A tweet from a Leeds United fan did the rounds this week and was met with a great deal of humour due to its sincerity. It was not intended to amuse. And that’s why it amused.
The fan bemoaned the sharp, recent rise in popularity of his club since the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa, and more specifically how for the second time in the modern era Leeds were in danger of becoming the ‘hipster’s choice’. And do you know what; it is entirely possible to see his point.
Because it’s not only West Yorkshire that is presently experiencing Bielsista fever: around the country swathes of very serious men (it is usually men) who earnestly debate the XG of Serbian teenage 10s and have a saving fund for their once-in-a-lifetime trip to La Bonbonera have taken up the Leeds promotion cause having long ago fallen under the spell of the eccentric coach.
They are his disciples and their worshipping at the altar of this tactical genius and messiah figure goes back quite some time before his innovative Athletic Bilbao creation led to Pep Guardiola labelling Bielsa ‘the best manager in the world’: probably even prior to his Argentina side winning the Olympics way back in 2004.
Consequently whichever English club ‘El Loco’ took charge of was always going to become initially a cause celebre and then adopted wholeheartedly in celebration should the shock appointment take flight. And boy has it taken flight.
We are admittedly only three weeks in and part of the Argentine’s fascination is that his intensive ways can either spectacularly combust at any given moment in time but to this point Leeds have looked like a team utterly transformed. While retaining ten of last season’s mediocre first team Bielsa has completely reimagined their possibilities, drilling into them a doctrine that espouses a ferocious high press and quick circulation that has bamboozled the Championship.
Key to this has been the remodelling of midfielder Kalvin Phillips who acts as the high-energy lynchpin in a 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession before slipping back into a three man defence when Leeds spring into uber-Bielsa mode and go full-on 3-3-1-3 with the ball at their feet.
Up front Kemar Roofe has took his surname off with his recent performances and all told with the players buying wholesale into Bielsa’s vision, Leeds are unbeaten while boasting the highest possession rate in the league.
Which is wonderful for Leeds fans: it is exciting, reinvigorating and frankly, at the risk of patronage, the least they deserve after a prolonged spell in the wilderness. In charge of their team is one of the most enigmatic, respected coaches in world football – a man who directly inspired and influenced former players Pochettino and Simeone no less – and his passionate, obsessive ways are working a charm as the Yorkshire giants put together a promotion bid while playing sensational fare.
It doesn’t get any better than that does it?
Except that, well, how do we put this diplomatically? Leeds are a hated club. Okay, let’s not even bother with diplomacy and simply put it that way. And they are hated because back in the day they were brilliant and singular and ever so occasionally dirty. They bullied their way to silverware then told you to f*** off if you dared congratulate them. That was Leeds and the fans rightfully buzzed off that.
Only then came the lean years and the pride they sourced from being so unpopular intensified because it signified they were still relevant; still ‘Leeds’. Not for them was sympathy while the notion of becoming anyone’s ‘second favourite side’ appalled.
Which is why in the present this rejoicing in Bielsa-ball is their thing, not ours. It is not to be shared: it is to be envied. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
It isn’t. The hipsters have jumped on board, sharing en masse videos of goals scored at Elland Road and breaking them down into triangular passes and instinctive movement: proclaiming the revolution to be a confirmation of their faith in a divisive coach who abides by four core principles of concentration, permanent focus, rotation, and improvisation. Bielsa, so they say, marries the ideologies of Menotti and Bilardo forging a unique harmony between romantic idealism and territorial dominance. And after travelling the world to mixed reviews he’s finally doing so in England. That makes him theirs to cherish; theirs to revere.
Yet that simply does not hold. He is Leeds’ good fortune for many reasons not least this: had the risky appointment come undone from the get-go would these same hipsters have rallied to the fans’ defence under sustained mockery? Or would they have found ways to blame the club for his early demise then gone on to semi-support whichever institution next employed their complicated deity?
Bluntly, you can’t have it both ways.
More so, this is not the first time the hipsters have embraced a club that traditionally thrives on its antagonism of others. At the turn of the century Leeds were very much in vogue with a young, exciting side that favoured attacking football. The hipsters duly declared their affiliation that was until David O’Leary described his team as ‘his babies’ once too often, and Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate got into an ugly situation that involved an Asian teen being beaten up in the city centre, and finally came the club’s financial collapse that led to widespread giggling from rivals near and far.
Did the hipsters stick around then? Of course not. They were off as quick as their skinny jeans could carry them.
For those with a lifelong allegiance to the club it’s been a horrendous decade and more. They have been through the thick and weathered the thin. So let’s now give Leeds their just dues and envy what they have. And better yet hate them accordingly.