Guardiola takes on his guru, Bielsa, for 1st time in England

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Leeds United's head coach Marcelo Bielsa looks out during the English Premier League soccer match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road Stadium, in Leeds, England, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Laurence Griffiths/Pool via AP)

It was 2006 and Pep Guardiola was winding down his playing career with a short spell at Mexican club Dorados, where he had moved chiefly to understand better the art of soccer management under its Spanish coach, Juanma Lillo.

Before he took the plunge into coaching, Guardiola also was urged to travel to Argentina to seek out another deep thinker of the beautiful game.

Marcelo Bielsa — without a job at the time after leading Argentina to Olympic in 2004 — welcomed Guardiola to his home near Rosario and the pair bonded over a conversation lasting about 10 hours.

Within two years, Guardiola was at the helm of Barcelona and leading what would become perhaps the greatest ever team at club level. Indeed, Bielsa would feel the full force of Guardiola’s team when returning to Spanish soccer in charge of Athletic Bilbao in 2011.

Ever since, Guardiola has repeatedly described Bielsa as one of the world’s best coaches — certainly the one he admires above anyone else — and on Saturday he will come face-to-face with him on the touchline once again in what should be a tactically fascinating Premier League match between Bielsa’s Leeds and Guardiola’s Manchester City.

“What we spoke about,” Bielsa said this week through a translator, remembering that first meeting with Guardiola at his ranch, “made me think it was someone who really thought about football.

“First of all,” Bielsa continued, “he’s imaginative. He's able to instantly create solutions to problems that he imagines or comes across. And another thing that distinguishes him as a top coach is that what he proposes, he’s able to implement. When you praise someone, I think it’s important to argue why. Because if not, it’s mere sympathy rather than actual praise.”

Deep thoughts from one of the most thorough managers around — Bielsa gave an extraordinary, 70-minute Powerpoint presentation to media in January, detailing his extensive research into opponents in the midst of a “Spygate” scandal — and Guardiola has proved to be just as intense a coach.