Afterwards, Marcelo Bielsa was bemused and apologetic. What more can anyone ask him in another post-match press conference, after another game that’s the same?
He spent a year imparting fresh sage wisdom to the journalists following Leeds, but he’s exhausted this particular topic now. “Always, we are trying to explain why what we want doesn’t happen,” he said. “Maybe that impacts on the tolerance of the people who are listening to this kind of justification.” Nobody knows what else to ask him. He doesn’t know what more he can say.
This is the season for action, not talk, and it could be that Bielsa is the wrong manager for the mood. Over thirty years he has built a footballing philosophy with the beauty of process at its heart. His work has been to diminish the influence of results in a game that styles itself, with its grown-up pants on, as a ‘results business.’
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Defeat can feel so catastrophic that Bielsa believes its importance should be minimised for the sake of everybody’s mental health. Success is so fleeting, five minutes of adrenalin and euphoria, that it’s hardly worth pursuing when the risk of failure is so painful. That leaves the ninety minutes of each game as the only remaining possibility for pleasure. Football is a results business, but we’d enjoy it much more if learned to appreciate soccer as an aesthetic game.
Well, that’s not going to happen in Leeds this season. Bielsa might have thought that, by coaching in the most fervent league hosted by football’s home country, he’d found the appreciative audience for his style of club football he’s been seeking since leaving Newell’s Old Boys. He has spoken admiringly of the rules and aesthetics of the Championship even as they have been twisted in real-time against him. And for a year, in Leeds, it was true that Elland Road’s appreciation for the revelation of Mateusz Klich and co became adoration.
But Bielsa’s fate is to have raised expectations beyond aesthetics. Poor football could be accepted when Leeds were a poor side with a poor league position: what more could anyone expect? But Bielsa has made Leeds into a good side now, and this season the fans expect promotion. And promotion is so much more important than good football that many fans would sacrifice Bielsa’s aesthetics if only Leeds would win.
Bielsa is echoing funk band Graham Central Station’s track from United’s second title-winning season in 1974: You got to go through it to get to it. But Leeds fans don’t want to go through it: they’ve been going through it. For fifteen years. Come back to us, Marcelo, when this hopeful glimmer of light through the crack in our prison walls is glorious freedom, Premier League sunlight.
And, above all, don’t make us go to Millwall again, and lose, again. You could have pasted this scene from any of Leeds United’s scripts since 2012, and Bielsa’s team’s interpretation of these tired old lines didn’t add any interest to a dull repeat. We’ve seen enough of Millwall over the years to know what they would do; we’ve seen enough of Leeds this season to know what they wouldn’t. All the possession but only one goal. Two soft goals conceded. A performance chained to the process. Patient belief becoming panic, then acceptance.
Gaetano Berardi should get some sympathy. Perhaps you make your own luck, and Berardi made his own problem by getting on the wrong side of Tom Bradshaw as they chased a long ball headed into the penalty area. But his attempt at checking out of the situation, leaving Bradshaw to the cover from Kalvin Phillips, deserved a better outcome than a penalty to Millwall and a red card against him that Leeds, with a shifty eyes emoji on Twitter, insist they will appeal.
There’s a bigger picture with Berardi, as this was his Leeds record-breaking eighth red card, but that bigger picture should include his seamless substitution for Liam Cooper against the much more difficult attack West Bromwich Albion brought to Elland Road last Tuesday, just as his red card in the home leg of the play-offs against Derby County should be considered with some thought to his faultless performance in the clean sheet at Pride Park.
It’s valid to ask why Berardi seems unable to follow one solid game without a red card in the next, but in this case the answer was James Linington, who Lee Bowyer said last year was “a disgrace”, too intimidated by Steve Evans — “this big geezer standing on the side and bullying the fourth official” — to referee fairly. “He shouldn’t be reffing,” said Bowyer. And Berardi should still have been playing after the thirteen minute mark, and Jed Wallace should not have been scoring a penalty.
United’s team as a whole deserves some credit for adapting to the situation and taking the game to Millwall, reminiscent of the glorious way they took the game to Nottingham Forest after Kalvin Phillips was sent off last season — and lost. It took until the second half to get there, by jettisoning the anonymous drag of Helder Costa, and by then Millwall had scored a second, Bradshaw catching Luke Ayling unawares and flicking a cross past Kiko Casilla. But after Leeds got the unawares back by pulling a goal back fifteen seconds into the second half, Jack Harrison crossing securely for Ezgjan Alioski to finish, Jed Wallace declared that rather than seeming a player down, it was as if Leeds, “had brought an extra two on — it felt like they were everywhere.”
We don’t need to dwell upon the frustrating lack of success that followed, except to observe that, perhaps, if Leeds weren’t so dominant even with ten players, Millwall would not have withdrawn their entire team so completely behind the ball and become impregnable. It’s Bielsa’s growing conundrum: Leeds might be better if they were worse.
After the credit, Bielsa deserves criticism. He said he should have brought Barry Douglas on for Costa and used three at the back sooner after the red card; after he said on Tuesday night that he’d wronged Tyler Roberts by incorrectly reading the game. His desperation to include Roberts in the closing stages against Millwall, putting another attacker around their overcrowded penalty area, blinded him to the adverse effect of removing Kalvin Phillips from the back. The foundation of United’s attacking went with him, as their defenders couldn’t help Casilla find a pass out of his own penalty area; in fifteen minutes Roberts touched the ball six times in Millwall’s half.
The international break gives Bielsa time to get back to the training pitch and the VHS situation room, while the next game — a centenary celebration at home to Birmingham City — creates pressure not only to get back to winning, but to put on a performance worthy of 100 years of history. Perhaps, in keeping with that history, we should ask James Linington to referee that one too.
But we know that, under Bielsa, things are not going to change: they’ll either get better or they’ll get worse, but they’ll be the same. The next 35 games will either be a joy or a punishment, but they’ll be nothing compared to what is waiting for us, and what we’re waiting for, in May. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)