Back when Leeds United were conceding six and four or three on the regular, Marcelo Bielsa kept outraging received wisdom by refusing to change his team’s style.
People complained it was like watching a basketball game, like clergy writing to the newspaper about all the sex on TV they can’t stop watching. Worse, they said, Leeds wanted it to be like a basketball game. And people keep saying it, every week, that Leeds want a basketball game, as if its something to be handed over in a brown paper bag to be watched, appalled, after the kids have gone to bed. Back and forth, end to end, up and down. Disgusting. Let’s watch it again.
Bielsa burnout is cut, dried and discredited but suspicion still lingers about the style. Leeds don’t concede six and four or three anymore, so something must have changed. Bielsa must have learned something about decency, some aspect of the big scary grownup Premier League must have frightened him out of his naivety, like a mirror showing him Sean Dyche’s face growling that he can’t go around like a child forever in this gritty mill town of men.
But what has changed? Nothing has changed. Oh, the results have changed. You never saw a game of basketball end 4-0. But what if Leeds were never playing hoop-la all along? It might have been what they were getting, but who said that’s what they wanted?
The questions about entertaining football, rather than winning football, that hit Bielsa after defeat to Brighton, showed how much the point was still being missed. All teams have the obligation to entertain, replied Bielsa. Otherwise, what’s the point? Selling season tickets to fans then deliberately boring them? (That noise was an offstage “Oi!” from Dyche.) All teams also have an obligation to win. Bielsa’s not very radical idea is that you can do both, which is where people close the textbooks, shaking their heads, sad and bewildered, he’s totally lost us.
Bielsa hasn’t changed his style to make Leeds more defensive because his style as he conceives it is defensively perfect. All styles of play proposed by all coaches are, more or less, but it’s only Bielsa who people think is setting up games on purpose for twelve-all draws. That has never been the idea. Far from a basketball match, Bielsa’s perfect game would stay end-end-end while the opposition were dispossessed over and over in their own third, where the goals would stack up towards the statistically feasible target — Bielsa worked it out — of 57. To nil.
That’s where beauty comes in, because if one team is scoring, according to Bielsa’s theoretical average, every 95 seconds, then some suspense may be lost from the result. So you’d better make sure those 57 goals are nice to look at, or else.
6-2 or 4-3 were never intended, so eradicating those scorelines didn’t mean learning to Premier League, but learning to Bielsa, better. Nothing about Bielsa’s coaching encourages his players to concede six because they’ll score seven. Those scores were human errors, Bielsa’s hypothesis of a perfect robot team thankfully not yet come to pass. Leeds United’s games are played by people, and the people changed, not the system. Diego Llorente, since he’s been fit enough, has been very good at the system. Pascal Struijk has got better at it. The team as a whole has got better at doing what Bielsa was always asking it to do.
Stripping the external rhetoric away from Bielsa can leave you feeling obvious: don’t all coaches do these things, making Bielsa only a freak of degree? In this case, I don’t think so. I don’t think Sean Dyche believes Burnley’s style will help them win every game to nil, he just thinks it will keep them in the division. Beneath his surface he rages for better players, who could play different football and make him look like a better coach. Dyche wouldn’t play 4-4-2 if he had Lionel Messi in the team. And that’s the difference. Bielsa plays the same way whether he has Messi, Burnley or Leeds, and it might not work — his trophy shelf suggests not — but he has the courage to try.
So Bielsa’s Leeds have not adapted to the Premier League this season, they’ve just got better at being themselves, and now the Premier League has to adapt its understanding of what Bielsa’s Leeds are all about. If Leeds beat Southampton and West Brom the way they beat Burnley, those basketball comparisons will sound quite silly, but who has got a metaphor to make a steamroller sound entertaining?
Burnley could have hooped a couple, but one end of the pitch was benefiting from quality goalkeeping, while the other had Bailey Peacock-Farrell diving mournfully after Mateusz Klich beat him by shooting to his left. Struijk could have already put Leeds ahead, but put his header wide, and imagine if Ezgjan Alioski’s snapshot hadn’t gone out for a throw in. Imagine that Jackie Harrison backheeled it between the posts, as he did on another Alioski effort early in the second half, making it 2-0.
When it comes to rigidity of style, lets compare Dyche, swapping Chris Wood and Matej Vydra for Jay Rodriguez and Ashley Barnes, four strikers who were all ineffective in similar ways, with Bielsa swapping Pat Bamford for Rodrigo. Bamford had been tempted into physical battles with Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, but Rodrigo was too wise for that, hiding from them in secret places only Harrison could see. With an unexpected pass Jackie split the bigs, then a flash of control and a gentle lift over Peacock-Farrell was how Rodrigo scored his first. Two minutes later Kalvin Phillips found Harrison in Narnia, and his pass kept Tarkowski and Peacock-Farrell floundering outside the wardrobe while Rodrigo scored a deft ‘nother.
That was that, apart from Ashley Westwood crunching Raphinha, after getting a yellow card for crunching Raphinha and trying to start a fight about Raphinha’s reaction. In between Dwight McNeil crunched Alioski and tried to start something with him while he lay on the floor, before either he complained to the referee about something Alioski said or did, or Alioski complained about something McNeil said or did, or both. The facts have disappeared behind the curtain of the referee’s report, but what we saw — McNeil’s hard tackle, his crouching shouting over Alioski’s prone body, Alioski’s fingers and tongue waggling at McNeil and the Burnley staff — looked something like Dycheball in action. It’s a philosophy whereby it’s acceptable and encouraged and part of the game to kick opponents, but not to complain when the kicks hurt. Here’s the thing: kicks are not part of the game, which is why fouls exist, to stop players from kicking each other. You’re supposed to kick the ball. But in Dyche’s world of press conferences about pints, where piano lessons are forbidden and defending your way to losing 5-0 at Manchester City every season is honourable if you put effort in, he’s a gatekeeper of what we do or don’t want to see in our game. We do want to see: Tarkowski sticking his knee into Llorente’s back. We don’t want to see: Llorente reacting, as if he’s soft. Burnley’s players said Leeds’ first goal should have been ruled out for a foul on Vydra at the other end, but nothing about Tarkowski kicking Bamford over on halfway, to make sure he couldn’t score.
It’s a man’s game, isn’t it? Sigh. Yes Sean. And Leeds? They play like children, their coach is naive, like Peter Pan and the gang, refusing to grow up into Sean Dyche’s adult league. Their masculinity asserted, Burnley lost 4-0. I hope Bielsa never grows as old as some of the people younger than him. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)