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For 45 minutes at the Emirates Stadium in January, Leeds United were a Premier League club. Playing without pressure in the FA Cup, they made the game so painful for Arsenal that Mikel Arteta said it was “like going to the dentist”.
There will be a lot for Marcelo Bielsa to get used to in the Premier League – for real, this time. He already despaired of press coverage in the Championship, and the top flight’s media and sponsor requirements are a potential Bielsa minefield.
On the pitch, however, El Loco should be in his element. He has refused to speculate about how his team might perform in the Premier League, but did once admit that some of his Leeds players could fit into his Athletic Bilbao side, which reached the 2012 Europa League Final.
With a short pre-season and an uncertain transfer market, Bielsa will attack the Premier League with the same core group of disciples which swept to the Championship title. That should be an advantage.
The running stats showed that his players never tired, and their mental resilience counted when it mattered in winning the title. Players such as Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich are nearer the end of their careers than the start, and highly motivated by their ambition to be Premier League footballers.
They had the maturity to commit to their manager’s punishing training and dietary demands – asked one time what he missed from the days before Bielsa’s arrival, Ayling replied, “food” – and so insulated themselves against burnout.
Premier League opponents will be better prepared than Championship teams, however. Bielsa is Pep Guardiola’s mentor, but the apprentice’s Barcelona made light work of the master’s Athletic in the 2012 Copa del Rey Final. Bielsa has played four and lost four against Jose Mourinho.
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The scrutiny on those match-ups will bring added pressure. Bielsa hasn’t coached a full campaign of top-flight club football since Marseille in 2014-15. He is loved in Leeds, but he’s about to find out how many people outside the city love to hate Leeds.
It may be that the Championship was an idyllic time for him, in a slightly dimmer spotlight while coaching an intense, passionate club. Maybe 2020-21 won’t be about having the same impact, but about a Bielsa we’ve not yet seen in England: one who rises to the explosive challenge of his – and Leeds’ – old rivalries.
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