Watching Blackburn scoring twice, unopposed, from corners; Stuart Dallas flapping at wing-back; Samu Saiz toiling like a boy with a spoon told to to dig a canal; can we avoid this question? Are Leeds United bad again now?
The wider world might not think so, but the wider world isn’t keeping a close eye on events at Ewood Park or a close ear on opinions around Elland Road. The wider world looks at Twitter and sees the video clip of United’s brilliant goal, and it’s enough to assume that the old bloke Leeds got in with the bucket, what’s-he-called, Beelzebub or sumfink, is still working his magic.
It was a brilliant goal. Eleven passes, starting at the back, created space for Saiz to trade his spoon for a shovel, flicking a pass to the far side of Blackburn’s penalty area, spinning their defence right around like Pete Burns and finding Gaetano Berardi, of all people, who had the attacking smarts to flash the ball first time across the six-yard box to Mateusz Klich, late on the scene but just in time to score, just before half-time.
It felt like a relief, and just about a fair reward. At first Danny Graham’s goal in the third minute, when he escaped Berardi at a corner to head in, didn’t feel like too much of a problem. The game was frenetic at the start, exciting, between two teams up for counter-attacking with pace. Despite the early goal, I was settling in for ninety minutes of thrills, preferably without Bailey Peacock-Farrell required to make the good saves he was making.
But Leeds, perhaps feeling the pressure of being a goal behind, relinquished their part of the fun. United’s attacks faded as Rovers’ grew in strength, particularly around Stuart Dallas, who was quickly swapped with Berardi, who coped better with Adam Armstrong. The flurries of fluid football at the start dwindled away, leaving Saiz grinding through the motions, asked to do too much, and trying to.
It was that effort that meant the equaliser was deserved; Leeds didn’t look good, but they didn’t look like giving up. In the second half Leeds controlled the pace and were the better team for 25 minutes, but slowing the game down to suppress Blackburn also suppressed United’s ability to surprise in the penalty area, unless the surprise was how ineffective we were. The scores were level and Pablo Hernandez was ready to come on, to add insight to effort and win the game.
But first, Blackburn scored again, from a corner again, and won the game. Hernandez was predictably creative when he came on, and young winger Jack Clarke unpredictably dangerous, but Blackburn had ceded ideas of attacking, and they came into a very different game, of attack versus defence. Klich aimed a good shot into the top corner; David Raya’s save was better. You could say that about everything Leeds tried in the last twenty minutes.
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“We work on the set-pieces each week,” said Marcelo Bielsa afterwards. “As much as I can,” he said. But for once the opposing manager’s comments were more insightful. “The set-pieces were something we’d worked really hard on yesterday morning,” said Tony Mowbray. “Pontus Jansson is a monster of a man and Liam Cooper is very dominant, but you take them two out of the middle of the box and we felt as if they were a bit vulnerable, which is what happened. Whoever was getting marked by those two played wide and for the first goal Graham came powering through the middle and scored. And the second goal Lenihan had the same.”
Mowbray continued in equally chilling fashion. “We’d had an international break to prepare … it gives the staff a chance to study the opposition when you’ve got two weeks to watch five or six, full 90-minute games and try and pick their weaknesses and strengths … They might argue that both of their full-backs who play regularly are unavailable, that’s part and parcel of football. I would have to say that having watched Leeds, Ayling the right back was probably their best player, so it was probably a plus for us that he wasn’t playing.”
Was Marcelo Bielsa beaten at his own video analysis game by… by Tony Mowbray? Bielsa admitted himself that he got his full-back selections the wrong way round, and given the names he praised for their ‘positive influence’ — Hernandez and Clarke, as well as Saiz and Klich — he might feel like he got other things wrong, too, adjusting for his concerns about fitness; he felt it helped Hernandez, returning from injury, to come into the game against tiring opponents; Roofe’s lack of sparkle was down to a lack of match fitness.
Bielsa knows football and how to analyse videos, but he has said himself that he had to wait until he was working at Thorp Arch to analyse the character of the squad he was inheriting, to delve deeper into his players. He has, mostly, seemed pleased by what he has found. But while we might not be able to analyse Stuart Dallas’s skill set, for example, the way Bielsa can, we have seen him try and fail in too many experimental positions before to know, perhaps better than Bielsa, that it’s easy to ask too much of him. “I thought more about the offensive play,” said Bielsa. “Stuart Dallas is better offensively on the right than on the left. And Gaetano Berardi is as good on the left side as on the right side. If I had taken the right decision I would have avoided to the team a difficult moment in defence.”
It was easily fixed, and Roberts and Roofe switched around too, and these adaptations only look like a weakness when we lose. They might be a feature, not a bug. Starting with both Roberts and Roofe, rather than leaving one out for Hernandez, made their swapping around possible — even Bielsa isn’t going to try Pablo as a target striker — testing Blackburn’s defenders against forwards with different attributes. It’s almost like an extra substitution, that doesn’t involve shaming Kalvin Phillips — who, by the way, had nothing to be ashamed of in this game. Unfortunately, wherever Roofe and Roberts were on the pitch, Rovers dealt with them both.
That’s the biggest challenge for Bielsa at the moment, apart from nursing his best players back to health. After two wins in eight, some of the faith in Bielsa’s style of play is beginning to fray among the supporters, who are used to seeing things change when they’re not working. But as Bielsa has made clear before, the style will not change. He knows the style inside out, and his belief in it is unshakeable.
What about his belief in his players? He saw the way they played at the end of last season, as did we. We didn’t suspect this squad could play as well as they have this season, but we know in the back of our minds that the drudge of six months ago is still well within their capabilities.
“If we link the last draw and the loss of today we have to conclude we are low, in a bad moment,” said Bielsa after the match. “As a matter of fact, today, our goal was to avoid [this] result [and going] through a negative cycle. Now, we have to find a solution as soon as possible. Now we know what we have to do in the next game.” But, he added, as if acknowledging the difference between knowing what to do and doing it, “We also knew what we had to do in the game of today.”
The games of tomorrow come quickly this week, games when Bielsa will have to find again the potential he saw in his players in the videos of last season, that we saw in the first few weeks, instead of the reality of March and April, the reality of Blackburn away. Leeds are better than this, and will have to be to achieve anything this season. But they have to keep believing it. ◉
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(photo by Paul Kent)