Getting relegated the previous season, keeping the core of the squad together and bouncing back is the first; spending your way out is the second.
There is a lesser-known third way, however: Bielsa Ball.
The story of the ill-fated Leeds United has been well told. An overly-ambitious bid for Champions League football culminated in financial troubles the club took nearly 20 years to overcome.
A fire-sale of the club’s stars including Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler and Harry Kewell resulted in relegation to the Championship.
Their second year in the Championship saw them lose in the play-off final. The third saw them enter administration and finish rock bottom.
At the third time of asking, Leeds would be promoted back to the Championship, but their momentum quickly stalled.
What followed was eight years of stagnation; eight years in the wilderness; eight years of Football League purgatory; not bad enough to fight relegation but not good enough to challenge for promotion.
In the first eight seasons back in the second tier, Leeds finished no worse than 15th but no better than seventh.
Enter: Marcelo Bielsa.
After years of seeing underperforming and underachieving managers in the dugout, hoping for the likes of Dave Hockaday and Darko Milanic to hoist them up the league, Leeds United had one of the game’s all-time great coaches. A man who’d managed at World Cups and reached a European final, spending years with the likes of Athletic Club and Marseille had decided to slum it in England’s second tier.
Of course, he came with a personality, to put it mildly. An unorthodox coach – and indeed an unorthodox person – Bielsa did things his own way.
Nicknamed El Loco – The Madman – the meeting of Bielsa and Leeds United was sure to go one of two ways; it would either end in failure, as so many recent managerial tenures had, or, backed by one of the best fanbases in the country, Bielsa would create a footballing symphony out of Leeds United and get them back to the Premier League.
Whatever happened, it promised fireworks, and the revolution was underway.
No side will fully get to grips with the intensity and demands – both physical and technical – of Bielsa instantly, but Leeds went close. After eight games, they topped the table thanks to five wins and three draws.
There were hiccups throughout the campaign, but for only four days were Leeds outside of the top three, and they were never outside the play-offs.
One of Bielsa’s more unorthodox moments – even by his standards – was to arrange a press briefing after ‘spygate’, when Leeds were accused of sending someone to observe a Derby County training session.
While Bielsa took responsibility, it sparked something of an unlikely rivalry between the two clubs, but it also provided the Argentine with a platform to explain his methods and showcase his tactical expertise.
Bielsa stood in front of the assembled journalists like a conductor with baton in hand. What initially seemed to confirm Bielsa’s reputation as The Madman, also confirmed his reputation as a genius.
But Leeds would stumble over the finish line, ultimately falling out of the automatic promotion places, which they occupied with four games to play, picking up just one point between then and the end of the season and setting them up for another play-off campaign, and yet more play-off heartbreak.
As the last 15 years had shown, Leeds United and the play-offs go together like oil and water.
And as fate would have it, Leeds would face Derby County, who’d just about finished sixth to secure their play-off berth.
Leeds went to Derby and won the first leg 1-0, putting themselves in pole position for a trip to Wembley, with Stuart Dallas given a tap-in to double their advantage in the second leg.
Leeds fans would sing “stop crying, Frank Lampard” regarding the perceived overreaction to the club’s clandestine scouting trip as Wembley beckoned.
The grand irony of course was that while Leeds’ Pablo Hernandez was in tears at the final whistle, Lampard was in heaven.
Derby players celebrated by mimicking binoculars, with both players and manager joining in with an Oasis rendition of their own in the dressing room after the match. County came from 2-0 down on aggregate to 3-2 up, with Leeds equalising, and sub Jack Marriott scoring a late winner.
After so much promise, Leeds were put through yet more heartbreak – and things could be about to get worse.
They couldn’t simply dust themselves off and go again; they were made to wait until Bielsa confirmed he’d be staying on for a second season, and there’d be no play-off heartbreak the second time around.
Long-standing defenders Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas were joined by a Brighton prospect named Benjamin White. Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison and Kalvin Phillips were near omnipresent in the midfield, with Patrick Bamford spearheading the attack.
On paper, it wasn’t one of the best teams in the Championship, and if Bielsa wasn’t there, it was a squad that would be over-achieving in reaching the play-offs, never mind anything else.
But Bielsa was there. He’d had 12 months to instil his ideas, he’d now get another 12 months to perfect them, and to perfect Leeds.
There were off days, even off months; spells where Bielsa was being questioned, but when they were on, Leeds came as close to footballing perfection as anyone had ever seen in England’s second tier.
When people speculate how good Pep Guardiola would really be if he wasn’t bestowed the riches of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, watching Leeds United in the Championship in 2019/20 would give you a reasonable idea.
Mateusz Klich gave an insight into Bielsa’s training methods, claiming that everything was about ensuring the players had the maximum tactical understanding to carry out his demands, with the rest of the sessions spent on fitness, and that there were no games in training sessions.
Perhaps with the exception of one.
Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ sessions were another of the Argentine’s unorthodox methods, but they seemed to work.
Scheduled midweek when Leeds didn’t have a game, Bielsa would pitch his preferred starting XI against another intra-squad XI.
If the ball left the pitch, another one was immediately re-introduced. There were no corners, no throw-ins, not even fouls. It was all part and parcel of the session. The catch for the starting XI is that they’d play a full 30 minutes, while the opposing XI would be rotated every six minutes.
Half an hour of the most ridiculously intense football, akin to a basketball match, all while playing a team who’ve just had a six-minute breather.
But a year after Bielsa Ball had been introduced at Elland Road – and indeed murderball had been introduced at Thorp Arch – Leeds went off as favourites for promotion which they quickly justified, picking up 13 points from their first five games.
There were stumbles over the next few weeks, however. Despite dominating games against Swansea, Derby and Charlton, Leeds would manage just one point from those three games. While Bamford was an invaluable presence in attack, particularly in a Bielsa side with his excellent work rate, Leeds often lacked a more clinical finisher. Bamford was in the middle of a 10-game goalless streak, during which he failed to score with 29 consecutive attempts.
In their next nine games, despite all the possession and all of the chances, Leeds won just three times and scored just seven goals.
West Brom and Preston had overtaken Leeds, but Bielsa’s men were still very much in the hunt.
The bad luck they rued throughout a frustrating September and October turned around in November. Leeds won all five games – a run that would be extended to seven in December as Leeds marched clear of the chasing pack, only a point ahead of West Brom, but 11 points ahead of Fulham.
But their momentum, as it did earlier in the season, would come to a grinding halt over the festive period.
Leeds were typically averaging 60 to 70 per cent possession home and away and created chance after chance week after week, but the lack of ruthlessness reared its head once more.
3-0 up at home to Cardiff inside the hour, and still 3-1 up after 80 minutes, Leeds would throw their lead away in a game they dominated.
That would be followed by a loss at Fulham and a draw at home to Preston, before a trip to St Andrew’s…
Though Leeds had built up a healthy cushion ahead of the Christmas period and their visit to Birmingham City, going 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 up only to be pegged back each time – the latest equaliser coming in the 91st minute – was the last thing Leeds needed.
It’s no secret that Bielsa’s style of football requires a relentless work ethic, and having seen the collapse at the end of the previous season, it was fair to wonder if such a philosophy was suited to a 46-game season.
But in the 95th minute we saw all that was so good about a Bielsa side; Alioski and Berardi battling to regain possession high up the pitch, Helder Costa finding Luke Ayling in the area, with the full-back driving a low ball into the six-yard box.
In the end it wasn’t even a Leeds shirt that turned the ball in, but a Birmingham one. The ball from Ayling was so good, a goal was inevitable. Leeds had won in the most dramatic of circumstances in a game that must have shaved years off the life expectancy of all watching.
It was New Year’s Day and Leeds topped the Champonship again. The five-point cushion between themselves and the play-offs from the previous season had been extended to a healthier nine points this time around.
Sure enough, Leeds would then go on their worst run of the season.
A draw with title rivals West Brom was followed by losses to Sheffield Wednesday and QPR. A win from 2-0 down against Millwall stopped the rot – and to their credit, the second-half performance was that of a Premier League team, playing Millwall off the park, with the 3-2 win actually doing Leeds a disservice – but even that was followed by two more defeats to Wigan and Nottingham Forest with the latter another example of Leeds hogging the ball and not being able to do enough with it.
Bamford, who’d already experienced a 10-game barren spell earlier in the season, had now failed to score in eight of his last nine games, and it appeared that Leeds were indeed falling apart again.
In their defence, they’d come through a tough run of fixtures, but to have been nine points clear at Christmas, to just one point clear having played a game more, Leeds appeared to be in free-fall. Not only had the chasing pack caught them, they were only six points clear of seventh-place Bristol City and had played a game more. For all the brilliant football, they couldn’t find the net often enough.
But their luck was about to turn.
Bamford’s barren spell would continue, but Leeds won their next three games 1-0 thanks to goals from Ayling, Hernandez and Klich to restore a five-point cushion between themselves and third-place Fulham, and Leeds never looked back.
Leeds won their next two games against Hull and Huddersfield 4-0 and 2-0. With five wins and five clean sheets, Leeds were top again, and seven points clear of Fulham with just nine games to play.
It would be another three months before Leeds would play again due to the pandemic. Would Leeds’s momentum be stopped once again? Or was it a blessing in disguise that Leeds could have such a break before going again for the run-in?
Based on their return against Cardiff, the former; based on the rest of the season, the latter.
Leeds beat promotion-chasing Fulham in their next game to establish an eight-point cushion with seven games to play.
Surely, after 16 years in the wilderness; surely, after all the play-off and relegation heartbreak, surely, after all the off-the-pitch farces, Leeds United would be going up.
Yes, they would, and in style.
With four games to go, Leeds would score not just one of the goals of the season, but one of the goals of any season. It was Bielsa Ball in full flow; nine players touched the ball in the 30-pass move, and one of the two who didn’t played as big a part in the goal as anyone else.
While Bamford may have frustrated in front of goal throughout the season, his awareness to step over Helder Costa’s pull-back for Pablo Hernandez was as wonderful as the finish itself.
This wasn’t a team of Premier League footballers sticking around to try and get back up; nor was it a lavishly assembled team of stars clearly too good for the division.
It was a masterfully coached team, perfectly exemplifying Leeds legend Billy Bremner’s famous quote that is proudly displayed outside Elland Road: “Side before self, every time.”
A win in their next game over Swansea left Leeds within touching distance; six points clear of third with three to play. A win over Barnsley and it was six points clear with two to play.
As it happened, West Brom would lose to Huddersfield, meaning Leeds’s promotion was confirmed without having to kick a ball.
Nevertheless, the title was still up for grabs; what would be a first piece of silverware for the club since winning the old First Division in its final season in 1992, nearly 30 years previous.
Once again, Leeds would get over that particular hurdle without stepping onto the pitch as Brentford lost to Stoke.
Leeds weren’t just promoted, they were promoted as champions, and even found themselves in the position of being given a guard of honour by, of all clubs, Derby County.
Nervousness would’ve been understandable given the history of the club, but over their last 14 games, they won 12 and drew one, picking up 37 points from a possible 42.
In the end, they finished on a fairly modest 93 points. They weren’t centurions like Sunderland, Newcastle, Fulham, Leicester or Reading. But they were so much more than that.
They’d not just got themselves promoted to the Premier League, but did so playing a brand of football not seen in England’s second tier.
It wasn’t even football; it was Bielsa Ball.