Bilbao, November 2011
The San Mamés heaved and the heavens opened. The players of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona dragged themselves from the field, their bodies soaked in rain and sweat. It finished 2-2, Lionel Messi poaching an equaliser in injury time: for Athletic a triumph cruelly snatched away; for Barcelona two precious points dropped in the title race. And yet this was a time not to mourn, but to rejoice.
A “hymn to football”, Pep Guardiola called it. “It was lovely,” Marcelo Bielsa agreed. Certainly it stands as one of the greatest La Liga games of the last decade, not because it was flawless but because it was the opposite. There were slips, mistakes, squelching tackles, a late red card, flashes of genius, tactical flourishes, lightning breaks. And through it all the rain clattered down, and through it all both teams ran and chased and pressed and swarmed as if this were their last night on Earth.
On the touchline, Bielsa and Guardiola tenderly clasped hands, as if sharing in a special, powerful miracle. Your players are beasts, Guardiola said to Bielsa. So are yours, Bielsa replied. Later Guardiola would testify that his Barcelona side – one of the greatest to play the game – had never come up against an opponent this intense, this suffocatingly aggressive.
This was the first time Bielsa and Guardiola would meet as coaches, and somehow they had managed to distil their very essence into 93 epic, orchestral minutes: a song of heart and lungs and suffering, a celebration of football and what football could be. On Saturday evening, at Elland Road, they will meet again. The forecast in the Leeds area is for heavy rain.
Maximo Paz, October 2006
Marcelo Bielsa had a question. “Why do you,” he asked Pep Guardiola, “who knows of all the garbage in football, the dishonesty of people, want to return to that environment and manage? Do you like blood so much?”
“I need the blood,” Guardiola replied.
Over the years, as Guardiola established himself as one of the world’s great coaches, Bielsa would strongly play down his own influence. “If there is a manager who is independent in his ideas, it is Guardiola,” he said on Thursday. But 14 years ago, recently retired and still with a little hair, it was Guardiola – on the advice of Gabriel Batistuta, his former teammate at Al-Ahli – who made the pilgrimage to Bielsa’s ranch in the Argentinian countryside. It was a meeting that may well have changed the history of football.
From noon to midnight, over grilled asado meat, they talked much as their teams would play: intensely, with passion and complexity and no quarter given. Occasionally Bielsa’s computer would be required to solve disputes. Occasionally they would rearrange the furniture in order to demonstrate a tactical point. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, Guardiola returned to his hotel in Buenos Aires, exhausted and yet reborn. He texted a friend: “I’ve just met the person who knows the most about football.”
The similarities between them are often overplayed. By and large Guardiola’s teams have been more tonally refined than Bielsa’s, less feral and chaotic, more anchored to their midfield. Let’s face it: they’ve also been a lot better. All the same, there are strands of shared DNA in there: the midfielders at centre-half, the bombing full-backs, the kamikaze high line, the sense above all that the game is not merely to be played but to be seized, attacked, lived to the full. Maybe, if the pair had never met, all this might have happened anyway. But it would be one hell of a coincidence.
Madrid, May 2012
Eight months after his meeting with Bielsa, Guardiola accepted a job as the reserve-team coach at Barcelona. Since then, Guardiola has won 24 major trophies. Bielsa has won only the Championship with Leeds. What explains the gulf between them? Perhaps the Copa del Rey final of 2012 – their most recent meeting on the pitch – offers a few clues.
Before the game Bielsa applied himself even more obsessively than usual to the puzzle of how to unlock Guardiola’s Barcelona. For Bielsa, extrapolation is apostasy. No part of the whole can ever substitute for the whole. Ask him about his 10-game unbeaten run and he’ll bring up the five winless games before them. Ask about the three goals Leeds scored at Anfield and he’ll ask why you’ve overlooked the four they conceded.
And so, convinced that Barcelona would spring a surprise, Bielsa rewatched and dissected all 63 of their previous games that season, analysing every goal for and against, cataloguing the hundreds of individual movements that preceded them. You’re reminded of the words of Arturo Vidal, explaining why he does not rank Bielsa alongside the likes of Guardiola, Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti. “Of course he knows a lot about soccer,” scoffed Vidal of his time playing under Bielsa for Chile. “But it is excessive.”
Maybe, on some level, Bielsa agrees with him. “I realised that having all of that information doesn’t automatically make you win,” he said after a meek 3-0 defeat that could have been even more emphatic. And maybe what has often held Bielsa back is not the weight of knowledge but its inefficiency: the mysterious alchemy by which the contents of his brain are conveyed to the limbs of 20 grown adults, the trick of making his vision flesh, of rendering the complex digestible, of extracting the part back from the whole.
After the game, as a sort of intellectual surrender, a ritual sacrifice to his conqueror, Bielsa presented his exhaustive analysis to an impressed Guardiola. “You know more about Barcelona than I do,” said Guardiola, thumbing through the dossier. “It was useless,” Bielsa replied.
Leeds, October 2020
The lust for blood is stronger than ever. The lust for knowledge, too. Bielsa confesses to feeling “ignorant” whenever he watches City playing, unable to grasp how they manage to find such neat, quick solutions against tightly packed defences with 11 men behind the ball.
This is not, of course, a problem Guardiola is likely to encounter on Saturday evening. We know the contours of how Leeds and Manchester City will approach this game: with aggression and fierce pressing and quick vertical passes and a single-pivot midfield and plenty of runners looking to spring the offside trap.
What we don’t know are the finer details. The tilts and the shifts and the bounce of the ball. Pretty much any result – from a Leeds trouncing to a City trouncing to a high-scoring draw to 0-0 – is at least conceivable.
Will Patrick Bamford get to run at that brittle City backline? How often will City be able to play through the Leeds press? Who wins the first tackle?
What a shame Elland Road will be empty to greet this reacquaintance between two of football’s true believers. Nonetheless, in many ways this fixture feels like the ultimate expression of the modern Premier League, a product that has always conceived of itself as something more: as the fullest expression of the game, with the biggest tackles, the fastest breaks, the most cerebral managers and the best storylines. For once, the hype feels justified.