After a season-and-a-half I’m allowed one, this one, one when head doesn’t rule heart, gratitude doesn’t nullify need, where rationality goes out the picture like an Alioski cross on a widescreen TV. One when the inner howl is heard: Marcelo Bielsa, what the fuck was that?
It needs saying today. Perhaps it won’t need saying tomorrow. Tomorrow Leeds will still be 2nd in the league, the fourth best attack and the second best defence sustaining a second successive promotion attempt for the first time since the League One days when, whisper it, Leeds needed three. Perhaps it won’t need saying in May, when we can look back at this game and acknowledge that while Bielsa is not the only Leeds manager who can’t beat Wigan at Elland Road — only Brian McDermott, in our history, ever has — nobody else could have got Leeds United out of the Championship. Upwards, anyway.
But it matters today, in ways that I’m convinced Marcelo Bielsa understands, because few managers appreciate their responsibility to and influence on supporters as sincerely as Bielsa. I once dredged both Neil Warnock’s autobiographies, for an example, and found hardly any mention of fans other than as an ill-informed rabble he’s motivated by proving wrong. Bielsa is motivated by giving football fans, who he says tend to be from poorer parts of society, joys they can’t easily access away from football. And he carries the guilt that his style of football is built on aesthetic principles that can’t guarantee the results he feels honour-bound to deliver.
It’s Bielsa’s great paradox, his strength and his weakness; and it is fate, and today it feels fatal, that he has found such a love-match with Leeds United. That love-match has become our shared strength and weakness, because it’s Leeds United’s paradox that we’re the most successful team that ever won so little, the biggest team that hasn’t been in the top division for fifteen years. It’s our fate and it might be fatal that we’re a club that has fallen in love with Bielsa’s football, and his philosophy and character, which are the same as his football; but we’re a club that is desperate for the success Bielsa and his football can’t guarantee and, he’ll tell you himself, has rarely delivered.
He once angrily told a journalist, “I have been the protagonist of the worst failure in the history of the Argentina national team,” at the 2002 World Cup. They’d qualified by a margin of twelve points, losing only one of eighteen games, one of the greatest successes in the history of the Argentina national team. This is Marcelo Bielsa. But remembering the 1960s, when over five seasons Don Revie’s team won more and lost fewer games than any other First Division team but only won the league title once, this is also Leeds United.
We seem eerily fated but we can’t stop now. So, today, this is my one wild swing: to tip the shopping out of his Morrison’s trolley, throw the Costa Coffee on the floor, and yell: change! Change, damn you! Change things! Change this! Change results! Change something! Change, Marcelo, change!
If Marcelo Bielsa changed, he wouldn’t be Bielsa. If he wasn’t Bielsa, Leeds United would not be 2nd in the league. But change might have beaten Wigan, and instead we stayed the same, the same as last season, and they beat us, the same as last season.
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The frustration this weekend is that Bielsa has the tools to change now. Illan Meslier’s performance at Arsenal let the spider out of the shadows: we have seen him, and seen that he is good. Based on that game, he’s arguably better than Kiko Casilla with his feet; based on every game Casilla plays, he can hardly be worse with his hands. A shot was hit straight at Casilla in the first half against Wigan, low and firm, but rather than gather the ball, his save pushed it back towards the forwards. In the second half, a Wigan corner deflected off Pablo Hernandez, and that’s all it took: the ball looped over Casilla and into the net, probably coming nearer to his grasp than if it hadn’t been deflected. He stood still and waved a hand and the ball went in the net. Change the goalkeeper.
Going behind compounded this game’s specific goalscoring problem, a bitter concentrate of our eternal goalscoring problem. Pat Bamford was stuck in the midweek trap of his own making, when he celebrated two close-range finishes as if settling his claims for Harry Kane’s spot at the European Championships, and was bumbling through another ninety minutes of shambolic finishing. He wasn’t the only one: Jackie Harrison, after bad luck followed brilliant skill when he dribbled around three defenders and his shot hit the post, later tried to control a cross in the six yard box instead of thumping it first time past the goalkeeper. But Bamford is the one who tried to shoot a cross into the net and somehow kicked it backwards out of the penalty area; and Bamford is the one for whom Bielsa has an exciting, expensive, ready-made replacement named Big Kev. Or he would have, if Jean-Kevin Augustin had been on the bench.
That Bielsa values loyalty above novelty is an important lesson for life. That media attention will not mean a place in the team without first putting in the same work as the players already there is a rule to be applauded. It’s yet another way in which Bielsa is a beacon of ethics within a sordid sport. But sometimes. Change. Maybe just once. Change the striker. Take the £7m striker off the pitch, put the £20m striker on, and let capitalism do its work. Maybe once we can worry about the principles after he’s buried the chances that ought to have come every time, and there were many times, that Leeds got to Wigan’s byline in the second half and pulled the ball back into a penalty box packed with nine blue shirts, but not the one white shirt with 29 on the back of the player we bought for times like these.
Leeds did get to the byline again and again, and apart from the usual problems with the final cross from Harrison, Helder Costa, and Ezgjan Alioski in the first hour, their attacking was as relentless as it ever is. But Wigan had a defender, Cedric Kipre, like a magnet for every ball into the box; and Leeds had the aspect of a team that would never score. Perhaps not never; Bielsa said that, “it’s difficult to think playing in this way we would not score one goal.” He talked, too, about how time-wasting reduces the amount of time Leeds have to play: “Before we play we know our match is going to last forty minutes.” But everyone watching could see Leeds would need forty days and forty nights to score one goal against Wigan.
Bielsa talked about creating fifteen chances in those forty minutes, and the domination was achieved with a change, but it wasn’t enough. Tyler Roberts came on and was very good, as he often is between injuries, but he wasn’t the change the game needed. With Alioski off, Harrison patrolled the left side alone as Leeds controlled the game in Wigan’s half. But this was only tactics. There was no Big Kev to use, but I wonder what change might have been made by Little Ian Poveda.
He wouldn’t even have had to touch the ball, and I assume that’s why Bielsa didn’t call him from his warm up exercises and send him on: he wouldn’t be as influential on the ball as Pablo Hernandez. But the sight of a new signing, one who lacks the wow-factor of Augustin, but who thrills all the same on YouTube and Wikipedia, might have lifted the crowd from its feeling of familiar doom, and inspired something on the pitch that tactics and preparation can’t provide.
On Tuesday night against Millwall, the football changed the mood in Elland Road by producing a goal at the start of the second half. Here, Roberts changed the football, but not the mood. Perhaps changing the mood could have changed the football, but Bielsa, from his position of complete respect for football fans, doesn’t see that as our work, no matter how willing we might be to lend our voices.
Bielsa will never say that an atmosphere has hindered his team, so he’ll never be so presumptuous as to use the atmosphere to help his team. It’s not our responsibility, but his, as he said in the lead up to the game. He was asked if experience makes it easier for a coach to deal with bad results. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter, he said: “[It] doesn’t avoid the sadness of the people who evaluate our work and for who [we] work — that is the supporters … There is something we don’t have solutions for, that is when we make supporters sad for our results.”
But this paradoxic love-match we’re entrenched in with Bielsa, even if it won’t change him, or change us, ought to give us licence to bend the rules together. This is not Bielsa and Lille, this is Bielsa and Leeds. If Bielsa had allowed the fans, from minute sixty to ninety, to be excited about Augustin or Poveda, it might have allowed the fans to help. All it took was for Bielsa to overlook the extra croissant or two Big Kev hasn’t worked off since his move from Monaco, for him to think beyond space and patterns, and for him to make tactical use of fans’ emotions.
Bielsa is not Neil Warnock. He’s not here to prove the fans wrong. We both want the same thing, or different versions of it, and we’ve both been waiting a very long time. I’m not sure how long Bielsa thinks he can maintain the intensity of his effort in his search for proof of footballing nirvana: perhaps he thinks he can go on forever until eventually his style is the winning style. And I don’t know for how much longer Leeds fans think we can keep hoping for promotion back to where we believe we belong, but I think we could go on waiting forever, no matter how often we swear we won’t last another season, won’t last another game. But I don’t think we’ll ever have as good a chance of achieving our different goals as when ours and Marcelo’s obdurate paradoxes align in this complicated and possibly hopeless love. So he could give us a little change. And we’d give a lot back.
This was my one, my one howl, my single j’accuse Bielsa. Although I know damn well Leeds can lose to Wigan without him, I want to lay this one at this door, where he expects it and accepts it. “It’s clear the responsibility is on me,” he said on Saturday. Leeds are, “a team that is aligned with what I ask of them, my ideas. That makes me more responsible because it’s my fault.”
But I can’t sustain the anger even just through these few paragraphs. Because even if it’s fatal, Leeds and Bielsa seem fated, and it’s too late to change. Right now, El Loco and Leeds maybe shouldn’t be together. We’ll find that out in May. But it would be madness for us to be apart. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)