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Bielsa’s Apostles: 12 players whose careers have been hugely influenced by the Leeds United manager

A look back at Marcelo Bielsa’s history in the game is enough to understand why he is considered one of the most influential managers in world football right now. 

The current Leeds United manager has improved the fortunes of many a player’s career over the years, with some going on to be managers themselves. Some of them have even achieved more success than their mentor.

This just goes to show the effect his methods and leadership have had on the modern game, with Pep Guardiola just one of many top coaches who cite the Argentine coach as an inspiration.

12 players influenced by Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa:

Gabriel Batistuta – Argentina

‘Batigol’ was one of the best strikers of the nineties and early noughties, but it was only after Marcelo Bielsa took up the national team job with Argentina that the former Fiorentina and AS Roma player took the physical and nutritional side of the game seriously.

“When I arrived, I was fat – it’s that simple,” said Gabriel Batistuta.

“I liked alfajores [a traditional biscuit]. The first thing Bielsa did was get rid of them and teach me to train in the rain. I hated him for it.

“We were a group of dreamers and the first dreamer was Bielsa. He dreamed about being Arrigo Sacchi, who he watched constantly winning European Cups. He wanted that to be us. A group of street kids to become heroes.”

Alexis Sanchez – Chile

When Bielsa took charge of the Chilean national team, Alexis Sanchez was still in the formative years of his playing career. Chile qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years under the Argentine, while Sanchez went on to have a successful career in Europe playing for Udinese, Barcelona, Arsenal, Man United and Inter Milan.

“I learned a lot from him and it is because of him that I am who I am,” Sanchez has said of Bielsa. “What I remember the most about Bielsa was the mentality that he tries to instill in his players.”

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Benjamin Mendy – Marseille

Bielsa was not at Marseille for a very long time, but his influence on some of his players there was tremendous, with several going on to bigger and brighter futures.

Benjamin Mendy was one such player, who has won the World Cup and Premier League since playing under him in Ligue 1. The Argentine taught him the value of self-improvement and studying his own game.

“He made me devour videos like never before. To begin with, he put me in front of the videos and I’d fall asleep. But he was happy! I was shocked.

“After a while I stopped sleeping and told myself go on, I’ll watch two minutes of this thing after all. After that he talked to me, I talked to him and we would go over moves together.

“He told me ‘see, that’s why I let you sleep. You slept, you slept, you slept, but the day you decided to watch you got interested on your own. If I’d pushed you to watch you wouldn’t have been interested.’ Marcelo is just too good.”

Ander Herrera – Athletic Club de Bilbao

Bielsa really came to the fore of European football when he joined Athletic Club in 2011, turning the fortunes of the team and its talented squad around. Under his tutelage Ander Herrera became one of the best tackling midfielders in La Liga.

“When I joined Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa told me, ‘Don’t complain ever again, because referees are there to help footballers, not to kill them.’ That was a lesson I had from him,” said Herrera.

“I was going from a team that was fighting to keep alive to the romantic football of Marcelo Bielsa, so it was a big change for me. We played amazing football. Marcelo Bielsa should always be in football because the view he has about football is amazing.

“I remember the things he would say: ‘If we score the first goal, we are going to try to score the second,’ ‘don’t waste time,’ ‘don’t complain to the referee,’ ‘even if you have a bad decision, keep running, keep fighting,’ ‘if you score a goal, the best way to defend is to score the second one.’”

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Diego Simeone – Argentina

For four years Diego Simeone played under Bielsa for Argentina, during which time they were eliminated from the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. But El Loco‘s influence on El Cholo is clear to see, and without their paths crossing we may not have seen Simeone develop into the manager he has since become.

“I have the influence of several coaches: Bielsa, Eriksson, Basile, they have all left a mark. Bielsa taught me the most,” he said.

Simeone has achieved incredible success in charge of Atletico Madrid, where he was won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and two Europa Leagues as well as reaching the final of the Champions League on two occasions.

Dimitri Payet – Marseille

They were only together a year, but at Marseille Bielsa was able to turn Dimitri Payet from a talented wide player into one of the most creative outlets in Europe. Save for Lionel Messi, Payet played more successful through balls than anyone in the 2014-15 season.

“Bielsa was the first to recognise that Dimitri is a playmaker and not a winger. Dimitri is probably the best player in the world, together with Andrés Iniesta, with his back to the goal,” said Bielsa’s former assistant Jan van Winckel.

“He is so technically gifted and agile that it is almost impossible to get the ball from him. It is no coincidence that Dimi scored against Romania (at Euro 2016) when he was playing in a central role.”

Payet subsequently had a brilliant short stint at West Ham United before returning to Marseille.

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Javi Martinez – Athletic Club de Bilbao

Another player Bielsa was able to help find his best position, Javi Martinez moved from midfield to the centre of defence in 2011 and never looked back, becoming one of the top talents in Spanish and European football while in Bilbao.

The Spaniard later moved on to Bayern Munich for a £40m move, where he said Pep Guardiola constantly enquired about the player’s former manager.

“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge because he makes the players much, much better,” Martinez said in 2017.

“Still, I didn’t meet one guy, a former player from Marcelo Bielsa who speaks no good about him. They are grateful about his influence on their careers in football.

“He helped me a lot with his advice. Whenever I speak with him I always feel like he wants to help me.

“It is important for me to say this about Marcelo because it doesn’t matter how many titles he had in his career. We are judged by that – how much success we have, how many titles we have won.

“But that is much less influential than how he has influenced football and his football players. That is why, for me, he is the best coach in the world.”

Mauricio Pochettino – Newell’s Old Boys, Argentina

There’s a famous story of Bielsa travelling to Murphy, the town in Argentina where Mauricio Pochettino grew up, in the middle of the night to take measurements of the player’s legs before signing the youngster for Newell’s Old Boys.

After five years at the club Pochettino left in 1994 to have a good career playing in Europe, but it’s as a manager where he has made his name. By the sounds of it, the former Spurs manager was partaking in a degree in football management while playing for Bielsa at club and international level.

“It helped you find answers on the pitch. All that homework – I wish all my friends could have experienced at least one percent of what I did,” Pochettino said.

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Aymeric Laporte – Athletic Club de Bilbao

Breaking into the Athletic Club first team at the age of 18 in Bielsa’s second season in Bilbao, Aymeric Laporte soon developed into one of the most polished ball-playing centre-backs in European football. Unsurprisingly Pep Guardiola picked him for £57m in 2018 and he has been a key cog in the Manchester City defence ever since.

“Without him, I might not be where I am today,” Laporte told The Times.

“Bielsa’s different in lots of ways, his character, his personality. You only have to talk to him to realise he’s not cut from the usual cloth. But he’s also a really hard worker: he never stops watching matches, he has an extraordinary knowledge of football, he knows everything about the game.”

Marcelo Gallardo – Argentina

Former attacking midfielder Marcelo Gallardo is another player who has gone into management after playing under Bielsa, although by the sounds of it he wished he had gleaned more from the Rosario native when he had the chance:

“Bielsa was one of the coaches who taught me the most, but maybe I missed some of his concepts because I was very young and they didn’t interest me that much at the time.”

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Fernando Llorente – Athletic Bilbao

Bielsa and Fernando Llorente didn’t always see eye to eye at Athletic, but there can be no doubting that the manager got the most out of the Spanish striker.

Llorente scored a career-best 29 goals in all competitions in 2011/12 as the Basque outfit reached both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals. The Napoli player would go on to play for Juventus, Sevilla, Swansea and Spurs, with whom he reached the Champions League final in 2019.

“He is a very demanding coach and he gets the most out of every player, to the point where it can overwhelm you,” Llorente said in 2012.

“In the end, you know it is for your own good, and for the good of the team. He is is doing a magnificent job here. He is very important, one of the keys to the success of the team.”

Kalvin Phillips – Leeds United

And now to the present day, where, as Leeds United manager, Bielsa has taken a group of mid-table underachievers and brought them to the brink of the Premier League. His side play some of the most attractive football in the country, but the player he has had the biggest impact on is Kalvin Phillips, who is said to be close to an England call-up.

The midfielder has been effusive in his praise of Bielsa, saying that he “never thought I’d be able to do this well” before the Argentine coach took the job at Elland Road.

“I think it’s just the way he makes us train 100 percent every game, he makes us watch videos on our games and goes back and tells us what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right,” according to Phillips.

“And positional play, I felt like I could play anywhere in midfield, but he knew what position was best for me, and he knew where he wanted me to play.

“I think with his style and the way that he’s nurtured me to play in that position I think it’s been a massive help to me.”

Read: Recalling Aston Villa’s incredible League Cup triumph of 1994

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