those who are fulsome in their praise of his philosophy acknowledge that it can be incredibly demanding. "It's a method that provokes a certain level of tiredness," recounts former player Juan Manuel Llop in Angels with Dirty Faces, a footballing history of Argentina.

"Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness because the competition level is so high that it's difficult to keep up with it after a period of time. Not all human beings are the same, or think the same, or react in the same way. And the style of Bielsa, his training sessions, demand continuity and it's difficult."

This need for continuity means Bielsa prefers to rely on a small group of players building an understanding with each other. He was able to forge a team ethos with the Chile national team and it was a similar story with his next job in Bilbao, where 12 players made over 40 appearances in his first season there. Manchester United's Ander Herrera was one of them.

I can't lie to you, in the last months we couldn't even move. Our legs said stop.
Ander Herrera

Speaking on the Big Interview with Graham Hunter, he explained that what made that team so good was also their undoing. "No-one was able to run as much as us, it was impossible," said Herrera. "But I can't lie to you, in the last months we couldn't even move.

"Our legs said stop. We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals. We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically f****d. We couldn't run any more. I am not blaming the manager, because he was amazing for us and we should be very thankful because of the beautiful football, but the last month we could not even move and that is the reality."

THE EXPLANATION

Herrera will have a better understanding of what happened in Bilbao than anyone on the outside. However, it is worth noting that in those two finals they came up against a Barcelona side inspired by Lionel Messi and an Atletico Madrid team that was at the start of their own extraordinary journey under Diego Simeone. Success was far from inevitable.

Of course, the fact that they had to play 63 games that season will not have helped them peak in May. But that would surely have been the case under any manager given the size of the squad. Given that Leeds have had to play only three cup games this season compared to the 25 that Athletic negotiated that year, it should not be a huge factor this time around.

Likewise, the circumstances behind the dips that Newell's Old Boys endured are unusual. Specifically, the nuances of the Argentine league season meant that having won the Apertura and thus secured their place in a play-off for the title, they effectively had nothing to play for during the Clausura phase. They went on to win the play-off decider anyway.

Marcelo Bielsa receives an homage at the Newell's Old Boys stadium now named after him
Image: Bielsa was honoured by Newell's Old Boys as they named the stadium after him

The more alarming collapse occurred only after Bielsa left. "We were a squad that seemed perfect for him, but after he left, we ended up in a relegation battle, in 1993 and 1994," said Llop. "That's because there comes a time that the human being relaxed. It's not that you abandon everything but you let something go, because you feel worn out."

Marseille certainly struggled following Bielsa's exit. He walked out on the club after losing the first game of his second season in charge and the club never recovered under his successor. In the end, they followed up their fourth place under Bielsa by coming 13th in the 2015/16 season - their worst finish in 15 years. They haven't bettered Bielsa's finish since.

THE PRESENT DAY

How much of all this is applicable to Leeds United? The club has suffered badly with injuries this season, there is no denying that, but Bielsa has been firm on the subject. "I never put a player who is in doubt on the pitch," he has said. "I never push a player to play."

There have been hamstring injuries to Gaetano Berardi, Liam Cooper, Barry Douglas and Pablo Hernandez but the truth is that most of Leeds' problems have not been the sort of muscle injuries that might more obviously be related to players being overworked.

Izzy Brown's knee ligament problems predate Bielsa's arrival, while Patrick Bamford and Luke Ayling have had knee problems of their own. Cooper also underwent knee surgery, while Berardi, Adam Forshaw and Kemar Roofe have struggled with relative minor knee complaints. Jamal Blackman broke his leg. Stuart Dallas fractured his foot. This is bad luck.

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Few of the players can really claim to have been obviously overworked in terms of minutes on the pitch in the same way that Bielsa's Athletic team might have been. As it stands, the seemingly tireless Ezgjan Alioski, Ayling, Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Phillips are the only four players to have started more than 30 games in all competitions this season.

Little that has happened on the pitch points to tiredness. Leeds are the third highest scorers in the Championship inside the final 15 minutes of games, with many of those goals proving decisive. As well as the dramatic turnaround against Blackburn, there were late winners at Sheffield United and Aston Villa earlier that month.

More recently, there was Klich's late goal that earned the points at Rotherham and the last-gasp effort by Phillips that secured a point away to Middlesbrough. No team in the Championship has picked up more points from losing positions than Bielsa's Leeds.

THE CONCLUSION

It would be no great surprise if these players are feeling the weight of expectation on their shoulders at this crucial stage of the season. After all, Leeds remain a huge club and the excitement that is building about a potential Premier League return is palpable.

But while some might be feeling the strain after a long season, it still seems more likely that Bielsa's unique methods will help Leeds to get over the line rather than hinder them.

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Fatigue of the mind could be an issue one day. Sustaining this intense approach over the long term would seem to be difficult and perhaps supporters should expect a swift regression to the mean when Bielsa does eventually depart.

But there is no need for that time to be now. Not when the goal is clear. Not when there is every reason to focus their energy - and Bielsa insists there is plenty of that left - on the prize that awaits. Burnout is not a myth. But this Leeds team can still make it irrelevant.

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