The Square Ball Week: Know Your Enemy

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Striker shortages can do strange things to Leeds United.

Take Lee Chapman’s fractured wrist at the start of 1992. With a league title to be won, Leeds made a surprise move in the loan market, gambling on a mercurial and enigmatic talent: Tony Agana, from relegation battlers Notts County, whose manager Neil Warnock had only just bought him. And we got Eric Cantona, too.

When Brian Deane was suspended at the start of 1996, just as Tony Yeboah and Phil Masinga left for the African Cup of Nations, the job of partnering Tomas Brolin upfront could have gone to Noel Whelan; if he hadn’t been sold to Coventry City to pay for Brolin, or at least his restaurant bills. That left Rod Wallace, needed on the wing; so instead, his wrist long since cured but his other bones creaking with age, Lee Chapman returned on loan. For half an hour, anyway, before he was sent off.

Six months later, when both Yeboah and Deane were injured at the start of the new season, new signing Ian Rush needed help, and he got it from loanee Mark Hateley. They had a combined age of 68 years. They managed a combined strike rate of zero goals.

On reflection, maybe what I meant to say was that striker shortages could do strange things to Howard Wilkinson. I would add David O’Leary’s foibles to the list, only his problem was a perceived shortage rather than a real one: with Michael Bridges injured long-term, he bought Robbie Fowler for £11m, just in case Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Robbie Keane and Harry Kewell weren’t enough cover. Even then he seemed to feel like something was missing; some little soupçon of what might be, that drove him to play Michael Duberry in attack at the end of cup games.

Leeds United don’t have those riches now. What we do have is Marcelo Bielsa, announcing with blithe unconcern that not only is Patrick Bamford injured — we knew that already — but guess what folks? So is Kemar Roofe. Surprised? He didn’t look it. “We have solutions to face these problems,” said Bielsa, like a man who just got Lee Chapman’s phone number.

Bielsa’s actual solutions are twofold. One is his total faith in his own football philosophy. “We have to confirm on Saturday that we have designed a group that is able to solve these kind of problems,” he said. “The game on Saturday is a good time to show how we work regarding this.” Bielsa almost sounds pleased about the opportunity to demonstrate, yet again, that his is the way. “I am convinced, as I have been working with more than just eleven players,” that United’s small squad can fill in, he said. “And the time has come to show the result of what we have done so far.” He could have added, you all thought Kemar Roofe was rubbish, now just wait until you see what I’ve done to Tyler Roberts.

That’s Bielsa’s other solution: Tyler Roberts, who as a substitute took over from Gareth Bale in the Wales attack at the weekend; “He played 40 minutes as a number nine [across two games] and this is an option for us,” said Bielsa of the forward who, in keeping with this week’s theme, has been injured since arriving in January.

Those solutions are fine, and are pretty much what was expected from Bielsa. El Loco he may be, but he didn’t get that nickname from dramatic overreactions to training ground injuries. Bielsa will sit and answer questions about his methods, and in particular about his small squad size in the big fixture list of the Championship, with almost patronising calm, because nobody can name a weakness in his methods that he hasn’t already named himself; he trusts the strengths more than he fears the weaknesses, and he relishes the tests. The injury list extends beyond Bamford and Roofe — Pablo Hernandez, Gaetano Berardi and Jamie Shackleton are all ruled out — but you could imagine Bielsa taking a few swift swipes of a baseball bat across Kalvin Phillips’ shins, just to keep things interesting.

The fans, however, don’t have the benefit of thirty years of determined, methodical excellence to show us that everything will be okay. What we have is a track record at The Den of losing, eight of the last nine times we’ve been there. We have Steve Morison preparing for the game of his life, again, this time talking about pulling out, “My Zlatan Ibrahimovic kit, whack that on and take care of it”; I don’t know whether that means a full body latex suit, or he’s been scraping a steel comb back over his skull to form a ponytail of grey stubble. We have the memory of this group of players going to Millwall last season, disappearing before kick-off, and not being seen again until this season. And we have scant evidence that Tyler Roberts, nineteen years old, without a game in the Championship to his name, whose shins apparently have the strength of wet cardboard, can prove himself a better striker than Tom Elliott.

Roberts’ appearances for Leeds so far have amounted to fitful displays on the wing in the Carabao Cup, but we might be wise not to underestimate him; on loan at Walsall, he was praised for leading the line in physical battles against League One’s toughest bastards. League One is League One, though, and although it’s where Millwall ought to be at best, it’s not where they are. But whatever division they’re in, Millwall are Millwall.

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“The seriousness of any social behaviour, I don’t have to judge or evaluate,” Bielsa says, about the atmosphere his players will be competing in. “What I can say is I don’t have any problem to tolerate. I don’t want to play the role of the victim in this kind of behaviour, because then you give an importance to it.” In other words, he knows Millwall won’t like him, and he doesn’t care.

“Violence is not an argument of value in football,” Bielsa added, suggesting that he’s seen it all before. “I am not very familiar with the atmosphere of Millwall. But I have been insulted in my career, spat upon, they have thrown bottles at me — nothing serious ever happened to me.”

But judging by the coughs and splutters that punctuated his speech, and the protective pot on his translator Salim Lamrani’s forearm, the spitting and bottles might have just taken place in Thorp Arch’s car park; at press conferences the pair of them usually look like high-ranking soldiers who have seized the state television channel after a military coup, but for once they had the air of tortured hostages being put on display by their captors. For all his confidence, in the squad size, in the philosophy, in the solutions, in Tyler Roberts, in the belief that hooliganism has been eradicated from English football — tell that to Samu Saiz when he’s kicked nine feet into the air — Bielsa has never yet, at Leeds, seemed so vulnerable.

He sounded dissatisfied by the performance against Middlesbrough, citing the game as good preparation for playing Millwall, before listing all the ways his players had found it difficult. Nil-nil was a decent return at the time from Bielsa’s first interaction with Tony Pulis, but add any sort of negative result at Millwall to that, and a thrilling shiver will go through the rest of the division. ‘He can’t cope,’ they’ll say, whether that’s justified or not. It’ll be the music every dino-manager has been waiting for. ‘He don’t like it up ‘im.’

Fuck their thrills. The more important shivers are ours, and there’s no point getting shook before the game has even been played. Think about going to The Den, the ground that makes football sleep downstairs on the couch, and pulling off an assured victory without so many key players; this weekend could be the most persuasive argument for hope since Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

But the pre-match shivers are real, not because we’re entering The Den, but because we’re walking through an uncanny valley. Last Friday Bamford’s injury was a negligible footnote to a sensational 5-0 win for the Under 23s over Bristol City, that left fans purring about the thrilling football being played by an exciting new crop of players. I can’t think of a win inspiring such geysers of optimism since, well, since about this time last year, when a 5-0 thrashing of Burton Albion blew the manhole covers off the culvert carrying Wortley Beck beneath our cursed-blessed-cursed-blessed-again pitch. Back then Leeds were top of the league and looking unstoppable, until a couple of weeks later Thomas Christiansen’s team went to Millwall and, oh. Bugger. But it’s different this time, isn’t it? It looks a bit different. But it also looks a bit the same.

As always, Millwall are an irrelevance this weekend. It’s not them we have to overcome; it’s our own past, our complexes, the pillars that prop up our history of irrationality. Marcelo Bielsa’s unwavering faith in the problem-solving powers of his philosophy and methods ought to inspire us to share his belief that Bielsaball can beat Millwall. And while I do believe it can, I’d believe it more if he was managing someone else. Because I also believe that a historic curse is to blame for injuring Bamford and Roofe and for whatever happened to Salim Lamrani’s arm, and that this weekend and for the rest of the season Bielsa’s biggest challenge will not be beating Millwall or Middlesbrough or any of the rest of them, but beating Leeds United.

I’m sure Bielsa has seen, analysed and overcome players like Steve Morison before. But in all the videos he’s watched over thirty years, has he ever seen such demons? ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)