It is almost taboo for leading coaches to suggest they are overpaid but, applying a sledgehammer to one of the game’s unwritten conventions, Marcelo Bielsa has claimed he is currently offering Leeds United poor value for money.
“I am in charge of a group of footballers who warrant, who deserve, to be in a higher position,” said Bielsa, whose injury-hit side are one place and two points clear of the Premier League’s relegation zone. “The club has trusted in me and one of the aspects that shows their confidence is what they pay me – so, of course, these results that I am offering are not what is expected.
“The injuries are not one of the reasons why we are there and, of course, the position we occupy in the table worries me. The club have put enough resources at my disposal for results to be different.”
The 66-year-old Argentinian is believed to command about £8m a year and when he led Leeds out of the Championship in 2020 and to a creditable ninth-placed finish last season, it seemed money extremely well spent.
Yet while Bielsa remains revered in West Yorkshire, a combination of only two wins this season and nagging concerns relating to his enduring belief in working with an unusually small nucleus of senior professionals dictate he is starting to face some, albeit low-key, criticism from fans.
It leaves Saturday’s trip to Brighton freighted with unexpected importance, particularly as the meeting with Graham Potter’s team follows improved performances in the recent draw at home to Leicester and narrow defeat at Tottenham.
After the Spurs game, the famously intense Bielsa allowed his squad a rare day off in London followed by a Monday evening visit to a nightclub which would probably have remained under the radar had the England midfield anchor Kalvin Phillips not suffered a minor head graze while strutting his stuff on the dancefloor.
As welcome as that break in ultra-disciplined routine doubtless proved, team spirit has, happily, never required too much bolstering at a club badly debilitated by the loss of last season’s leading scorer, Patrick Bamford, to the serious ankle injury which has sidelined him for the majority of the campaign.
By way of further complications several first-teamers including, most notably Diego Llorente, Raphinha, Robin Koch, Luke Ayling, Junior Firpo, Phillips, Stuart Dallas and Rodrigo, have been exiled to the treatment room at various times, but the situation is gradually easing with only Bamford and Koch still not quite fit.
Despite Leeds keeping only one clean sheet since August, the absences have at least allowed young players to emerge into the first XI, with the forward Joe Gelhardt, in particular, shining, and offered the recently impressive Adam Forshaw a route back into midfield after two injury-hit years.
Similarly, other players have seized a chance to display unexpected flexibility; the centre-half Pascal Struijk has operated convincingly at left-back and the winger Dan James caught the eye after temporary reinvention as a lone striker.
“I am not the owner of the truth, nor am I immovable in my point of view,” said Bielsa. “I don’t have positions that are fundamentalist. But I value the decisions I made. When you add players to have a bigger group it decreases the possibilities to come into the first team. Keeping the same players and having patience has meant Forshaw is a constant presence in the team again and Gelhardt has been able to express himself.”
Even so, Leeds would surely be in big trouble were it not for the consistently outstanding form of their right winger Raphinha. With a characteristic amalgam of honesty and insight, Bielsa explained the Brazilian’s enduring “amateurism” is proving pivotal.
“To be a professional player an important contribution is to possess a high spirit of amateur,” said a manager some observers sense may be in his final season at Elland Road. “I am referring to what a player develops when they play for nothing without expecting any recompense apart from victory.
“Raphinha is a clear example, he has added a lot of things the professional game demands but he hasn’t lost anything you achieve when you play for nothing. That is not a virtue you obtain with professionalism. You have to conserve and keep it despite the professionalism.”
Leeds may face an unscheduled relegation skirmish but the Premier League would surely be infinitely poorer without Bielsa.