The Square Ball Week: Unopposed

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

Marcelo Bielsa’s teams are characterised by hyperactivity and ceaseless movement, but the coach himself by an almost unnatural stillness, whether with head bowed and hands clasped as if praying for the press conference to end, or gazing from his technical area across the playing field, where he is in charge of answering prayers.

Henry Winter of The Times travelled to Elland Road for Tuesday’s game against Bolton Wanderers and, after observing Bielsa observing Leeds from his observation bucket, dubbed him ‘The Prince of Pails’, making his whole trip worthwhile.

My preferred prince of Tuesday was Samu Saiz; when he juts his chin just so, I can imagine him tugging at the blonde tufts of his beard as if plotting a vengeful challenge for his father’s throne. Saiz is characterised by short legs, long vision, flickering heels and Fred Astaire’s toes; on his right foot, anyway. But he has also been characterised by spitting at an opponent, running after referees to show them his bruises, and waving a full deck of imaginary cards around; and, before he came to Leeds, by imbalance of laziness and life. He was too lazy on the pitch, and too alive in the nightclubs.

My favourite story of Saiz’s old days is about him missing a team meeting on the morning of a game, blaming it on an unexpected bicycle festival in the city centre; I can only imagine what effect all those tinkling bike bells had on Samu’s hangover as he sat steaming in the traffic. That was just one of the disciplinary problems he had in a difficult season at Atletico Madrid B, the last stop in his tour of big clubs’ B-sides, that seemed to be leading him everywhere but the hit parade.

A transfer to Huesca sorted him out, or rather, Juan Antonio Anquela becoming Huesca’s coach did; he and Saiz understood each other, and for two seasons Saiz was a new player — the player Leeds bought. We saw the best of him for half a season, but then perhaps we saw that he needs the sympathetic interest of an understanding coach to get the best from him; instead, after his suspension, Saiz saw Paul Heckingbottom and gave up. With hindsight, it’s hard to blame him.

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What we’ve seen from Saiz in three games this season, though, is more than a return to the best of him last season; it’s a reformation. As Bielsa’s enganche, Saiz’s flair is even more obvious and dangerous, as are the attempts to stop him; Derby County sent Bradley Johnson to tame him, and Bolton tried Josh Vela then Gary O’Neil. The latter halted one Saiz burst — a much better name for Opal Fruits — by grabbing what he could of the hunched prince’s short neck and hauling him down, and then Saiz — Saiz got up. There was a glance at the referee, a gesture seeking sympathy, and then it was on with the game: Saiz had goals to create.

It’s tempting to give Bielsa the credit for every improvement at Leeds United, but this new kind of discipline is apparent beyond only Saiz, and it’s coming into the team from the same place as the new heart-filling attacking style: from our bucket Buddha, Bielsa. (Henry Winter hasn’t left many of these for anybody else, I’m trying my best.)

It was noticeable in the game against Stoke City that, not only did Bielsa neglect to shake Gary Rowett’s hand at full-time — a faux pas he fixed outside the changing rooms, and in the games since — but he and his bench behaved all match as if Rowett and his staff were not even present. Bielsa’s nirvana is for his team to play unaffected by the opponent, and his demeanour sets the tone by almost willing the other bench out of existence.

At one point in the second half of the Stoke game Bielsa, rising from his blue throne, wandered into Stoke’s technical area as if in pursuit of some higher thought, until the fourth official asked him to return to planet Elland Road, and his own dugout. When he realised where he’d walked to Bielsa’s apology was as theatrical as a disturbed sleepwalker, and he bowed and gestured as he backed away, as if he had accidentally intruded upon a private funeral. Which, given United’s advantage on the pitch at the time, he had.

The fourth official was another with whom Bielsa only had the vaguest existential relationship. While Gary Rowett and his crew beat upon the official’s eardrum from his left, from his right came hardly a murmur. There were no complaints about fouls or decisions, and the only requests were for making substitutions. The fourth official, in Bielsa’s world, is barely involved; he doesn’t wear a white shirt, or whatever the away kit is, so he can’t make a goal for Leeds United, so what use is he? The only conflict is when United’s full trio of coaches, plus Bielsa, are all on their feet talking to the players — only two are allowed at a time, a rule Bielsa doesn’t respect. But that itself is revealing; it’s the rule that affects his ability to influence the game.

Save for a few exceptions when his players are kicked with especial venom, Bielsa and his staff — and his players — are stubborn and stoic about ignoring the officials. The referee’s decisions can affect Bielsa, but Bielsa can’t affect him, so he must endure the referee’s impact on his world and concentrate his efforts on things he can affect.

The more concentration you can give to tasks you can affect, the greater the chance that you’ll win. Referees, officials, opposing coaches, press conferences, comfortable seats: these are all fringe elements that distract from the most important task at every moment of every game: getting the best performance from the eleven Leeds United players on the pitch. I have seen Bielsa angry; Lewis Baker was substituted at the end of the friendly with Las Palmas after several sustained tirades from the sidelines failed to get him doing his job properly; presumably feeling his instructions were not getting results, Bielsa replaced Baker with a player he could influence, who could then influence the game as required. If he can’t get what he needs from you, Bielsa is not interested in trying.

And as the referee is rarely going to give a decision just because you ask for it, and he certainly can’t help you score a goal, there’s no point in the players being interested in him. The way that attitude has filtered through, even to so sustained a moaner as Saiz, is as fascinating as the way Bielsa has instilled the high press, the quick turnover, and all his other ideas so quickly. Kemar Roofe has spoken about how Bielsa’s team meetings can be about surprising subjects; the players don’t know whether to expect tactical analysis or lessons in morality. But they’re buying into it to such an extent that I’ve just made a note to check whether we can qualify for Europe this season through the Fair Play League.

Why wouldn’t they buy into it? Well, you try getting a footballer to do something — we’ve all shouted at them often enough. But there’s something simple and appealing about Bielsa’s stoic-ball. ‘Don’t worry about them, let them worry about you’ is a trope that has always been interpreted by Warnockian centre-halves to mean ‘kick the other bastards first’, but what Bielsa offers is something more profound.

What if the opponent, and the referee, and everyone trying to stop you, couldn’t touch you, like they weren’t even there? All you have to do then is concentrate on winning, which is, after all, what you want to do. That might be impossible, but it can start in the imagination, and manifest itself in an attitude, and it can start now, like this: run like they can’t foul you, pass like they can’t intercept, shoot like the keeper can’t save, and sit on a bucket and watch like nobody is watching you. It’s an appealing vision, of vanishing opponents and dissolving problems, leaving behind winning football played in clear fresh air. Breathe it in, until your lungs are bursting. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)