Marcelo Bielsa’s pre-Southampton press conference really made me feel the proper grey of a second Thursday in an international break, like this one, when the wind howling outside the window fills the gaps between question, translation, answer, translation, as the Zoom-assembled press drag injury news out of Bielsa player by player. “How’s Jack Harrison doing?” Oh yeah, him as well. We were 25 minutes in.
Team news is what all the FPL managers in the YouTube stream chat want, and I don’t know if the injury list was consciously being split across every questioner, but it certainly prolonged the, not drama, not tension, the… the… it just prolonged. (Watch it on YouTube or read the Leeds Live transcript if you want.) We know by now that if you don’t give Bielsa a name, he won’t give you an update, but there must be a way of bundling them all together into a sí, no, tal vez. It took the first two and a half minutes to establish that Pat Bamford is still out with the ankle injury “which we informed [you of] previously”, with his recovery “subject to the evolution of the injury”, or in other words, ‘he’ll have recovered when his ankle is better.’ I was already longing to swap places with the plastic carrier bag I could see zipping freely through the West Yorkshire skies, or maybe a bird, but I felt more like the bag.
Getting through them, then: Kalvin Phillips “has chances” of playing, which Bielsa was asked to clarify further, but didn’t: “Like I said, he has possibilities to play and we will decide between today, tomorrow and Saturday.” Luke Ayling is “at the halfway stage of the process of his recovery”, Jackie Harrison is available, Stuart Dallas is fine, so is Crysencio Summerville (his goal at Sunderland was proof). There was an interesting development in Robin Koch’s pubis: “Koch is in the United States where he will undergo a simple procedure to try and solve his problem with his pubis.” If that’s anything like Adam Forshaw’s trip to the States that puts Robin a mere nineteen months away from playing in the Carabao Cup — but wait! Hold your tired old jokes! “Forshaw is available again.” Good!
Raphinha’s big weekend was the other big update keeping Fantasy League managers hooked like wet cloths to their tenters, but Bielsa was as non-committal as ever when a situation, i.e. the future, is out of his control. Will Raphinha play at Southampton? Bielsa says it depends if he plays against Uruguay tonight, how many minutes he plays, how he feels afterwards, how much rest he can get, and the quality of that rest given he’ll be on an aeroplane. “If there’s any risk that fatigue will cause injuries then we won’t risk him,” was about as concrete as it got.
Another question about Raphinha got a nice big smile. Earlier in the season Bielsa was fuming about how tiring players out with three international games per break is reducing the quality footballers are able to produce; he was asked if that might be balanced out in Raphinha’s case by the sweet serotonin from his successful debut week with Brazil. “It’s an impossible response to be able to give you,” said Bielsa, but, “It’s very interesting what you ask me. I can give you two responses that [sound contradictory]. Football is a state[ment] of your mood, but muscular tiredness affects your performance and puts the players at risk of injury. Both things are true.”
He sounded a little more at ease this week about the life of a coach with a lot of international players. The downside is still that international breaks increase the minutes and decrease the rest of players who go away, and affects the training you can do with the players left behind because you can’t coach them as a team: “They have improved in a lot of aspects, but in individual ones. It’s very difficult to form a team to develop collective aspects.” But it’s not so bad for Bielsa because, in his fourth season at Leeds, most of the players should know what they’re doing without needing the practice, and not every club or coach can say the same. Besides, it all has to be balanced against the players’ wishes. “You have to value the desire, enormously, of the players to represent their countries. The players who play for their national teams, they don’t play for the money, they play for the colours of the shirt and their country.”
The big moment for breathing in, turning from the window to the screen, and leaning in a little closer came when Newcastle’s takeover was brought up. The question was phrased around Bielsa’s determination to keep coaching his way, despite the financial inequality in the Premier League that Newcastle’s takeover represents: but Bielsa wasn’t inspired into any lectures. It’s old news, he says. “The situation surrounding the acquisition of Newcastle, the analysis around the acquisition of Newcastle, hasn’t any novelties.” He spoke longer, but the point he wanted to make was that there was no point him speaking about it.
“There are rules that are established to avoid the damaging consequences that an operation of this type could have,” he said, so the press and public shouldn’t be seeking Marcelo Bielsa’s opinion on what the rules should be, but instead should be analysing “if the rules that [exist to] prevent the negative consequences are being applied.” Which does get to one of the core frustrations around the Premier League’s sudden approval of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s takeover at Newcastle, because as soon as the press release announcing it was sent out everyone involved scuttled away without explaining how it was approved. Bielsa added that he will contribute an opinion if someone asks him to help shape new rules: “when there’s a space [i.e. opportunity] … to make a contribution, from my point of view, [to] the design of the rules. But none of this is happening. There are rules, and realities, that are already implemented. [Therefore] it makes no sense for me to have an opinion.”
There’s a football match ahead too, and it’s against Southampton, whose boss Ralph Hasenhüttl did his bit this morning to deflate the Premier League’s value by predicting the game, “will not always be nice to watch, with a lot of mistakes because of the pressure both sides put on the other … if you expect a five-star dinner you will not see it. It’s more about wining duals, winning second balls, use the space that you get for a short moment properly,” as if he thinks he’s up against Sam Allardyce’s Leeds this weekend. Bielsa did his best to live up to that: “The games are always difficult. There are some games, they’re a little bit more than difficult, it’s impossible to say before the game but what we’re absolutely sure of is that Southampton is going to be a very, very difficult opponent to overcome.” No easy games at this level! We’ll be going there for the three points but have to respect Southampton! Same thing with a banal question about following the win over Watford: “Every game we play for three points which are indispensable for us … the effect of having won against Watford, we will see it and verify it when we have to measure the performance against Southampton.” Sometimes you realise, listening to Bielsa on a boring Thursday afternoon with your brain cramped beneath a leaden sky, that he just wants the lads to give 110 per cent for the three points, because it’s no good beating Watford if we don’t give a good account of ourselves at Southampton. And he just wants to tell you Robin Koch’s rebellious pubis is evolving and go about his day. ⬢(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)