Marcelo Bielsa took questions from several journalists in his press conference after Leeds United’s impressive win over Stoke City, but like in each of his few dealings with the press so far, he did not hold eye contact with any of them, keeping his gaze fixed on the floor instead.
His translator, Salim Lamrani, rested his arm on the back of Bielsa’s chair throughout the briefing, as if supporting or comforting him through the process. Bielsa answered slowly, one sentence at a time in order to allow for easier translation. Some of his answers were terse, others terser still. The over-arching message of them was clear: Leeds had played well but must play even better.
On his way out of the room, after his eyes had shifted from the floor to the door, Bielsa passed one reporter who held his hand out low for a handshake. Without breaking his stride, shifting his gaze or otherwise acknowledging the reporter in any way, he shook the outstretched hand and continued towards the exit.
Avoiding eye contact is often taken to be a weakness; a sign of insecurity, awkwardness or nerves. With Bielsa though, it seems different. Not awkwardness, just a brilliant intensity. ‘Focus’ and ‘concentration’ account for two of the four principles that supposedly make up his philosophy. This is a coach engrossed by football, who demands his players become as absorbed as he is.
The question before Sunday was whether the Leeds players would be able to meet such demands so early in the season. The answer was an emphatic yes. Even though Bielsa could find room for improvement in their performance, this was the dominant, swarming football he had promised to bring to Elland Road.
“It’s a dynamic team, an offensive team, it’s a team that dares to play. My team took risks when moving the ball. These are the positive aspects,” he said, clearly impressed with how his players had acquitted themselves against the Championship’s pre-season favourites.
And yet still, Bielsa demands more. “Our team has to improve. It has to get better,” he said. Stoke’s improvement in the closing stages of the game was due to deviation from the plan. “At the end of the game, we didn’t try to link defence and attack playing on the ground. These are the aspects we need to correct.”
The question now, though, less whether Leeds can improve and more whether this level can be maintained. A summer of double sessions was required to teach this furious style and there is unlikely to be much let up until Bielsa believes his players have mastered it. These methods will surely take their toll at some point over the next 45 league matches.
It may not even take that long and Bielsa’s recent history comes with an example of things suddenly going south. This time last year, his tenure at Lille began with a 3-0 win against Nantes. The next three points only came in November. By Christmas, Bielsa had lost his job and the club was languishing in the relegation zone.
That may seem unfair to point out after only one game, and especially after a performance of precious few negatives. The air of excitement around Elland Road is justified. This new hope has been hard-earned.
Still, it was hard not to conclude that the manner of the victory had much to do with that intensity Bielsa has brought and fostered. It was hard not to wonder, too, whether such intensity is sustainable, particularly if Bielsa stays true to form and persistently demands more.
Leeds’ flame burned brightly on Sunday but their manager must do his best to ensure it does not burn out.
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