In the unlikely event that you have been hiding under a rock and haven’t had a chance to glimpse the back of a newspaper, I will briefly fill you in. Marcelo Bielsa yesterday (Wednesday 16th January) gave one of the most impromptu press conferences the football world has ever seen, in which he categorically denied spying on opponents as a means of gaining a sporting advantage.
hopefully this gives some insight into what went on yesterday, and what the point of it was from Bielsa’s perspective. Boils down to one quote: “I don’t need to watch an opponent train to know how an opponent plays.”— Phil Hay (@PhilHayYEP) January 17, 2019
He admitted that a snooper had been sent to every one of Leeds United’s opponents this season to watch them train, but only in order to clarify information that he himself already had. He then proceeded to demonstrate the potential of that freely-available information and how it might be used to crucify Derby County. We (the wider footballing community, and beyond, I expect) watched on in a mouth-half-open kind of way, trying desperately to comprehend the immense scale of the Bielsa analysis, and what it could mean for our game moving forward.
For me, the issue at hand here is rather more sinister than the act of sending a bloke in a tracksuit to stand on a public road and look through a fence, anything up to a kilometre from where a group of professional football players are going through a training routine that may or may not have relevance to a starting formation that they will use in their next game. This, on the face of it, is a relatively banal exercise in futility.
It’s sort of like clubs sending an individual in their employ; let’s call him a ‘scout,’ for argument’s sake, to watch a rival team play a football match with the intention of assessing the potential of their star striker. Of course, the club has lots of archive video footage and freely-available highlights reel to watch the player on, but there is something different about watching in the flesh. Isn’t there? I digress.
The aforementioned sinister issue at hand here is of course the media and pundit reception of this incident, which as ever, on supposedly unbiased news providers, paints Leeds United Football Club to be cheats deserving of a fine and/or a points deduction.
Before I point out why this worryingly-typical reaction is ridiculous, I want to quickly take us back about fifty years, gentle reader. This was the time of Leeds United’s ascendancy, with the club winning trophies left and right, and striking fear into the hearts of opponents. The reason for this was the revolutionary management style of Don Revie. At the time, one of Revie’s more unusual tactics when preparing for a match was to put together a detailed dossier on the opponent, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses.
This was a pioneering moment in football management and in-game analysis, setting a trend that would be followed by this country’s top head coaches for the next fifty years. This, at the time, was considered by the media influencers and the wider football community to be cheating. I won’t say any more on this now, because the parallel with today’s scenario is patently obvious.
Let’s start with basic facts. Leeds United did not: send a spy, instruct anyone to send a spy, instigate the practice of spying, condone the practice of spying or have any power or foresight necessary to prevent spying from taking place. The club as an entity can surely therefore not be punished for this incident, which would seem to rule out any club fine or points deduction. Marcelo Bielsa’s title at the club is ‘Head Coach.’ This means that he is in charge of all match preparation at the club, and by his own admission, would make him answerable for any incidences of spying. However, there is no written EFL, League Managers Association or FA rule condemning this practice, and since they only seem to care because it was Leeds whodunnit, there is no precedent either.
Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa has caused a storm by admitting he sent a spy to Derby County training.— Omnisport (@OmnisportNews) January 11, 2019
Mauricio Pochettino, a former pupil of Bielsa's, admits the practice has been known to be commonplace in Argentina. pic.twitter.com/1iN7xt6Nba
Now, a fact that Mr. Keown, Mr. Jenas, Mr. Collymore and Mr. Pearce are apparently completely ignorant of. This practice is rife in football on the international stage, and that includes England. In Spain, Italy, France and Portugal, the practice is not even frowned upon. Whether it’s the drone that was sent to watch Hoffenheim train before they played Werder Bremen last December, or Crystal Palace obtaining Cardiff City’s team-sheet before matchday, there are examples aplenty. And if you haven’t heard about them, it’s because they weren’t reported in the manner that the Bielsa and Leeds incident has been.
As for Mr. Lampard’s rejection of the claim that his precious Chelsea side were complicit in his playing days, he is clearly letting emotion override common sense. Mourinho’s assistant Andre Villas Boas was more than happy to admit to ‘going incognito’ in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
What pundits Keown, Jenas, Collymore and Pearce have done is tantamount to slander. I might as well say that they are taking such a lofty position on their high horses because they themselves were beneficiaries of this practice at one time or another. The truth is, they probably were, unknowingly or otherwise.
They are entitled to their opinions, but clearly they are not opinions to be valued. Maybe it would be better if they stuck to talking about how to defend set pieces, because they must know nothing about what goes on behind the scenes. I don’t wish to tar all pundits with the same brush, and acknowledge Dean Ashton and Matt Upson provided reasonable and level-headed responses when quizzed on this issue.
So, that’s the situation. What do we think? What should happen? It’s plain that Bielsa doesn’t need the information obtained from spying. My opinion: a letter from the FA and LMA to Bielsa asking him to desist and informing him that the practice does not fit with the ethical and moral integrity of the English game. Anything else is unreasonable. And the EFL? They would need to look up the words ‘ethical’ and ‘integrity’ before they play any part.