Leeds United probably need some more footballers. That part is easy to say. Despite being first in the Championship, the people overseeing their promotion challenge are like an old couple refusing to move out of their seaside home, even as the lashing waves erode the cliffs beneath them and their garden fence falls to the beach below. Why should they move? The view is still lovely.
United are hopefully taking their situation a little more seriously than that; but another player, or whatever Lewis Baker claims to be, has followed Samu Saiz out of the club without being replaced, and Bailey Peacock-Farrell remains serenely unchallenged in goal. Marcelo Bielsa has said he’d like to sign a goalkeeper to replace Jamal Blackman; and since Pablo Hernandez moved infield to take over Saiz’s duties, he’d like a new player for the wing. But, there’s a but.
“If the club can bring in players, we will take them only if they are better than the players we have … If we need a midfielder and if we can bring him here,” then fine, says Bielsa. “But if he’s not good we won’t take him. We will add great players that will be better than those we have. That means a lasting investment for the club.” Bielsa counts ten absences from his first team squad, most of them injured players who will not be injured forever. “I can’t ignore the fact we have lost many players in the past weeks, but we can adapt to the situation and we can solve these difficulties … I clearly say, if nobody comes, we will solve the problem anyway.”
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Gary Madine has just joined Sheffield United on loan; Derby County wanted him too. Sheffield United already have the division’s joint top scorer, Billy Sharp, but they’ve gone to get another striker anyway, one who joined Cardiff City last January for £6 million. In the second half of last season he played 508 minutes — the equivalent of five-and-a-half games — and scored no goals, but got two assists, enough for the Sheffield Star to report this week that he “helped Cardiff City gain promotion.” That’s now January signings work: an obscene fee, a negligible contribution, and gone within a year. It’s where Leeds United went wrong with Edgar Cani: they didn’t pay enough for him.
Leeds United could hardly be accused of stockpiling unnecessary players if they afforded themselves the excess of a new player or two this January, but the club seems as cautious as the fans, on social media at least, seem desperate. As happy as Leeds’ fans are to be top of the league, they’re grimly anticipating that unless money is spent to keep them top, Leeds will blow it. The teams around Leeds, after all, are strengthening. Look at Sheffield United: they’ve just signed Gary Madine.
The strongest feeling is that if Leeds don’t buy anybody, and then fail to win promotion from here, it will be Andrea Radrizzani’s fault for not taking a small spending risk when such a big reward — the Premier League — is so close. Radrizzani’s parsimony probably is a factor. This week the Swiss Ramble published an analysis of ten years of the Championship, during which time clubs had £2.8 billion of cash available, £2.5 billion of that — 87 per cent — coming out of club owners’ pockets. In the Premier League in that time, just 42 per cent of cash came from owners. But Radrizzani has been adamant since he took full control of Leeds that underwriting unending large losses was not an option for him. He had a time frame — five seasons to win promotion — and an amount he would spend trying, above what the club can generate for itself, or the 49ers can invest. He has seemed very reluctant to budge beyond that, no matter how tempting the odds become.
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But Marcelo Bielsa complicates things. Transfers are never simple when he is around. Famously, he walked out of his new job at Lazio after four days because promises about incoming transfers were not kept. That was a year after he left Marseille, one game into their new season, when the owner tried to amend a contract they’d just spent the summer negotiating. That contract was difficult to negotiate, in part, because Bielsa was livid with the owner about the previous season’s transfers.
Bielsa’s Marseille is a useful comparison to Leeds. When he took over, the club president, Vincent Labrune, agreed to provide Bielsa with a squad of 22 players, two for every position, all good enough to play at the level Bielsa required; and to invest €35 million to achieve it, €15 million of that coming from player sales. Bielsa gave Labrune a list of twelve players the club could sign.
Instead, as Bielsa explained in press conferences in August and September of his first season, Labrune didn’t sign any of those players; he signed four without asking Bielsa his opinion on them; Bielsa severely doubted the wisdom of signing at least one of those players, foreign to Ligue 1, because the club had told him its analysis of foreign markets was a weakness; players Bielsa wanted to keep had been sold without consulting him; his squad size kept reducing from 22, to 20, to 18, to 16; the African Cup of Nations would reduce numbers by two more in January.
“I think the president made promises to me that he was not going to keep up,” said Bielsa. “If all this had been said with sincerity [from the start], I would have agreed, but otherwise I feel a sense of rebellion.”
You don’t get much more rebellious than using a club press conference, two weeks into the season, to call out the president for making promises he never meant to keep. But Bielsa didn’t quit. He was working for a liar and he had a group of players that was too small and lacking quality. So he rolled up his sleeves and got to work with players who were soon utterly devoted to him, giving the fans arguably the most exciting football in their history, taking them top of the league at new year, finishing 4th and carving his name forever into the history of Marseille, the club and the city.
If that sounds familiar, we have to hope that fading to 4th and quitting at the start of the next season does not repeat at Leeds. But there’s a crucial difference between Marseille and Leeds, and it’s crucial to Bielsa because it concerns honour.
“Your question makes me think,” Bielsa told Phil Hay of the YEP in August, who was asking whether the small squad Bielsa was insisting on was a risk, when other teams in the Championship had more players. “I think it won’t be a problem. If some people see the problem from a different perspective to mine, I have to take this into account.
“I think fifty games in ten months is not a figure that twenty or eighteen players can’t reach,” said Bielsa, although he acknowledged that he was making an assumption when, at the time, he had only coached one game in England. “The experience and the knowledge of the Championship has to be taken into consideration. I suppose you ask these questions because you know the Championship, and you’re interpreting the competition.”
A small squad was Bielsa’s decision, that he stuck to despite experienced local journalists giving him pause for thought, despite the club’s attempts to talk him into signing an additional centre-half. There hasn’t been a hint of the rebellion that characterised Bielsa’s time at Marseille from its beginning; even the sale of Ronaldo Vieira passed with only a murmur of discontent, as Bielsa felt he had been properly consulted and involved in a transparent decision making process, even if he disagreed with the outcome. No promises have been broken; the contract Bielsa painstakingly agreed in the summer is being adhered to.
That means Bielsa has to uphold his end of the bargain, even if that bargain was naive. He said in August that eighteen or twenty players were enough for fifty games in ten months; so far, eighteen have played more than 250 minutes in the Championship, a cut off point that excludes Patrick Bamford and Izzy Brown due to injuries, and Aapo Halme and Tom Pearce, who have both given decent accounts of themselves in the first team; and Lewis Baker, technically a key first team player, with only 223 minutes on the pitch. Eighteen to twenty players he said, eighteen to twenty players it has been.
“In any task you can win or lose,” Bielsa once said, “the important thing is the nobility of the resources used.” It’s part of a longer quote that helps define his philosophy, about the deforming extremes that winning or losing can exert upon a person’s character. But it’s also a quote that Bielsa’s detractors bring up when he does lose, claiming he uses it as an excuse: ah, we lost. But our resources were the noblest, so really, we won.
There might be a sting of truth in what the critics say, a barb now injected into Leeds United’s January transfer window. Leeds are top of the league now, but there is a definite chance that Bielsa’s assessment of the squad required to compete in the Championship was wrong. I don’t think Bielsa would be too proud to admit that, should the chance become unavoidably the case; he is always careful to allow that, although he makes sure decisions, he is human, and capable of making wrong ones.
The problem is the solution. Because to solve the problem of a small squad, Bielsa would have to spend several millions on new players; millions of Andrea Radrizzani’s pounds, to solve a problem Marcelo Bielsa has created. Leeds United have kept up their end of their agreement; given the value he placed on such agreements at Marseille and Lazio, it’s easy to see why it should matter to Bielsa that he keeps to his. He said he wanted a small squad. He can’t use other people’s money to correct his mistake now.
Pragmatism may overcome any doubts Bielsa has. Discussions about transfers are ongoing, he says; Victor Orta is studying the market, and discussing potential signings with Bielsa. They ought to be a formidable combination. Orta has had time since summer 2017 to build the scouting and analysis capability Leeds didn’t have, that ought to help him live up to Thomas Christiansen’s claim that he’s “the Wikipedia of football”; and nobody is more able than Bielsa to produce a VHS box set and a detailed analysis sheet of any player Orta tells him is available. (At Newell’s Old Boys, in 1990, Cristian Domizzi was given videos of a player to study his technique; it was Jari Litmanen, then just nineteen and still playing in Finland, even before he’d flunked a trial at Leeds after one reserve game.)
They’ll need to be on their game, because while a goalkeeper to challenge Peacock-Farrell ought to be easy to find — and they’ve found Karl Darlow, even if they can’t prise him from Tyneside — locating a good winger is a harder job, as Jack Harrison keeps showing. As for finding a player to replace Samu Saiz or allow Pablo Hernandez to play wide, you’re shopping in the most expensive catalogues if you want someone better than what we have in Hernandez. And so, with Hernandez a doubt for the game against Derby, Bielsa says with sureness, “Tyler Roberts will play if Pablo doesn’t play.” No matter how many potential playmakers Orta can find, he might have a harder task convincing Bielsa that any of them are better than what he has.
The resources used this season will be noble, we shouldn’t doubt that. But by placing honour at the centre of his approach, Marcelo Bielsa is almost alien to football. Neil Warnock can bleat all he wants about the ‘class’ of the British game, but he’d have a blue fit if he heard about a manager refusing centre-halves on a point of principle. They’re all such good lads, centre-halves, can never have too many, and the chairman’s money’s there to be spent…
But Bielsa is the best lad. His faith in his principles makes him who he is, and makes his teams what they are. When others are wrong, Bielsa calls them to account in public. When he’s wrong, he works harder to put things right. We’ll see by the end of the season how hard he, and this squad of players, have had to work; and whether anyone can work hard enough to pull this off. The nobility of the resources used might be more important than winning or losing. But is it more important than promotion? ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)