Leeds United fans are mesmerised by Marcelo Bielsa, but often against their instincts.
We revere the man who orchestrates three points on Saturday, then rides the train to support Chile’s women’s hockey team on Sunday. But we also wish he would, say, hashtag start Eddie Nketiah, or hashtag try defending corners. And if he could use his thirty years of coaching experience to teach players to shoot on target, we’d build monuments.
His time at Leeds has been spectacular for the way he has pulled the players he found here to new levels in football, fitness and life. Mateusz Klich, extradited by Thomas Christiansen, said last week that his Polish national team coach has to tell him when enough is enough running in training. Klich also signed a hefty new contract as a reward for hardly missing a minute of Marcelo Bielsa’s revolution.
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The revolutionary work has extended to the fans, who now eagerly compare notes on Bielsa’s lopsided formations and strive to understand the logic of a world without left-backs. A Leeds United teamsheet laid out as 4-4-2 feels as quaintly anachronistic as W-M. But there are still gaps where Bielsa and the fans struggle to find accord and there doubts creep in: the fine print of his promotion plan, that so far has Leeds 3rd in the Championship, will inspire debate until May, when we hope it won’t cause argument.
After beating Blackburn Rovers this weekend, though, Bielsa said something that suggests he understands what Leeds United’s supporters really need to get them through this season. “When you win,” he said, “More than being happy, you are calm. It is good in football to have a time of calm.”
Calmness is what we’re searching for after these years of confusion outside the Premier League, calmness and a chance to feel like ourselves again. Bielsa’s all-attacking, all-the-time style of aggressive pressing feels like an odd place to look for it, but the idea is to use all that frenzy to achieve bliss as fast as possible. Although he knows this is the source of its beauty, Bielsa would drain football of drama if he could, not only through his famous wish to coach a team of robots, but by taking a 5-0 lead in the first five minutes and making the rest of the game an exercise in quiet contemplation.
That’s easier said than done in the Championship, and the 2-0 lead United took into the last ten minutes against QPR last week, and kept, had been a long time coming. The nerves it eased felt as good as any larger margin of victory.
For a few minutes in the first half against Blackburn it felt like the Peacocks would be calm again, but with the larger margin too. Leeds began as they often do, observing their opponents and adjusting their methods to counteract them, here deciding who should mark striker Sam Gallagher, and putting Kalvin Phillips in bossy charge of Bradley Dack. That done, Leeds could start playing.
Blackburn wouldn’t let them. In the middle of the first half five pulsating minutes flew by, because both midfields kept giving the ball to the other, starting counter attacks that nobody could finish. But Tyler Roberts thought of a way to make a difference, chipping a pass into the penalty area, where it rested in space like a faulty firework until Luke Ayling decided to run and take hold of it, and Tosin Adarabioyo decided to bring him down, or perhaps the decision was made for him. The referee’s decision was to award a penalty that Patrick Bamford, his name being sung through his run up, looked very relieved to score.
Five minutes later Bamford added an assist, taking down Phillips’ long pass into the penalty area with an exquisite touch, and pushing the ball inside, in front of Jack Harrison’s underlapping run. He shot first time, low off the post, where with a ping and a twist it crossed the line. It felt like only another five minutes were needed until Leeds scored a third; then they could use the second half to seek a fourth, a fifth, a sixth.
It wasn’t to be, because Stewart Downing is good at taking corners and Leeds United are bad at defending them. Bamford did head two securely away from the front post, but this one went to the back post where Derrick Williams headed it into the goal, as simple as that.
Leeds were back on the edge but Blackburn never had enough to push them over it. They forced Leeds into adopting this season’s new techniques of game management and stress control to hold the result. This was never a skill last season, and didn’t seem any better at the start of this one, but United’s recent resilience has been impressive. In its way, it’s perhaps the most traditionally Leeds tactic that Bielsa has employed.
It’s not actually one that has always been popular. Sometimes when Don Revie’s Leeds took a two-goal lead at Elland Road they’d ease off, saving their energy for the rest of their 60-game seasons, and the home crowd would jeer and clap slowly, protesting the lack of entertainment. More physical methods were more popular, when Leeds had to fight to hold their lead, and Bamford was popular in the closing stages against Blackburn when he reacted to a frustrated foul as he kept the ball in the corner in front of the Kop. He sternly lectured Elliott Bennett close enough, loud enough and threatening enough for the referee to try pushing Bamford away, who kept marching firmly into the fray, to the Kop’s loud approval. If it couldn’t be a 3-1 win, the fans were happy to see a 2-1 win defended from the front with such calm malevolence by the scorer and creator of the day’s two goals.
There were a lot of these low-level flashpoints in the second half; in the corner of your eye, as you followed the action, Klich would be engaged in some rigorous midfield debate. But Leeds managed the situation without ever seeming flustered; even their defensive hoofs downfield to stop Blackburn’s attacks look more deliberate than desperate.
You can never truly be calm during a game, but after winning, when the happiness subsides, calm is what you want to be feeling. United have much more of it going into this international break than into the last, after a frenetic defeat and unjust red card at Millwall; three wins and two draws since have put Leeds 3rd in the table. They’re not euphoric leaders but they’re playing well, winning games, and keeping calm. We can forget the fine print of the campaign for a week or two, until Luton Town away. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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