The two crossed paths during their time at Marseille, arguably the most successful period in Imbula’s career. He played 66 times over two seasons for the French club, where he helped them to a fourth-place finish in Ligue 1 under Bielsa’s stewardship alongside the likes of Dimitri Payet, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Andre Ayew.
When asked about Bielsa, Imbula wasn’t short of praise for the Leeds boss.
“I just can’t call him Bielsa, he’s Don Bielsa to me. There aren’t many other people in football like him. He just burns with football. His whole life is all about football. He is a very direct person and he is non-standard.
“All the coaches in the world are sitting on the benches or just standing in the technical area. But he’s different. He only sits on a box full of water! And this is not about trying to attract attention. He doesn’t need it.”
Imbula’s performances for Marseille earned him a €20m move to Porto, but life after Bielsa hasn’t exactly gone to plan for the former France U21 international. He played just 10 times for the Portuguese giants before Stoke broke their transfer record to sign him, paying £18.3m in 2016.
He started well at Stoke, earning praise from teammates Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Affelay, but it didn’t last long. Glen Johnson has since revealed the Frenchman had a poor attitude during his time at the Bet365 Stadium. According to Johnson, Imbula once subbed himself off in a pre-season game because a teammate didn’t pass to him, only to sub himself back on 10 minutes later.
Imbula has had loan spells at Toulouse, Rayo Vallecano and most recently Lecce, where he played just three times for the Serie A club. He has now signed a permanent deal with Russian outfit FC Sochi after terminating his contract at Stoke, as he tries to get his career back on track and relive the heights of his time under Bielsa – who once claimed Imbula had the potential to become one of the best midfielders in the world.
That we haven’t seen, but Bielsa’s impact on individuals doesn’t stop at Imbula. Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy recently visited Elland Road to catch up with “Don Bielsa”, and Andre Ayew greeted him with a warm embrace when Swansea visited Elland Road in August – all players who obviously appreciate the Argentine’s work with them to this day.
This is something we could see in years to come with the current Leeds squad. Kalvin Phillips is the obvious case, the homegrown midfielder has reached levels that not many ever saw in him, all due to Bielsa. Brighton loanee Ben White is another, he is attracting interest from the likes of Liverpool. Those two are set to have glittering careers and you wouldn’t be surprised if in years to come, they pay homage to Bielsa for the faith he has shown in them.