Marcelo Bielsa interview: Leeds manager on 'honouring the game', the rise of Stuart Dallas and man-marking

Marcelo Bielsa speaks exclusively to Sky Sports about his first season in the Premier League, the perils of man-marking and the rise of Stuart Dallas; Leeds vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event on Monday Night Football from 7pm; kick-off 8pm

Marcelo Bielsa spoke exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of Monday Night Football
Image: Marcelo Bielsa spoke exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of Monday Night Football

When Marcelo Bielsa was appointed as Leeds United manager nearly three years ago, his arrival marked the fifth successive season the club started a campaign with a new boss. 

It required several weeks and hours of face-to-face conversations in a Buenos Aires hotel for Andrea Radrizzani, the club chairman, and director of football Victor Orta to turn what was initially perceived as an "impossible" deal into a reality.

But managing in England was always an ambition of Bielsa's, and transforming the culture at Leeds after years of neglect and underachievement was the right project having spent time in charge of Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and Lille.

He came with a glorious reputation as an eccentric, and as a man with a bucket full of knowledge dancing to his own tune.

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His methods have captured the imagination of Leeds supporters, witnessing from afar a seamless transition from the high-pressing football during a 46-game Championship campaign to a similarly high-octane approach back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence.

The Argentine has stayed true to the high-possession, high-energy philosophy that earned Leeds a place back at England's top table, with no side having come close to their 5,200 sprints, nor the 113.2km covered per game.

Maintaining such a high intensity across 31 matches to date is no small feat, but Bielsa sees topping the charts when it comes to physical attributes as a way of "honouring the game".

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"Developing a way of playing and perfecting it is the principal task of the training sessions," the Leeds manager tells Sky Sports, his mystique maintained in England by all his interviews being conducted in Spanish.

"The Premier League is a beautiful competition, although clearly I have experienced it for the first time in person without supporters in the stands, who are a major part of the league.

"But the lesson I've still learned is just how difficult every single game is. Whoever the opponent, and wherever they are in the league when we have faced them, it's always been really difficult. Every game has been played at maximum intensity. This is a way of honouring the game, and it's a sign of just how special the Premier League is.

"Football has three aspects that are very important: firstly, it is about having the right mentality which means the strength to compete while having the clarity to make decisions. Secondly, it is about having the physical qualities as the modern game demands a huge amount of players in order to impose those technical resources.

Stuart Dallas discusses working under Marcelo Bielsa and just how much belief the Leeds United boss puts into his squad

"The third aspect is the technical capacity of the players - the ability to manage all the solutions that you can imagine at this level and this refers to things that are executed with the feet. With this in mind, if a player isn't rich technically, he will be easily found out."

Last weekend brought arguably the highest point of Bielsa's tenure so far as he masterminded 10 men to a dramatic 2-1 win at champions-elect Manchester City, with Leeds climbing back into the top half of the table.

Given how well his side equipped themselves to absorb the second-half onslaught, it came as a surprise to learn that Bielsa had never previously prepared to play with 10 men in training - and the manager insists this is all part of creating the right mentality towards officials as well as the opponent.

"For me ahead of any game, I always state what is required of my players and tell them to try to avoid confronting the referee," Bielsa said.

preview image 3:23
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leeds United's win against Manchester City

"I remind them about their discipline and not to confront opponents. I tell them to consider actions that might be penalised. Out of respect to the rules and the clear convenience of ending games with 11 players, I've not practised it in training. Playing with 10 is very difficult!

"I think against Manchester City was the only time in which we have been forced to play with 10 men this season. Despite this, we haven't looked to develop a way of playing with a numerical disadvantage, and the spontaneous reaction of the team to going a man down showed a lot of quality.

"We learned what was needed very quickly and adapted to it. With regards to facing an opponent with 10 men, I've never given it much analytical thought. After what we saw the other day, I now have new ideas on how we can set up the side when we have a man less."

Bielsa hailed the versatility of Stuart Dallas after his display against Man City
Image: Bielsa hailed the versatility of Stuart Dallas after his display against Man City

Stuart Dallas scored both goals as City were overcome against all the odds at the Etihad, and the Northern Irishman highlighted the belief in the squad instilled by their 'special' manager during an interview with Sky Sports earlier in the week.

The versatile midfielder praised Bielsa for injecting belief in the players, but the Argentine is similarly delighted with how Dallas keeps surprising him with his ability to play in multiple positions.

"I've previously had a player like this," Bielsa said of the irrepressible Dallas. "He reminds me of Javier Zanetti [whom he managed with the Argentina national side] and Julio Saldaña, someone I managed at Newell's Old Boys in my first managerial experience. They were very alike Dallas in terms of their versatility.

Currently on 45 points, Leeds have the best points tally of any newly promoted side in their sights
Image: Currently on 45 points, Leeds have the best points tally of any newly promoted side in their sights

"Against City, he was placed where Mateusz Klich usually plays. When he started to play in this position, he offered a different way of playing the role. The goals were not expected but as the games go by, he manages to have a marked influence and definition in our finishing. This is a novelty, but it's one that obviously is within his faculties.

"When he's been asked in the past about what he sees as being his best position, he's said that it's on the left side of the defence that he prefers. But clearly what we saw against City as a No 8 was extremely profitable and satisfying.

"We'll now have to see if playing on the left remains his preferred position! Normally the player chooses where he best plays through his performances. Thinking of how we can best use his qualities is certainly something we always consider, but his own point of view may also change with time."

Leeds are on course to becoming the highest-scoring promoted side
Image: Leeds have scored the third-highest number of goals among newly promoted sides after 31 games

Leeds have enjoyed a prosperous return to the Premier League and are on course to register one of the best points tallies of any newly promoted side having already collected 45 with seven games still to play.

Only Newcastle's 1993/94 side and Sunderland's team of 1999/00 scored more than Leeds' 49 after 31 games played, while Bielsa's men could secure a fourth straight win in the top flight for the first time in 20 years against Liverpool.

But the Argentine is aware of his club's illustrious past, and the 65-year-old is sticking to his own revered principles in order to shift Leeds' transformation closer to its former glories.

"I have always said that the dimension of the institution at Leeds is very big," he adds. "The sporting past of Leeds is full of very high points.

"To win four games in a row in the Premier League compared to all the things that Leeds have achieved, of course it will give us great happiness, but if you compare it to all the things the club has achieved in its sporting history, it's not so big.

"To be able to be at the height of some of their past successes, some extraordinary things need to be done and we are quite far away from being there."

Marcelo Bielsa 0:36
Marcelo Bielsa says his team 'deserved to win' as Leeds beat Manchester City 2-1 after going down to 10 men before half-time

Having secured what many perceived as Leeds' best result in the Premier League since famously overcoming Arsenal at Highbury in May 2003, the challenges don't get any easier as Jurgen Klopp looks for a response to Liverpool's Champions League exit at Elland Road.

Leeds will be without suspended captain Liam Cooper as he starts a three-game ban following his dismissal at the Etihad. Bielsa also confirmed that both Raphinha and Rodrigo would be assessed.

It will be a season without silverware at Anfield, and finishing in the top four represents Liverpool's only chance of qualifying for Europe's premier cup competition next campaign - but Bielsa is anticipating another battle in which his side will have to suffer in order to achieve any kind of result.

Leeds will be without their captain Liam Cooper through suspension
Image: Leeds will be without their captain Liam Cooper through suspension

"It's a characteristic of all English teams in this division to respond well to setbacks," he continues. "If a team beats you in the Premier League, they will have needed to give 100 per cent to the cause - and it's the same no matter who you play, even those not competing for important positions.

"Here, there's a culture instilled that isn't conditioned by what is being pursued in terms of titles or other motives. What is inherently instilled at clubs in England is the way in which football is felt."

A noticeable feature of the reverse fixture at Anfield on the opening day of the season was Bielsa's use of a man-marking system that opponents have similarly used to frustrate Leeds at times this campaign.

Jamie Carragher analyses Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds and their press in their defeat to Liverpool on the opening weekend

It led to Jamie Carragher providing an in-depth analysis during the first Monday Night Football on Leeds' way of playing without the ball.

Liverpool prevailed 4-3 during a thrilling watch that would act as a precursor to Leeds' entertaining return to the Premier League but ahead of their latest meeting at Elland Road, Bielsa imparted a final pearl of wisdom on the perils of adopting the defensive tactic.

"Man-to-man marking is not a system I enjoy," he admitted. "It requires pursuing an opponent that needs to be neutralised. This has a flaw in the sense that one player moves away from his position in order to hunt down their opposite man.

"When the ball is regained, the team is set up in a defensive formation. Possession is then harder to manage as on the turnover, your players are breaking from a place of having been man-to-man marking. It's harder to launch out into attacks from whatever formation that is formed as a result of chasing down opponents.

"But clearly, pressurizing opponents and accelerating the recuperation of the ball is very important and we base our game on our opponents not being able to find players in space.

"Whether it is a man-to-man system or zonal marking, they are just different ways of trying to achieve the same thing. With zonal marking, passing on players always leaves scope for opponents to find space to determine games so there's always the danger that the press breaks down.

Jack Harrison equalises for Leeds at Anfield 1:12
We take a look at Jack Harrison's stunning goal from all angles, the first for Leeds on their return to the Premier League

"For me, the advantages of applying pressure sometimes justify the defensive resources that goes into man-to-man marking. But I always dream of achieving a system where pressure can still be maintained with every player in the right place to nullify the rival, without having to match our key players up.

"The man-to-man system is perhaps a shortcoming of my own teams," Bielsa considered with a smile. "It's something I've not been able to find the perfect solution to across 30 years as a manager so I doubt I'll be able to resolve it now!"

Bielsa's insatiable love affair with football tells you it won't be for the want of trying. Graced with one of the game's most intriguing personalities, Leeds seem to be coping just fine.

Bielsa dismisses new Leeds deal reports

Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds (AP)
Image: Marcelo Bielsa is not looking beyond the end of the current campaign

Bielsa has dismissed reports in Argentina that he is close to signing a new two-year deal at Leeds.

Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion claimed last weekend that the club and Bielsa were "very close" to reaching agreement and the news has since been circulated by other outlets.

"That information is not real," Bielsa said. "I ignore the origin. Those things, either the club can say or I can say it, we are the ones who possess the information. In all cases, if there was any information to give, then I would give it."

Bielsa, in his third year as Leeds' head coach, recently reiterated his preference for discussing his future with the club at the end of the season.

The 65-year-old signed his current 12-month contract one week before this season began after he had steered them back to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.

When pressed on areas of his first-team squad he would look to strengthen this summer in order to turn Leeds into a team battling to finish in the European places, Bielsa added: "When a season hasn't finished, the arguments to make modifications on the group are not yet formed in their totality.

"Every game has its surprises, so it's always best to let the campaign finish before gathering all the arguments to make the decisions."

Watch Leeds vs Liverpool on Sky Sports

Leeds vs Liverpool

Leeds vs Liverpool will be shown live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 7pm; kick-off 8pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.

Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.

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