“I am not trying to gain an advantage, I already have the information” said Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa during his now-famous 70-minute press conference in which he laid out his process for analyzing opposing teams. His explanation was in response to the “Spygate” scandal involving a Leeds employee watching a Derby County training session two-days before their clash. Bielsa was quick to remind us that he broke no laws outside of unspoken sporting agreements of fair play, which Derby manager Frank Lampard was quick to admonish. Yet Bielsa not only admitted to spying on Lampard’s side, he doubled down in adding that he spied on every team in the Championship. So why would the 63-year-old Bielsa, mentor to the likes of Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, and Mauricio Pochettino, watch opposition training sessions? Humility, in his own words. He gathers information because “I think I’m stupid”.
Leeds defeated Derby 2-0 to maintain their standing on top of the Championship table. Bielsa presented a PowerPoint of what his staff of 20 spent 360 hours analyzing before the match against Lampard’s side, much of the information deemed “useless” by Bielsa himself (Lampard is said to have parsed through 15 hours of Leeds footage). What resulted was an in-depth portrait of the work and obsession that goes into preparing for a match. It began with formation. Derby played a 433 for 49% of their matches last season with Mason Mount on the right side of the midfield three, and 22% of the time with Mount on the left. Bielsa went further into an analysis of left back Harry Wilson, rattling off the stats: 1772 minutes played at that position, with 70 minutes at left winger.
He used the word “structure” throughout his presentation to describe how Derby dealt with specific moments throughout a match, saying “the idea is to try to observe what is the most difficult structure for [Derby] to face”. It was a premise of dictating games through a side’s shape, understandable for a manager so focused on pressing and squeezing opposition space. His analysis also emphasized aerial duels and second-ball retrievals during corner kicks, separating those sequences into a sliding scale ranging from “very dangerous” to nothing of consequence. And finally, in a nod to current trends, the Leeds staff observed the passing ability of goalkeepers as to formulate their own pressing strategy during a match.
Bielsa kept interrupting the presentation to remind us that he already knew of all this information before sending a spy. But we were warned of his obsessiveness through third-person stories and blog posts. His nickname is “El Loco” after all, a reputation developed after managing 12 clubs in 26 years, reinforced through stories like when he quit Lazio after two days in 2016. In another famous press conference as Argentina manager following a 3-0 defeat to Colombia, Bielsa stated that he deserved to be sent off during the match because he protested in an “ill-mannered form”. His influential tactics - the verticality and the high press - are the subjects of their own books. There were rumors that Bielsa was going to resign in disgrace before the “Spygate” press conference. Yet with his dedication to the process galvanizing Leeds supporters as well as gaining a newfound worldwide audience, those fears seem distant now.
The press conference quickly gained momentum online, turning into a uniquely 2019 moment. The other winner from the event outside of Bielsa was Yorkshire Evening Post football writer Phil Hay, whose live tweeting of the PowerPoint presentation went viral. From that social media perspective, Bielsa displayed the power of shaping a narrative from cheating to gain an edge to gathering information out of humility of the unknowns of football. Of course, it helps to have the personality and singular drive - the authenticity - of Bielsa. Afterwards, Newell’s Old Boys, the club where Bielsa began both his playing and managerial career, tweeted out how that press conference is exactly why they named their stadium after him. In 2019, we experienced Bielsa live on our timelines. He transcended being a manager and became a content machine.
“If we’re going to start talking about ‘culturally, I did it somewhere else’ - that doesn’t work for me,” said Lampard, before adding “If I’m lucky enough to do well and travel to another country, I’ll find out what the etiquette is in that country and abide by that”.
As Bielsa suggested, it was inevitable that conversations about cultural differences between Argentina and England would arise. Martin Keown added that he would be embarrassed if Bielsa were his manager. Stuart Pearce said that Leeds’ win should be overturned, adding that “it’s not right and proper, from whatever country you come from”. Those comments were coupled with Neil Warnock statement on looking forward to Brexit the same week, saying “to hell with the rest of the world”. There will always be an inherent tension due to the global perspective of the Premier League that is fundamental to its economic and branding success. But can a league have a worldwide audience without using global talent?
Perhaps surprisingly, managers rushed to Bielsa’s defense. Tim Sherwood agreed with Bielsa’s assessment to leave “no stone unturned” during pre-match preparation and the Argentine was “doing a great job”. Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder fully supported Bielsa’s tactics, saying that Leeds were clever in observing opponents beforehand. Stoke manager Nathan Jones went a step further, using Bielsa’s presentation against Leeds in unveiling a new formation in their 2-1 win. There was also a nonplussed middleground. Lampard dismissed the presentation as a “nice eye-opener” for supporters, while new Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttel added “you got a tactical lesson from him? That’s nice”.
Bielsa recalled a story during the press conference of when he was the manager of Athletic Bilbao in 2012. His side faced Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, to which they lost 3-0. Afterwards, Bielsa gave his analysis of Barcelona’s tactics to Guardiola, to which Guardiola replied “you know more about Barcelona than me”. Bielsa added that all his information, the spying, and the hundreds of hours of analysis was useless because Athletic still gave up three goals and lost. The result proved his overall point, and an oft-heard saying about knowledge itself, about how the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. And in this case, the obsession to gather information only further displayed how much one is at the mercy of the unpredictable mix of structure, skill, and mentality played out over 90 minutes on a field.