- Leeds United becomes the latest club to get the streaming-service documentary treatment, and its eccentric manager and the city he works for are the central focus of a detailed look at a club looking to reclaim past glory.
When it comes to soccer documentaries, fans have become spoiled with choices. From Amazon Prime Video’s All or Nothing: Man City or the most recent This is Football to Netflix’s excellent Sunderland ‘Till I Die to our own Exploring Planet Fútbol on SI TV, streaming services are producing numerous behind-the-scenes, all-access projects at a regular rate.
In each series that specifically documents the journey of a club through the eyes of its staff, supporters and community it represents, there is a clear hero, a principal character that sticks with the viewer as it navigates the story and to provide a more complete narrative. For Sunderland ‘Till I Die and even Boca Juniors Confidential, that main character is the supporter. For All or Nothing and Juventus: First Team, it’s the team itself. But with Leeds United: Take Us Home, Amazon’s latest project, the star of the show actually wants nothing to do with the limelight. He requires–nay, demands–zero attention. Sure, we hear his voice, listen to his well-versed interviews and even see footage of him giving specific orders during training sessions. Players past and present, coaches and his own bosses all have something to say about the great, mythical Marcelo Bielsa as he experiences life in English football for the very first time.
But in the opening episodes, we won’t see him talking to the camera. In other documentaries this could be considered a cause for criticism, but because Bielsa remains somewhat incognito, he also maintains his unique aura. That's what so many love about him and what makes this docuseries even more appealing, because its leader is actually an antihero, an odd (perhaps even a genius) man and an introvert who only wants to do one thing for his new club: work.
“He doesn’t get motivated by money or comfort. He is motivated by big challenges,” says Ricardo Lunari, a former player under Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys, back when the manager transformed the club in the early 1990s. Out of all the guests in the first two episodes, no one describes the Argentine manager better than Lunari.
“He is a person that likes to focus on goals that aren’t easy to achieve," Lunari says. "Things that are easy bore him. He is interested in difficult challenges, challenges that have a lot to do with the heart, that he can put into them and the people that he works with.”
This contagious philosophy was exactly what Leeds United wanted under Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani and his new managing director and CEO Angus Kinnear. As a result, the story of Leeds United: Take Us Home is essentially about a gamble that will hopefully pay off for a club that’s been hungry for success–and after years of failure and mediocrity all that remains is to take risks.
The first scene takes place in Milan as Radrizzani, whose company Eleven Sports Group co-produced the project with Leeds-based The City Talking, begins his journey to rebuild the club. He knows that in order to succeed, he needs someone who could not only resuscitate the fortunes of a club in peril, but also unify the team and the city it represents.
“Regarding Leeds, it’s a great English football team that is not great right now. He sees, in his imagination, Leeds returning to be one of the greatest clubs in England. And this motivation, this thought, definitely encourages him immensely to try and achieve it,” says Lunari.
Bielsa, therefore, actually begins his preparations with a new club by studying how it operates and functions within the city itself. Not as a sports franchise but rather how it serves its community and how it lives and breathes.
The show makes sure that his idiosyncrasies are as present as the story itself.
Lunari adds, “If Bielsa doesn’t feel in love with a city he will not go. Bielsa did not go to manage Leeds for just the football club, Bielsa went to manage Leeds for the city as a whole.”
Lunari’s words are why the first two episodes–and hopefully for the remainder of the series–put a heavy emphasis on the Leeds supporter. Much like Sunderland’s series, the fan makes a clear appearance, commentating on the ups and downs of the club and giving the viewer a clearer picture of the city.
“It’s a club that’s perfectly suited for a one-club city. It’s a club that embodies the city and attracts the interest and captures the interest of everybody,” says Leeds-based reporter and sports writer Phil Hay. “It’s an incredibly loyal city and that loyalty has persisted, despite the fact that there were so many occasions when the crowds could have dipped to worrying level–as it has happened with other clubs across the country–but the support always seems to be there. It’s always ready to come back and I think it’s an institution that the city needs, the city will always need it.”
The singular identity of Leeds United and its co-dependent relationship with its community is what most likely attracted Bielsa to the job. As Lunari mentions, Bielsa’s passion for a job begins with the people he will serve, and the documentary does a good job at making sure it tells you who Leeds is.
Russell Crowe serves as narrator for the series, and while some may perceive his inclusion as a marketing gimmick to add some kind of Hollywood grandiosity, it actually works well, as his inclusion helps the story progress at a quicker pace. This, after all, is a six-part series that needs to tell the story of a whole season, so including a narrator was important in order to fill in the background information your average, non-hardcore-Leeds-fan viewer may need. Crowe became a Leeds United fan back in the 1970s when he would watch them on Match of the Day back in New Zealand, and his voice–much like Liev Schreiber on HBO’s Hard Knocks–adds color and dramatic gravitas throughout.
The action sequences are well-directed and edited, perhaps better than in any other docuseries, as Crowe’s voice alongside the play-by-play analyst provide context and nuance.
If the first episode acts as the introduction of Radrizzani’s reign with Leeds United, the appointment of Bielsa and the introduction of what the club and city represent, then the second goes more into the 2018-2019 Championship season–specifically the autumn months–and the tactical philosophies and fighting spirit Bielsa begins to implement.
A prominent voice is that of Ander Herrera, the former Man United midfielder who played under Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. Herrera is an eloquent speaker, a manager in the making, so his analysis of Bielsa is precise and useful.
“It’s incredible the way he improves players,” Herrera says. “Playing from the back, from the goalkeeper, everyone moving all the time, no one stops one second of the game.”
Bielsa's strategy is not perfect, however, as injury after injury accumulates during the first few months of the season. Like an army general who demands excellence from his unit, Bielsa wants a lot from his players and even though they do everything he asks, the body can only give so much.
“It’s not easy to play this way,” says defender Gaetano Berardi, a constant visitor to the treatment room. “But it’s our way to play and what Marcelo wants. We can see the results, so we just need to keep going.
Keep going. That is essentially the way for Leeds United, a team that looks to reclaim the glory days of the past by turning to an eccentric Argentine.
As the show develops, Leeds United will experience more difficult challenges than injuries, as the end of the second episode previews the infamous Spygate scouting controversy and the drama back in April when Bielsa instructed his players to allow Aston Villa to score uncontested after it had already opened the scoring in controversial fashion.
By the end, Leeds United: Take Us Home delivers two strong episodes that achieves its main goal: telling the story of a club, a working-class fanbase, its charismatic manager and their relentless search for a glory they once knew.
Here’s hoping the rest of the series, which launches on Prime Video on Aug. 16, continues on this path.