There were huge cheers when Marcelo Bielsa’s name was read out to the fans before kick-off, not diminished by the discontented murmuring a few moments before, when the name of Mateusz Klich had been read out to the same fans. Elland Road was ready to love its new coach, even if it didn’t love his first decisions.
Stoke City had arrived with the sort of team — even the sort of bench — that has Andrea Radrizzani complaining about the unfairness of the Championship. How can Leeds United compete with parachute money that allows clubs like Stoke to go on believing and acting like they’re in a different league? No wonder Radrizzani has thrown up his hands and announced he is leaving promotion up to God. Fortunately, God is now on the staff.
Marcelo Bielsa’s first team selection didn’t look like chosen ones, but then it was said that the meek shall inherit the earth, and so Klich inherited the midfield place that should have been Adam Forshaw’s, or at the very least Ronaldo Vieira’s. If the presence of last season’s most enigmatic tweeter in the starting eleven felt like a downgrade, elsewhere was an infuriating lack of upgrades; Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison and Lewis Baker stayed on the bench, so that Kemar Roofe, Ezgjan Alioski and Samu Saiz could reprise their efforts from the end of last season, if that’s what they were. Barry Douglas came straight in, a player to solve the left-back position, which is what we said about Tony Dorigo in 1991, but I don’t think anyone expected the solution to the problems in central defence to be Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi, helped out by Kalvin Phillips.
Those three stood, but not still — Bielsa wouldn’t stand for that — high, high up the pitch, Bailey Peacock-Farrell a few yards behind, challenging Stoke to play into the wide yards of fresh grass that lay beyond. Has a goal ever looked so easy to attain, but stayed so stubbornly out of reach? There was no way for Stoke to get to the golden valley, because Douglas and Luke Ayling were doubling up out wide with Alioski and Pablo Hernandez and then tripling up with Klich, and crosses were flying into Stoke’s penalty area, where every close-thing-Kemar Roofe-shot had Bamford edging further down the bench and into Bielsa’s thoughts, only for Roofe’s energy and running to make sure he stayed sat the hell down, and Stoke stayed pressed the hell back.
In the middle of it was Samu Saiz. We spent three months watching a shadow of Saiz in spring, when he returned from his ban with a dry mouth, a bruised ego and a forlorn expression. On first sight Bielsa is, for Saiz, a feast and a fiesta. Saiz is the Enganche, the number ten, the free player, the spirit and the dictator, and from the start he played with the freedom that Bielsa’s rigorous framework allows one special little boy. Saiz pointed into space, ran there, looking eagerly over his shoulder and spinning round and round like a dog excited for the ball to be thrown; if it didn’t come, he would turn and point and run in another direction, tail wagging, tongue hanging out. I have never been so pleased to see Samu looking so pleased, and all he was doing was chasing non-existent through balls.
When he did get the ball, he twinkled, and was unselfish. Twice in five minutes he dictated and dribbled, and the second time Leeds scored; he danced past a tackle with one flick and kept control with a super-quick ‘nother, that meant he could drag his through ball through the slow Stoke offside trap to Klich, who miscontrolled, gave the South Stand a heart attack, then slid and scored, and made the South Stand cheer him with relief and surprise. It was amazing that Leeds were playing so well and scoring. It was fantastic that Klich, who brought the move forward in the first place, was the player to score the goal.
But then a lot that Leeds did in the first half was fantastic, the way an enchanted forest is. In two bewildering minutes, Hernandez flicked the ball into the air and Alioski banged a volley at goal, that was blocked by Jack Butland, and as Stoke broke, a well timed Berardi slide tackle repaired; Saiz split the defence with a through ball to Roofe, who shot just wide; then Saiz got the ball back after a joyful lay-off to Hernandez, and the ball went to Roofe, who floated his cross above Alioski, too high, until Alioski made a determined effort to get ahead of the defender and head the ball anyway, forcing it towards goal, but just wide. I think, back in April, Alioski might have let that cross go.
Stoke were given a short breather, but only because Leeds were playing fifteen passes around the pitch on their way to a second goal. Phillips floated the ball wide left to Alioski, and within ten yards inside him were both Saiz and Hernandez. Saiz got the ball under control, passed inside to Hernandez, and Butland couldn’t save his shot — 2-0, and half-time soon followed, a short breather for us all.
None of it was perfect. Roofe should have scored twice; Phillips and Klich betrayed themselves as a late solution to Forshaw’s injury, earnestly debating who should be picking up runners when it was already too late. Berardi was caught in possession; Cooper’s stretching toe caught the situation. Peacock-Farrell’s crossbar was kissed by a long shot; Douglas panicked for a moment in his first test.
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But the energy, the will to play and the will to work to Bielsa’s plan made up for all of that. The second goal didn’t happen by accident; Phillips played his pass wide because, during Leeds’ possession, their three best attackers had got together to make Stoke’s right-back’s life a nightmare. A lot of Bielsa’s football is about numbers; always have one more centre-back than your opponent has strikers, and aim to get one more attacker in wide areas than your opponent can cope with. The first goal had been the same; Saiz got loose to cut inside and pass to Klich, and it had been the same again and again and again.
Stoke looked longingly at Leeds United’s goal; they could get there, if only there weren’t three playmakers and an attacking full-back pedalling around the corner of their penalty area like young bullies on BMXs. Their players were sent out very early for the second half, to stand on the pitch and think about where they are going with their lives, and what league they are in.
The second half showed, first, that Bielsa hasn’t found a solution for stupidity; James McClean’s low cross looked mundane until Berardi missed it, Douglas freaked out, the ball bounced off Phillips’ heels and Tom Ince went down; Douglas was apparently the culprit, Benik Afobe was definitely the scorer of the penalty. But it also showed that Douglas’ set-piece deliveries have come to save us, where Gianni Vio’s diagrams could not; there was still a shadow of Vio in the way the players broke and ran, but the crucial difference was the way the ball landed on Cooper’s head, and how he guided it into the far bottom corner.
The third thing it showed is that Bielsa’s plans can withstand the brutality of the Championship. He seemed gripped by the danger even as Cooper restored the lead; I may have misinterpreted his body language, but I’m sure he urgently stopped the fist-pumping celebrations of his coaches, and while I don’t want to be a grass, one did then discreetly punch the air behind Bielsa’s back for the benefit of someone in the stands. Stoke are new in this league, but Peter Crouch was born to it, and Bielsa brooded after the game, and while perching on his bucket during it, on the way their plan — hammer the ball forward to the freak — overwhelmed United’s. Short balls started going long, possession was given back, defending became desperate.
The fourth official began objecting to United’s triple-action coaching, three t-shirted tenors taking cues from their conductor and delivering an opera of instructions to all parts of the pitch, augmented by a claque of coaches strung across the front of the East Stand, so that the word of God was heard all across the field. After some close scrapes, as the defenders scrambled up and down Crouch trying to beat him to the ball, Leeds gradually reasserted Bielsa’s ways, and some of Roofe’s best work was done in stoppage time. He kept the ball in the corner but kept the attacking chance alive, and while Stoke’s giant lumbered around at one end, like a symbol of their descent from the Premier League, Leeds could have scored twice at the other, a symbol of their ascent to somewhere that looked a lot like heaven.
That had something to do with the South Stand getting the message out to the rest of the ground about wearing white for the opening day; the South Stand also paid pre-match tribute to Paul Madeley, who has gone to a better place than this world, although when it looks and sounds and feels like it did on Sunday, Elland Road runs it close.
It also had something to do with the football, removing doubts about what Marcelo Bielsa can do with the players given him by a chairman who can’t or won’t spin the roulette wheel with Stoke, Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest. By comparing the last ninety days of last season with the first ninety minutes of this, we can conclude quite simply that Bielsa can work miracles, so the question for the rest of the season is, how long can this miracle last?
An alternative question is, what comes after a miracle? Nerves will return before next week’s visit to Frank Lampard’s Derby, as they’re now known; if only we could have done it all again on Monday, so the excitement wouldn’t bleach out in the sun. But next week, and in the weeks ahead, Bielsa will have more work to unveil. These players, he said, have to keep improving; especially after the waywardness he saw in the second half. And the players on the bench will have their say; Patrick Bamford isn’t here to watch Kemar Roofe, and the same goes for Blackman, Baker and Harrison, not forgetting Tyler Roberts, the absent Adam Forshaw, or the U23s we loved last season, that Bielsa gave love to before this one. This match had everything — but there still might be more.
We know the downsides. We know our own faults well, and fear them; and we’ve heard the warnings about Bielsa’s. His teams have a reputation for burning out at the end of the season, and after such an intense opening game, I can understand why; I still feel weak just remembering some of Saiz’s backheels or Berardi’s tackles. But what a start. And who cares if the team is burned out by April, if they can play like this and be promoted by March? ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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