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TSB Podcast 167: Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

The Leeds United psychodrama hit new heights with the loss to Wigan and the absence of Big Kev. We had our first glance of him at Hillsborough, but how did he fare? The Whites are clinging onto second place in the table by the fingernails as they head down the M1 to Forest on Saturday.

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Leeds United 0-1 Wigan Athletic: Change

After a season-and-a-half I’m allowed one, this one, one when head doesn’t rule heart, gratitude doesn’t nullify need, where rationality goes out the picture like an Alioski cross on a widescreen TV. One when the inner howl is heard: Marcelo Bielsa, what the fuck was that?

It needs saying today. Perhaps it won’t need saying tomorrow. Tomorrow Leeds will still be 2nd in the league, the fourth best attack and the second best defence sustaining a second successive promotion attempt for the first time since the League One days when, whisper it, Leeds needed three. Perhaps it won’t need saying in May, when we can look back at this game and acknowledge that while Bielsa is not the only Leeds manager who can’t beat Wigan at Elland Road — only Brian McDermott, in our history, ever has — nobody else could have got Leeds United out of the Championship. Upwards, anyway.

But it matters today, in ways that I’m convinced Marcelo Bielsa understands, because few managers appreciate their responsibility to and influence on supporters as sincerely as Bielsa. I once dredged both Neil Warnock’s autobiographies, for an example, and found hardly any mention of fans other than as an ill-informed rabble he’s motivated by proving wrong. Bielsa is motivated by giving football fans, who he says tend to be from poorer parts of society, joys they can’t easily access away from football. And he carries the guilt that his style of football is built on aesthetic principles that can’t guarantee the results he feels honour-bound to deliver.

It’s Bielsa’s great paradox, his strength and his weakness; and it is fate, and today it feels fatal, that he has found such a love-match with Leeds United. That love-match has become our shared strength and weakness, because it’s Leeds United’s paradox that we’re the most successful team that ever won so little, the biggest team that hasn’t been in the top division for fifteen years. It’s our fate and it might be fatal that we’re a club that has fallen in love with Bielsa’s football, and his philosophy and character, which are the same as his football; but we’re a club that is desperate for the success Bielsa and his football can’t guarantee and, he’ll tell you himself, has rarely delivered.

He once angrily told a journalist, “I have been the protagonist of the worst failure in the history of the Argentina national team,” at the 2002 World Cup. They’d qualified by a margin of twelve points, losing only one of eighteen games, one of the greatest successes in the history of the Argentina national team. This is Marcelo Bielsa. But remembering the 1960s, when over five seasons Don Revie’s team won more and lost fewer games than any other First Division team but only won the league title once, this is also Leeds United.

We seem eerily fated but we can’t stop now. So, today, this is my one wild swing: to tip the shopping out of his Morrison’s trolley, throw the Costa Coffee on the floor, and yell: change! Change, damn you! Change things! Change this! Change results! Change something! Change, Marcelo, change!

If Marcelo Bielsa changed, he wouldn’t be Bielsa. If he wasn’t Bielsa, Leeds United would not be 2nd in the league. But change might have beaten Wigan, and instead we stayed the same, the same as last season, and they beat us, the same as last season.

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The frustration this weekend is that Bielsa has the tools to change now. Illan Meslier’s performance at Arsenal let the spider out of the shadows: we have seen him, and seen that he is good. Based on that game, he’s arguably better than Kiko Casilla with his feet; based on every game Casilla plays, he can hardly be worse with his hands. A shot was hit straight at Casilla in the first half against Wigan, low and firm, but rather than gather the ball, his save pushed it back towards the forwards. In the second half, a Wigan corner deflected off Pablo Hernandez, and that’s all it took: the ball looped over Casilla and into the net, probably coming nearer to his grasp than if it hadn’t been deflected. He stood still and waved a hand and the ball went in the net. Change the goalkeeper.

Going behind compounded this game’s specific goalscoring problem, a bitter concentrate of our eternal goalscoring problem. Pat Bamford was stuck in the midweek trap of his own making, when he celebrated two close-range finishes as if settling his claims for Harry Kane’s spot at the European Championships, and was bumbling through another ninety minutes of shambolic finishing. He wasn’t the only one: Jackie Harrison, after bad luck followed brilliant skill when he dribbled around three defenders and his shot hit the post, later tried to control a cross in the six yard box instead of thumping it first time past the goalkeeper. But Bamford is the one who tried to shoot a cross into the net and somehow kicked it backwards out of the penalty area; and Bamford is the one for whom Bielsa has an exciting, expensive, ready-made replacement named Big Kev. Or he would have, if Jean-Kevin Augustin had been on the bench.

That Bielsa values loyalty above novelty is an important lesson for life. That media attention will not mean a place in the team without first putting in the same work as the players already there is a rule to be applauded. It’s yet another way in which Bielsa is a beacon of ethics within a sordid sport. But sometimes. Change. Maybe just once. Change the striker. Take the £7m striker off the pitch, put the £20m striker on, and let capitalism do its work. Maybe once we can worry about the principles after he’s buried the chances that ought to have come every time, and there were many times, that Leeds got to Wigan’s byline in the second half and pulled the ball back into a penalty box packed with nine blue shirts, but not the one white shirt with 29 on the back of the player we bought for times like these.

Leeds did get to the byline again and again, and apart from the usual problems with the final cross from Harrison, Helder Costa, and Ezgjan Alioski in the first hour, their attacking was as relentless as it ever is. But Wigan had a defender, Cedric Kipre, like a magnet for every ball into the box; and Leeds had the aspect of a team that would never score. Perhaps not never; Bielsa said that, “it’s difficult to think playing in this way we would not score one goal.” He talked, too, about how time-wasting reduces the amount of time Leeds have to play: “Before we play we know our match is going to last forty minutes.” But everyone watching could see Leeds would need forty days and forty nights to score one goal against Wigan.

Bielsa talked about creating fifteen chances in those forty minutes, and the domination was achieved with a change, but it wasn’t enough. Tyler Roberts came on and was very good, as he often is between injuries, but he wasn’t the change the game needed. With Alioski off, Harrison patrolled the left side alone as Leeds controlled the game in Wigan’s half. But this was only tactics. There was no Big Kev to use, but I wonder what change might have been made by Little Ian Poveda.

He wouldn’t even have had to touch the ball, and I assume that’s why Bielsa didn’t call him from his warm up exercises and send him on: he wouldn’t be as influential on the ball as Pablo Hernandez. But the sight of a new signing, one who lacks the wow-factor of Augustin, but who thrills all the same on YouTube and Wikipedia, might have lifted the crowd from its feeling of familiar doom, and inspired something on the pitch that tactics and preparation can’t provide.

On Tuesday night against Millwall, the football changed the mood in Elland Road by producing a goal at the start of the second half. Here, Roberts changed the football, but not the mood. Perhaps changing the mood could have changed the football, but Bielsa, from his position of complete respect for football fans, doesn’t see that as our work, no matter how willing we might be to lend our voices.

Bielsa will never say that an atmosphere has hindered his team, so he’ll never be so presumptuous as to use the atmosphere to help his team. It’s not our responsibility, but his, as he said in the lead up to the game. He was asked if experience makes it easier for a coach to deal with bad results. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter, he said: “[It] doesn’t avoid the sadness of the people who evaluate our work and for who [we] work — that is the supporters … There is something we don’t have solutions for, that is when we make supporters sad for our results.”

But this paradoxic love-match we’re entrenched in with Bielsa, even if it won’t change him, or change us, ought to give us licence to bend the rules together. This is not Bielsa and Lille, this is Bielsa and Leeds. If Bielsa had allowed the fans, from minute sixty to ninety, to be excited about Augustin or Poveda, it might have allowed the fans to help. All it took was for Bielsa to overlook the extra croissant or two Big Kev hasn’t worked off since his move from Monaco, for him to think beyond space and patterns, and for him to make tactical use of fans’ emotions.

Bielsa is not Neil Warnock. He’s not here to prove the fans wrong. We both want the same thing, or different versions of it, and we’ve both been waiting a very long time. I’m not sure how long Bielsa thinks he can maintain the intensity of his effort in his search for proof of footballing nirvana: perhaps he thinks he can go on forever until eventually his style is the winning style. And I don’t know for how much longer Leeds fans think we can keep hoping for promotion back to where we believe we belong, but I think we could go on waiting forever, no matter how often we swear we won’t last another season, won’t last another game. But I don’t think we’ll ever have as good a chance of achieving our different goals as when ours and Marcelo’s obdurate paradoxes align in this complicated and possibly hopeless love. So he could give us a little change. And we’d give a lot back.

This was my one, my one howl, my single j’accuse Bielsa. Although I know damn well Leeds can lose to Wigan without him, I want to lay this one at this door, where he expects it and accepts it. “It’s clear the responsibility is on me,” he said on Saturday. Leeds are, “a team that is aligned with what I ask of them, my ideas. That makes me more responsible because it’s my fault.”

But I can’t sustain the anger even just through these few paragraphs. Because even if it’s fatal, Leeds and Bielsa seem fated, and it’s too late to change. Right now, El Loco and Leeds maybe shouldn’t be together. We’ll find that out in May. But it would be madness for us to be apart. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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(photo by Lee Brown)

The Extra Ball #047: Championship Manager 01-02

With so many forwards on the books we wonder: should we retain Michael Bridges or let him fulfil his Brazilian dream? With Leeds United undefeated in all competitions, we progress on four fronts, starting with a League Cup quarter final against Bolton, in which the Mike Whitlow Shield will also be clinched by one of the clubs. The biggest question remains, though: who’s getting fined by Mike Daniels this week?

The Match Ball: Wigan Athletic (H) | EFL Championship

The Peacocks fell to a 1-0 defeat to Paul Cook’s men at Elland Road. Full time thoughts.

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The Extra Ball #047: Mad Friday, 2014

As the Peacocks make the January 2020 transfer window look relatively easy, we look back on a more complicated time, when we had to contend with GFH, Massimo Cellino, the sacking and un-sacking of Brian McDermott, Gianluca Festa, and Ross McCormack on Sky Sports News. Mad Friday brought the 2014 window to a close. United were chaotic, but in spite of everything they destroyed Huddersfield Town 5-1 the following day. We’ve more of your questions and we have an early name for The Quiz.

Leeds United 3-2 Millwall: Listen & Look

YouTube playlists of a sought after hot shot, private jets and hotel medicals, glossy unveiling videos cut from a big club template: they lifted the mood over the weekend but not the soul, like burning one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop candles she makes out of your own money.

Once the wick burned out we had to face kick-off at Elland Road on a wet Tuesday night, and face the fact that Leeds United was still Leeds United but worse for the occasion, with neither of the new signings in the team and a suspicious smell where Kalvin Phillips should have been. Big Kev was in the stands and Little Ian was on the bench, while on the pitch were the same problems that descended on Leeds in a recent moment of hallucinatory optimism halfway through our match against Cardiff City.

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Millwall brought the weather with them from Cold Blow Lane, and a calculated 5-2-3 set up that went to 3-4-3 in possession and pummelled Leeds on their most painful bruises. Three in attack forced Leeds to four at the back, meaning not only no Phillips in midfield but no Ben White either, while Pat Bamford was surrounded and our dangerous wingers were marked.

Leeds looked ready to give in. Ezgjan Alioski gave the ball and a chance away under the first and slightest pressure; Kiko Casilla and White passed out of defence to Millwall’s midfield; Ryan Woods, doubling Millwall’s usual danger alongside Jed Wallace, got to United’s byline and won a corner. That was the first goal, in the fourth minute.

Millwall got behind Leeds again for their second, although it looked like they took the ball out of play along the way; it was inevitable the decision wouldn’t be given to Leeds, and inevitable a Leeds player would foul Jón Dadi Bödvarsson. Alioski got there first and Wallace buried the penalty.

How soon good PR can be demolished once the football starts. The 0-2 deficit even spoiled the new unifying cause, against the referee, Darren England. His incompetence was at least raising the volume: when the big screen showed the excellent save by Bartosz Bialkowski that denied Stuart Dallas an equaliser, and that England had denied a corner, Elland Road was the fearsome stadium we dream it to be. All the hashtags in the world will never bring Leeds fans together like a stinking ref.

Conceding the second goal reset the atmosphere to its recent default disappointment, culminating in vicious boos at half-time, divided between the ref and the team. The game continued on Twitter, where chairman Andrea Radrizzani tweeted his protest, while in the corridors below his suite persons unknown from Leeds were said to be rattling the referee’s door, if not literally then metaphorically. Leeds United, meanwhile, needed to win the actual football match.

That was never ruled out. In the first half Leeds played as they have since drawing with Cardiff: good but not great, strong but without sparkle. The usual chances were being made in the usual ways, and missed as usual, too: Bamford shot in the six yard box, straight into the keeper’s hands; Dallas headed a corner to the same place, and had another shot tipped over the bar; Pablo Hernandez put one over without tips.

But just as it has been hard to tell from outside what put these players into their shells half-an-hour from the end of the game against Cardiff, only they can say how they came out for the second half here, long before Millwall, so ready to retake their grip on themselves. An early goal helped, and from a corner, too: the ball bounced through to the back post, where Jackie Harrison’s shot was saved on the line, and Bamford put it in from inches. That brought belief, manifested as volume, and relentless attacking.

The last time Leeds attacked with so little mercy was that first half against Cardiff. The final ball was sometimes wayward, as it always will be, but it rarely mattered, because Leeds had so many players forward they always collected the ball on the far side and tried again from there. Mateusz Klich was having fun in midfield, winning everything loose and sending Leeds forward again in tandem with Hernandez; Alioski and Helder Costa puffed out their chests, sized up their opponents, and revelled in the joy of beating them again and again. Attacks never fizzled out so they never truly stopped; for twenty minutes you couldn’t say when one phase of play ended and another began. Marcelo Bielsa talks about his aim of “unbalancing” an opponent, and Millwall looked sick with vertigo, battered by a force stronger than them and gravity.

Listing the chances is pointless; any of our players could have scored any number of times, and Costa hit the bar. The goals themselves were almost seamless parts of the cohesive attacking whole; Hernandez wedged his half-volley off a defender and into the bottom corner from just outside the box, and Luke Ayling aimed a perfect cross behind the goalkeeper where Bamford stepped perfectly behind the defence to head in from inches.

There were twenty-five minutes left, but even the nerves caused by Klich firing an easy chance over the bar and a late cameo by Mathieu Smith were more pantomime than true threat. Besides, as against Birmingham City, Leeds looked ready to keep scoring if that’s what it took; nobody wanted it to take that, though.

There were still weaknesses: without Phillips to stop them, Millwall were able to counter through the middle to take shots at Casilla, but rarely did; Liam Cooper, a new father, almost handed Millwall an equaliser and a cigar. But Leeds were dominant in a way they haven’t been for a long time. Near the end Ben White was deep in Millwall’s half, taking a Cruyff turn around their midfield and driving at their defence, a sure sign that these forty-five minutes hadn’t only brought three points, but brought United’s mojo back.

Any night that ends with Pat Bamford doing the hoolie dance to distract Millwall’s goalkeeper is a good night, and after all the Big Kev hype, Big Bambo was the night’s misfit hero. He continues to confuse, removing himself from the collective euphoria of his winner to clasp his hands over his ears and enter his own world, saying after the game that, “It was nice to score — I could say a lot, but I’m just happy to score.” It’s hard to find these gestures endearing after tap-ins, but rather than concern us, Bamford’s angst seems so permanent it should just join the list of quirks we embrace in a squad full of oddball behaviour that is all the better for it. Bamford acts his moods, Alioski bites Hernandez. We have to love them just the way they are.

Bambo is the player most threatened by Kevvo, and the one who probably paid most attention to the budget lavished on welcoming a new reserve striker to the club. But if we have to embrace Pat’s weirdness, he’ll have to embrace Augustin’s presence, just as Ian Poveda sprinted to pull Bamford’s hands from his ears and embrace him, bringing him back to the real world to celebrate the moment. Little Ian was the night’s true innocent, made giddy just by watching his new team; perhaps he’ll learn about Leeds, but perhaps we could learn something from his naivety.

Poveda was watching his new team, but we were watching our old one, without him or Augustin to help; a team that, over these long Championship seasons, have taken us to delight and despair with exhausting frequency, and will again before May. It’s in the nature of football that we endure the storm and stress of every fault in our stars, but when we take the hands from our ears, or our eyes, we can see what Little Ian sees, what Millwall’s manager and fans saw, what the league table shows: the best Leeds United team in years, top of the table, a painful quirky draining joy to be around. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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The Match Ball: Millwall (H) | EFL Championship

Wow. The Peacocks defeated the Lions 3-2 in a crazy game at Elland Road. Full time (incoherent) thoughts!

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TSB Podcast 166: Your Daughter

United are back in action this week against Millwall and Wigan, with JKA and Ian Poveda added to the ranks. Fans are happy, we’re happy, and those lot from over the hills are miserable. What could possibly go wrong now?

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The Square Ball Week: The Striker’s Art

Marcelo Bielsa needs a striker. He likes Che Adams best of all, and Leeds United would so like to please Bielsa that they’re willing to spend £20m to get him the striker he likes the best.

If Marcelo liked me as much as he likes Che, I’d be there for him for a packet of biscuits, never mind £20m. Likewise, I wouldn’t need a £20m striker giftwrapped and given me to make me feel wanted. I’d welcome devotion in the form of, well, a packet of biscuits.

Things are different in professional football, though, and Bielsa, waiting for a striker, is yet to receive so much as a single cookie. Leeds, who don’t have cash burning any holes in their pockets, but are willing to set their bank account on fire for Marcelo, are flipping the pages of their scouting research like an anxious parent with an Argos catalogue on Christmas Eve, while Marcelo points stubbornly at the one toy their money can’t buy.

Bielsa has a reputation for being stubborn, although he vigorously denied it when the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Graham Smyth asked if he was “demanding” to work with during a transfer window. Bielsa countered by listing all the players Victor Orta brought to the club who are now in a team near the top of the league, as if to say, a stubborn manager would have demanded the purchase of a top-class midfielder, whereas Bielsa simply sighed and turned Mateusz Klich into one instead. It doesn’t exactly help Bielsa’s argument: whether he demanded it from the transfer market or from Klich’s exhausted body, he still got the top-class midfielder he wanted. But he insists he’s willing to make do.

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If there’s one position where Bielsa might be flexible, it’s centre-forward. The unsuitability of Eddie Nketiah, followed by the rejection of Ryan Edmondson and the fixation on Che Adams, has created a perception that wearing the number nine for Bielsa is a job very few are qualified to do. I’m not sure that’s the case.

As he has with most things in football, Bielsa has quantified the ways it’s possible to score a goal. But unlike most things in football, he hasn’t found a method to guarantee that any of them will happen in a match. He seems to accept that what a striker does in the eighteen yard box is at least as emotional as it is technical; his key test for a penalty taker is how confident they feel. In a confined space, filled with hurtling bodies, and one ball bouncing unpredictably between them, technique you might spend years perfecting carries no more advantages over the ability to force the ball over the line with a buttock. There are aspects of football about which Bielsa is shockingly Warnockian, only he confines the mixer to a much smaller space, and pays much more detailed attention to how the ball is, eventually, gerrin’ in there.

Bielsa’s laissez-faire shrugs about finishing chances are balanced by his obsession with creating them; he often uses the word ‘building’ when the talks about attacking, and that is Bielsaball in a nutshell: building structures that build attacks. The scaffolders are more important than the swimmers in the rooftop pool, and that focus upends the way we understand the distribution of players on a football pitch, where we traditionally expect the skilful players — Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi — in attack, leaving the cloggers at the back.

Not for Bielsa. The game is about how to move the ball forward from the back, so that’s where the players with skill and vision need to be: at the back, so they can look up the pitch and pass intelligently and precisely, whether short or long. The space you have to scan, study and pass forwards into reduces the further you move up the pitch, so the task should become easier, and need less skill. From the byline, Jackie Harrison has one question to answer: how do I get the ball to Bamford? But the goalkeeper faces a much more complex situation: which one of their ten teammates should receive the ball to start a move to get the ball forward and eventually get it to Bamford? Should I give it to Ben here, Liam on that side, or can I fulfil the coach’s demand for fast attacking, and pass it from here all the way to Jackie?

When it comes to attributes, save the close control, range of vision and passing technique for the goalkeeper, because that’s where everything begins. Our glimpse of Ilan Meslier at Arsenal was like a visitation from Gary McAllister. Some dream of Messi and Bielsa being united at their old club Newell’s Old Boys, and fear Messi being used as a playmaker from right-back. From Marcelo’s point of view, he might as well be a goalkeeper. It doesn’t matter that he couldn’t catch a corner; neither can Kiko Casilla.

The striker’s life, under Bielsa, is spent without the ball. He plays with nobody forward of him, and only a few yards of pitch, so a lack of finesse can be absolved if he’s got a butt that scores goals. He needs to be able to understand space, and how to run one way to create it, then run another way to fill it again and score. He doesn’t need to be able to pass if he can spend ninety minutes creating space for Liam Cooper to pass into.

Bielsa referred to this once when discussing Nketiah’s running stats: he covered the kilometres, but he was always running towards the ball near the goal, trying to score. He wasn’t doing the important part: running away from the ball and the goal, because space scores goals. I’m sure Nketiah wasn’t expected to get himself into the sort of physical battles Pat Bamford does, but he was expected to learn how to run out of position, so his markers would be out of position, too. He never quite seemed to grasp it.

Bamford has grasped it, and his body allows him to add aggression, too. But not always. The mystery with Bamford, tall, strong, sarcastic, unshaven, is how he turns timid in the penalty box. If he was a worse footballer, he might be a better striker, but he gets sucked into emulating the soft-footed skills of Jackie and Pablo and loses the ball under his kitten heels, when he should be yanking off a stiletto and swinging wild and strong.

Luciano Becchio used to be derided for his touch, criticised as a ‘limited’ footballer who couldn’t make or control a pass. But that ignored that all players have ‘limits’, and for a centre-forward, those limits were perfectly acceptable. What Becchio had, that others hadn’t, was the power and skill to head a ball into the goal from the edge of the penalty area, while Bamford can hardly summon the strength to kick it the same distance into the keeper’s hands. Becchio, like Mark Viduka and Lee Chapman before him, wasn’t only a master of the physical side of the game, but of the physics, of understanding the interactions of objects, forces and velocity, so that if a ball was travelling at a certain speed in a certain direction, he knew how hard to kick or head or bum it in another direction so it went into the net.

Luciano Becchio has just turned 36. If Neil Warnock hadn’t sold him, and he’d kept going at his rough average of 40 games a season and 20 goals, he’d be closing in our top ten league appearances chart and have already beaten Peter Lorimer’s record of 168 league goals. That’s before I even try to think about his increased scoring rate with Harrison laying on the chances, instead of Luke Varney laying on the floor with his legs scrambled. If we don’t score the goals we need to go up this season, don’t blame Bamford, blame Warnock.

Viduka would be unstoppable in this team. Lee Chapman too. Go find a video of Chapman twisting his body in mid air at high speed so his forehead crashes into a ball moving even faster and sends it in the direction he wants. Then find a fourteen stone ballet dancer who can do anything like it. He could make any cross into a good cross by heading it into the net; outside the box might have been a different story, but that’s where Chapman had Gordon Strachan, who could turn any misshapen hoof in his general direction into a good pass. If we signed my other fave, Mathieu Smith, he’d have Pablo Hernandez to do the same. He’ll be in Leeds on Tuesday: Victor, I say it every year, get that deal done.

Or get any deal done. Che Adams would meet the criteria, and Marcelo Bielsa might have eyes only for him, but the criteria for a number nine are loose. The more important factor is that we’re trying to seduce with biscuits rather than millions. It should be enough. We’re looking for someone who can run and score, because centre-forward is a simple game, even when, especially when, playing for Bielsa. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. If you enjoy these reports, your money supports more: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Lee Brown)