In recent years, soccer has slowly, grudgingly accepted the idea that managers who adhere to a philosophy, a certain set of ideas, are not selling snake oil. It is understood, on some level, that possessing a clear sense of what you want your team to be offers a competitive edge: It helps recruit the right players, it makes coaching them more effective, it offers a barometer of success and purpose that is not reliant on individual results. At an executive level, it can even, at times, ease the transition between one manager and the next.
But the benefits of a cogent philosophy are not purely sporting. It has been striking, in Leeds’s low moments under Bielsa, how little discord there has been about his methods. Most fans, if not all, are happy to absorb the lows as an unfortunate, but necessary, recompense for the highs.
Subscribing to Bielsa’s philosophy gives them something to take pride and solace in, even when the score line offers no succor. It affords the club, and by extension the fans, an identity. They stand for something that does not depend on results. Newcastle is the opposite. A few days after losing to Leeds, Bruce’s team won at Everton. His side produced a smart, disciplined performance, and the victory alleviated mounting concerns over relegation. It did absolutely nothing to dispel the enduring unhappiness.
That contrast, between Leeds and Newcastle, holds outside England’s two great one-club cities. Fans, increasingly, no longer see a manager talking about a philosophy and a vision as marketing jargon or corporate bunk. It is, instead, something to cling to and believe in, a reason to be proud.
For much of this season, criticism has swirled around Graham Potter and Brighton. The team has lingered in the lower reaches of the table, its neat, attractive, flexible style of play winning plaudits but few games. He did not flinch when he was told he had to deviate from his methods to get results. More impressively, few of the club’s fans did, either. They understood, and appreciated, his plan. In the space of four days this week, Brighton beat Tottenham and Liverpool.
The opposite is true at Chelsea. The dismissal of Frank Lampard and his replacement by Thomas Tuchel, vastly more qualified for the role, was made in order to win trophies; that, after all, is Chelsea’s modern, corporate identity. But it left fans feeling rootless: What mattered to them is not just the outcome, but feeling that the route taken has some deeper meaning.