Michael Bailey: Being blinded by Bielsa and Leeds' impressive marginal gains
In his weekly column, Norwich City correspondent Michael Bailey talks Leeds, Bielsa, spygate and the uncomfortable truths some seem so keen to ignore.
If you are one of those in any way angered by the revelations and shenanigans of Leeds United and spygate, then you have my sympathy.
The premise is straightforward. Police caught a man acting suspiciously outside Derby’s training ground, the day before the Rams’ clash at Elland Road.
They were believed to be caught with a change of clothes and pliers, and since revealed as an unnamed Leeds staff member sent by manager Marcelo Bielsa to spy on their final day of training ahead of a crunch Championship clash.
Among a lot of words since said, Derby have complained to the EFL with the FA already investigating the matter – a situation taken to an entirely new level with Bielsa’s emergency press conference on Wednesday, where the Argentine revealed he had sent a spy to watch EVERY one of Leeds’ Championship rivals this season. A remarkable admission that appeared to make the hole a whole lot deeper.
Already livid, Rams boss Frank Lampard was probably put in a worse mood as he discovered Bielsa’s press conference involved a lengthy powerpoint presentation on everything collected about the Rams.
It was a lecture in obsession and meticulous preparation, no doubt designed to show the relatively small part any spying session played in Bielsa’s preparations.
In some cases, it has worked. The cult of Marcelo now involves a number of unbowed pundits and journalists blinded by the bucket man and his 50-game analysis of each second-tier club.
In fairness, on average that’s about three managerial reigns at each club too – bordering on double that at Elland Road.
It also seems unlikely Derby will appreciate having such scouting analysis shared far and wide – a gift from Leeds to the rest of the division, or at least anyone still set to face Lampard’s side.
What the EFL and FA investigations both conclude and casts as punishment will be fascinating to discover.
While no specific rules have been broken in this case and no unlawful action – at least to anyone’s knowledge – took place, the EFL won’t have to look hard to find agreements signed off between clubs and guidelines in terms of their responsibilities to be respected each season.
That in itself may give the EFL and FA leverage to act – be it fines or touchline bans – with the sole aim an obvious one: “It’s up to how much the FA and EFL want to stop what happened happening again, or whether they don’t,” acknowledged Lampard.
In truth, many in the game seem non-plussed about it all.
For Norwich City boss Daniel Farke, he wants to run his football club in a different way – with class and respect. What happens at other clubs is their respective business.
FA coaching guru and former City reserve and youth team boss Keith Webb was an excellent guest on The PinkUn Show this week (pinkun.com/show) and made an honest admission of his own.
“Our understanding in this country of our fair play rules and what is right or wrong has been affronted, and it’s probably more about that than breaking any laws,” said Webb.
“I had an experience of it when I was out at the Paralympics in Rio. There was someone watching us train and I suppose at the time, I felt a little aggrieved someone would go to that level.
“But I’m not sure as a coach whether I was more aggrieved that someone was doing it to me and my team, or that I wasn’t sure I had the gumption to do it to someone else.”
The fact those in the game generally seem calm over the situation is one thing – but it shouldn’t stop the questions.
Like the idea not one person at Leeds knew what Bielsa was up to and therefore couldn’t possibly point him in the direction of his expected conduct. The club distancing themselves from Marcelo’s actions may well be cute, but would also therefore be disingenuous.
Bielsa can go on and on about how small a part his spying played in his preparations – but we’re talking about marginal gains here: the chance to get an opposition team 24 hours earlier; of knowing Harry Wilson was injured, who would step in and what specific plans and patterns the next day’s opponents were working on.
The sheer scale and commitment to it is some feat – and in itself, hugely damning.
It should also lead to questions over what other boundaries Leeds have pushed this season, given there were also suggestions Leeds broke rules over coaching solely from the dugout earlier in the season. All these things add up.
Almost certainly, Leeds won’t be the only ones to have ever spied behind closed doors. At the same time, to dismiss it as having no effect or being irrelevant simply undermines the worth of those small details and minor preparations every club invests in, so much.
Such small margins decide goals, points and ultimately promotions.
Hopefully that all figures in the judgements of the FA and EFL when the time comes, alongside a glowing tribute to Marcelo Bielsa’s fantastic career and meticulous preparation.
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