In the last week, football fans in the UK have witnessed a remarkable run of events involving Leeds United’s Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa.
The West Yorkshire club was taking on Derby County in a crucial Championship match last weekend and, as it happened, Bielsa had been exhausting all avenues of research in preparation for the fixture.
On Thursday morning, a person from Derby County FC contacted police to report a man “acting suspiciously” outside The Rams’ training ground. It was said that the individual was trying to view the team’s training session via binoculars from over the perimeter fence.
The police arrived to escort the individual away. Only when he was gone did Frank Lampard and his backroom team resume their training session having originally paused proceedings upon hearing about the man’s watchful attendance.
Later in the day, the rumours began. Claims that the suspicious gentleman had been a ‘spy’ employed by Bielsa were a little hard to believe at first. However, the honest Argentine put any doubts to rest with a pre-match interview on Sky Sports on Friday evening, just before his team took to the field to face Derby County.
With disarming honesty, Bielsa, through his interpreter, revealed: “It’s true it was someone from Leeds United. I am responsible for it.” The former manager of the Argentina and Chile national teams even went on to admit he had employed the same approach before Leeds’ 4-1 win at Derby earlier in the season. He also deflected all blame away from Leeds United, taking full responsibility and saying he had never asked the permission of his club to do this.
Bielsa admitted that he had been sending staff to carry out these spying missions for years. He managed Argentina’s national team from 1998 to 2004 and said he had been using this method of ‘research’ previous to South American World Cup qualifiers.
He added “It is not illegal. For some people, it’s the wrong thing to do and for other people, it’s not the wrong thing to do… It is not illegal, we have been doing it publicly and we talk about it in the press.”
The most interesting thing about the whole situation has been the fallout as a result of ‘spygate’. Public reactions to Bielsa’s confession have ranged from disgust and outrage to admiration and praise.
While it may not be the most sporting act to carry out, it does smack of a win-at-all-costs mentality. I’m sure the love that Leeds fans already had for Bielsa has been increased many times over now they know just how far their manager will go to give their team the upper hand.
Derby manager, Lampard, felt that “On a sportsman’s level, it’s bad. If we are going to talk about culturally and say I did it somewhere else and it’s fine, I don’t’ believe that. It’s disrupted our build-up to the game.”
In the meantime, Leeds United have officially apologised for Bielsa’s actions and spying tactics. The Football Association (FA) and the EFL have launched their own separate enquiries into the incident following Bielsa’s admission that it is a regular occurrence.
In 2015, Premier League club Liverpool had to erect ‘privacy screens’ around their training ground at Melwood. Fans had taken to Twitter to reveal the team shape and likely starting lineup before each game based on what they had been able to watch over the perimeter fence. It was impeding hugely on their game preparation.
So, where does the responsibility lie in relation to training privacy and the safeguarding of a team’s tactical groundwork? Is it up to all clubs to now go down the ‘Liverpool route’?
Bielsa feels that because “it is not illegal” he is doing no wrong. Managers all over Britain have been asked for their take on the matter. The general consensus seems to be that what Bielsa and his staff have done goes against an unwritten moral code.
Brendan Rodgers felt that ‘cheating’ was too strong of a word for it. Steven Gerrard said that Bielsa had overstepped the mark with these actions but also acknowledged that “in football, it’s natural that you are trying to get any advantage you can.” Unai Emery highlighted the fact that it is not illegal but asked: “is it fair play?”
Bizarrely, the Wednesday following his team’s 2-0 victory over Derby, Bielsa decided to turn his press conference into a PowerPoint presentation for the gathered media. The 63-year-old manager showed just how much work and analysis goes into his planning for each game.
Again, Bielsa had surprised us all. Not only was the level of detail involved in his pre-game studies hugely impressive, but the fact that he was approaching the subject so openly was breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale and controlled environment (football press conferences).
If we take a step back and look at the facts there is not much to see here. Bielsa had a staff member stand on public property and peer over the fence at the training methods of his upcoming opponents. Is it the most morally-reprehensible behaviour we have witnessed from the manager of a professional football club? No.
The EFL and FA may have to agree on a set of rules or guidelines to banish this grey area. If they want to be able to govern such behaviour then they need to make this an action they can ‘punish’. It’s likely to be a very common occurrence but we’re just never going to hear such frank admissions of such from other managers.
While we wait, it’s probably best for all Leeds’ opponents between now and May to ensure some extra privacy measures are taken concerning their match preparation. After all, Bielsa admitted to these actions without saying he would cease such exercises in the future. Watch this space.