I made a note halfway through the second half of this match, when the score was 3-1 to Leeds, that it was a bit like watching Don Revie’s Leeds toying with Cardiff City, not Marcelo Bielsa’s.
Revie’s Leeds used to camp in the opposition half like this, toy with defences like this, offer the ball and then snatch it back like this. Cardiff were up against the problem teams had against Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton: they’d be in their half, part of an impregnable wall along the forty yard line, that meant wherever the ball was cleared to it would go to a white shirt. Hunter or Charlton would collect the ball, give it to Billy Bremner or Johnny Giles, and Leeds would attack again.
United had conceded a goal to Cardiff by the time I had this thought, after Kiko Casilla acted out one of the Revie team’s weaknesses in his version of a Gary Sprake moment on the edge of the penalty area; he failed to punch a cross away under pressure and it bounced towards Lee Tomlin, who lobbed it into the empty net. But otherwise they’d been holding Cardiff back all half, all game really.
The moment that prompted my note was when Cardiff thought they might use a high clearance to break, and leave the vicinity of their own goal. Instead, with one touch, Pablo Hernandez took the ball down and flicked it behind his opponent, then passed wide to Helder Costa. You could almost hear Cardiff’s left-back groan, see his colleague’s shoulders sag as they were forced back into their box, yet again.
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This was a moment, and Leeds played more than an hour filled with moments like these, whereas Revie’s genius was expressed over ten magnificent years. Bielsa’s Leeds will never touch those achievements, because Revie taught his players as boys and kept them at the top through their entire careers. But it’s a compliment to Bielsa’s players, and to his own genius, that they can emulate that greatness for an hour the way they did against Cardiff. It’s more than many teams could do. And while ability and longevity will always make the two Leeds sides impossible to compare meaningfully, there are other characteristics they share.
Cardiff manager Neil Harris took exception to Bielsa’s pre-match analysis of Cardiff’s ‘British’ style of play, the way only a psychologically short manager in grey trackie bottoms can. He didn’t understand that Bielsa’s was not a patronising dismissal, but an acceptance that he is involved in a football culture where his own style of play is foreign.
Like Revie, Bielsa has built something at Elland Road that sometimes British football finds hard to accept. Revie despatched Maurice Lindley, Syd Owen and Les Cocker across Europe to study foreign teams, and used those ideas to Leeds’ advantage, ideas that outraged English soccer’s traditionalists. Bielsa brought his ideas with him, has refused to alter them to suit his Championship surroundings, and frequently apologises for the rudeness of his intrusion. He said on Thursday that counter-attacks are “not a characteristic of our team,” and that breaking to score after an opponent’s set-piece is not how the game, in its purest form, should be played. Then Leeds broke from Cardiff’s first corner and, thanks to Pablo Hernandez’s vision, his immediate decision, and his sublime, patient execution, Helder Costa was the recipient of a curving through pass that struck out Cardiff’s defence like a swerving bowling ball. Costa scored, 1-0, six minutes played. Sorry, not sorry.
Relentless pressure brought United’s second two minutes later, when Pat Bamford found time in the six-yard box to chest down Stuart Dallas’ cross and score; every time Leeds attacked the crowd bayed for a third, but it didn’t come until Leeds started the second half with renewed energy and Mateusz Klich’s pass into the penalty area was weighted to deceive Cardiff keeper Neil Etheridge. His challenge helped Bamford win a penalty, and Bamford helped himself to the goal.
Cardiff, during all this time, needed half-an-hour before Leeds gave them enough respite for their 4-4-2 formation to be visible on the pitch, rather than broken into Leeds-chasing fragments. When Cardiff cleared the ball to the edge of their penalty area, the sort of position Leeds now see as the start of a chance to score, they would hoof the ball downfield as if terrified of it, or of Leeds having it near their goal. The afternoon’s expression of Bielsa’s dominant incursion into the English plus some Welsh Championship only needed a few more goals to feel, with Leeds’ eighth consecutive win, complete.
Nobody can really say that Neil Harris’ Cardiff are an expression of his beliefs or personality. His 4-4-2 has been passed down through generations of English football, and Lee Tomlin has enough creativity to satisfy him. The main difference he has made since taking over from Neil Warnock has been to pick some different players and make them run around more.
But here is another overlap between Revie and Bielsa. Their Leeds teams were and are total expressions of their own ideas, to the point they can be thought of as artworks that can be read as extensions of their personalities. That means their personal genius is always on display when we watch their teams. And their personal frailties, too. In Revie’s case that was self-doubt mixed with superstition that led to excess preparation that caused unnecessary nerves; Bielsa shares this trait but seems to recognise it and internalise it so his players aren’t affected.
Bielsa’s frailty, at least in his current job, is that British football is a problem he can’t solve. He has overhauled United’s squad so completely in his own image that, even with their collective years of upbringing and experience in British football, they don’t seem able to cope with its inherent characteristics anymore.
Bielsa has a tendency to shrug when he talks about some of the aspects of the game the British regard as tenets. Corners, for and against, are a mystery. The same goes for long throws. When it comes to penalties he doesn’t care who takes them. And all he can think of against aerial attacks are tall players, or short players jumping better. After this game he shared some of his specific instructions from half-time — “give [Cardiff players] some metres and when the ball comes, make a short sprint to jump better. So, the fact the opponent is taller, we can adjust for this. We could be able to jump more and try to impose our aerial play” — and it’s one of the few occasions, listening to Bielsa, when you wonder if he even knows what on earth he’s talking about. Or if, really, he cares.
He cares in the sense that he feels the responsibility; it’s not the players’ fault that they weren’t jumping properly, but his for not giving them better jumping advice. But that doesn’t mean he feels like there’s anything more he could have done. Bielsa can take a listless and pathetic squad from 13th in the table, and train them until they have a ten point advantage in the promotion places. He can transform Dallas and Klich into top class midfielders, rebuild Costa’s game around new characteristics. But he can’t stop British teams in the air. He just has to hope they don’t get chances in the air too often, and then only when his team are already three goals ahead.
Costa could have closed down more quickly to stop the cross for Cardiff’s second goal, but Ben White was nowhere near Sean Morrison’s scoring header in the six-yard box, and the entire Leeds team seemed unprepared for Cardiff to send their free-kick wide for the cross in the first place. They looked beaten as soon as the ball was on the wing, as if it was inevitable Cardiff would score now. Okay, 3-2, still no problem.
Believing a taller defender would help close out the game, Bielsa took off Gaetano Berardi and sent on 20-year-old Pascal Struijk for his second senior appearance. It might have been quicker and less painful for Struijk had Bielsa only sucker-punched him in the dugout and left the eleven on the pitch as it was. Twice Struijk used his height advantage to clatter, confused, into Ben White. When Sean Morrison was sent off for a pointless hacking of Eddie Nketiah the danger seemed over, but if only Tomlin had gone instead; seeing a high ball coming forward, he had the wit to escape Kalvin Phillips and flick it over Struijk, who had no idea that Robert Glatzel was behind him, wearing the number nine of every traditional British striker in history on his back. He scored the equaliser. He’s German, but somehow that only reinforces the point.
Nobody inside Elland Road could believe it, or that Etheridge could save Nketiah’s header on his line in stoppage time, or that White would be unable to divert the rebound into the empty net. Full-time was whistled, and Struijk’s was a lonely trudge to the tunnel. He put his shamed hands down his shorts rather than shake them with the referee, or anyone, and made disconsolately for the changing rooms.
Marcelo Bielsa won’t blame him for anything, but that won’t be much comfort. Bielsa is probably the only person who could believe what was happening, but that doesn’t comfort us much either. He will be satisfied that the team attacked with enough efficiency to score three; he was right, in his press conference, to say Leeds played some of their best football yet seen under him. I was right, if a bit giddy, that at times you could squint at their attacking and see faint shadows of Revie.
That Leeds weren’t prepared well enough to protect Bielsa’s achilles heel is a responsibility he’ll take, but also one he’ll accept for what it is. Leeds don’t play with a British style but they are, nonetheless, in Britain. This fact alone will costs them goals, and points. It’s a fact Bielsa doesn’t feel he can do anything to change.
But what change does he need to make? He’s a genius, and his team were so wonderful on Saturday that they approached greatness. They haven’t lost for eleven matches and have won eight of those. None of their opponents in the crucial games ahead — Fulham, Preston, Birmingham, West Brom — will throw the Peacocks’ cultural differences back at them like this. Liam Cooper should be back soon to add seniority and security in defence.
Leeds United are ten points clear of third and all is right with the world Marcelo Bielsa has made. It’s the world outside his creation he can’t control, but maybe that’s okay. We’ll leave out there out there, where there’s no atmosphere. Things are still good in here. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)