Among the problems Marcelo Bielsa presents to football reporters and pundits is his insistence on living in the moment.
Every press conference has its antagonism, when Bielsa is asked to talk about the past, which to him no longer signifies, or the future, which needs more data.
Effects wear off: Bielsa thought the win away at Aston Villa in October was one of the best performances of the season, but didn’t see any point discussing it before the return fixture in February. Too much had happened in too many other games since then. And all Bielsa sees in a hypothesis is an invitation to look stupid. He will decide if he is happy with finishing in the top half of the Premier League if or when Leeds have done it. And as for signing a new contract, we’ll hear about that after the bundles of paper have been taken from the printer, stacked, stapled and signed.
This doesn’t fit football’s anxiety. The game can’t drive five minutes to the shops without sat-nav. The TV match director for Leeds versus Tottenham made sure to include as many close-ups of Ryan Mason as possible, the Spurs head coach who spent much of the press conference before the fourth game of his managerial career trying to avoid questions about how many more he might be in charge of, or who might take the job from him. The fact that he’s there now is less interesting than speculating about who might be there next season. And the camera switched from him to Bielsa enough times to ensure the hint came heavily home, that Spurs might think the countryman of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, with his contract expiring at Elland Road, could be the perfect choice for a near-Super League club about to be caught outside the Champions League without a superstar boss. There’s some respect in the idea for Bielsa, for the work he’s done with Leeds. But there’s disdain for Leeds in the suggestion that he’s mad enough to manage anybody, even Spurs. Anyway, good luck to the journalist who wants to ask him about that one.
This game was about this day, a grizzly one, and about Leeds United taking to the field as an embodiment of Bielsa’s belief that the players woke up that morning having achieved nothing so far, other than gaining the ability to do anything they want that day. After the match, Pat Bamford quoted Bielsa’s pre-game talk, about how, “Everyone in football has a short memory, so they just remember the last four games.” With four of this season to go, four more like Brighton last week would depress the fans, diminish the players’ reputations, raise questions about the future, and about what has been done until now. Ryan Mason’s future is one example of football’s obsession with fortune telling. So is the fact that, to the world waiting outside Elland Road, Bielsa’s Leeds are only ever ninety minutes away from burnout, the players only one bad game away from never being good enough.
Bielsa put his version across after the game in terms of professional pride, I think, although he could just have been talking about ego. He dismissed the idea that Spurs “played without enthusiasm”, but said Leeds’ performance had a lot to do with “the spirit of the players.” We should expect players to be giving everything to improve their final league position, but even without that at stake, or instead of it, players don’t want to be criticised, they want to be praised. “In this moment, if we played badly, we would receive an indifferent response,” he said. “But if we play well the recognition increases. And the dimension of the players always depends on how much they want to receive recognition.”
Bielsa might not have wanted to talk about Spurs’ players, but I wonder what he made of Gareth Bale, for whom any indifferent reaction to his indifferent hour of play here is cushioned by the thick end of half a million euros coming to him from Spurs and Madrid every week. I’m sure Bielsa would prefer to concentrate on Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, though, who were both supplied by Dele Alli to beat Illan Meslier with marble finishes. Only Son’s counted, but he deserved it, passing to Alli then hovering while the Leeds defence tormented itself trying to deduce what might be happening next. Alli had got away from his marker, Robin Koch, and Diego Llorente was confronting him instead, but Son wouldn’t move into Koch’s orbit until he saw he could run beyond him and Ezgjan Alioski to meet Alli’s pass. It was a matter of split seconds but it was brilliant. Alli’s threat was clear when he put Kane through on the only other occasion he got away from otherwise diligent Koch, but this time VAR’s infuriating pixels called Kane offside. Even though it was scored against my favourite team I’d rather have seen that goal stand, but Ryan Mason moaned about it too much afterwards, so I’m glad now. He has bigger problems, assuming he’s sticking around.
Mason claimed the momentum of the game would have changed with that goal, but there was no evidence for it. Nothing Spurs did, even the good stuff, put the balance of play in their favour. It was all left up to Son and Kane to come up with something, if Alli could find them, but the others couldn’t find Alli, so that was Spurs screwed.
At the other end, well, there is talk of Tottenham taking Graham Potter away from Brighton. They might be better spending all they can buying all of Brighton’s defenders. Where last weekend Jackie Harrison tried in vain to spot Bamford amid Albion’s giant back five, here he had no problem getting good yards on Serge Aurier, whipping crosses between Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier. On the other wing, Stuart Dallas was having similar fun with Sergio Reguilón, to the point that when the left-back almost put Harrison’s cross past Hugo Lloris, Dallas was behind him to slam the rebound in for United’s first.
That move had been on the right wing for a while, where Tyler Roberts couldn’t find a way to cross after Alioski switched a big pass from the left and Dallas played him in. No problem, because in Bielsa’s teams you just take the ball over to the left again, and that’s what Roberts did, talking the ball back to Alioski via Koch. The second was similar, just before half-time to put Leeds back in front, when Dallas took a knock-down on the right, sprinted infield, and Roberts passed wide left to where Harrison slipped Alioski to the byline. Another low cross was finished at the front post by Bamford. It’s a long time since Bamford scored, and he seemed flustered. He had a piano-miming challenge to fulfil to please Peter Crouch, and he usually fits a hand gesture into his celebrations, “My way of standing up for our earth against climate change,” he says, while promoting his mate’s eco-friendly shoes. Anyway, all that got forgotten in the relief and the rush to thank everyone, and to try not to look up to the West Stand, where the England manager was watching.
The goals described a big difference between Leeds and Spurs that became clearer in the second half. Tottenham got better, but they couldn’t get as far as making chances. Meslier pulled off one superb save, switching direction to keep Aurier’s deflected shot out of his near post, but that came when the right-back’s options had diminished to just kicking the damn ball. Whenever Leeds attacked, though, their desire for control of that damn ball meant each venture upfield made two, maybe three chances, by running to keep the ball in play to try again, switching the angle, moving from wing to wing, stopping counters and surging again. Leeds give up chances, every team does. But Leeds will make two to your one.
Harrison put a couple of shots over; Mateusz Klich too, and even that fed the happy idea that he was playing more like his old self. Raphinha, on for Roberts, tried setting Klich up, but the shot was blocked. So, determined to make an impression on the match stats, Raphinha set the same chance up for someone else. Koch put him through with lots of grass to his north, and any hints of offside were hushed up after he’d squared the ball exactly to Rodrigo’s left foot, leaving him to make the sort of confident finish he has been needing, hard and low into Lloris’ corner. There were seven minutes left, and that goal decided the result, so you might look at Spurs’ players and wonder if they could have done more to stop it. Maybe if Leeds hadn’t been running them up and down through Elland Road’s puddles for eighty minutes, or maybe if they’d felt like more was at stake.
Alioski was crucial in the build up, sprinting back to stop a Spurs attack, chasing the loosened ball and taking control so Klich could start Leeds moving forward. A week ago Alioski looked out of his depth against Brighton. Here he saw off Bale, and I might as well stress it, for nothing like the money, and while it’s always tempting to wonder what opposing players make of Gjanni, I’d give Bale a penny for his thoughts as that peroxide do flashed back and forth around him. It’s probably a long time since Gareth Bale saw a one penny piece, or saw a player working that hard. The long arc of Leeds United’s history has us sighing for Tony Dorigo or Terry Cooper, because we know how wonderful that consistent quality at left-back can be. But when Alioski plays like this — when Leeds United play like this — you remember that quality is arguably easier to buy than this sort of manic, heroic, non-stop effort.
The spirit of the players, in Bielsa’s words. The focus on the two technical areas was misplaced this weekend. In the short time Mason has had in charge of Spurs, I doubt he’s been able to tell them much. He’s picked some different players to Jose Mourinho and made training less of a psych-out ordeal, but Spurs are hardly his team expressing his ideas. And Bielsa did most of his work three years ago, in summer 2018, when he put the core of this team through a rapid crash course teaching them what was possible. That has been followed by a daily process helping the players to create the world he showed them.
In that world, now, Leeds United have fifty Premier League points. They’re unbeaten at Elland Road against the league’s six biggest clubs. They’ve recorded better results in their second games against each of that six except Arsenal. And they still have three games to go, each more important than the last. “We know that the team is evaluated game by game,” Bielsa said in his press conference last week. “For us, the most important thing is to overcome the previous evaluation.” Taking each game as it comes. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)