“The more games we play like this one, we will be more ready to find solutions,” said Marcelo Bielsa after his Leeds United team faced the Middlesbrough team of his nemesis-elect, Tony Pulis.
Of course, Bielsa has already found the solutions; he found them in a dark room in the early 1990s, searching first the abyss and then his soul for the way to bring glory to Newell’s Old Boys. When your philosophy’s origin story is as dramatic as Bielsa’s, you don’t change it in a hurry. Each new rival is not a test of whether you should change; it’s a test of whether you can train your players to prove you right.
Bielsa once said he’d prefer a team of robots to humans, but Tony Pulis has them; ten ginormous figures of steel, looming over the pitch like the towers of the Tees Transporter Bridge; and Jonny Howson. At corners Gaetano Berardi would disappear between Daniel Ayala and Aden Flint as if he was being chewed up by their grinding cogs; it was a relief to see him emerging unscathed at the other side. Then winning the header.
Bielsa’s ideal robots would probably be eleven souped-up Roombas, zooming around a carpet pitch, hoovering up the game, and he stuck to his determination to stick to his philosophy by refusing to employ Pontus Jansson’s height at the back. That decision was the main tube in which the Bielsa vs Pulis experiment would be tested, and the results were mixed.
Berardi, the full-back of average height, was counter intuitively United’s best defender against Middlesbrough’s aerial strength; strength is strength, and however tall he is or isn’t, Berardi is strong. Up against Ayala, who roamed the penalty area like a hideous glitching hologram of Jimmy Stewart, drunk and bemused in It’s A Wonderful Life, he didn’t win the aerial contest but did win the physical one, and that was enough. In open play Berardi was composed and intense, concentrating hard, occasionally mistaken in possession but occasionally also playing accurate long passes to the wings like a furious Baresi.
Liam Cooper was less successful. Another of Bielsa’s post-match observations was that, “We have to improve the resolution of the aerial game of the opponent,” and he will have observed Pontus Jansson flinging himself at a corner moments after replacing the injured Berardi, an excellent way of resolving things. Cooper hadn’t done that, instead chasing various red shirts around the area more out of hope than strategy. Often that was while defending a set-piece given away by Cooper himself in a dangerous area, or conceded from a situation caused by his wayward leadership; communication seemed to be lacking, as when he piled through the back of Barry Douglas to win a header, or slide tackled Samu Saiz on halfway.
The tension inside Elland Road increased whenever Middlesbrough won one of those set-pieces, and I suspect there would have been fewer, and those better defended, had Cooper’s place been taken by the newly unveiled brooding maturity of Jansson. Fortunately, one factor left out of the debates about defensive height rose to the occasion; Bailey Peacock-Farrell, taking advantage of a goalkeeper’s protection to evade the chaotic pushing and, with all his attention on the ball, bring it safely to his gloves. Another time, he reacted superbly to tip a near post header over the bar; arguably Middlesbrough’s best chance, it came backwards off Luke Ayling’s head. Ayling also had Leeds’ best chance, also a header, cleared off the line by Adam Clayton; we almost had the best irony of United winning the game from a better set-piece than Middlesbrough managed, a brilliant corner by Douglas.
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Unlike Middlesbrough, though, United’s aim was not to win set-pieces but to score from open play, and they imposed themselves for fifteen minutes in the second half that were Bielsa’s best repudiation of Pulis. In every match Leeds have relentless spells of pressure, but the knack of taking advantage shown at Norwich City and earlier in the season either left them here, or was blocked by Middlesbrough. Promising breaks and well-built moves would collapse, usually on the wings, without either the ball or enough players getting into the box; Kalvin Phillips would retrieve the ball and Leeds would go again, but usually with the same result. There were a few exceptions when Douglas and Ezgjan Alioski combined to get Mateusz Klich into the penalty area, but before he could ever find Kemar Roofe, the robots would close in.
The likeliest explanation is that Leeds missed Pablo Hernandez. After the Norwich game I wrote about his ability to impose his architectural plans on a game; all those designs were left in his head, here, as he was missing through injury. His replacement on the right wing, Jack Harrison, had his best and most promising appearance yet for Leeds; controlling long balls with a good first touch, he would size up the full-backs for danger; one quick shot went just wide. But his best work was likely to be at the end of a move, providing the final pass or taking a shot himself, and Leeds lacked Hernandez to plot those patterns out first and set the Roombas into motion.
Saiz is a joyful player at his best, but he’s reactive; in a tight situation, he’ll twist into space, but then he has to look up and see what’s around him to decide what comes next. Leeds have a few players like that, Saiz, Alioski, perhaps Harrison, Roofe, who will see an opening and seize upon it; but Hernandez makes the openings, and that’s the difference. Usually, against a less drilled team, there will be more openings made through defensive mistakes, so more for Saiz to take advantage of. But facing a line of Pulisbots, hassled by Adam Clayton and Mo Besic, he ended up stumped.
It might have helped Leeds had the referee, Tim Robinson, punished Middlesbrough’s physicality the way he nitpicked against United’s relatively mild trips and barges; you could scythe down a player unpunished, like George Friend through Harrison, but by clipping Dael Fry’s heels Saiz won a booking. But there were enough breaks in the game as it was, and by the end it was given over almost entirely to long debates with the referee about who was pushing who at Middlesbrough corners. That was exactly how Pulis wanted it, after his team survived United’s period of intense attacking; Bielsa will have been pleased that his team withstood it, with so much pressure on the players, and on the philosophy.
This game pulled Bielsa a little further than he may have wanted into Pulis world. Pulis was tearing around his technical area from the kick-off, berating the officials and his own players, but within twenty minutes Bielsa had also left the calmness of his bucket, entering the touchline fray to berate his own players for not pressing high enough, wagging his finger at the fourth official as his players were thrust to the floor. One day, Bielsa might maintain his bucket-zen right through a match against Pulis, while his rival whirls along the sidelines; but not yet. His post-match verdict was, “Satisfactory, but we have many things to improve in games like this.”
Which, top of the league after six games and going into the international break, is not a bad thing to remember. This performance, in a week when Leeds suffered their first defeat, could feel like a letdown compared to the shocking euphoria of the wins over Stoke City and Derby County. But part of the pleasure of those games was the unexpected doses of adrenalin we got from a team that, when we left it in May, was serving up undiluted mogadon. We overlooked the imperfections of our new drug and just revelled in the high.
A Tony Pulis team won’t let you do that. The flaws in our players were exposed when they conceded free-kicks or didn’t see through balls or ran lazily offside or passed simple balls away; but the players are the players, and they’re not robots. At the end of the night, the lingering impression from seeing Bielsa take on Pulis was not that one style of football works better than another; neither is going to suddenly change their minds now, anyway. It was that Leeds United’s players still have work to do to achieve what Bielsa believes his philosophy is capable of. They’ve improved, but they’re still improving; they’ve learned the tenets, but now need to learn the technique.
If Leeds beat Middlesbrough in February, this is how it will be achieved; not by changing, but by improving. As Bielsa said, the more games we play like this one, the more ready we’ll be to find solutions. He meant the players, not him; like Pulis, he knows exactly what he’s doing. ◉
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(feature image by Paul Kent)