Stoke City 0-3 Leeds United: True Meaning

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, Leeds United Match Reports 2019/20 by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

The temptation to carve every word Marcelo Bielsa says onto stone tablets puts Carlos Corberán, his translator, in a difficult position.

Salim Lamrani had the job last season, as he did for much of Bielsa’s time working in France. His approach, as an academic expert in the relationships between language, politics and power was to reach beyond Bielsa’s words and rummage somewhere nearer his soul. He may not always have been accurate, but he was convincing, a chorus echoing the soloist’s song.

Corberán is not an academic but a football coach, used to transmitting Bielsa’s instructions to young footballers, not transmuting the thoughts of a football coach into what many listeners take to be the words of a god. His practice is to be literal, and his accuracy has been called into question by several Spanish speakers, who fear the nuances of Bielsa’s words are being lost.

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But if an idea is powerful enough you can communicate it without being accurate. Literary modernists called it the objective correlative and it can be a sort of grail; the idea that you can find a word, phrase or sound that so entirely encapsulates an emotional state that its listener experiences that feeling exactly. It’s easiest to understand in music — sad songs make you sad — but more difficult to achieve in language, especially if you want to evoke a 1:1 emotional match. If you’ve ever struggled to explain to someone how you feel, you’ll recognise wishing you could just say one word, like ‘Becchio!’, and have them understand everything you feel all at once.

So when Carlos Corberán translates Marcelo Bielsa by saying, “Pablo is someone special in giving the last pass, or the instruction, of the ball,” he is probably not accurate. But oh boy, can’t you feel it? What else did Pablo Hernandez give to the ball but the last instruction, as it touched his boot for just a moment on its journey from Jack Harrison to Stuart Dallas and into the goal? “Pablo is someone special.” That’s what I felt too, when I saw it happening. I don’t know what Bielsa was actually saying in Spanish. But I’m feeling him.

That moment, the first goal, sums up Leeds United’s brilliance at Stoke City. Although I’m not sure that what they were counts as, actually, brilliant. They’ve started this season on such a high level that their consistent quality is teetering on that mundanity that afflicts Manchester City, where it’s a privilege to watch but difficult to appreciate. City can crush a team 3-0 without attracting plaudits anymore because we’re somehow tuned out of consistently enjoying high achievement if it no longer makes us feel the shocking, delightful thrill of our first experience of it.

“We are playing with the same ideas as last year,” translated Corberán, but there are, “maybe more spontaneous behaviours in the team.” Spontaneous behaviours. Aren’t those what we’re looking for, on top of the consistent application of ideas that would have boggled these players’ minds under Paul Heckingbottom? There were a lot of spontaneous behaviours packed into the opening goal, and that’s why it felt so intense, after almost a full first half of battling against a team given the task, by Nathan Jones, of saving Nathan Jones’ job. Spontaneously, like a unicorn had fired it from a glitter cannon out of the field’s crowded left, the ball was in space on the right, and Stuart Dallas was through to score. The whole situation changed so rapidly there was an involuntary, intoxicating hold of breath between Pablo’s touch and Dallas’ finish.

“It’s not only to see the pass,” translated Corberán. “He did the pass in the only possibility that this pass had, to create to harm the opponent, and unbalance them.”

And Dallas?

“Dallas is a full-back with high arrival into the opponent half … making a movement to be free is difficult when you have to arrive to one space in one moment.”

Spontaneous behaviours, last instructions, to create to harm, making a movement to be free, with high arrival, in one space in one moment. It’s probably all nonsense, but it’s wonderfully evocative, and it is, emotionally, exactly what happened.

When talking about Hernandez’s pass into the only possibility it wasn’t clear if Bielsa and Corberán were still talking about the first goal, because it could equally apply to United’s third. Gazing forward, Hernandez rolled the ball along forty yards of grass, curving it like a crown green bowl into the path of Ezgjan Alioski. It was another instruction of the ball to leave you gasping; Alioski couldn’t finish, but after his shot was saved, Pat Bamford half-volleyed safely home past the determined goalkeeper, finishing smartly without the weight of a critical Elland Road crowd or a tightly drilled away defence bearing down on him. It might be significant that all his goals this season have been scored away, where there’s more space and less stress, and that United’s only dropped points have been at home.

As assist can be added to Bamford’s away tally, from which Alioski did score. This was United’s second goal and it wasn’t as breathtaking as the others, but it was expertly timed, concluding the contest just after half-time, nullifying the impact of any walk along the corridors Nathan Jones might have taken with his team to look at the mural of himself beating Leeds last season. Bamford was the hinge. Hernandez gave him the ball without the insight of some of his other passes, and Bamford had to step aside and around to find space to pivot and cross behind Stoke’s defenders into the six yard box. It was done so well that Alioski couldn’t miss.

On another day that might have counted as exceptional, and if it had gone in, so might substitute Helder Costa’s effort for a fourth, that he built from the wing, moving inside like an incy wincy spider playing one-twos until he had space to shoot at Adam Federici, who dived and saved. But you could see the construction work in these, and dazzling though it was, a trick is never as much fun if you can see how it is done.

“We had a good performance today and were deserved winners,” said Corberán, and we can be reasonably sure that simple statement contained all Bielsa meant to say. He could say it about every game so far this season, even, with conditions, about the game against Nottingham Forest that was drawn, because the confidence with which Leeds have removed themselves from the shackling hangover of May has been calm, deserved, good.

You can’t match the way Leeds have dominated their games so far with superlatives, so there’s no need to reach for language more complicated than what Bielsa was heard shouting in praise of Leif Davis in pre-season: “Very good, Leeds, very good.” We all understand what that means. We all know how true it is. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)