It’s risky, on the eve of a match, to write something like: with each passing win, Leeds United’s confidence is growing. But that confidence has grown so large I don’t think defeat to Cardiff City would even dent it much. It might even be welcomed as a reality check; we can grow more confident by getting the inevitable-sometime defeat out of the way.
There is something else at work in the Peacocks’ favour at the moment, and that is the demoralisation of their opponents. A goal is all it takes. Goals were timed for cruelty at Luton and Reading. As soon as the ball hit Middlesbrough’s net, in the third minute, the result was decided for Leeds. Huddersfield and Hull put up brave fights, until they went behind. Both perked up after going two goals down, but people can do anything after they’ve abandoned hope.
Leeds United’s hopes of promotion are growing in proportion with the bitter desperation of their opponents. Leeds fans are always the last to believe our own teams’ hype, so now that it’s finally cutting through to us, imagine what it must feel like for the rest of the division. They can do many things well during ninety minutes, and few opposition managers can find anything in their own players to criticise. But they can’t beat Leeds.
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Marcelo Bielsa is, characteristically, almost apologetic. First are the usual warnings about becoming complacent, the reminders that a 46 game season is a guarantee of unexpected results. The difference in resources between Leeds and, say, Luton ought to be emphatic, but that’s not how we beat them. As Bielsa pointed out about the few seconds between Hull nearly equalising this week and Leeds scoring their decisive second, it wouldn’t have taken much, in many recent games, for the results to be different.
Bielsa’s sympathy is more for the victims of goals like the second against Hull, or the second against Huddersfield, or the late winner at Reading. We are all marvelling at United’s recent ability to turn defence into attack and score in seconds. Bielsa seems almost ashamed.
“The two or three counter-attacks you name are not a characteristic of our team,” he said in his press conference this week. “Normally it happens after set-pieces where the opponent is forced to be in our half. I would like to have empty spaces in the opponent’s half, but it’s not a real match, this.”
The real match, to Bielsa, is in open play, where teams must decide to defend or attack. Bielsa’s teams will always choose to attack, because, “If neither team tries to attack there is no football … supporters don’t want matches without football.” That forces the other team to behave more defensively, so the attacking team acquires a responsibility, almost a moral one, to score past that defending. “This is a real match and who resolves this [is] the team who wants to control a game and attack more.” Counter-attacking from set-pieces is almost against the spirit of the play, because, “The opponent is forced to be in our half,” against their gameplan. The game isn’t being settled on a noble superiority of attacking over defensive architectures, but decided by an opportunity created by the rules governing restarts after the ball goes out of play.
At the heart of every game is an opponent, and Bielsa is always swift to remind us of that. While Mateusz Klich is shushing benches, Bielsa is never far behind, offering managers consoling pats on shoulders, perhaps wondering how he can turn Klichy’s latest efforts into another FIFA Fair Play award and a moral lesson. I’m sure Bielsa, hearing Grant McCann and Eric Lichaj’s complaints about Pat Bamford felling Hull’s goalkeeper for Ezgjan Alioski’s goal this week, will have been the first to demand the footage to see for himself.
There was nothing to see, and McCann and Lichaj’s protests seemed like desperate gestures by people who could have done no more to beat Leeds, but came away from Elland Road beaten. It feels good to be on the victorious side of that divide, and Elland Road is on its way to becoming impregnable; at the moment we still need a goal to win, but the days when matches are won before kick-off don’t feel far away.
But perhaps Bielsa would like us to remember how it felt on the other side, not so long ago, when we suffered crushing defeats every season around Christmas as a prelude to our season becoming pointless by February. We went through those motions for most of the 2010s, and are hardly likely to resist feeling triumphant now. There’s not much decorum anywhere anyway, and it feels beyond Bielsa to inspire it in football. Let’s face it: gloating is fun.
Bielsa will be right in the end, though; his credo that after every success comes defeat will be proven again, one way or another. Perhaps we’ll fail as spectacularly as last season, and people cautious now about optimistic songs — PUMP IT UP! — will have been wise. Or maybe we will go up, but find the power of being in the Premier League difficult to wield. This Christmas we’re fighting for promotion with some success. What will we be fighting for next Christmas, and how successful will we be?
Next Christmas feels far off, so perhaps we should just enjoy these moments. Bielsa understands that his job is to achieve results that inspire joy for people who struggle to find it anywhere else. But he also understands that football is about more than just results. It’s eternal, and that means an eternal opponent, who needs to be respected for what they bring to the game, if the game is to continue.
“I think that we are losing this tendency,” Bielsa said this week. “In my humble opinion, the most important thing is to try to make supporters value play, and not just the result … The patience, that you need, is stronger if the supporters love the play more than the result.”
We might happen to love a demoralising counter-attack around here. But Marcelo Bielsa will always insist that there are other ways to win. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)