Guardiola takes on his guru, Bielsa, for 1st time in England

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Leeds United's head coach Marcelo Bielsa looks out during the English Premier League soccer match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road Stadium, in Leeds, England, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Laurence Griffiths/Pool via AP)

It was 2006 and Pep Guardiola was winding down his playing career with a short spell at Mexican club Dorados, where he had moved chiefly to understand better the art of soccer management under its Spanish coach, Juanma Lillo.

Before he took the plunge into coaching, Guardiola also was urged to travel to Argentina to seek out another deep thinker of the beautiful game.

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Marcelo Bielsa — without a job at the time after leading Argentina to Olympic in 2004 — welcomed Guardiola to his home near Rosario and the pair bonded over a conversation lasting about 10 hours.

Within two years, Guardiola was at the helm of Barcelona and leading what would become perhaps the greatest ever team at club level. Indeed, Bielsa would feel the full force of Guardiola’s team when returning to Spanish soccer in charge of Athletic Bilbao in 2011.

Ever since, Guardiola has repeatedly described Bielsa as one of the world’s best coaches — certainly the one he admires above anyone else — and on Saturday he will come face-to-face with him on the touchline once again in what should be a tactically fascinating Premier League match between Bielsa’s Leeds and Guardiola’s Manchester City.

“What we spoke about,” Bielsa said this week through a translator, remembering that first meeting with Guardiola at his ranch, “made me think it was someone who really thought about football.

“First of all,” Bielsa continued, “he’s imaginative. He's able to instantly create solutions to problems that he imagines or comes across. And another thing that distinguishes him as a top coach is that what he proposes, he’s able to implement. When you praise someone, I think it’s important to argue why. Because if not, it’s mere sympathy rather than actual praise.”

Deep thoughts from one of the most thorough managers around — Bielsa gave an extraordinary, 70-minute Powerpoint presentation to media in January, detailing his extensive research into opponents in the midst of a “Spygate” scandal — and Guardiola has proved to be just as intense a coach.

Guardiola never played under Bielsa, though he dearly wishes he had. Yet through his many conversations with Bielsa and players who have worked with the Argentine, Guardiola feels he is on safe ground to describe his mentor as inimitable and has acknowledged that Bielsa’s mental approach to dealing with good and bad results has stuck with him to this day.

“I think he's the most authentic manager,” Guardiola said Friday. "In terms of how he conducts his teams, it’s unique. I was fortunate sometimes — because I don’t see him every week — to have the pleasure of spending time with him and it’s always inspirational for me.

“My theory is that the (quality of a) manager doesn't depend on how many titles you've won, because I feel far away from his knowledge as a manager. I won, or my teams have won, more titles than him but in terms of knowledge of the game and many things in training sessions, I am away from him.”

Back in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, Leeds has already made its mark under Bielsa thanks to a chaotic opening match against champion Liverpool, which ended 4-3 but could have featured many more goals.

Attacking in waves — even at Anfield — and pressing man-to-man all over the field, Leeds showed a hard-running, adventurous and bold side that Bielsa has ingrained since taking over in 2018.

Given the way City attacks combined with its susceptibility at the back — Guardiola's team lost to Leicester 5-2 last week, after all — the expectation is there will be lots of goals at Elland Road on Saturday.

“Leeds have a specific way of playing, completely different to all the teams in the league,” Guardiola said. "They arrive with a lot of people in the box and defend with a lot of people in the box, with incredible efforts.

“At Barcelona, the team I had played three times against Bilbao and all the games were so complicated. When you face (Bielsa's) teams, the way you have to attack and defend is completely different.”

Guardiola said he hadn't spoken to Bielsa this week in the build-up to the match. Still, he knows what is coming on Saturday.

“His teams are always a joy to watch, how honest they are — they want to attack and produce good football for spectators,” Guardiola said. “It’s a gift to have them in this championship.”


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