Marcelo Bielsa exclusive interview: Leeds United manager on playing style debate and burnout accusations

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Marcelo Bielsa attempts to bust some of the myths surrounding his managerial approach. Watch Arsenal vs Leeds live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds climbed into the top half of the Premier League with their 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Monday. After 22 games of their first campaign back in the division, they sit nine points closer to the Champions League spots than the relegation zone.

Their top-flight status is all but assured for another year. In fact, if they carry on at the current rate, they will record one of the highest points totals by a newly-promoted side in Premier League history. But still the debate over their playing style rumbles on.

Marcelo Bielsa has heard it all before, of course. His high-octane approach is exhilarating but it can expose defensive vulnerabilities too. This season in the Premier League, only four sides have scored more goals than Leeds and yet 17 have conceded fewer.

They have fast become the neutral's favourite but every adverse result tends to prompt the same questions about Bielsa's methods, with the latest round of scrutiny coming as recently as last week, when he told a press conference he would rather finish 12th while playing well than eighth while playing poorly.

The comment was seized upon by those who claim he values style over results, leaving Bielsa with a familiar feeling of frustration.

"I have expressed my opinion on this many times but it's not the one that seems to get across," he tells Sky Sports over Zoom ahead of an afternoon training session at the club's Thorp Arch headquarters.

"What I said in this most recent case is that playing well is the most effective way of obtaining good results. The example I gave, of being in a better position while playing badly or being in a worse position while playing well, is not usually seen in reality.

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"That's because the teams that play well end up in the better positions and those that play worse end up in the worse positions. The better you play, the better the results you will ultimately get.

"How can I ignore the importance of results when we all know that if a manager doesn't get results, he won't have a job? If I ignored results, I wouldn't be able to continue working in this profession."

Leeds, PA

Social media soundbites do not allow for much nuance but the reality is that Bielsa's devotion to his way of playing is rooted in the belief that it represents his best means of winning games.

And who can argue with that when it has transformed a mid-table Championship side into one which looks capable of challenging for Europe in less than three years?

"We have continued playing in the same way we have played throughout my time with these players," says Bielsa.

"We have prepared all this time to play in that way, so it wouldn't be intelligent to waste that experience just because we are competing at a higher level now. Instead we want to capitalise on it.

"Of course, there is not only one way of playing well. There are different ways of doing that. But the job of a manager is to opt for a style, then ensure that style allows his team to overcome their opponents and achieve the results they need."

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Bielsa's playing style has been a source of conjecture throughout his career but the suggestion that he zealously pursues it while disregarding results is, in his eyes, just one of many misconceptions around his methodology.

The 65-year-old is also famed for poring over video footage and meticulously studying opponents but he takes issue with that side of his reputation too. "I don't analyse obsessively - and I don't distinguish myself by my analysis," he says. "What I do is what every manager does nowadays."

There is further exasperation on the subject of burnout.

It is no secret that Bielsa places huge physical demands on his players. They are asked to press their opponents relentlessly - "non-stop running," is how Patrick Bamford described it on Monday Night Football this week - and attack with the same level of intensity.

But the oft-repeated accusation that his sides fade late in seasons, the players overcome by exhaustion, is another Bielsa rejects.

"I don't see it as an accusation, just a point of view," he says. "Football is not so important that we can't have tolerance of incorrect evaluations.

"What I can say is that the physical output of teams is something which is meticulously and thoroughly measured. So, if someone wants to know the physical output of one team in comparison with another, they can find indisputable answers.

"Your question, I understand it, but the truth is you don't need my answer, because my answer is just based on the information. If you look at the data, you can see for yourself whether the claim that we tire in certain parts of the season is accurate or not."

The narrative was fed by the dip that cost Leeds promotion during Bielsa's first year in charge but there was little evidence of it last season - they were top of the Championship having won five games in a row when lockdown hit and went on to win it by a 10-point margin - and we are yet to see any in the Premier League either.

Leeds have covered more ground than their opponents in every one of their 22 Premier League games so far and, despite the congested schedule, tracking data shows no hint of a drop-off.

In fact, Bielsa's men have outrun the last four sides they have faced by an average of more than four kilometres.

It is a similar story with their sprinting numbers. Leeds have averaged 168 high-intensity sprints per game so far this season - 28 more than any other Premier League side - and several of their highest totals have come in the last few weeks.

If anything, Leeds are growing stronger rather than weaker and the hope now is that the trend will continue in the months ahead, when Bielsa's options will be boosted by the availability of summer signings Robin Koch, Diego Llorente and Rodrigo.

Leeds' achievements this season are even more impressive given the injuries which have hampered that £60m trio. Without them, the team which has taken Leeds into the top half of the Premier League is instead made up almost entirely of players who were there last year in the Championship.

"We haven't been able to count on the same players in every game," says Bielsa. "This competition is very demanding and the regularity of fixtures provokes injuries. For one reason or another, a lot of the players we signed in the summer have had long periods out.

"In that sense, I am grateful to have worked in this club for almost three years. I have a group of players who have been able to adapt to the Premier League and I also have the advantage of an academy which is very close to the first team, with young players who are able to help us. That's why I am grateful to work within a structure like the one in place here."

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Watch Patrick Bamford's interview with Sky Sports on Monday Night Football

It is to Bielsa's credit that individuals with little or no prior Premier League experience - Bamford, Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips, to name a few - have handled the step up so impressively but he puts it down to the players themselves.

"The influence of a manager in the development and improvement of players is a lot smaller than people believe. Every player needs stimulus to show his qualities consistently, but it is a question of how they respond to that stimulus rather than the stimulus itself.

"Players who are ambitious see the difficulties of playing at a higher level as a challenge that they can overcome and adapt to.

"So, I link the development and improvement of players a lot more to how they respond to challenges and how ambitious they are than their manager."

Bielsa will expect the same level of ambition when his players face Arsenal on Sunday. Leeds head to the Emirates Stadium having won three of their last four games. And while style questions resurfaced last week, there has been plenty of praise for them too.

AP - Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa and defender Hugo Llorente as he comes off injured against Newcastle

Not that Bielsa has given it much thought. His focus, as ever, is on performances rather than results. And on fact rather than opinion.

"There are always big changes in the performance levels of teams over the course of a season, so I prefer to focus on what's still to come rather than what we've done," he says.

"I think it's always important to link people's opinions to the cycle that the team in question is in. If you look at the 21, 22, or 23 games each side has played this season, you see that there are very few teams that haven't had negative cycles and very few that have had long, positive cycles - only Manchester City and Manchester United.

"There are also very few teams that have had predominantly negative cycles throughout the season. All of the rest have had ups and downs, and people's opinions will be positive or negative depending on the context of the results at that time.

"Anyone who observes that will see that you have be very careful during positive cycles not to think you are so good, and, in the same way, very careful during negative cycles not to think you are so bad. Finding that balance is what improves teams."

Recent evidence suggests Bielsa is well-placed to judge.

Watch Arsenal vs Leeds live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

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