Football and magic; football as magic; football is magic, if you support Leeds United in 2019. They sold the man with the magic hat, but the illusion hasn’t left Leeds.
I learned over the summer that the awkward translation from Marcelo Bielsa, whether by Salim Lamrani or now by Marcos Abad, into the English word ‘illusion’ — “One of the things is to improve, with illusion, the things we made last season” — is from the Spanish word meaning ‘hope’. That makes things a bit clearer when listening to Bielsa speak, although you still have to watch his movements to try working out the trick. Movements, huh. He sits on his bucket and doesn’t, and I guess that’s the point.
At Bristol City Bielsa pulled off the same sorcery we saw against Stoke City on the first day of last season. That’s twice now that Bielsa has given nothing away in his pre-season line-ups, while the fans wring their hands over transfers and doubts; then named a starting eleven that, one player apart, was a flashback to the previous season’s disasters.
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Does he do it on purpose? Is it all part of the thrill, his and ours? People go to see their favourite magicians — David Blaine, Penn & Teller, The Great Soprendo — again and again, knowing how their stunts will end. But they go for that thrilling tension while the illusion is constructed, while the hope builds, towards the pay-off — unless, this time, something goes wrong. Twice now Bielsa has tormented us, thrilled us and left us feeling relieved. Even Jesus only turned water into wine once, but after turning Kalvin Phillips into Franz Beckenbauer last season, here’s Stuart Dallas, becoming the Cookstown Dani Alves before our very eyes. [Edit: MVT is right; he’s the Cookstown Cafu.]
Kiko Casilla is also before our eyes, when we dare to uncover them for long enough to look at him. Like a clowning warm-up act he started the season by dribbling around an attacker in his own six-yard box, charging out of his goal to tackle, jumping beneath crosses and, when it comes down to it, not conceding anything until slack defending gave Andreas Weimann a free shot in the second half. His actions look calamitous, but his face is so calm, it’s like being tempted to swim in a shark-infested sea.
Ben White’s calmness was in his expression and his defending, near faultless on his debut in the Championship. Liam Cooper dominated and intercepted and blocked with none of the ornament Pontus Jansson used to bring, but all the same self-assurance. He hardly even flinched when Casilla, channelling Scott Wootton, tried punching him out of his serenity, but then Kiko didn’t look flustered by the K.O. either.
The pressure was all on Bristol, anyway, because these three players apart, all of United’s emphasis was on attacking. Barry Douglas, nominally the left-back, was slow getting back a few times, but like Dallas most of his attention was on Bristol’s penalty area, not ours.
The tactic of the day was a long, high pass to Jack Harrison, that he controlled cold every time on the left touchline, while the pitch inside him was warmed by the swarm of pink ‘n’ platinum forwards. Harrison’s touch was impeccable, helped by the quality of the passes towards him, from an impressively wide variety of players.
Adam Forshaw sent him one midway through the first half, then followed to get the ball again on the edge of City’s penalty area. Forshaw tried shooting from here a few times, but he’s yet to master the art of kicking a ball hard enough to score, and this time he gave it to a true maestro, Pablo Hernandez. After a friendly last weekend Bristol manager Lee Johnson described his defence as “grumpy and stroppy and unenthusiastic,” and £8m of Tomas Kalas was sulking somewhere else while Hernandez turned and shot — oh, it was more like slicing air — into the top corner.
Hernandez faded last season. It’s still painful to remember how much of the second leg against Derby was spent hoping Hernandez would take a grip on the game, and wondering why it was Stuart Dallas leading the team, why Pablo was on the fringes. Perhaps, after the performances against Brentford and Ipswich, when it was tiring just to watch him, Hernandez, aged 34, was done.
Nope. Even if it doesn’t last until May, we must make the most of Hernandez while he has fresh grass in his nostrils now, and a full repertoire to beat Bristol that few teams in this division could stop. For United’s second goal, he disappeared, turning up again on the right wing as Kalvin Phillips assessed a busy penalty area. Now came the flash, the bang and the puff of smoke as Hernandez tricked his way past Callum O’Dowda to the byline, taking more touches than anyone could in the time, and crossed. Then came a poacher’s finish from a striker more used to chasing poachers off his estate, a determined near post header by Patrick Bamford.
That second goal set Leeds up for twenty minutes of joy. They’d controlled the game from the start, keeping possession so long it was almost uncomfortable to watch, like holding a present in the air away from the grasping hands of a child for so long they cry; they were assessing and analysing Bristol’s weaknesses, and came up with the opening goal. Now they pressed all their buttons and attacking City looked too easy: Harrison was set up to shoot by a one-two with Forshaw that was almost lazy; then the third goal came from Dallas, not the fastest player, stretching his legs down the right as if he was out jogging with an old labrador. Mateusz Klich’s shot was blocked, Harrison put the rebound into an empty net. Bielsa had pulled off a double trick: bringing Leeds back from death in the play-offs, and making Bristol City disappear.
Almost. Lee Johnson pulled himself up to twice his height to eyeball Bielsa over nothing, and City resolved to at least not embarrass themselves completely on opening day, Weimann exploiting gaps to run inside and score. Ezgjan Alioski replaced Douglas to close the gaps, but that didn’t help so Leif Davis was tried, while Helder Costa was given a debut task of leading counter attacks when he could. It says something about United’s fans’ nerves that even a 3-1 lead, in stoppage time, didn’t feel secure.
That’s us, though. Maybe we should learn from Kiko Casilla’s impassive demeanour; he works at Leeds on the inside, knows where Bielsa keeps the levers and pulleys at Thorp Arch, and he doesn’t look frightened. If he ever needs to relax, he can just punch Liam Cooper. It’s fine.
We can also take everything, once again, from Bielsa. We might as well for as long as he’s here. It’s not magic, it never is; but what is it? It’s calm and frenetic, peaceful and dramatic, meditating and attacking. It’s not the Addams Family, it’s Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, and it’s only one game; we had to remind ourselves of that this time last year. But it’s the game we needed: Marcelo Bielsa’s game. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)