It’s unbelievable that Marcelo Bielsa sent a spy to watch Derby County’s training sessions this week, and in August, and has presumably done the same before every match with every opponent this season. But it’s also no surprise. And it’s wonderful that when Bielsa telephoned Frank Lampard to talk about it, it was only to confirm that Lampard’s suspicions were correct. Apologise? No.
We knew that Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United were a combination that would deliver, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted this hilarity, any of it. Football is funny when its morality starts showing, because out of all the outrages of just the last week — the historic clubs at Blackpool and Bolton being destroyed by rogue owners, the FA’s long running failure to act on Lucy Ward’s discrimination case — it’s ‘spygate’ that has clutched association football’s collective pearls, with demands for points deductions, replays, enforced dismissals and deportations. Something has to be done about this, this specifically, although nobody can actually pinpoint what has specifically been done that is wrong.
Some of the outrage seems to be about the level of organisation. Football mythology is filled with tales of cheeky opportunism: nicking the discarded notes from a meeting at a team hotel, paying off residents for a look through their windows at a training pitch, listening to team talks at dressing room doors. But from the start of this ‘incident’, the language of ‘spying’ used by Derby — the club and the police force — created a humourless vacuum; well, except in Leeds. Deep frowns and serious expressions ensured this wasn’t ever going to be a quirky tale like a manager breaking the rules of his suspension inside a laundry bin, for example. This was a Very Serious Matter, from the moment Derby’s staff called the police to deal with a man standing on public land looking through a fence, instead of just telling him to fuck off. Football taking itself too seriously? Or just Frank Lampard?
This week I was thinking about Bielsa’s attitude to the transfer market, comparing it to the wasteful madness that moves Gary Madine from club to club every January, and also comparing to our own club before we were relegated from the Premier League. Peter Ridsdale and David O’Leary were determined to buy every player they could, whether they needed them or not; Bielsa is determined to train every player he can, to make them better. He couldn’t be more opposed to the forces that destroyed us. Thinking of the more recent example of Jose Mourinho’s moaning about better defenders not being bought for him, I ended up telling Rick Broadbent in The Times that Leeds might go back up to the Premier League like a ‘moral jewel’.
You’d get thrown out of Keith Andrews’ house for saying something like that this weekend, but I still think it holds true. Bielsa hasn’t taken a bung here, or paid a bribe. He hasn’t told a player — let’s call him ‘Browneh’ — to go break an opponent’s legs. He hasn’t extracted millions of pounds of football supporters’ money through the financial back door of a football club, held open by weak ruling bodies. No ordinary people’s lives have been adversely affected by his actions, nor have any undeserving people been enriched.
Marcelo Bielsa tried to get some additional information to help win a game of football. That’s the crime. And it’s the most innocent transgression. Bielsa is obsessed with football, and obsessed with it as a means of making the public happy. He sees it as his responsibility to win games and, by doing so, cheer people up.
“In a nutshell, even if people think we work for money, football is a search for strong emotions,” Bielsa said, early in his time at Leeds. “At the end of the day what you remember with football is the emotions. You feel a lot better when you remember emotions than when you count money. Sometimes we learn this reality late.” He went on: “The result of our work [in football] impacts on the senses of the people, and especially working-class people. Of course I feel a deep responsibility. I am a little bit worried about this. It is very important for me to be at the level of their expectancy.”
I suspect there’s a dividing line in the views of Bielsa’s spying mission, that puts those who think football is now only a business on the side of the outraged, who think points should be deducted or games replayed because millions of pounds are staked on promotion to the Premier League. On the other side of the line are those who recognise that Bielsa’s desire to please working class fans by ensuring Leeds United win games of football makes him too pure for this world.
It’s that difference, more than what was or wasn’t learned through binoculars in Derbyshire, that truly contrasts Marcelo Bielsa and Frank Lampard, Leeds United and Derby County. Bielsa approached Lampard warily for the pre-match ritual handshake, standing in his own technical area and watching Lampard’s body language, until he judged it was right to approach. After a brief contact they separated into their different worlds.
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Lampard was oddy immobile for the entire ninety minutes. His coaching staff stayed in the dugout while he stood rooted to the spot in his technical area, hardly talking to his bench, rarely shouting at his players, as if posing for a local news photographer to capture his outrage about dog fouling on a public path. The Leeds United bench, by contrast, was active from the first moment to the last. Bielsa let much of it orbit him on his bucket, of course, punctuated by his carefully paced walks across the technical area; but the conversation around him and including him never ceased. If there was a detail that might help Leeds win, Bielsa and his staff were going to find it.
It might have been wise to start by properly outraging public decency by kidnapping the linesman. He raised an offside flag against Ezgjan Alioski in the first minute, probably by default, ignoring that Alioski was onside, forcing the referee to withdraw the penalty he’d just awarded Leeds. The officiating was, in general, rubbish; Richard Keogh spent his night raining slaps on Kemar Roofe’s back and shoulders whenever he went near the ball which, given how hard Roofe was working, could be anywhere on the pitch; but Roofe was booked for an innocuous tackle on Keogh. Pablo Hernandez made the incompetence obvious; after he was ordered to retake a corner because the linesman, fifty yards away, thought the ball had been kicked from outside the quadrant, Pablo ordered the referee to stand and watch as he placed the ball again. Only one person was in charge of that situation.
That corner helped Leeds to the opening goal. Scott Carson punched the ball out of his area to the feet of Jack Clarke, making his first league start. Even Craig Bryson knew Clarke was going to beat him en route to the byline, and Roofe reacted brilliantly, sprinting to the front post to finish Clarke’s cross.
Clarke has yet to meet a full-back he can’t beat, and played through his debut with a shrug, as if wondering what all the fuss is about first team football. On the other side Jack Harrison was the winger and Alioski the left-back, but Derby were really up against two wingers; the hard work of Harrison, and the antics of Alioski. Alioski bust his guts up and down the wing all night, and continued being the nearest thing football has to Buster Keaton. While making a tackle the ball flew up and hit Gjanni full in the face, bouncing into his path, where he controlled it before sprinting away upfield, and you just don’t get that from other footballers.
Alioski registered an assist for United’s second goal that was very much in keeping with his theme. Clarke surprised Carson with a cross over his crossbar, and Carson palmed it along in Alioski’s direction. Alioski was still skidding to a falling halt when the ball struck his heel, but it deflected into Harrison’s path, and he booted it into the net. This was just after half-time, settling the one worry from the first half: that Leeds had only scored one goal. That had allowed Lampard to make his clever half-time substitution, bringing on David Nugent to play 4-4-2, a change that became all but irrelevant within two minutes.
United’s performance was a lesson in possession as an instrument of attacking and control. They simply wouldn’t let Derby have the ball; it didn’t take fifteen minutes for Leeds to establish all ten outfield players in Derby’s half, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell not far behind the halfway line. Leeds pressed higher and harder than they have for weeks, helped by renewed energy from Mateusz Klich after his rest for the FA Cup match, and renewed form from Adam Forshaw, who didn’t get a rest, but did get the message that he has to improve while Kalvin Phillips is suspended. The highest praise I can give Forshaw is that he played this game like David Batty would have, if a little more visible, patrolling midfield behind Klich and Hernandez and nipping attacks in the bud, then getting the ball to Pablo as quickly as possible to build the next attack.
Forshaw was supported by the strong defending of Luke Ayling, Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper; Cooper’s return added immediate authority to Jansson’s determination and, dare I say it, additional creative possibilities thanks to his long balls to the wings. With Cooper, corners automatically became easier to defend, but easiest of all was that Derby only won two, one at the very end of each half. If you don’t concede them, you don’t have to defend them, continues to be Bielsa’s best set-piece philosophy.
And, spying be damned, Bielsa’s philosophy continues to be the best in the Championship. It’s not only United’s position in first place that proves it, nor the thoroughness with which they’ve dismantled Frank Lampard’s Derby County, twice. It’s the joy. Spygate contributed to a raucous Friday night atmosphere in the stands around Elland Road, and whatever the condemnation, Bielsa’s long lengths — and lens — in search of victory is part of the joy. But then, look at how the team play. And look at who the players are.
We’ve been waiting for some of these, like Roofe and Cooper, to show their worth after being bought from divisions below and too often playing like they were still there. We’ve looked at some, like Alioski and Klich, and wondered why we bought them and what they were bringing. We’ve longed for Jansson and Hernandez to impose their class, and not become mired in a division below their talents. We’ve been waiting for Bielsa to come along, basically.
Marcelo Bielsa has been everything Leeds have been waiting for, binoculars included. If the rest of football doesn’t think that’s a good thing, we’ll just have to enjoy it without them. ◉
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(photo by Paul Kent)